Among the tumultuous events of World War Two the British invasion of Madagascar in 1942, generally known under its codename “Operation Ironclad”, has always received scant attention from modern historians, who still see it as a marginal note to more crucial campaigns in Europe or in the Pacific. However, this little amphibious operation was probably the most serious Anglo-French clash over African territory since the time of the Fashoda crisis in 1898, marking the symbolic conclusion of the colonial era along the coasts of the Indian Ocean; at the same time it also compelled the British government to divert a considerable amount of land troops and naval units from other vital fronts to conquer this remote tropical region, fighting for more than six months against ill-equipped but highly determined forces loyal to the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856-1951). Last but not least, the battle for Madagascar showed also a close connection between military and political events both in Europe and in Asia, revealing the true global dimension of the conflict started by the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Thus it is a story which deserves better attention, going beyond the usual narrative “Axis vs. Allies” still popular to these days.
Available freely in the Australian War Memorial Collection.
After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Madagascar remained an area of little concern for the British Empire, involved in a bitter undeclared war against Pétain’s collaborationist government for the control of strategic colonies in Africa and Asia. Just some weeks after the Franco-German armistice at Compiègne, for example, the British fleet bombarded the French naval base of Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, killing more than 1000 sailors and sinking the old battleship Bretagne. Even de Gaulle protested against the brutality of such action, justified by Churchill on pressing military grounds but probably fuelled by motives of political prestige and imperial defence. In the summer of 1941, British forces then invaded Syria, fighting a long attrition campaign against the local garrison, and ceded the control of the country to Free France only after some vicious row with de Gaulle’s political entourage. This embarrassing attack against their former allies was mainly censored by the British media, who tried to minimize its notable human cost (4000 casualties for the British and 8000 for the French) and to avoid the polemical remarks of the French government in exile. On the other hand, the intervention favoured the resurgence of Arab nationalism in Syria and Lebanon, resulting in the final independence of both countries three years later.
It was only in the early weeks of 1942, after the swift Japanese occupation of South-East Asia, that the French colony of Madagascar, administered for Vichy by the experienced bureaucrat Armand Léon Annet, former governor of French Somaliland and Dahomey, became the focus of British attention, due to the possibility of a German or Japanese use of the island as a base for submarine warfare. Indeed, the matter was discussed by German admirals and their Japanese counterparts in a couple of official meetings in Berlin, even if Tokyo initially refused to commit its forces along the coasts of East Africa. At the same time the Japanese air raid against Ceylon compelled the Royal Navy to relocate its eastern units in Kenya, adding further stress to the defence of the vital supply line between Aden and Cape Town. Thus, to secure the crucial sea routes across the Indian Ocean, Britain decided to occupy Madagascar in March 1942, excluding the Free French from the operation and relying mainly on Australian, South African, and Rhodesian contingents. Nicknamed “Operation Ironclad”, the campaign was built around an impressive naval task force, including two aircraft carriers taken from the Mediterranean squadron at Gibraltar. Initially Churchill aimed only to occupy the strategic harbour of Diego Suarez, keeping the French garrison isolated in the interior, but the insistence of the South African government compelled him to widen the extent of the operation, targeting all the major ports of the island.
The invasion started on 5 May 1942, after a long series of reconnaissance mission by the South African Air Force (SAAF), and British forces had no particular problem in landing on the beaches of northern Madagascar, marching then toward the key objective of Diego Suarez. In spite of a massive air and naval cover, however, they met the fierce and prolonged resistance of local French troops, composed mainly by Senegalese and Malagasy tiralleurs, while three Japanese submarines even attacked several units of the invading flotilla, sinking one oil tanker and damaging the battleship Ramillies. Finally, after two days of bitter struggle, Diego Suarez surrendered to the British, but Annet’s garrison refused to capitulate, compelling the invading troops to a long and tiresome campaign across the wooded interior of the island. The capital of the colony, Tananarive, was conquered only in September, while small-scale clashes continued until November, requiring the intervention of other military units from South Africa and Rhodesia. Thus Churchill’s early limited raid had become an expensive commitment for the overstretched resources of the British Empire, subtracting precious men and materials from more important frontlines in Burma and North Africa. In the end Annet and his brave native troops surrendered only after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942: they had resisted for more than six months, suffering slight casualties (150 dead and 500 wounded) in a skilfully-led guerrilla campaign throughout the southern part of the island. Even British casualties were quite limited (100 dead and 300 wounded), despite the protracted action in the tropical and swampy climate of the country.
Ironically, the British government decided to leave the administration of Madagascar in the hands of the Free French, giving the fruit of its efforts to the “despised” movement of de Gaulle. As in Syria, however, British intervention had undermined the old political and social equilibrium of the colony, fostering the development of a strong nationalist sentiment. Indeed, five years after the conclusion of “Operation Ironclad”, the Malagasy rebelled against France, compelling the socialist government of Paul Ramadier to adopt brutal forms of military repression in the island, causing the death of a vast number of unarmed civilians (according to recent historical surveys, no less than 30 000, including women and children). The revolt was finally crushed in the autumn of 1948, but the restoration of the old colonial system resulted now completely impossible. In 1960 Madagascar became independent, while Diego Suarez (renamed Antsiranana in 1975) lost its previous strategic importance, becoming merely a picturesque destination for European tourists. Today only two small war cemeteries, one French and one British, remember the dramatic events of May 1942. Such have been the paradoxical consequences of the last Anglo-French struggle in Africa.
J.A. Brown, South African Forces World War II, 4: Eagles strike: the campaigns of the South African Air Force in Egypt, Cyrenaica, Libya, Tunisia, Tripolitania and Madagascar, 1941-1943 (Cape Town: Purnell, 1974).
E.D.R. Harrison, ‘British Subversion in French East Africa, 1941-42: SOE’s Todd Mission’, The English Historical Review, 114:456 (1999), pp. 339-69.
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Martin Shipway, ‘Madagascar on the eve of insurrection, 1944-47: The impasse of a liberal colonial policy’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 24:1 (1996), pp. 72-100.
Colin Smith, England’s Last War against France: Fighting Vichy, 1940-1942 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009).
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