CHURCHILL’S SECRET INVASION – Britain’s First Large-Scale Combined Operations Offensive 1942 – Review by Mark Barnes

This book is one of a number that has a title prefixed with the name of Winston Churchill. To my mind they offer an implication of something underhand, not quite kosher and, in truth, perceptions of the British invasion of Madagascar will vary, still, in the UK, on the island itself and among an older generation in France.

The background is a bit of a labyrinth of mutual suspicion, fear and loathing. The main point is that the British, having been battered out of the eastern Indian Ocean by the Japanese could not afford for them to set up base on Madagascar where they could disrupt or more likely halt all traffic around the Cape. It would be a disaster. The Germans and Japanese had discussed the issue and agreed their war zones. The idea of a Japanese acquisition of Madagascar, with the tacit agreement of the Vichy state, was always there.

The British had other problems, chief of which was containing the ambitions of Charles De Gaulle and his Fighting French patriots who were champing at the bit to get into the war and secure French territories now in the hands of their erstwhile countrymen. The divisions between the French were sharp and vicious and formed a neat triangle with both parties attitudes to the Brits perched at an uncomfortable apex.

Add to this the foreboding presence of the Nazis and the Japanese who were pulling all the Vichy strings. De Gaulle, in many accounts, including this one comes across as just simply unlikable. He was a driven man with firm ideas and wanted to get them done. He had a vision. Later events would allow him to implement much of it.

But in Madagascar, after the disaster at Dakar, when an Anglo-French assault had been an ignominious failure, there was no chance of Fighting Frenchmen being allowed anywhere near the assault.

The plan was straightforward enough. A force of commandos and two infantry brigades would land with armour and capture the principal deep water port essential to enemy dominance. There was to be the first use of a Landing Ship Tank in battle.

Suffice to say the landings went ahead. There were problems and successes. After a few bumps, the LST worked. It had proven itself. The importance of this can never be underestimated. The armour, Valentines and Tetrarch tanks were a mixed blessing. They were handled badly, charging at anti-tank guns and meeting a useless end mirroring the failed tactics of many a tank brigadier in North Africa before the penny dropped. South African armoured cars would provide a far better option later on.  I had never realised that Tetrarchs had been used in combat. Eventually the port and town were taken. Job done? No, it wasn’t.

The unpalatable truth is that the British high ups hoped that just taking the northern end of the island would be enough. But, here De Gaulle had been dead right in his summation that the whole island needed taking. The Brits, with a force of South African and battalions of East African troops got on with it. The biggest enemy was disease. Large parts of the island were little more than malarial swamps and all this ground had to be covered. Air power was largely provided by the Royal Navy, but extra resources came from South Africa and elsewhere. Japanese submarines disrupted progress and one used its onboard aircraft to make unhindered recce flights to the bewilderment of the British. The Japanese presence was discovered when a landing party were wiped out in a brisk fire fight. But the implications of this small Japanese intervention were not fully grasped and the presence of a submarine group would cause considerable difficulties, damaging a battleship and sinking many merchantmen.

What of the French? They fought in many places with all the courage and determination you would hope for and expect. They were resourceful and tough.

The inevitable African troops were particularly strong minded. Local Malagasy troops wavered a bit more because they had no love for their masters. The politics is a nightmare. The Vichy government would not yield to British calls to surrender, out of loathing for the perceived traitorous nature of their former ally; in fear of German intervention and, worst of all, the imposition of Gaullist control. Both De Gaulle and the Vichy government believed the British planned to permanently take the colony from France. What a mess.

This excellent book cooks up a dog’s breakfast and lets you read it as quite a nice afternoon lunch. The politics is as unravelled as any sane person can define it. The battle stuff is all straightforward and quite detailed. I would like to have seen more accounts from participants in the fighting. But, in fairness to the author, he is correct when he tells us that this immensely important episode has disappeared in the bigger picture of the war. The invasion was carried out in 1942 before the Anglo-American alliance had really warmed up for the trials ahead. There has to be a lot of emphasis on the French angle and this is all good history for us to learn. There is no hint of bias, but frustration with the divided parties could hardly not seep out a bit. They all needed their heads banging together. It isn’t funny, it’s tragic.  The wider strategic situation is made simple for us. This invasion had to happen. It was a no brainer.

It was the biggest opposed landing carried out by Britain prior to partnership with the USA. A great many lessons were learned. The commanding naval man, Rear Admiral Syfret, sent detailed reports and recommendations garnered from it all to London well in time for many of the important points to be blissfully ignored by the planners of the Dieppe raid. Thankfully these details were appreciated and implemented in time for the major event we will commemorate this summer.

The Madagascar invasion is a footnote of the war, but it mattered and is well worth learning about. The wider campaign saw African Askari in battle again just as they had been in the Great War. They were wonderful soldiers. The politics might not have been fully resolved, but a Free French man arrived to take charge of the island and the war went on. Vichy fell. Distrust between the British and the French is an undercurrent of the modern world we live in. The oldest of enemies can never quite let it all go. We’ve been at it for over a thousand years, after all. Being something of a Francophile I find this all deeply fascinating. Wars within wars do this. John Grehan has done himself proud.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Britain’s First Large-Scale Combined Operations Offensive 1942
By John Grehan
Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 78159 382 0




Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.