During the months of March and April 1942, the South African Air Force (SAAF) conducted a number of reconnaissance flights over the port of Diego Suarez. One such flight took place on 12 March, when Major Ken Jones and Captain M. J. Uys bravely flew their specially-equipped Maryland aircraft through tropical storms in order to photograph the area in and around Diego Suarez. They discovered six merchant ships, a cruiser and two submarines in the harbour, providing invaluable intelligence to planning staff.
To support the landings, Nos. 32, 36 and 37 Flights were redirected to Lindi in Tanganyika, while additional Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers and Martin Maryland medium bombers were also made available in a support role. Operation Ironclad was set for 5 May, although, as will be seen, it was merely the beginning for the Allies in Madagascar.
The initial landings would be made by the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade and No. 5 (Army) Commando, both being landed at Courrier Bay and Ambararata Bay, slightly to the west of Diego Suarez. The second wave would consist of two brigades from the 5th Infantry Division and men of the Royal Marines. To assist the landings, a number of Fairey Albacore and Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers mounted diversionary attacks on Vichy ships.
Opposing the Allied landings were 8,000 Vichy troops under the command of Governor-General Armand Léon Annet. Most of Annet’s men were colonial soldiers, including around 6,000 Malagasy and Senegalese tirailleurs. Of these it was believed that up to 3,000 were deployed in or around Diego Suarez itself. The port was also defended by eight coastal batteries, several armed merchant cruisers and sloops, and five submarines.
Reg Voller of the Royal Navy described the Vichy defences:
“The huge land locked harbour of Diego Suarez and Port of Antisirane, Madagascar, were the primary objectives, all protected by strong seaward defences, mainly French 75 gun emplacements. We later learned the controlling Vichy French Government considered attack from the rear of the harbour unlikely as the coastline was extremely rocky and virtually un-navigable for many miles.”
Vichy air forces consisted of only seventeen Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters and ten Potez 630 twin-engine bombers.
Thankfully for the Allies, the landings were made virtually unopposed. Again, according to Voller:
“The landing and occupation was scheduled for the night of 5 May 1942 at 0200 hrs which, fortunately was a very calm sea and pitch black. There was no moon. The five unlit assault ships, leaving their protective Royal Navy screen, headed towards the coast proceeding slowly and on line ahead. Orders were given. “Lower all Assault Crafts complete with Commando Forces and Mechanised Units to within six feet of the waterline.
“Anchors released as quietly and slowly as possible and orders given simultaneously in all ships, complete drop and release all landing craft. They in turn, fully loaded with Commandos and equipment headed for faint guide lights on shore. Off load, and thereafter, making return trips to and fro with soldiers and equipment.”
An unnamed member of No.5 Commando recalled:
“Above us on cliffs 50 feet high was a battery of Gin guns. We climbed the cliffs and caught the Vichy gunners by surprise. They were asleep and Amen to that! There were French Officers, NCOs and Malagash and Senegalese troops who were herded together and guards put on them.”
The men of 17th Infantry Brigade at Courrier Bay pushed their way through swamps and thick bush before entering Diego Suarez, seizing the port with ease and taking several hundred prisoners in the process. Meanwhile, the 29th Infantry Brigade landed at Ambararata Bay before advancing on the naval base at Antisarane. As the troops advanced they encountered some resistance, especially when they reached the naval base which was found to be heavily defended.
It was decided to launch an assault on Antisarane the following day, but following the loss of three Valentine tanks and two Tetarchs light tanks the attack was called off. According to Major Jocelyn Simon:
“… the two leading Tetrarchs were hit, and immediately caught fire. In one, the commander, Corporal Watkins, was killed, the gunner so severely burnt that he died subsequently of his wounds, and the driver also badly burnt. In the other the driver and gunner were wounded.”
However, another assault was ordered and carried out by the men of the South Lancashire Regiment, who circumvented the Vichy defences only to be faced by swamps and other difficult terrain. Nevertheless, the men were able to get behind the Vichy line of defence and assault it from the rear. Despite this initial success, the South Lancashires lost contact with the main Allied force, due to failure of their radio, and so they withdrew.
A rather daring action was next ordered, when the destroyer HMS Anthony boldly sailed into the harbour at Antisarane and landed fifty Royal Marines. The marines set about causing chaos in the town, while the 17th Infantry Brigade was finally able to break through the Vichy defences. Unable to further resist, the Vichy defenders either surrendered or withdrew from Antisarane southwards into the interior of Madagascar.
With Operation Ironclad a success, the Allied objective of occupying Diego Suarez had been achieved with relative ease. However, a few weeks later, on 29 May, three Japanese submarines arrived near Madagascar and spotted HMS Ramillies anchored in Diego Suarez harbour. Although the British had detected the Japanese presence, the latter still managed to damage the Ramillies and sink an oil tanker using two midget submarines.
Operation Steam Line Jane
Although the Allies controlled the important port of Diego Suarez, Vichy forces continued to operate elsewhere on the island and brief skirmishes continued to erupt for several months. Nevertheless, the British began to wind down their troop numbers, with, on 19 May, two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division being sent to India. However, the Allied garrison on Madagascar would subsequently benefit from the arrival of the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade on 8 June, followed by the 7th South African Motorised Brigade on 24 June. It was further boosted by the landing of the 27th (North Rhodesia) Infantry Brigade on 8th August. These colonial troops would later allow the Allies to conduct the conquest of the whole of the island, in a campaign that was codenamed Operation Steam Line Jane.
Steam Line Jane was in fact three separate operations, namely ‘Steam’, ‘Line’ and ‘Jane’. Steam took place on 10 September, when 29th Brigade and 22nd Brigade Group conducted an amphibious assault against Majunga, a port on the western side of the island. Leading the attack was No. 5 Commando, the men of which were greeted by a hail of machinegun fire. Despite this, the commandos were able to work their way up and along the quayside and take the governor’s house where they hoisted a Union Jack to signal its capture.
Line was the advance of Allied forces from Majunga to the French capital of Tananarive. The advance proved to be a difficult one, with Vichy forces slowing the Allies down wherever they could, erecting obstacles and carrying out small scale attacks. Ultimately, the Allies were able to take Tananarive on the 23rd, having encountered little resistance once they finally reached the city.
Jane would take the form of another amphibious assault, this time on the east coast port of Tamatave on the 18th. The operation was made difficult due to the heavy surf, but after HMS Birmingham, a Town-class light cruiser, opened fire on the French shore batteries the defenders were quick to raise a white flag in surrender. With Tamatave in Allied hands, the South Lancashires and the Royal Welch advanced southwards to Tananarive then to Moramanga, linking up the King’s African Rifles on the 25th.
Madagascar was now all but in the hands of the Allies, although there would be one more major action, on the 18 October, in the Andramanalina valley. Here, Vichy forces attempted to ambush the Allies, but they were taken by surprise by the King African Rifles, who unexpectedly attacked the waiting French troops in their rear. After suffering heavy casualties, some 800 Vichy troops surrendered to the Allies. Finally, on 6 November, Annet was found and arrested. The Battle for Madagascar was complete.
The cost to the Allies of capturing Madagascar amounted to around 500 casualties during Operation Ironclad, followed by a further 120 for Operation Steam Line Jane. Vichy casualties stood at around 150 killed and 500 wounded.
Despite the casualties, the landings at Madagascar are said to have given British forces invaluable experience that they put to good use during the later Operation Torch in North Africa. Madagascar would stay in Allied hands for the remainder of the war, its ports becoming crucial for shipping en route to India.
A big thank you to Mark for kindly speaking with us about the Battle for Madagascar.
Missed Part One of the Battle for Madagascar?
Photo Credits: Martin Maryland Aircraft| Royal Marines Board Landing Craft| Landing Craft Advance |Troops Approach the Docks | Troops Disembarking | French Blockhouses| British Troops Advance Inland| Disembarking HMS Active | Allied Artillery | French Troops Surrender | 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment |