Madagascar: The Long Island II

September 1942 Uganda Battery of Kings African Rifles in action against the Vichy-held positions near Ambositra, Madagascar.

Royal Air Force Westland Lysander aircraft fly over Madagascar in 1942.

In the north the advance along the western coast road by the Pretoria Regiment was as slow as any other movement in this island of bad roads. There was the usual lack of large-scale opposition, but this ended on 14 September 1942 when a force of some size in an apparently strong position south of Jangoa was at last encountered. It seemed to be strong enough to be able to hold up the advance and cause some casualties, so a landing was organized in the rear of the position, by the force of Pretoria Highlanders which had held Nosi Bé for the past few days. They were landed at Sahamalaza Bay on the 15th, and marched inland to cut the road behind the Jangoa position. Whether it was the prospect of being attacked from the rear, or the ominous deployment of the rest of the Pretoria Highlanders in their front, or the bombardment of their position by the 16 Field Battery, or more likely a combination of all these factors as well as being outnumbered, the defenders of the Jangoa position surrendered on the 16th, a day after the landing, and they included in their surrender all the forces in the region. The fighting in the north was thus effectively over. But it took four more days for the force moving south to meet up with the men coming northwards from the bridgehead at Majunga. Even without opposition, travel was tediously slow.

The main force advancing along the road towards Tananarive, the armoured cars and the askaris of the KAR, faced the same problems as all the other columns, but since they were aimed at the capital, the problems were greater. The Betsiboka crossing had to be taken under fire by a platoon of Nyasaland infantry, who drove off the defendants – Malagasies – and captured most of them. The crossing then took a day, but the next village, Maevatanana, was defended, again imposing a slowing down of the advance. On 16 September a fight at the next crossing place took place, Nyasalanders against Senegalese this time. Then the bridge had to be replaced.

That was also the day when the defenders of the Jangoa strongpoint surrendered. The defeat of the Senegalese took place near the town of Andriba, which meant that the main force was by then halfway along the road from Majunga to Tananarive. But with his northern force defeated and the road to his capital clearly fully available to the invaders despite all the delaying tactics being employed, Governor-General Annet now asked for terms. He sent envoys to discuss them with General Platt at Majunga, but it appears that surrender and the acceptance of British authority was not an option for them – so it was probably just another tactic designed to delay the British advance. The envoys returned to Tananarive, and two days later Annet moved out of the capital southwards, apparently fully intent on continuing the fight to the end, as he had proclaimed in May.

His going may have been hastened by another landing by 29 Brigade. The troops had been re-embarked at Majunga, once the askaris had arrived then were ferried round the island to Tamatave on the east coast. This was another port, but more importantly it was also the terminus of the railway which connected Tananarive with the coast. It was clearly a place which needed to be controlled, both because it was a port and because it was a possible escape point for the Governor-General and his remaining forces.

The troops, in the transports and in the landing craft, were covered by the presence once more of Illustrious and her aircraft, and by the battleship Warspite with the cruisers Birmingham and Jacob van Heemskerck, together with some destroyers. The implied threat of the bombardment of the town was made explicit when the envoys that went in to discuss the surrender of the town were fired on. At this, the ships opened fire, though Warspite restrained herself. After only three minutes’ shelling a white flag indicated the town’s surrender; the charade – ‘honour’ – had cost the lives of several men. When the troops did land, half an hour later, they were welcomed, but it soon became clear that the Vichy forces which had been in the town had used the delay over the surrender to withdraw inland – and they left the usual roadblocks and broken bridges behind them as they moved.

So the same painful advance along roads broken at bridging points and blocked here and there by obstacles appeared likely. However, a train arrived at the station unexpectedly – no doubt the driver had not been told what had happened – and was quickly commandeered, so the advance went partly by rail, though a couple of the railway crossings had been blown up as well as those on the parallel road. This advance was not going as quickly as had been hoped – but then none of the moves in this island went quickly.

On the main advance from Majunga the last village before the capital, Mahitsi, was the scene of the nearest thing to a battle since the fight at Diego Suarez. A ridge overlooking the road was occupied by Vichy troops, and their guns were ranged in on the obstacles of trees and stones blocking the road, which could not therefore be removed. It took all day on the 21st to bring up guns to counter those on the ridge, and an infantry attack by askaris on the right flank was resisted with some determination. The fighting set the bush afire, which did not help. The ridge itself and some of the infantry positions were taken before nightfall, and the next day the Vichy gun positions were located and their guns were bombarded into silence. Attacks on both flanks finally drove the defenders out.

Another position just outside Tananarive had to be threatened and bombarded, but it was held by only about 250 men, who were thus very badly outnumbered, and hardly capable of much resistance. Once these troops had given up a flag of truce appeared and the city was surrendered. This took place on 23 September; the force coming up the railway from Tamatave was still only halfway there, and a little annoyed to come in second in the race to the capital.

Governor-General Annet had moved south, to the town of Fianarantsoa, another 200 miles away. On 25 September the main column of South African armoured cars and East African infantry left Tananarive once more in pursuit, meeting with the same obstacles as before. Occasional brief fights took place, bridges had to be repaired, and roadblocks were removed. Again, speed was eschewed (even had it been possible), and more than one pause for rest was made. An attempt by a small mobile Vichy force to cut the column’s communications never came to much. Just in case the Governor-General was still considering escaping by sea the last port under his control, Tulear, at the southern end of the road along which the advance was taking place, was occupied by part of the Pretoria Regiment, which was carried from the north in the cruiser Birmingham. Two French transport ships were also captured and sunk near the southern end of the island by the destroyer Nizam, the first on the 24th, the day after Tananarive was captured, and the second on the 30th, the day after the occupation of Tulear. Annet now had neither a port nor a ship available for his escape.

Nevertheless it took another month and more and another battle to complete the conquest of the island. The only hope for Annet and his people now was that the British would become exhausted and simply stop, since any help which might come from elsewhere could no longer reach the island. But, after all the effort, the road clearances, the landings, the small fights, it was hardly likely that the invaders would give up. Sickness among many of the soldiers was common, and they were undoubtedly weary of clearing roadblocks and rebuilding bridges. After a fairly short advance south from Tananarive, at Antsirabe, the column halted for several days’ rest. Perhaps the Vichy forces were encouraged; they certainly were thereby given time to organize further resistance.

South of Antsirabe the land was higher, less wooded and a lot more open and rocky, but the climate was wetter and often misty. The column ran into a series of small ambushes, and had to fight a battle at Ambositra. Then, soon after that fight, they reached a well-held and well-chosen position which had to be elaborately outflanked and subjected to a formal bombardment. The resistance by the Malagasies was strong against the first frontal attack by the Kenya Battalion, until the Tanganyika Battalion opened fire on them from their rear. Eight hundred prisoners were taken at the end, so, assuming that some men escaped and some died, Annet clearly had kept a substantial force with him until that time.

But the fact that most of the enemy had given up, together with the surrender of a steady stream of deserters from the Vichy forces, were clear signs that the end was near. The column of South African armoured cars, British artillery, and African infantry reached Annet’s headquarters at Fianarantsoa on 29 October – but of course he had gone again, further south, to Ihosy. So yet another chase went on, but the capture of a weakly-held position on 4 November at Ambalavao ended his last hope. The Pretoria men at Tulear had begun to advance up the road towards the Ihosy on 2 November, so the area of Annet’s authority was reduced to perhaps no more than a couple of hundred miles of road, blocked at both ends by his enemies, and steadily shrinking. Next day, 5 November, he asked for an armistice, was presented with the same terms as six weeks before, and this time accepted them.

Annet’s resistance had been long and stubborn – though he had not, as he had exhorted his troops, fought to the end – and he had managed to hold the loyalty of many of his troops, even if they did tend to surrender rather too readily when faced with a serious fight. His methods had evoked a certain admiration from the British higher command, though the foot soldiers were less complimentary. He had, however, been only feebly supported by the French settlers and by his officials. The former had generally welcomed the arrival of the British troops, for British conquest implied access to British markets and money – this was the same reaction as had been seen in Equatorial Africa. The officials had almost entirely settled down once more as soon as the occupation began and had continued their administrative duties with only a passive show of enmity, which did not last. The troops Annet could rely on were largely Malagasy, who were not prepared to do much more than fight briefly, no doubt mainly because they knew they were outnumbered and that Annet’s strategy was to retreat. Inevitably they were demoralized. He had not received any material assistance from Vichy, and he was not really helped by a radio message from Admiral Darlan on 6 November, the day after the armistice had been signed and implemented, urging him to fight on. He did his best to obstruct the new administration, but this only lasted until he was removed to South Africa to be interned. He deserved to be commended by his Vichy superiors for the long fight he had made – but this was also a tactic which had played into British hands, though he and they cannot have realized it.

The conquest had taken long enough to allow the British to delay any promised handover to the Free French with the plea that the fighting was still going on. Investigations on the island made it clear that de Gaulle had almost no support among the French settlers and officials, other than from a small number of individuals who had been jailed for expressing themselves too publicly. If further trouble on the island was to be avoided a period of time was clearly needed to accustom the French there to the idea that they were no longer subject to Vichy regime, and that they would soon be part of Free France. The success of the Torch landings (which began two days after the armistice in Madagascar), and the consequent German conquest of the unoccupied zone of France, no doubt helped the French in Madagascar to realize Vichy’s failure, and its likely extinction. The officials of the administration proved to be very adaptable, first to Vichy, then to the British, and then, perhaps with some relief, to their fellow Frenchmen – so their salaries and pensions were safe. By the time the Free French were ceded control of the island, it was clear to those who could see what was going on that they were now on the winning side. When General Legentilhomme finally arrived to take up the island’s governorship in January 1943 there were not even any murmurs of annoyance.

Meanwhile the Free French had been capitalizing on the British victory by snapping up yet another little island. Three hundred miles east of Madagascar was the French island of Réunion. On 30 November the Free French destroyer Léopard (one of those seized at Portsmouth two years before) landed a force on the island, having first bombarded and silenced a defensive battery. As usual this independent Free French activity annoyed both its allies and Vichy, but it was Léopard which eventually brought Legentilhomme to take up his post at Madagascar. Of course, Free France’s allies eventually realized and accepted that the removal of Vichy authority from Réunion was a worthwhile action.

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