- Contributed by
- Ian Billingsley
- People in story:
- (Reg) E.G. Voller
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 May 2005
Reg Voller, (centre) and friends, after the landings were complete at Madagascar.
THE ASSAULT ON MADAGASCAR.
(5th May 1942)
Little publicity was given to the landings and occupation of Madagascar, but the success of the whole operation was paramount.
In 1941 with Field Marshall Rommel advancing rapidly in North Africa and German and Italian sea and air supremacy in the Mediterranean, supplies and reinforcements to the Eighth Army in the Middle East were shipped from the UK around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Mozambique Channel. Much shipping was lost on this sea route with the Germans ‘suspectedly’ operating from Vichy controlled Madagascar. Coupled with this, Japan had captured Singapore, sunk the Battle Cruisers Prince of Wales and Repulse, were gaining control of Burma and rapidly progressing towards India, the Indian Ocean, Africa and the Middle East.
It was at this stage, Winston Churchill personally gave instructions that Madagascar must be occupied at all costs.
® To diminish the sinking of merchant ships bound for the Middle East.
® To prevent Japan gaining a foothold on Mada gascar, thereby controlling the air and seas adjacent to South Africa. Thus; the combined operations 13th Assault Flotilla was formed. The said, consisting of;
® Keren and Karana carrying Landing Craft Assault.
® Sobieski (A Polish vessel) carrying beach assault craft.
® Derwentdale, with specially constructed gantries carrying Landing Craft Mechanical, 15 In number.
® Winchester Castle 20.000 Tonnage, being the largest ship carrying Landing Craft Assault and Senior Officers.
The flotilla joined a large convoy and sailed from the United Kingdom on the night of 23rd March 1942 bound for Durban, South Africa. Here the assault force was joined by a Royal Navy protective screen, consisting of the Battleship Ramillies, two Aircraft Carriers, two Battle Cruisers, Destroyers, Corvettes and Minesweepers.
Here, I would point out that, unlike later wartime landings usually timed for daybreak following gun and rocket barrages, it was earlier generally considered that darkness, quietness and surprise were the best methods of attack. Furthermore, rocket ships infantry and tank landing ships utilised as the war progressed, were virtually non existent at this stage.
The huge land locked harbour of Diego Suarez and Port of Antisirane, Madagascar, were the primary objectives, all protected by strong seaward defences, mainly French 75 gun emplacements. We later learned the controlling Vichy French Government considered attack from the rear of the harbour unlikely as the coastline was extremely rocky and virtually un-navigable for many miles.
The landing and occupation was scheduled for the night of 5 May 1942 at 0200 hrs which, fortunately was a very calm sea and pitch black. There was no moon. The five unlit assault ships , leaving their protective Royal Navy screen, headed towards the coast proceeding slowly and on line ahead. Orders were given. “Lower all Assault Crafts complete with Commando Forces and Mechanised Units to within six feet of the waterline.
The outline of the nearest ship ahead was only faintly discernible, as we stealthily sailed onwards. Each with our own private thoughts. How long before we are discovered? Sitting ducks silhouetted on searchlights, then a gun barrage perhaps? What reception awaits us as we beach with our landing craft?
Suddenly in the distance a pair of dim lights appeared ahead with more pairs stretching far away in the darkness and our ships still in line ahead, sailed on taking a long winding course between each pair of lights. The only sound on that night air was the faint throb of ships engines and the swish of water.
Eventually, our ships hove to. Anchors released as quietly and slowly as possible and orders given simultaneously in all ships, complete drop and release all landing craft. They in turn, fully loaded with Commandos and equipment headed for faint guide lights on shore. Off load, and thereafter, making return trips to and fro with soldiers and equipment.
As daylight gradually came, we discovered we were in a large bay called Courrier Bay, surrounded by jagged rocks as far out to seaward as we could see.
I never found out when, how or who placed those lights. Each pair cleverly shaded from the shore, which marked our channel through those treacherous rocks that dark night. The success of the whole assault was dependant on them alone. It was a well planned clever manoeuvre, enabling us to land forces and attack the port and harbour in the rear of it’s defences.
Within four days the Commandos and supporting army had completely secured control of their objectives ashore, and our five Assault Ships moved from Courrier Bay to the land locked harbour of Diego Suarez, rejoining the Ramillies, Destroyers Corvettes and R.F.A. oil tanker British Liberty. Our first view of the port installations revealed a German ship, holed and lying on it’s side in dry dock. Obviously our Commandos handiwork.
Winston Churchill’s assumptions were correct as within a week, a Japanese midget submarine penetrated our Corvette harbour entrance screen sinking the British Liberty and severely damaging the Ramillies with torpedoes. Gunfire lasted into the night and the submarine crews, unable to escape through the sealed off harbour entrance attempted to land and disperse in the adjacent jungle, however they were all rounded up and efficiently dealt with by our Commandos.
Various landings followed at other ports of Madagascar, and this diminished shipping losses in the Mozambique Channel and Indian Ocean. For the record, this was the first combined operations landings of World War Two that culminated in permanent occupation.
The men of the 13th Assault Flotilla eventually were involved in landings in Burma, Sicily, Salerno, Naples, Anzio and Southern France before returning to the UK.
(Reg) E.G. Voller
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