Today we have a diversion from the narrative the podcast has been following lately. When Japan conquered Southeast Asia in early 1942, it gained access to the Indian Ocean, and the Japanese ventured into that ocean afterwards. This episode will look at what followed: the invasion of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the bombing of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and a battle between the British, French and Japanese for Madagascar. Although this area is not in Southeast Asia per se, I believe you will find the stories interesting, because they are really obscure to those people who don’t live around the Indian Ocean. That includes the host; I did not hear any of this in school! Now listen and enjoy.
(Transcript, added 08/25/2020.)
Episode 43: The Indian Ocean
Greetings, dear listeners! If this isn’t the first episode you have listened to, you know that recently the podcast has been covering World War II in Southeast Asia. We have looked at the Japanese invasions from December 1941 to May 1942, when the Japanese struck almost everywhere in the region, and won constantly. Now for today we are going to look at some events that happened outside of Southeast Asia, but were caused by Japan’s successes in Southeast Asia. When I was a kid reading stories about World War II, I never saw anything about the Indian Ocean, so for me at least, the battles we will be covering today are really obscure; unless you’re a military history buff, I don’t think you have heard about them either. I am going over them because they will help you understand the so-called “big picture.” Remember that by itself, the Pacific phase of World War II happened over an enormous part of the world.
Normally I recommend some older episodes for the listeners to check out, before they listen to the current one. I won’t be doing it this time, because there isn’t much in the older episodes that can be directly tied to what I plan to share today. In that sense, this is a separate branch of the narrative, a stand-alone episode or special episode; I thought about calling it a mini-episode before starting this recording. Of course since these are World War II stories, the other World War II episodes are handy to let you know what’s going on here; in other words, how Japan and the Allies got to this point. If you haven’t listened to them already, those are Episodes 36 through 39, plus 41 and 42. And now, without further ado, let’s get into the stories.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands
I bet it has been a long time since you heard anything about these islands, if you have ever heard about them at all. I talked a little bit about them way back in the first days of this podcast, Episodes 0, 1, and 2, but I have not had a reason to mention them since then. For those not up on their geography, the Andamans and Nicobars are two groups of islands, 139 islands in all, located in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal; the part of the Indian Ocean between the islands and the Southeast Asian mainland is also called the Andaman Sea. The nearest lands to the islands are the Indonesian island of Sumatra, 93 miles to the southeast, and Cape Nargis in Myanmar, 120 miles to the northeast. Across the bay, the nearest part of India’s mainland is the city of Madras, 740 miles to the west.
Geographers consider the Andaman and Nicobar Islands part of Southeast Asia, but nothing happening here has ever affected the eleven nations I have been covering in the podcast narrative, so it was all right for me to ignore them. And when the British occupied the islands in the mid-1800s, they administered them as part of India. As a result, they are still part of India today, so after this episode I probably won’t mention these two groups of islands again.
Anyway, when the Japanese captured Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia in early 1942, they now controlled the eastern gates to the Indian Ocean, and the Allies did not have the ships and warplanes to keep them out. The Japanese were not interested in conquering any territory in the Indian Ocean – with the conquest of Southeast Asia, they had everything they wanted in this direction. However, they now had to defend their conquests, and that would be a lot easier if they could keep the Allies off their feet, so to speak. In the case of the British, the colony they valued the most was India, and as long as the Japanese were acting aggressively, in and around India, the British would make the defense of India their top priority; if this was played right, it would keep the British from stopping or interfering with Japan’s activities anywhere else, so in the Indian Ocean, neutralizing Britain became the name of the game.
Besides action with ships, planes and soldiers, it would help the Japanese cause if they could stir up unrest in India itself, because India had a strong nationalist movement by now, and it was only a matter of time before the British would have to grant independence to the subcontinent. Here the Japanese had an ace up their sleeve. Or if you want to keep using playing card terminology, the Japanese had a joker – an Indian nationalist was on their side. This was Subhas Chandra Bose, the 45-year-old leader of a radical faction in the Indian National Congress, India’s chief nationalist movement.
I am going to assume you have heard of two other Indian nationalists who lived at this time, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru; they were two of the most important people of the twentieth century. Gandhi was the spiritual leader of Indian nationalism, totally committed to making sure that India would win independence through a non-violent revolution, while Nehru was both Gandhi’s most devoted follower and the leader of the Indian National Congress; after independence came he would also serve as India’s first prime minister. To get their cooperation during the war years, Britain promised independence after the war; it was critical that India’s huge population give Britain no trouble at this time. Here is how Gandhi saw the promise. Quote: “They are offering us a postdated check on a bank that is obviously crashing.” Unquote. The British didn’t think this was funny, and threw Gandhi in jail.
On the other hand, I don’t think you are familiar with Subhas Chandra Bose, unless you have studied Indian history. The son of a radical judge from Bengal, he differed from Gandhi and Nehru in that called for violent uprisings against the British; his favorite slogan was, quote: “Give me blood and I promise you freedom!” Unquote. Another difference was that Gandhi and Nehru wanted Indians to win their freedom by themselves, while Bose thought Indians should get help from the enemies of Britain, so he supported the Axis dictators. In January 1941, he escaped house arrest in Calcutta and made his way through Afghanistan and Russia to Germany, where he married a German, became father to a baby girl, and started broadcasting Nazi propaganda, on a radio station called Free India Radio. He recruited 3,000 Indian prisoners of war, that had been captured in North Africa, to form an army unit called the German Indian Legion. When the Japanese conquered Southeast Asia, he decided that Japan was more likely to invade India than Germany, and that he could do more if he went to Southeast Asia. Adolf Hitler agreed when he and Bose had their only meeting, and arranged to have a German submarine available for his trip. Leaving Europe in February 1943, he rode first on a German submarine, then on a Japanese submarine, and then on a Japanese airplane before reaching Tokyo in May 1943. As for what he did after he arrived, we’ll come back to that later.
In early 1942, the garrison defending the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was an Indian militia unit, 300 Sikh soldiers commanded by 23 British officers. They were concentrated at Port Blair, the only naval port in the islands. A small Gurkha unit was there, too, but then news arrived about the Japanese taking Rangoon in Burma, and on March 10 the Gurkhas were removed to Akyab, the capital of Arakan province. Then the Japanese arrived in the islands on March 23, 1942. The invasion force was one battalion from the 18th Division, which came on nine transports, and were backed up by the following ships: 7 cruisers, 1 light carrier, 11 destroyers, and 11 other ships (mostly minesweepers). The light carrier was the Ryujo, a ship that took part in the Indonesian campaign, one month earlier. The defenders surrendered without a fight, being both outnumbered and outgunned. The Sikhs were disarmed and locked up, though many of them would later join the Indian army Subhas Chandra Bose was setting up. The British officers were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, while Chief Commissioner Waterfall, Deputy Commissioner Major A. G. Bird, and other British civilian leaders were imprisoned locally. Japanese aircraft began arriving on March 26, and by the end of March there were 600 Japanese soldiers and an unknown number of policemen in the islands.
I wish the story ended here, but this was only the beginning; for the next three and a half years the Japanese murdered, plundered and brutalized the native population. Others were rounded up to do forced labor, building an airstrip and other projects. We have few records of what happened in this obscure part of the world, but the records available indicate it was a horrifying time. One of the first victims was a boy named Zulfiqar Ali, who got on the bad side of the Japanese by firing an air gun at them. In response, the Japanese went on a rampage of killing, raping and burning until the villagers brought the boy to them the next day. Zulfiqar was then dragged, beaten, kicked and tortured until he died. Since this was one of the best documented atrocities, a memorial to the bravery and sacrifice of Zulfiqar stands in Port Blair today.
The longest quote I could find about the war in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came from a Geocities website that no longer exists, and it was reposted on a website called the Axis History Forum. Here is what it says about the Port Blair massacres. Quote:
(March 23, 1942) Japanese forces occupied the British controlled Andaman Islands. They met no resistance from the local population but within hours the ‘Sons of Heaven’ started an orgy of looting, raping and murder. Unbelievable orgies were perpetrated in the towns and villages with women and young girls forcibly raped and young boys sodomized. In Port, eight high-ranking Indian officials were tortured then buried up to their chests in pits they were forced to dig. Their chests, heads and eyes were then prodded with bayonets after which the pit was sprayed with bullets until the helpless victims were all dead. The Director of Health and President of the Indian Independence League, Diwan Singh, was arrested and nearly 2,000 of his Peace Committee associates incarcerated in the local jail and subjected to the water treatment, electric shocks and other unspeakable forms of torture for eighty two days. Those left alive were then taken out to the country and shot and buried. After the massacre the Japanese resorted to a reign of terror, women were abducted and taken to the officers club to be raped by the officer elite. A shipload of Korean girls was brought in to participate in this ‘sport’. During the three and a half years of Japanese occupation, out of the 40,000 population of Port Blair around 30,000 were brutally murdered. The small islands of the Andamans were left a scene of utter devastation. This was Japan’s way of helping India get her freedom from the British.
After he arrived in Southeast Asia, Subhas Chandra Bose began recruiting another army of Indian soldiers for the Japanese. Because he was now closer to India, he found many more recruits than he did for Germany; this force was called the Indian National Army, and by early 1944 it would have 40,000 soldiers. In December 1943 the Japanese put him in charge of the Andamans and Nicobars, proclaiming the islands the first province of an independent Indian state. Bose visited the islands during the last three days of 1943, and while there, he renamed the Andamans Shahid Dweep, meaning Martyr Island, and the Nicobars Swaraj Dweep, meaning Self-Rule Island. But most of the time he just wined and dined with the Japanese, and doesn’t seem to have even noticed how much the local population was suffering. Either he ignored their calls for help, or the Japanese kept him isolated so he never heard those calls. Whichever was the case, Bose alienated the Andaman islanders by not helping them out. Although he may have fancied himself the future Indian head of state, the reality was that he never was anything but a puppet ruler, who may not have known how brutal the Japanese occupation force was. After the visit he went away to prepare for a Japanese invasion of the Indian mainland from Burma, and never came back again.
1945 was the worst year for the islanders, because food was in short supply and the Japanese now realized they were going to lose the war, so they destroyed whatever evidence they could find of their atrocities, so the evidence could not be used against them in future trials. That’s why we only have a handful of records from the Japanese occupation of the islands. Again I will read a quote from the Axis History Forum, describing the last, and one of the worst massacres here. Quote:
Situated midway between the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, lie the tranquil Andaman Islands. As the food shortage became acute during the last month of the war, the Japanese occupiers decided to exterminate all those who were no longer useful or employable. All were deprived of their personal possessions and household goods before being embarked on three boats. About two kilometres from the shore of the uninhabited Havelock Island they were forced to jump into the sea and swim to the beach. Most of them, around a hundred, drowned on the way and those who made it were abandoned to die of starvation. Of the original 300 who landed only eleven were alive six weeks later. The next day, 800 Indian civilians were rounded up and transported to another uninhabited island, Tarmugli. Transferred to the island in small boats, they wandered aimlessly on the beach waiting for further orders. Soon, a detachment of 19 Japanese troops arrived and what followed was one of the most heinous crimes in the annals of the Pacific war. It took the detachment just over an hour to slaughter all but two of the 800 victims by shooting and bayoneting. Next day, August 15, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, a burial detail of troops arrived to remove all traces of the massacre. Within twenty-four hours all 798 bodies were collected and burned in funeral pyres until only fragmented bones and ashes remained. The ashes were then buried in deep pits dug on the beach. In a gross miscarriage of justice, the Japanese officer responsible was sentenced to only two years in prison by a British Military Court.
The only British plan to take back the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was proposed in 1944 by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the royal family and the last British viceroy or governor of India. He called it Operation Buccaneer, but the plan was never carried out. Thus, Allied troops did not return to the islands until October 7, 1945, more than a month after the war ended.
The Raid on Ceylon
When the Japanese navy entered the Indian Ocean, the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka became a crucial strategic point. The British expected it would become the next target for the Japanese navy, after the fall of Singapore. Before 1972 Sri Lanka was called Ceylon, and because we used the old name of Burma for Myanmar in the previous episode, we will stick to that convention and use the old name of Ceylon here. What scared the British the most was the idea that the Japanese and Germans were working together. They thought that if Nazi Germany won in North Africa or Russia, the Germans would drive through the Middle East, the Japanese would invade India from the east, and the two main Axis powers would meet somewhere in the middle, like Afghanistan. If that happened, Germany and Japan would form one enormous block of territory controlling the most important parts of Europe and Asia; stopping the dictators at that point would be nearly impossible.
Anyway, the British acted with great vigor to give Ceylon an air defense system; it had virtually no planes previously. In March 1942 an airstrip was built at the racecourse in Columbo, the capital, and the Ratmalana airport was taken over by the Royal Air Force, the RAF, and extended. Two squadrons of Hurricanes flew in from North Africa to the new Columbo airstrip, and a squadron of Blenheim medium bombers from the Middle East was based in Ratmalana. In addition, two squadrons of Fleet Air Arm Fulmars went to Ratmalana, and a squadron of Catalina flying boats was stationed in Koggala. For the navy, all available ships aeembled at Ceylon to form the Eastern Fleet. This consisted of 5 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, 7 cruisers, and 14 destroyers, commanded by Admiral James Somerville. Only one of the battleships was up to date, but to defend the waves and their territories, the British would take whatever they could get. Here is what the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote about it. Quote:
“We were hanging by our eyelids! Australia and India were threatened by the Japanese, we had temporarily lost control of the Indian Ocean, the Germans were threatening Iran and our oil, Auchinleck was in precarious straits in the desert, and the submarine sinkings were heavy.”
Against them, the Japanese deployed their most powerful naval force, the 1st Air Fleet. This fleet had 5 aircraft carriers, more than any other fleet, 4 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. The commander of the fleet was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, and the commander of the aircraft squadrons was Captain Mitsuo Fuchida; these were the same two individuals who had led the raid on Pearl Harbor. Another admiral, Jisaburo Ozawa, played a supporting role by commanding a raiding force of 1 aircraft carrier, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. Because the Japanese ships were newer and outnumbered those in the Eastern Fleet, Somerville had a tricky task; he needed to protect Ceylon while avoiding a fleet battle.
At first Somerville thought the Japanese fleets would head for Ceylon immediately, after they took the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On April 2, Somerville got tired of waiting for the enemy, and sent most of the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives Islands to refuel, thinking that the Japanese had postponed their attack. He only kept four ships around Ceylon, the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall at Columbo, and at Trimcomalee, on the east side of the island, he kept the light aircraft carrier Hermes and an Australian destroyer, the HMAS Vampire. However, the Japanese WERE on the way. On April 4, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall, a Canadian pilot, was flying a Catalina on a reconnaissance mission, 250 miles southeast of Ceylon, and in the late afternoon, he spotted a speck on the southern horizon. This was the vanguard of Nagumo’s fleet. He managed to get off a radio message warning of the fleet before his Catalina was shot down by six Japanese Zeros, and the plane’s crew was captured. After the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked what he thought was the most dangerous moment of the entire war. Churchill said his greatest fear came when news arrived of the Japanese fleet approaching Ceylon, and in that sense, Birchall, the pilot who first saw the fleet, probably saved the day for the Allies.
The main Japanese attack came the next morning, Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942. At dawn 125 planes – 36 dive bombers and 53 torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Zero fighters – struck Columbo. Though the British had been warned, they did not act on it; most of their planes were inexplicably on the ground when the Japanese arrived, leading to the same results as if it had been a surprise attack. The raid lasted about 20 minutes, and the civilian casualties amounted to 85 dead and 77 injured. The British claimed to have destroyed 18 Japanese planes, but the Japanese admitted losing only five. The Eastern Fleet was unable to do anything about the raid, because its ships were elsewhere; the Dorsetshire and Cornwall were caught at sea and sunk.
Next, the Japanese sent an air raid against Trincomalee and Batticaloa on April 9. They sank the Hermes, because she had no aircraft onboard at the time; the Vampire, a corvette, the HMS Hollyhock, and two tankers were sunk as well. The RAF lost at least eight Hurricanes and one Fulmar. Nine Blenheim bombers tried attacking the Japanese carriers, but scored no hits, and five of the bombers were lost to the Zeroes defending the fleet. The Japanese in turn lost five bombers and six fighters, one in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. You can call the latter the first Kamikaze raid if you wish, but that would not become an important Japanese tactic until late in 1944.
Podcast footnote: Another ship destroyed in the April 9 raid was a civilian steamship, the SS Sagaing, which carried cargo and passengers, usually, but not always, between Burma and Britain. It was sunk in 1943 so its hull could be used as a pier. The shipwreck made news in late March 2018, just before I started working on this episode. After working on the wreck for five months, the Sri Lankan navy succeeded in raising it, moved it out of the harbor, and then resunk it for preservation purposes. Also, you might be interested in knowing that one of the British officers who survived the attack on Trincomalee was a twenty-year-old midshipman you have probably heard of. This was Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh and the future husband of Queen Elizabeth II. End footnote.
Technically the raids were a Japanese success, but because Admiral Nagumo never found most of the ships in the Eastern Fleet, this wasn’t as disastrous to the British as the Pearl Harbor raid had been to the Americans. What’s more, the Japanese did not follow up on the raids. Nagumo abruptly turned around and returned to Singapore. So did Admiral Ozawa’s raiding force, which had destroyed 23 British merchant ships, totaling 93,000 tons, while the other battles were going on. Altogether the Japanese victories had been pointless, because contrary to what the British feared, the Indian Ocean and the lands around it had never been important to Japan. The Japanese did not even bring troops to occupy the lands they attacked. Now Japan needed the ships in the Indian Ocean to assist with other campaigns in the Pacific. On the other side, the Eastern Fleet also withdrew, once the repairs on the ships in the Maldives were finished. The Eastern Fleet relocated to a new base, near Mombasa in Kenya.
The Battle of Madagascar
Madagascar was mentioned once before in this podcast; in Episode 2 we saw that a small group of Indonesians colonized it, at some point in the first millennium A.D. We haven’t said anything about Madagascar since then, because it is closer to Africa than to Asia, making it a more appropriate topic for African history. In the late nineteenth century, Madagascar became a French colony, but its remote location meant that nobody expected it to become a battleground, and that is probably why few people in today’s world know that a World War II battle was fought there. When Germany invaded Western Europe in the spring of 1940, 34,000 Malagasy troops were conscripted and sent to fight on the side of France; another 72,000 were in Madagascar and expecting to go to Europe when France surrendered. The Germans executed many of the Malagasy as soon as they captured them, or soon after they went to prisoner of war camps, because German propaganda claimed that black soldiers in the French army were savages who fought to the death and took no prisoners.
One of the worst features of European society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was anti-Semitism; it still existed, latent in the minds of Europeans when not practiced openly in events like the infamous Dreyfus case. Accordingly, a few folks proposed exiling all or part of Europe’s Jewish community to Madagascar. However, the island was a poor, backward place with hardly any infrastructure, so this never looked like a good idea; a study by the Polish government in the 1930s suggested that Madagascar could only accommodate 5,000 to 7,000 Jews, and one opinion put the number as low as 500. Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler heard about the idea, and he thought it deserved serious consideration, especially after Germany conquered France. Like French Indochina, Madagascar’s colonial government chose to support Vichy France, meaning it was now on the side of the Axis. Now the Nazis came up with the Madagascar Plan, which would have ordered Vichy France to hand over Madagascar to Germany; then the island’s French citizens would be removed to make room for more Jewish exiles. The Nazi in charge of fixing Germany’s quote-unquote “Jewish problem,” Adolf Eichmann, proposed sending a million Jews to Madagascar every year, though he knew a lot of them weren’t likely to survive in the island’s harsh conditions. But what really kept the plan from being tried was the fact that the British Navy controlled the ocean; Rule Britannia and all that. Deportations to a place like Madagascar were not feasible when the British could sink or capture the ships involved, and Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia vastly increased the number of Jews under German rule. Rather than try to relocate all of these unfortunates, the Nazis now went ahead with a more “Final Solution,” sending the Jews to their terrible network of death camps.
That would have been the last word on Madagascar if the Japanese hadn’t entered the Indian Ocean. We saw how the British feared a Japanese invasion of Ceylon; they also feared that the Japanese would send an occupation force to Madagascar, like the one they had in French Indochina. A strong Axis presence on Madagascar could cut off Allied shipping around the Cape of Good Hope.
To prevent this, the British decided they needed to go to Madagascar first. On the northern tip of Madagascar is a natural deep-water port, Diego Suarez, and the French had built a coaling station here. The British figured that if the Japanese established a base on Madagascar, it would be at Diego Suarez, so they drew up a plan to take the port, called Operation Ironclad. For this expedition, 50 ships were sent, led by two aircraft carriers and the battleship HMS Ramillies. 13,000 British troops came with the ships; their units were the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group, the No. 5 (Army) Commando, and the 13th and 17th Infantry Brigades. The first ships and soldiers committed to the operation left Scotland in late March of 1942, and on the way they stopped in Sierra Leone and South Africa to pick up more ships and men. To keep the plan secret, no forces from the Free French, the French faction still fighting on the side of the Allies, were allowed to participate, and the Free French commander, Charles de Gaulle, was not informed of Operation Ironclad until after the landing on Madagascar took place. To defend against this, the Vichy French had 35 aircraft, four warships, six tanks and 8,000 troops, of which 6,000 were Malagasy and the rest were a mixture of French and Senegalese.
With the South African air force providing air cover, the British made their landings around Diego Suarez on May 5. Although the beach landings were achieved with almost no resistance from the French, the French naval base itself was well protected by trenches, pillboxes and swamps. Here was the heaviest fighting of the whole campaign, but after two days the larger British force prevailed; the French surrendered Diego Suarez and withdrew to the south.
At this point, the only part of Madagascar the British wanted was Diego Suarez, but the campaign didn’t end after they got it. The Vichy French governor, Armand Annet, was a classic career bureaucrat. One of my sources described him as a man with almost no personal initiative; he could not make even a small decision without first checking with his bosses in France, to make sure they approved. Thus, while the British were hoping that Annet would surrender the rest of Madagascar without a fight, Annet said nothing, because he had no instructions on what to do. Then three weeks later, on the night of May 30, three Japanese submarines showed up on the scene. They launched two mini-subs, and one of them managed to enter the harbor; the torpedoes from that mini-sub sank a tanker and seriously damaged the battleship Ramillies. The Ramillies had to be towed away for repairs, first in Durban, South Africa, and later at Plymouth, England. The two crewmen of the mini-sub beached their vessel and tried to march inland, but the British knew they were in the area and three days later, both of the Japanese and one British marine were killed in a firefight. The other mini-sub was lost at sea and the body of one of its crewmen washed ashore a day later. Meanwhile, more Allied ships were torpedoed in June and July, 25 in all before the Japanese submarines withdrew; the Allies tried unsuccessfully to avoid attacks by sailing around Madagascar’s east side, rather than through the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the African mainland.
Madagascar is one of the world’s largest islands, and the British realized that the Japanese could still have a base on Madagascar as long as the Vichy French held any part of the island, so in order to finish their job, the British would have to conquer the whole thing. Because the seasons are reversed south of the equator, this was winter time in Madagascar, and over the winter months the British force at Diego Suarez received reinforcements: the 22nd Brigade from East Africa, the 7th South African Motorized Brigade, and the 27th Infantry Brigade from North Rhodesia, modern Zambia.
The second British plan for the Madagascar campaign was called Operation Stream Line Jane. The name had three words in it because there were three sub-operations under the main one, code-named Stream, Line and Jane. They began moving on September 10 with the 22nd and 29th Brigades landing at Majunga, on Madagascar’s west coast; this was sub-operation Stream. At the same time the 7th South African Brigade drove south from Diego Suarez, entering Madagascar’s central highlands. Next, for sub-operation Line, the 22nd Brigade advanced on the road from Majunga to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. Finally, for sub-operation Jane, the 29th Brigade was transported to the east side of the island; on September 18 it landed and took Tamatave, the main port on the east coast, and then it also drove on Antananarivo.
Governor Annet wanted to negotiate an honorable peace, but now he finally heard from his superiors. The Vichy premier, Pierre Laval, sent Annet a telegram stating he must defend Madagascar, quote, “as long as possible, by all possible means, and with no other considerations.” End quote. Therefore Annet chose to stall for time, delaying the British to see if the situation would change. Instead of fighting the British wholeheartedly, French resistance at this stage of the campaign mainly consisted of creating roadblocks to slow down the British advance, by felling trees on the roads. As for the Malagasy natives, only those in the French army tried to fight; the rest refused to get involved on either side. Antananarivo fell to the British on September 23. To begin the conquest of the south, a South African battalion landed on the southwest coast at Tuléar, on September 29.
The last major action was at Andramanalina, a valley in the south where the French tried to ambush the British forces coming after them. Instead, on October 19, the British King’s African Rifles Regiment marched around the French, ambushed them in the rear, and captured 800 Vichy French troops without suffering a single casualty of their own. Annet tried to escape and hide, but soon found he couldn’t do that anymore, so on November 5 he asked for terms of surrender. The two sides met, and Annet deliberately strung out the negotiations until one minute after midnight on November 6, before he signed the terms. The reason why he did this was because he still insisted on playing by the rules; November 5 marked exactly six months since the campaign started, and French troops who fought for more than six months would automatically receive a medal and extra pay in their pensions!
Considering how long the Madagascar campaign lasted, casualties were light and remarkably even-handed; both sides each suffered a little more than a hundred killed, with around five hundred wounded. Although the British were the winners, they considered it a hollow victory; the Japanese and Vichy French had tied down half a hundred ships and thousands of men that could have been more useful somewhere else, like North Africa. The British turned over Madagascar to the Free French in 1943, and it stayed in Allied hands for the rest of the war.
And that is it for today! For the next episode we will return to Southeast Asia, but with Japan triumphant throughout the whole region, it will be a while before the Allies can regroup, resupply themselves and return. In the middle of 1942, the nearest British force was in India, the nearest Chinese force was in China, and the nearest American and Australian forces were on New Guinea. As a result, the only battles fought here in late 1942 and 1943 were in Burma. We’ll get to those battles eventually, but first I will use the lull in the fighting to give an overview of what life was like in the areas Japan ruled. And with that out of the way, we will be ready to learn how the tide of war turned against Japan.
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