Although many Free French were now fighting with the British, the Vichy regime in France was a different proposition. The French had allowed the Japanese into French Indo-China, a move that had given them access to Malaya and Singapore. Now it was feared that the Japanese would move into the huge natural deep water port of Diego Suarez, on the northern tip of the French colony of Madagascar. Such a move would give the Japanese a dominant position in the Indian Ocean and threaten the convoy route running up East Africa to Egypt.
A pre-emptive invasion of Madagascar was therefore launched by the British. Operation Ironclad saw troops landed on the north western tip of the island in an attempt to capture the port from the rear. The surprise landings were very successful. It was as the force moved inland that they ran into trouble. The French had built a defensive line to protect their rear, and it was very well defended.
The leading Valentine tanks were knocked out by old French 75mm artillery pieces firing solid shot. There then followed a fierce engagement, a minor action fought out under the tropical sun on a distant island, in a largely forgotten war. Only the post action report of Major Simon records what happened when the even more lightly armoured Tetrarch tanks followed up the attack:
The Tetrarchs behind, seeing that the leading tanks were under fire, with great gallantry advanced and engaged the enemy. Unfortunately they followed the Squadron Commander down the road instead of deploying off the road to the right, where they would have been hull down, at least to the gun down the road.
In the event 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.
The commander of this tank, Lieutenant Carlisle, completely disregarding the fire from the 75s, and from the machine guns and rifles which opened fire on him, assisted the driver out of his cab, and then dismounted the Bren Gun from the A. A. mounting.
The Squadron Commander stopped the remaining Tetrarch (Lieutenant Astles), which was engaging the enemy, from advancing further, and sent it back to the Brigade Command to report the result of the action.
The unwounded personnel then fetched, a T.S.M.G, [Thompson Sub Machine Gun] and a Bren Gun, ammunition, water and a first aid box from one of the tanks, and went into dismounted action. 2nd/Lieutenant Whittaker and Sergeant Grime particularly distinguished themselves in thus removing necessary kit from the tanks under fire.
At this stage, Captain Belville, R.M. [Royal Marines], who was acting as Liaison Officer with “B” Squadron R.A.C. [Royal Armoured Corps], and who had watched the tank action from further back, advanced on his motor cycle under machine gun and rifle fire to where the crew were preparing to go into dismounted action. He received a report from the Squadron Commander and proceeded back to the Brigade Command. He took with him on the back of his motor cycle a N.C.O. who had been badly burnt. His action undoubtedly saved the life of the N.C.O., who would otherwise have had to remain In the open under fire for three and a half hours.
An attempt was made to stalk the guns on the right by a patrol armed with T.S.M.G., but this failed owing to heavy machine gun fire covering a sunken road between the tanks and the gun position.
After a pause of approximately half an hour, during which the party was ineffectively sniped, enemy infantry advanced from their positions in an attempt to round up the tank crews. The enemy were however forced to withdraw by fire from the Bren Guns.
After a short pause the enemy again advanced, making skilful use of cover, and attempting to work round the right flank of the position. During this engagement some carriers came in sight, but owing to heavy machine gun fire were unable to approach. The enemy was, however, again forced to withdraw.
The enemy then made a third sortie, employing the same tactics. They managed to approach quite close, but were held off by fire from the Bren Gun, T.S.M.G. and pistols. The T.S.M.G. and pistol ammunition was, however, by now almost exhausted. Finally 2nd/Lieutenant Whittaker, who had been manning the Bren gun on the fight flank with great determination and accuracy, was fatally wounded.
The enemy then advanced and at approximately 1545 hrs captured the party. Only three of that tank crews were then unwounded. The prisoners were treated by the enemy with great consideration.
Hours later a combined tank and infantry attack was able to overcome the position. See TNA WO 218/156 for the full report.
In 2016 I was able to update this post with another account of the attack on the formidable French defences by the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers:
One of the most effective features of the barrier was an anti-tank ditch, in which the Scots Fusiliers were already fighting along its entire length. The distance of this ditch from the main defences was estimated during the battle at various ranges from 600 yards upwards, but was found after fighting had ceased to be actually 1,400 yards. The ditch was 7 feet 6 inches deep and approximately of equal width. It was never penetrated by the tanks after their first encounter on the road, but remained a trap for infantry. Once in it they were unable to emerge again without ladders, of which they had none, or by digging a ramp, which would have been a suicidal enterprise under intense and accurate fire. This ditch largely accounted for the initial failure of the 29th Brigade to break down the defence. Any force entering it was immobilised and robbed of observation.
One remarkable episode during the dawn attack concerns Second-Lieutenant P. B. Reynier, who had moved forward with his men in the darkness. Reynier found himself at dawn deep in the defences armed only with a hand grenade. Instead of taking cover he advanced and pitched the grenade at the slit of one of the gun emplacements. The opening was protected by wire netting against just such an eventuality and the grenade bounded back, wounding Reynier, who received other wounds and was captured.
This act of personal bravery won for him the Military Cross. The documents recommending the award included the rare feature of a citation from the enemy. This was conveyed in a letter from the French to the “Commandant” of the Scots Fusiliers, written by a Lieutenant Bande of the 3rd Company, 2nd Madagascar Mixed Regiment.
It told how the French officer and a section of machine-gunners were occupying the battlement of a 75-millimetre gun emplacement on the Placers Road, when a lookout reported one of the enemy (Reynier) approaching the gun rampart. “A rifle shot hit the man “, wrote Bande, “when he was several yards from the breastworks and a grenade which he was holding went off. The wounded man spoke French very well. He was hurt in the mouth by a bullet and wounded in the arm. The only arms he had was one hand grenade. He told us, and it is certainly the truth, that he had wanted to carry out an assault on the gun and open the path for your men.
That action is one of a brave man. I believe I can tell you that, for you can be certain the French can pick one out.”
For the full account of the Attack on The Antsirane Barrier, Diego Suarez see Kemp’s History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Mark Reynier was able to provide a remarkable postscript to the story. After the battle it was believed that Peter Reynier of the Royal Scots Fusiliers had been killed in the attack:
It was about this time that Roddy Reynier, an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was alerted to a bloodied rucksack brought to him by one of his men. It bore the name “Reynier”, and being such an unusual name, the men thought he “ought to know”. Discovering that it was indeed his brother’s kit, and with the explosion marks and blood stains, he assumed his brother was dead. A letter was relayed to London announcing his death and a memorial service was later held at Westminster Cathedral. After the battle, an extraordinary event occurred.
Once in Antsirane, Roddy Reynier of the Welsh Fusiliers was put in charge of the enemy wounded in the Military Hospital. While walking down one of the hospital isles he was startled to discover his own brother was one of the patients, badly wounded but alive, with copious grenade splinters and two gunshot wounds to his mouth and elbow.
Reynier, evacuated to Durban then Cape Town, spent a year recuperating in Edinburgh before making a full recovery. Pieces of shrapnel would regularly work their way to the surface of his skin in the years that followed. In later years airport security machines would be set off and a chest x-ray looked more like a black and white TV snow storm. As a boy I can remember feeling the larger shrapnel lumps lying close under the skin of his cheek.