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Library Reference Number: 200

The SAAF Role in Madagascar – WW2

Ernest Wall, OBE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

The Axis powers (or the Axis alliance), comprised the countries that were opposed to the Allies during World War II. The three major Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—were part of a military alliance on the signing of the Tripartite Pact in September 1940, which officially founded the Axis powers. It might be extremely difficult for the present generation to comprehend the shape of the world at that particular time. At their zenith, the Axis powers ruled empires that dominated large parts of Europe, Africa, East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but World War II ended with their total defeat. Like the Allies, membership of the Axis was fluid, and some nations entered and later left the Axis during the course of the war.

Due to this unlikely partnership, German submarines for example could refuel in Penang or other Japanese held ports as may be seen in other sections of this web site. Prisoners of war captured in Italy were systematically taken to Germany to be incarcerated in German StalagLuft camps. At one point during world war two, this partnership appeared to have a world-wide stranglehold that would be extremely difficult to overcome. Fortunately, free nations around the world sensing the danger, combined to form an Allied group bringing their Armed Forces into the conflict. One of those Allied Forces being the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It should be noted that the SAAF’s first operational engagement was in and around Ethiopia in supporting the British campaign to oust Mussolini’s Fascist forces from that country. Their task was completed in May 1941 thus enabling the Allies to move on to North Africa without hindrance. Almost a year after the Ethiopian conflict, the SAAF found themselves in another supporting role in ensuring that the Japanese did not manage to obtain bases for their submarines on the island of Madagascar.

In 1942 the Japanese advances in South East Asia were of great concern to the Allies and there was considerable anxiety that they might invade Madagascar, and obtain control of the large Vichy French port there of Diego Suarez. This could be used as a submarine base by both the Japanese and Germans, thus enabling them to cut the supply lines around the Cape of Good Hope to the Suez Canal, the main route at the time for British troops in the Middle East. In any event, Madagascar had fallen under the sway of Vichy France and thus subject to Nazi control, with German U-boats able to use the port facilities at Diego Suarez on the island’s northern tip; from there they ranged down the South African coast, sinking many ships off Durban.

US intelligence was aware that the Vichy French authorities were already in secret negotiations with the Japanese, and was particularly worried that if the Japanese became properly established on Madagascar they would be able to launch a Pearl Harbour-style strike on Durban. Japanese submarines aided by carrier-borne aircraft, could tear into Durban, sink the ships of the Royal Navy and South African Navy there, blow up oil installations, sink the large number of tankers and cargo ships using the port and destroy the harbour facilities, radio communications and much else besides. Durban had now become a crucial part of the Allied war effort and by laying waste to the city the Axis powers could dramatise to the rest of South Africa the real cost of supporting the Allied cause Madagascar had now become the stepping stone to the major threat posed to Durban and the Allied war effort, and the maximum effort now was to prevent the Japanese seizing the well fortified base at Diego Suarez already protected with a minefield, 17 fighter planes, two tanks, a garrison of 600 and large fixed- gun emplacements.

The Royal Navy fleet assembled in Durban in April 1942 for the attack on Madagascar was by far the most powerful strike force that Durban had ever seen. The strike force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Neville Syfret, consisted of no fewer than 57 ships, including the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Indomitable, the battleship Ramillies, two cruisers, nine destroyers, six corvettes and six minesweepers. Besides their full naval complement the ships also carried two army brigade groups and a large commando group. In addition Admiral Sir James Somerville, with another large fleet, provided long-range cover for the operation.

The British / South African Forces invaded Madagascar, but it took four months from May to September 1942 to overcome the fierce resistance of the Vichy French forces who had repeatedly refused to surrender. The threat was consequently annulled, but not before a Japanese submarine had severely damaged a British battleship and sunk an oil tanker, both at anchor in the port of Diego Suarez. The crucial fact remains that with Europe being controlled by the Germans, the sea passage for Allied forces movements and supplies from east to west had been saved.

Had this not been achieved, the war would have entered an extremely difficult phase, with Allied forces in the Middle East and Far East becoming isolated from Britain and Europe. In this respect, the South African Ground Forces played a major role in Madagascar along with the South African Air Force who carried out bombing operations and dropped supplies to Allied troops.

During World War Two, the SAAF consisted of 44,569 personnel, 2,319 were killed in action, 1,000 wounded, and about 280 taken prisoner. The SAAF flew extensive operations in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and was a vital element in defeating Rommel and taking Rome during the Italian Campaign!

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