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Operation Ironclad: The Allies’ first amphibious landing of World War Two

Operation Ironclad, a British-led amphibious invasion of Madagascar, took place in May 1942. Discover the story of this little-known battle today.

Operation Ironclad

Diego Suarez War Cemetery

Perched on the northern tip of Madagascar sits the port city of Antsiranana.

Container ships and merchant vessels fill the harbour with noise and activity. The city streets are lined with colonial-era buildings, a legacy from the time Antsiranana was held by France.

Antsiranana’s buildings and port aren’t its only last connection with its past. Within the heart of this bustling city lies Diego Suarez War Cemetery: a reminder of when Madagascar became embroiled in the era-defining conflict of World War Two.

Over 300 Commonwealth casualties are buried in Diego Suarez War Cemetery. The men commemorated by the cemetery came from across the globe, especially the UK, South Africa, and East Africa.

But why are they there? Why is there a Commonwealth War Graves Commission site in Madagascar?

Madagascar in World War Two

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. It lies off the southeast coast of Africa, lapped by the waters of the Indian Ocean.

At the time of World War Two, Madagascar was under French control. With the fall of France in June 1940, and the strategic earthquake it caused, Madagascar fell under Vichy French control.

Antsiranana was called Diego Suarez during the colonial era, after the Portuguese explorer who discovered the bay in which it sits in the 16th century. Somewhat confusingly, Diego Suarez refers to a settlement across the bay from Antsiranana.

Antsiranana had been developed into an important naval base under France’s watch.

Madagascar was an important stop-off point for sailing ships looking to travel between India, Africa, and the Middle East. Merchant vessels often visited to refuel and resupply before continuing their ocean-spanning trips.

In World War Two, shipping and logistics were everything. The functioning of a successful war effort required millions of tons of goods to be moved around the world. Keeping shipping lanes open was a huge priority. 

The British naval force assembled for Operation Ironclad arrayed off the Madagascan coast.

February 1942. Imperial Japanese forces have conquered vast swathes of Asia east of Burma (present-day Myanmar). Japanese submarines now had free reign to stalk the Indian Ocean and threaten Allied shipping. Japan’s Kaidai-type submarines also boasted an 11,000-mile range.

With Vichy France in control of Madagascar, British military planners feared they may allow the Imperial Japanese Navy to build submarine bases at Antsiranana. 

If this became a reality, British supply lines supporting the Eighth Army in Egypt, the supply route from the Suez Canal, and links between Britain’s remaining Asian possessions could be severed.

Australia and New Zealand could also be cut off.

By early April 1942, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was convinced of the need to capture Antsiranana and Diego Suarez. The groundwork for Operation Ironclad was laid.

Force 121

A Grumman Martlet passes by a Royal Navy ship during Operation Ironclad's build-up.

The naval and army task force assembled for Operation Ironclad was known as Force 121 under the command of Major-General Robert Sturgess.

It was comprised of multiple Royal Naval vessels, including the battleship HMS Ramillies, the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and Indomitable, two cruisers, eleven destroyers and more auxiliary and support ships. 
Around 10,000 men had been assembled too, including No.5 (Army) Commandos, the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade, and two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division. 

Men were also drawn from the Indian army, and armies of South and North Rhodesia and South Africa. 

Air cover came from a series of Fairey Albacore and Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers supplied by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm. A few Grumman Martlets also supported the air effort, as we all as a few warplanes from the Royal South African Air Force.

The South African planes provided incredibly useful reconnaissance and intelligence services. With their pictures and notes, Force 121 knew what was arrayed before them.

Facing Force 121 was around 8,000 troops commanded by Governor-General Armand Léon Annet. Some 6,000 of the Vichy troops were conscripted Malagasy or Senegalese soldiers.

Diego Suarez’s naval and air defences were light compared with the infantry contingent. A few fighter planes and bombers guarded the air. 

While Diego Suarez was defended by eight coastal batteries, only two armed merchant cruisers and five French submarines provided its naval defence complement.

A British field gun opens fire on Madagascar (Wikimedia Commons)

Force 121 was assembled piece by piece in Durban, South Africa in late March and April 1942.

Come the end of April, the men boarded their transports, and the big ships fired their engines. Force 121 began its journey to Madagascar with only one objective on its mind: the capture of Antsiranana.

Antsiranana is sheltered by surrounding bays as well as a thin channel. Some 11 miles away overland to the west on the opposite coast lies Courrier Bay with Ambararata several more miles to the south.

Rather than launch a main thrust down the narrow strait, Operation Ironclad instead saw British troops land at Courrier Bay and Ambararata. Their objective was to cross the headland and assault Antsiranana from the land.

On May 5th, the British landing craft left the safety of the big ships and swarmed towards Courier Bay and Ambararata.

Expecting coastal battery fire and dogged resistance, the landing parties girded themselves for a tough fight. However, they encountered no resistance. Unlike at Dieppe or the D-Day Landings, the British were able to get ashore without any losses.

In the east, a diversionary attack had taken place ahead of the landings. The Swordfish and Albacore torpedo bombers swept over ships at anchor in Antsiranana.

The RAF and Fleet Air Arm craft managed to knock out a Vichy French submarine and condemn armed merchant cruiser Bougainville to a watery grave.

Crossing the Madagascan headland

British WW2 soldiers storming up a beach in Madagascar. They have just exited a green metal landing craft. The soldiers are advancing up a beach. A wooden beach hut with a triangular roof can be seen in the background. Little shrubs and trees dot the ground.Image: British troops wading ashore during Operation Ironclad (Wikimedia Commons)

Courrier Bay force, spearheaded by the 17th Infantry Brigade, continued its unopposed advance. Navigating thick scrub and toiling through mangrove bushes, the Courier Bay force fell upon the rear of Diego Suarez, taking hundreds of prisoners.

At the same time, special forces of No.5 Commando landed behind Diego Suarez. The Commandos scaled some tall cliffs. Several naval guns were placed on the clifftops, but their guards were caught completely unawares by the surprise Commando attack.

So far, so good for Operation Ironclad.

Further to the south, the Ambararata Bay force was advancing on Antsiranana. Six Valentine and six Tetrach light tanks supported the 29th Brigade on its advance, covering 21 miles. Any resistance was light and slept aside.

Swinging south, the British force targeted Arrachart airfield. Five French Morane fighters on the ground were destroyed, and a further two Potez-63 bombers were crippled as well. This one attack effectively dropped the Vichy air power by 25%.

The assault on Antsiranana

Map showing the route the British assault took to capture Antisaranana (Wikimedia Commons)

The attack on Antsiranana proper would not be so straightforward.

The port was surrounded on its land side by a variety of defensive features. Trenches, redoubts, and pillboxes were arranged outside the town. The main approaches were also flanked on either side by impenetrable swampy ground, forming a natural barrier.

On the morning of the 6th of May, a frontal assault was launched on Antsiranana. Unfortunately, the Vichy defences proved too much to overcome. By the end of the day, 10 of the 12 tanks the British had brought with them for Operation Ironclad were out of action.

Despite the intelligence provided by the many reconnaissance flights undertaken by the South African Air Force prior to the operation, the British had underestimated the strength of the Vichy forces arrayed before them.

An attack by the South Lancashires managed to skirt the Vichy defences but the assault force was split up into small groups by the tough countryside. The swing behind did unsettle the Vichy defenders but the Lancashires’ radio failed, leaving them out of contact with HQ, forcing their retreat.

Taking Antsiranana  

Antsiranana had proven a tougher nut to crack than first thought.

To break the deadlock, the British turned once more to the sea.

On the morning of the 7th of May, the destroyer HMS Anthony dashed passed Antsiranana’s naval defences. 50 Royal Marines had been aboard the ship.

The Marines instantly caused chaos in the Vichy rear, causing a “disturbance out of all proportion to their numbers.” A Vichy artillery command post and a barracks and naval depot were captured.

While the Royal Marines were reaping havoc in the rear, the frontal assault elements continued to press their attack.

Eventually, the men of the 17th Infantry Brigade broke through Antsiranana’s outer defences and were beginning to march on the town.

In the sky, several Grumman Martlet fighters of the Fleet Air Arm duelled with their Vichy counterparts in their Morane fighters. Three Vichy aircraft were shot down for the loss of one British plane.

Fighting lasted throughout the day, but by the end of the 7th of May 1942, the key port of Antsiranana lay in British hands.

The first Allied amphibious assault of World War Two had been successful.

The lessons of Operation Ironclad

Vichy troops surrendering following Operation Ironclad (Wikimedia Commons)

The popular history of World War Two suggests the Dieppe Raid was the first time the Allies tried to launch an amphibious assault. As we know, Dieppe was not a success.

However, Operation Ironclad proved that well-planned amphibious assaults could work. However, they relied on careful planning and deep cooperation between all three branches of the military to succeed.

Operation Ironclad’s success is doubly important, given Allied planning during the early stages of the war had been chaotic and haphazard. 

The strategic benefits of the victory in Madagascar were significant too. With the capture of Antsiranana and Diego Suarez, the British had an important naval base from which it could protect its supply lines throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its deep-water port was now out of Axis hands.

Casualties of Operation Ironclad

Every World War Two victory came at a price. Operation Ironclad was no different.

After three days of fighting, the British and Commonwealth forces assaulting Madagascar lost 107 men killed. A further 108 died from disease. 280 men were wounded.

116 casualties of Operation Ironclad are today buried in Diego Suarez War Cemetery. 

The Vichy French forces defending Antsiranana took over 600 casualties including 152 killed. Around 1,000 were captured as prisoners of war. Around 34 aircraft were destroyed too as well as 2 midget submarines.

The war in Madagascar

After the successful conclusion of Operation Ironclad, the British government hoped to conclude the peaceful surrender of the rest of the island.

Governor-General Armand Léon Annet had been urged by his superiors to “Firmly defend the honour of our flag, fight to the limit of your possibilities, and make the British pay dearly.”

The war in Madagascar would continue for another six months. Reinforcements for Rhodesia and South Africa would hit the island in force, backed up by a small number of aircraft and a Royal Navy force. 

Under Operation Stream Line Jane, the British and Commonwealth Forces would eventually grind down their Vichy Opponents. Madagascar was captured fully by November 1942. In December, British authorities ceded control of the island to the Free French.

Interestingly, the Battle of Madagascar marks the only time in the war that Japanese troops fought alongside other Axis forces. Three Japanese midget submarines managed to infiltrate Diego Suarez harbour in late May, managing to sink an Allied oil tanker.

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