Operation Ironclad 1942 – The Almost Forgotten Art of Fighting and Beating the French

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Madagascar Campaign of WW2 was a combined operation fought by the forces of the British Empire, to  capture and occupy the island of Madagascar in 1942.  It took place in a seemingly remote backwater  and the operation has been overshadowed by events in the Middle East and the Western Desert.   Madagascar was a French Colony and even in wartime there are political considerations.  While the  Free-French forces were aligned to Britain, the Vichy Forces of Marshal Pétain were not.  The Vichy  Government was pro-Axis and the British feared that Madagascar would be handed over to the Japanese.   This would constitute an unacceptable threat to British and Allied supply routes in the Indian Ocean,  specifically the route round the Cape and through the Mozambique Channel.

British agents on Madagascar reported on 17th February 1942, that three Japanese warships were in the  harbour at Diego Suarez.  The British Government made a request to South Africa for a photographic  reconnaissance flight over the harbour.  Two SAAF Glen Maryland bombers fitted with cameras and long  range fuel tanks, were dispatched to Lindi on the East African coast.  The aircraft flew 700 miles  across the Indian Ocean, photographed the harbour and returned safely to Lindi. More recce flights were requested, which revealed a further six merchant ships, a cruiser and two  submarines.  These flights involved a flight of eight hours, often in atrocious weather conditions and  the SAAF crews should be commended.

The Operation was given the go-ahead and planning had already commenced in November 1941.  Churchill  delayed the operation and tried to influence the Vichy Government politically, as military action  against a former ally was an unhappy prospect.  Madagascar is a large, mountainous island, covered in  dense jungle.  It is 1000 miles long north to south and 400 miles wide.  It has high rainfall and  frequent cyclones.  It is also infested with the malaria-carrying, Anopheles mosquito.  There were  only six towns of any strategic value, the most important being the central capital of Tananarive and  the northern port of Diego Suarez.  The road network was poor and the island was served by a number of  small airfields.

Force 121 under the joint command of Admiral Syfret RN and General Sturgess RM set sail from England,  bound for Durban in two convoys.  The South African contingent would join the Force at Durban.   General Smuts had generously offered the British Government an Army Brigade Group and air support.  It  is quite clear from the operation’s ORBAT, that the British were not pussyfooting around and had  deadly intentions.

Force 121 consisted of the following:


2 Battleships
    HMS Ramillies
    HMS Warspite
2 Aircraft Carriers
    HMS Illustrious
    HMS Indomitable
6 Cruisers
    HMS Birmingham
    HMS Dauntless
    HMS Gambia
    HMS Hermione
    HMS Devonshire
    HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerk
11 destroyers
6 corvettes
6 minesweepers
1 special large tank landing craft
1 special large vehicle and guns landing craft
Numerous smaller landing craft
1 refuelling tanker
8 large troopships (including the Winchester Castle)
6 large merchant ships carrying stores and transport
1 hospital ship, the Atlantis


29TH BRIGADE (Brig Festing, Officer Commanding)
1st Royal Scots Fusiliers
2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers
2nd East Lancashire Regiment
2nd South Lancashire Regiment
455th Field Regiment Royal Artillery
236th Field Company Royal Engineers
+ Signals and Medical

17TH BRIGADE (Brig Tarleton, Officer Commanding)
2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
6th Seaforth Highlanders
2nd Northhamptonshire Regiment
Tank Regiment (medium and light tanks)
No.5 Commando Regiment (specially trained in amphibious assault landings)
9th Field Regiment Royal Artillery
38th Field Company Royal Engineers
+ Signals and Medical
141 Field Hospital Royal Army Medical Corps

13TH BRIGADE (Similar makeup to that shown above for the 29th and 17th Brigades)


7TH SA INFANTRY BRIGADE (Brig Senescal, Officer Commanding)
1st City Regiment (Grahamstown)
Pretoria Regiment
Pretoria Highlanders
1st SA Armoured Car Commando
6th Field Regiment SA Artillery
88th Field Company SA Engineers
+ Signals, Medical etc.


22ND EAST AFRICAN BRIGADE (Brig Dimoline, Officer Commanding)
Similar makeup to that shown for the other Brigades above.


ROYAL NAVY FLEET AIR ARM (Aircraft Carriers)

795 Squadron Fairey Fulmar aircraft
796 Squadron Albacore aircraft
One Squadron Swordfish Torpedo Bombers
Two Squadrons Martlet Fighters


443 Army Co-op. Flight of six Lysander aircraft brought in by ship.


Three Maritime Reconnaissance Flights, later combined to form 16 Squadron:
No.32 Flight – 5 Glen Martin Maryland Bombers. (Maj D Meaker, Officer Commanding)
No.36 Flight – 6 Bristol Beaufort Bombers. (Maj J Clayton, Officer Commanding)
No.37 Flight – 1 Maryland and 5 Beauforts. (Maj K Jones, Officer Commanding)

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A Martlet fighter overflies HMS Warspite.  Amazingly, the notoriously trigger happy RN gunners haven’t  opened fire on it

The Force set sail from Durban to the northern tip of Madagascar where the invasion landings would  take place.  The plan was to capture Diego Suarez, when it was expected that the French Governor would  surrender, but because the plan involved the French, things didn’t go quite as expected.

The unforgotten art of being French

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Morane-Saulnier 406 fighters warming up at Arrachart airfield

On 5th May 1941, the first waves of the British 29th Infantry Brigade and No 5 Commando landed in  Courrier and Ambararata Bays by assault craft.  Follow-up waves consisted of two Brigades of the 5th  Infantry Division and Royal Marines, while a diversionary raid was staged to the east.  Air cover was  provided by Fairey Albacore and Swordfish torpedo bombers, which attacked shipping in Diego Suarez  harbour.  Grumman Martlets flew the top combat air patrol.  The Vichy defending Madagascar included  8,000 troops of which, 6,000 were Malagasy Tiraileurs, colonial infantry.  Approximately 3,000 Vichy  troops were based around Diego Suarez.  French naval forces consisted of eight coastal batteries, two  armed merchant cruisers, two sloops and five submarines.  The Vichy air component while not being  formidable, with seventeen Morane-Saulnier 406 fighters and ten Potez bombers, was workmanlike enough.

The French Air Force attacked the landing ships, but Fleet Air Arm aircraft from the two aircraft  carriers dealt with them.  Arrachart Air Base was neutralised and twenty-three French aircraft were  destroyed that morning.  Those not destroyed or damaged were withdrawn by the French and flown south  to other airfields.

The French hadn’t read the script and their defence was dogged, effective and the Allied main thrust  became stalled by the morning of 6th May. In the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, the old  destroyer HMS Anthony stormed past the harbour defences and landed fifty Royal Marines in the Vichy  defence’s rear area.  The marines in their own words created “…disturbance in the town out of all  proportion to their numbers.”  The French defence was broken and their troops withdrew to the south.   The British had captured the main objective of the deep water harbour, but The French showed no signs  of throwing in the towel.  The French Governor, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the French forces on  Madagascar, was asked to surrender, but he refused.  French radio signals requesting Japanese  assistance were intercepted by the Royal Navy.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
HMS Anthony’s attack on Diego Suarez

Three weeks after the first landings, three Japanese submarines, the aircraft carrier sub I-10, the  I-16 and I-20 arrived off Madagascar.  The I-10’s reconnaissance aircraft spotted HMS Ramillies  anchored in Diego Surez harbour, and I-20 and I-16 launched two midget submarines.   One succeeded in  penetrating the harbour, where it fired two torpedoes.  One badly damaged HMS Ramillies and the second  sunk the tanker British Loyalty.  The second midget submarine was lost at sea, the body of one of the  crew was found washed ashore.  The crew of the first submarine abandoned the boat and tried to make  for their pick-up point at Cape Amber.  Both of the crew were killed in a fire fight with Royal  Marines, three days later.

The capture of Madagascar was planned to take six weeks.  In the event it took six months of low  intensity fighting.    After 19 May two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division were transferred to  India.  On 8 June, the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade Group arrived on Madagascar.  The 7th South African  Motorized Brigade arrived on 24 June.  The 27th (North Rhodesia) Infantry Brigade (including forces  from East Africa) landed on 8 August.

In an attempt to re-launch the ground campaign before the rainy season, on 10th September the 29th  Brigade and 22nd Brigade made an amphibious landing at Majunga, northwest of the island.  Progress was  slow due to small-scale clashes with native forces and roadblocks erected by Vichy forces.  The Allies  eventually captured the capital Tananarive and then Ambalavao.  Finally French forces surrendered and  an armistice was signed on 6th November 1942.  The British appointed the Free French General Paul  Legentilhomme as High Commissioner for Madagascar.  In 1947, Madagascar sought independence and the  Malagasy Uprising was crushed in 1948.  On 26th June 1960, Madagascar finally gained her independence  from France.

It is interesting to note that Operation ‘Ironclad’ was the first large scale amphibious assault by  British forces since the attempt to storm the Dardanelles in the First World War.  It provided a  valuable rehearsal for future amphibious operations, as did the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 19th August  1942. 

© Blown Periphery