Operation Ironclad – The invasion of Madagascar

The British invaded Madagascar from the north west and moved over land to capture the deep water port of Diego Suarez from the rear.

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 Simons 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.

A schematic representation of the ships involved in the invasion of Madagascar.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

carrie johnson July 19, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Hi Tony. My great uncle John (Jack) Blakemore also served with the 5 cdo East Lancs Regiment and was fatally wounded on the 10/09/1942. Here’s what I have discovered about it, and forgive me if I’m telling you things which you already know.

5 cdo’s arrived on assault transport HMS Winchester Castle for the commencement of Operation Ironclad on 05/05/1942. The subsequent Operation Streamline Jane which began on Thursday 10/09/1942 was an amphibious landing at Majunga to re-launch Allied offensive operations ahead of the rainy season. Small scale clashes ensued and Vichy soldiers had erected many obstacles on the roads.

The only information I have on events immediately prior to Op Stream Line Jane’s landing was an account of another cdo 5 present at the time. He wrote that “Cdo’s were to leap off Destroyers going 30 knots as they came along the quayside. The plan was to land right in the docks but the op went wrong. The landing craft broke down and instead of landing before dawn we went in in broad daylight.”

I don’t know the identity of this cdo I’m afraid and really can’t remember where I discovered this information but it would have been an internet search for sure. I found this account in some of my old notes.

Hope this helps,
Carrie

Tony Brod February 14, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Hello, My uncle died 110942 having served with 5 cdo East 2 Lancs Regt. He has no known grave. Cpl George Ormesher was wounded and his family seem to recall a message received stating the ship he was being casivac on being sunk. I can find no trace of any sunken ship on this date. Does anyone have any info re same of actions by 5cdo immediately prior to this date? Many Thanks for your time. Tony

Ray Prichard November 2, 2013 at 11:28 pm

My late father’s daily diary written each day during his RN service details blow-by-blow timed accounts of the taking of Majunga etc. I also have the original Naval Message in my father’s own hand, transcribed from morse code, congratulating them all on operation Ironclad and telling all that they were about to take Majunga

Ray Prichard November 2, 2013 at 11:26 pm

My late father’s daily diary written eacvh day during his RN service details blow-by-blow timed accounts of the taking of Majunga etc. I also have the original Naval Message in my father’s own hand, transcribed from morse code, congratulating them all on operation Ironclad and telling all that they were about to take Majunga

Editor March 10, 2013 at 11:52 am

Harry

Many thanks for your comment. I do not even attempt to cover all aspects of each action mentioned.

If you know of an account of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in WWII I would be happy to link to it or give an excerpt from it.

harry coates March 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Why is there no mention of the 2nd batt royal scots fusilers in which i served from march 1939 to july 1948, in your account.

manfred brandt October 12, 2012 at 7:01 am

My father was a german sailor on the merchant ship”Wartenfels” they had docked I believe in Diego Suarez on their way back from Eritrea. He told me that there was an invasion by the Allies and they had to scuttle their ship. He and all his shipmates were then captured and taken to South Africa and subseqently interned at” Koffiefontein” in the Free State ”
I have tried to look up and find any articles about what actually happened with the ship afterwards and all the sailors but no luck
Can anyone help ?

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