Throughout the early years of the Second World War, the British would be forced into violent confrontations with the Vichy French. These included the successful attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria during Operation Catapult in 1940 and, in the same year, at Dakar in Senegal during the debacle that was Operation Menace. British and French troops would come to blows again in 1942 during Operations Ironclad and Steam Line Jane, the codenames given for the seizure of Madagascar, the largest Allied combined land, sea and air operation of the war up until that point. But just why was the large island of Madagascar, located off the southeast coast of Africa, so important to the British?
In 1942 the nation island of Madagascar was under the control of unoccupied France. It had become a French protectorate in 1896 and a full colony the following year – known in French as the Colonie de Madagascar et dépendances – but with the fall of France in 1940 its administration passed to Philippe Pétain’s newly formed Régime de Vichy. Pétain, however, was little more than a puppet of Adolf Hitler, and this greatly worried the Allies, for many of France’s colonies remained under Vichy control.
The Vichy French had, under pressure from the Axis powers, given permission to the Japanese to enter French Indo-China, from where they were able to gain access to Malaya and Singapore. By early 1942 the Japanese had conquered much of Southeast Asia, and it was known that their navy had begun sending submarines into the northern and eastern areas of the Indian Ocean. In March the Japanese conducted carrier borne raids on shipping in the Bay of Bengal and Allied bases at Ceylon. Concerned for their ships, the Royal Navy ordered its Eastern Fleet to withdraw to an alternative base in Kenya.
However, the Allies grew increasingly worried that the Japanese would look to Madagascar to establish forward operating bases, which would again threaten the Eastern Fleet as well as vital supply routes used by Allied shipping. Germany and Japan had already discussed the importance of Axis operations in the Indian Ocean, the former encouraging the latter to conduct operations against Ceylon and Madagascar. Although the Japanese agreed to send warships and submarines to operate in the western areas of the Indian Ocean, they said nothing in direct response to the matter of Madagascar.
The possibility of Madagascar being made available to the Japanese by the Vichy Government was discussed by the Allies as early as November 1941. It was felt that the only realistic option was to conduct an invasion of the island and seize it before the Japanese did the same. Also keen to act was Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, who attempted to persuade Winston Churchill to allow Free French forces to occupy Madagascar. According to the British prime minister:
“General de Gaulle had urged a Free French operation against Madagascar as early as December 16, 1941, after the entry of Japan into the war. He wrote again to me on February 19, 1942, pressing for a decision, and also submitted a plan to our Chiefs of Staff for a Free French expedition in co-operation with British air and naval support. I had always been favourable to the idea of installing the de Gaullists in Madagascar.”
However, Churchill did not believe the Allies at that time had the necessary resources to conduct such an operation, and more importantly he did not want de Gaulle’s Free French troops involved in a joint operation with British forces following the debacle at Dakar in 1940. In March 1942 he wrote:
“I agree that Madagascar must still have a low priority. Whatever happens, we must not have a mixed expedition. Either it must be Free French only, once they have been put ashore, or British Empire only.”
Nevertheless, Churchill would soon have a change of heart as regards to the invasion of Madagascar and agreed for the operation to go ahead:
“In the end the threat which was developing in the Bay of Bengal and the peril to Ceylon resolved us to secure the control of the invaluable harbour of Diego Suarez. The rest of the enormous island was of less strategic importance, but to let the Japanese establish a submarine flotilla working from Madagascar would be a disaster.”
The Free French, however, would not be involved and it would be a British Empire operation only. Thus, on 14 March, Force 121 was established under Major-General Robert Sturgess, while Rear-Admiral Edward Syfret would command naval Force H in support.
On 23 March Force 121 departed from the Clyde in Scotland and set a course for Freetown in Sierra Leone, where it was joined by the ships under Syfret’s command. From here the force sailed in two convoys to Durban in South Africa, being joined by the 13th Brigade of the 5th Division. Sturges now had three infantry brigades under his command, while Syfret had the battleship Ramillies, the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Indomitable, the cruisers Hermione and Devonshire, eleven destroyers, six minesweepers and six corvettes.
At this point the Allies planned to simply occupy the port of Diego Suarez, but they were urged by Field Marshall Jan Smuts that the invasion force ought to also consider taking the ports of Majunga and Tamatave in order to similarly deny them to the Japanese. However, due to the lack of troops it was felt that the original objective of Diego Suarez should remain the only focus so as to ensure success. Once the operation was complete, Sturges’ commandos were to be withdrawn and replaced by several African brigades and one from the Belgian Congo or west coast of Africa, with overall command then passing to General Archibald Wavell.
Thus was the plan and preparations of the Allies to take the port of Diego Suarez on the northern tip of Madagascar. The Allied landing would be codenamed Operation Ironclad, and it would be the first amphibious assault mounted by the British since the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of the First World War. However, as will be seen, another operation to occupy the entire island of Madagascar would be mounted just a few months later, which would be codenamed Operation Steam Line Jane.
A big thank you to Mark for kindly speaking with us about the Battle for Madagascar. Part Two will be out very shortly, until then though…
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