Operation Ironclad – The invasion of Madagascar

5th May 1942: The invasion of Madagascar – Operation Ironclad

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.

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 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.

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

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.

Victor comic’s illustration of the attack on the French lines by the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.

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.

Peter Reynier’ action probably took place during the first night attack, although the French and British accounts differed.

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.

Peter Reynier joined up with the London Scottish territorials in January 1940 at the age of 23 before volunteering for “hazardous service* and joining the newly formed 9 Commando on Arran in winter of 1940/41. He was selected for OCTU in Summer 1941 before joining 1st Battalion of the Royal Scotts Fusiliers for Operation Ironclad in the Spring of ‘42. He recovered from his wounds and ended the war as a Major, ADC to the divisional commander of the 52 Lowland Mountain Division, fighting in Germany in 1945.

21 thoughts on “Operation Ironclad – The invasion of Madagascar”

  1. Given the knowledge shown here, I wonder if anyone can cast light on a family mystery. My wife’s grandfather – Richard Henry Newton – served in the Merchant Navy, and was Chef on the S.S. Oronsay, which served as a troop carrier at the battle for Diego Garcia. He was later cited for the award of Mentioned in Dispatches for his actions during the engagement. How does a Chef earn a mention for valour? What did he do? I have been unable to find the reason behind the award. Can anyone tell me?

  2. My late father, Colin Belfrage, joined the King’s African Rifles in 1940 and was posted to the 6th (Tanganyika) Battalion. In 1942 to 1944, after serving in northern Kenya against an Italian invasion (Nigel Leaky in his unit was awarded a posthumous VC), Colin was sent Madagascar to fight the Vichy French who were occupying the island, and to protect it from a Japanese invasion threatening East Africa and the Suez Canal route. Colin was an Intelligence Officer at Brigade Headquarters. He was also involved in training troops for the Burma campaign.

  3. In 2005 I had the honour of looking after one of my neighbors (an 85 year old man) this old soldier told me about the battle of Madagascar he broke down as he told me that he was the only survivor of his company all the rest had been mown as they landed on the beach he said he lay in the sand as machine gun bullets kicked sand all around him and he was there for nearly 24 hours until reinforcements came. Until I googled I didn’t even know we had battled with the Vichy.
    Thanks for the information and history lesson.

  4. My father was in the landings and Subsequent battles for Madagascar with the 2nd Batt RWF and was hospitalized in Durban ( Oribi Hospital) we’re not sure if he was wounded or disabled through desease as many were, I believe Malaria and black water fever was rampant in some areas in land .

  5. My Father Michael Francis Burns was blinded at Diego Suarez when a chap in front of him stood on a landmine. He was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. he later joined St Dunstans, studied medicine and became a Physiotherapist. He died in June 1986. RIP

  6. My uncle was there; A1435 Leading Signalman Richard Graham STEVEN, R.N.Z.N.V.R. He was wounded as a member of a shore signalling party; a French mortar landed near him, breaking his leg and injurying him with shrapnel. Uncle Graham (Snowy to all) recovered in Mombasa, returned to active service and finally finished a long war returning home to Auckland in 1946 after being a member of the NZ naval occupying force in Japan. (He also served aboard HMS KEDAH at the fall and evacuation of Singapore 1941-1942.)

  7. See my FAQ about TNA

    The National Archives based at Kew in west London is a fascinating place for anyone interested in history. The staff are exceptionally helpful and very geared up to assist amateur historians and interested members of the public. If you plan a visit make sure you take the right personal documentation so that you can get a pass to get direct access to real historical documents. See http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. – See more at: https://ww2today.com/faq#sthash.6wR9PH3f.dpuf

  8. My late father was Lieutenant Carlisle mentioned in the article, and I retain a letter of his to his mother describing the action in pretty much the same way. Does anyone know how one could obtain TNA WO 218/156 for the full report as is mentioned in this article.
    many thanks

  9. Many thanks for information from Carrie Johnson. I wondered why there are no graves of the British dead on the islad only a memorial stome. I cant believe that nobody was recovered in the numerous actions there. If so, what happened to the bodies? Regards Tony

  10. The Squadron Commander whose report is quoted above, Major (later Lt Col) J E S Simon (NOT Simons!), went on to have a distinguished career. He was MP for Middlesborough West and served in Harold Macmillan’s government, becoming Financial Secretary to the Treasury then Solicitor General. He then became a judge, President of what was then the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division (now the Family Division). In 1971 he became a Life Peer as Lord Simon of Glaisdale. He died in May 2006 aged 96.

  11. hi then

    my cousin was in the South Lancs and I believe he was involved in the invasion of Madagascar, he wore a French flag patch on his left upper sleeve, was this patch relevant to this invasion


  12. Has anyone heard of a Philip Avann who was an 18 year old sailor in 1942 in Madascar? We would love to hear from anyone.

    Molly Carman (Niece)

  13. 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,

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. 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

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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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