British, French battle to control Madagascar (5-5-42)

The Pittsburgh Press (May 5, 1942)

British, French battle to control Madagascar
Vichy angry, orders resistance

Laval government orders strong defense against 'odious aggression’
By Edward W. Beattie, United Press staff writer


Vichy, France, May 5 –
The French government of Pierre Laval tonight ordered “the strongest possible resistance” against what it called Britain’s “odious aggression” against Madagascar.

Secretary of State for Colonies Jules Brevie announced the government’s decision after day-long consultations among high officials. A message of encouragement, he said, was radioed to the Governor-General of Madagascar, Léon Annet, calling upon him to “continue his loyalty.”

The Vichy radio, heard in London, said the Governor-General of Madagascar told Vichy that he had rejected a British ultimatum for surrender of the island, saying:

We shall defend it to the end.

London, May 5 –
Picked British Empire commandos, supported by air and naval forces, smashed through Vichy French resistance and landed on the strategic French island of Madagascar today.

Operations are "still pending,"the British announced.

A French battery was reported captured and the German radio said that a French submarine and a dispatch boat were sunk in severe fighting for the big Diego-Suarez naval base.

A London broadcast said Marshal Pétain and Admiral Darlan had sent a special message to the French troops in Madagascar, urging them to resist.

Acting in agreement with the United States, the British forces – including South Africans – began occupation of the big Indian Ocean island after the French Governor-General had reportedly rejected an ultimatum.

Dispatches of the official German news agency from Vichy said fighting was “in full swing” and that the outcome could not yet be determined, but the British Foreign Office spokesman described Vichy’s resistance as “light.” The people have been reportedly 95% pro-Allied.

The resistance by French forces in Madagascar was on standing orders of the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain and instructions by Admiral François Darlan as commander of armed forces for all French colonies to oppose any attack. These orders were reaffirmed officially at Vichy following recent government changes.

The spokesman said the occupation was designed to remove a grave threat to the Allied supply line to the Far East in view of the possibility that Vichy chief of government Pierre Laval would turn the island over to the Japs.

Axis broadcasts since last Saturday have reported U.S. battleships, including the Washington and the North Carolina, in the Indian Ocean, but there was no indication they aided at Madagascar.

Official details of the fighting as the British landed on Courier Bay on the north end of the island, under cover of naval aircraft, were lacking, but the plan was to move 10 miles across the isthmus to Diego-Suarez, one of the most valuable naval bases in the world.

The German dispatches from Vichy said British airplanes in force flew over the island and the naval base and that warships supported the landing.

It was understood there was less than a division (10,000) of French white troops on Madagascar but these were aided by a large number of native troops.

The British were led by Maj. Gen. R. G. Sturges, Royal Marines, and debarked from a naval force which arrived off Madagascar at dawn under Vice Admiral E. N. Syfret.

Acting on behalf of the United States and all the United Nations, the British moved after two key Jap admirals visited Vichy and were wined and dined by Laval and Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, Chief of State. Vichy had previously surrendered Indochina to the Japs.

It was understood that a series of urgent transatlantic telephone conferences between London and Washington preceded the landing.

Two joint communiqués of the Admiralty and War Office reported the action. They were:

The United Nations having decided to forestall a Japanese move against the French naval base of Diego-Suarez, in Madagascar, a combined British naval and military force arrived off the island at dawn this morning. It has been made clear to French authorities in Madagascar that the United Nations have no intention of interfering with the French status of the territory, which will remain French and will continue to be part of the French Empire.

Reports have been received from the British force commander indicating that our forces landed in Courier Bay, Madagascar, covered by naval aircraft with the intention of proceeding across the isthmus to the naval base of Diego-Suarez. Little opposition was encountered. It is to be hoped that French authorities will accept the offer of the United Nations to help in the defense of the island against Axis aggression.

The Vichy cruisers, Montcalm and Marseillaise (7,600 tons), with nine 6-inch guns each, and the 5,747-ton submarine depot ship, Jules Verne, arrived at Diego-Suarez recently.

The State Department at Washington, notifying Vichy Ambassador Gaston Henry-Haye of the move, said the landing was made with the full approval and support of the United States.

It was suggested that the Allies, with Britain or South Africa acting, would assume active control instead of handing the island over to the Free French.

General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French national committee said:

We are in complete agreement with the move.

Allied leaders, anxious because of the return of arch-collaborationist Pierre Laval to power in Vichy, and fearful that he might attempt to turn over the French fleet to the Germans, acted immediately following the arrival in Vichy of two Jap admirals, Naokuni Nomura and Katsuo Abe, delegates to the three-power Axis military commissions at Berlin and Rome respectively.

They were fetes as honored guests over the weekend and Laval had taken the opportunity yesterday to:

… forestall the spread of a rumor that Nomura and Abe are negotiating for Japanese naval or occupational privileges of Madagascar.

Coming from Laval, the gratuitous “forestalling” of an accusation which nobody had made did not reassure the United Nations.

Laval and later Marshal Pétain, who received the admirals yesterday, said officially that no military or political questions had been discussed with them.

Says U.S. warships go east

It was noted that Marshal Pétain also conferred yesterday with Admiral Jean François Darlan, Vichy commander-in-chief of land, sea and air forces, and General Eugene Bridoux, Secretary of State for War.

Interest in the Madagascar coup and Vichy reaction to it were increased by a Rome report that the U.S. battleships Washington and North Carolina passed through the Mediterranean and gone on via the Suez Canal toward the Indian Ocean.

Also interesting were reports that unidentified planes had flown over Toulon, the French Mediterranean naval base, and Marseille, the great Mediterranean port, Sunday night and had flown over Vichy itself and nearby Clemont Ferrand last night, and were fired at by French anti-aircraft guns.

The United Press radio listening post of New York heard Germans broadcasting in French during the night, on wavelengths formerly used by the French Paris-colonial radio station, a new program for French listeners in Madagascar, Syria, the Lake Chad area of interior French Africa and the Belgian Congo. The slogan of the program was:

Germans defend the living space of Europe.

Strike for two bases

At Madagascar, the British struck for one of the finest harbors in the world at Diego-Suarez, big enough to shelter a large fleet. On the northeast coast is Majuaga, another naval base.

Tananarive, the capital, lies inland 90 miles from the east coast, at the end of a railroad from Tamatare.

There had always been suspicion that Vichy might give Germany submarine facilities on Madagascar which, lying off the southeast coast of Africa, is athwart the vitally important Allied supply lines to India and the Middle East.

250 miles from East Africa

Madagascar is 250 miles at the nearest point from Portuguese East Africa. It is 2,353 nautical miles from Bombay, British Mauritius is 500 miles east of it; French Réunion Island 400 miles east of it; the British Seychelles 605 miles to the north on the route to Bombay. All are naval stations.

Madagascar, its terraced hills rising 109,500 feet from the forested coastal fringe, has been a French colony since 1896.

It was named by Marco Polo – who in his travels had learned of it from the Arabs, confused it with the Kingdom of Mogadishu on the African coast, and then garbled the name of Mogadishu into Madagascar.

For 200 years, it was a private refuge and one of them, John Plaintain, proclaimed himself king. It lies just south of the equator. Its rainy season lasts from November to April, and a dry, comparatively cool season is now starting.

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