The present map is a unique and important artefact from the Battle of Madagascar (1942), the World War II British campaign to conquer the strategically vital island from Vichy French (Nazi collaborationist) forces. Winston Churchill believed that the mission was of the upmost importance as Japan had mature plans to turn Madagascar into a mega-naval and airbase; should that occur it would virtually sever Britain’s ties with India, Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand, so severely crippling the Allied war effort.
The underlying printed map is an extremely rare early automotive map of Madagascar published in 1934 in Tananarive (Antananarivo) by the island’s colonial mapping service. However, the present example was acquired by a British officer during the 1942 campaign to serve as a strategic aid to record (and perhaps to plan) military operations. Critically, the manuscript additions clearly label and date every major aspect of the British invasion of Madagascar, done by the hand of someone with in depth, real-time knowledge of the events. Notably, the map labels the actions of Operation Ironclad, whereupon Britain successfully secured the great port of Diego-Suarez, on the island’s northern tip (May 5-7, 1942), as well as Operation Slip Stream Jane, which focused upon the British landing at Majunga, on the northwest coast, and the march inland to take the capital, Tananarive, on September 23, 1914, which led the final capitulation of the island’s Vichy regime on the night of November 5/6, 1942. The importance of Britain’s conquest of Madagascar cannot be overstated. The fact that the campaign is not today better known is because the British accomplished the task quickly and successfully; had they failed the course of World War II would surely have been much different.
The Battle of Madagascar is notable as the first large scale Allied operation to combine land, sea and air forces during World War II, and was the one of the first major Allied victories of the conflict.
The Battle of Madagascar: A Little Known but Incredibly Important Aspect of World War II
In the early months of 1942, the Allies were the underdogs. The Japanese entry into the war in December 1941 had given the Allies a powerful new enemy, even the United States’ move to join the Allies had thrown Britain a lifeline.
Japan proceed to steamroll Britain’s colonies in the Far East and Southeast Asia, taking Hong Kong, the Malay States and Singapore with amazing ease; while the fall of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) soon followed. Japan gained a great window upon the Indian Ocean and proceeded to press its advantage.
Britain’s ability to continue to fight the war was largely reliant upon maintaining her sea links to India, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand and the Persian Gulf, which were major sources of materials and manpower. In March and April 1942, Japanese planes (from aircraft carriers) mounted daring raids upon British naval stations at Colombo and Trincomalee, Ceylon, as well as terrorizing British shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Moreover, Japanese submarines (some of which could travel 10,000 miles before needing to refuel) moved about the Indian Ocean with impunity. Whitehall was shocked upon realizing that they were ‘losing the thread of plot’ everywhere east of the Cape of Good Hope.
A quick glance upon a world map will reveal Madagascar to have a uniquely advantageous strategic location, as it guards the sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope and then towards Britain. Since the German conquest of France in the spring of 1940, Madagascar was controlled by the French Vichy (Nazi collaborationist regime), which was by 1941 led by Governor Armand Léon Annet (who unlike some of his colleages was a ‘true believer’ in the Vichy cause). If the Axis powers could base heavy naval and air power at Madagascar, Britain’s ties with South Asia and Oceania would be virtually severed.
The Germans agreed that Japan should take the lead, and with the cooperation of Governor Annet, Tokyo started making arrangements to transform Madagascar into a major Japanese base.
Winston Churchill came to believe that taking Madagascar was of tremendous importance. While his resources were severely stretched, he decided to dedicate serious manpower and hardware to the campaign, as the consequences of failure were too grim to contemplate. It was considered critical to move fast, before the Japanese forces arrived on the island.
Churchill ordered the formation of a joint operation commanded by Major-Genal Robert Sturges (army) and Rear-Admiral Edward Syfret (navy), with airforce backing. The forces’ total strength would vary over time between 10,000 and 15,000 troops, backed by 50 vessels (including 2 aircraft carriers).
Governor Annet was tasked with defending Madagascar with a total force of 8,000 troops consisting of around 2,000 French regulars and 6,000 Malagasy trailleurs and Sengalese conscripts. Importantly, the Vichy forces had inferior equipment, limited airpower and outdated shore defences. That being said, Annet proved to be a surprisingly ‘slippery’ opponent.
The first aspect of the British invasion of Madagascar was Operation Ironclad, the mission to seize Diego-Suarez (now Antsiranana), the superb natural harbour at the northern tip of the island. Diego-Suarez was the main Vichy naval base, and it needed to be taken to both give the British a beachhead on the island, as well as to block its use by the Japanese.
The British landed a force at Diego-Suarez on May 5, 1942, and while they met with initial success, they failed to take the main part of the town. A stalemate ensued until the British destroyer HMS Anthony made a daring charge into the port towards the town, breaching the French defences and landing a party of marines. This threw the defenders into total disarray, and in the chaos, the British were able to capture the town and secure the entire harbour. Importantly, the Vichy forces lost many aircraft and arms, so weakening their ability to defend the island. That being said, Annet was under orders from Paris to “Firmly defend the honour of our flag. Fight to the limit of your possibilities and make the British pay dearly for their act of highway robbery”.
While the British were never in danger of losing Diego-Suarez, their sense of security was undermined on May 29, 1942, when four Japanese submarines attacked the harbour, sinking a British oil tanker and damaging a destroyer.
However, Operation Ironclad was the easy part; it would be necessary to secure all of Madagascar if Britain’s links to the East were to be preserved.
Operation Slip Stream Jane was a multi-pronged endeavour, that called for four amphibious landings, with the main force moving inland to take the capital Tananarive (Antananarivo), while the other parties moved to consolidate their respective sectors. The main landing was to occur on September 9, 1942 at Majunga, a port on the northwest coast that was at the coastal terminus of the main highway that led to Tananarive. At the same moment, landings were to occur at ‘Nossi-Be’ (Nosy Be), on the west coast, to south of Diego-Suarez, and at Fort Dauphin (today Tôlanaro), a key port at the southern end of the island. These landings were all executed on time and without major problems, and the forces secured their respective vicinities. Another British force successfully landed at Tamatave (today Toamasina) on the island’s east coast on September 18, 1942, locking down the area.
Concentrating on the main force, which landed at Majunga, it made slow, but steady progress inland. The Vichy forces harassed their columns with guerilla attacks and created physical obstacles along the road. Yet the British force pushed on, their pace hastened by the necessity of reaching the capital before the onset of the Malagasy rainy season.
The British managed to reach Tananarive, seizing the city without much trouble. However, Annet and the main body of his force managed to slip out of the city, heading for the interior plateau to the southwest. The next major target was Fianarantsoa, where the Vichy maintained their last airbase. The British marched their forces south, taking Fianarantsoa on November 2.
Seeing that the gig was up, Annet surrendered to the British just after the stroke of midnight on November 5/6, 1942.
Madagascar remained under Allied control for the duration of the conflict. That the Battle of Madagascar has largely escaped popular memory today is primarily due to the fact that the British were quick and successful in taking the island. Had they failed, and Madagascar ended up as a Japanese base, it may very well have altered the course of World War II.
The Present Map in Focus
The present printed map is one of the very first, and certainly the most detailed, early automotive map of Madagascar. Based on the best official information, it was published in 1934 in Tananarive (Antananarivo) by the Service géographique de Madagascar, the mapping service of the French colonial regime. Printed on two large adjoining Sheets, it covers the entire island in great detail, labelling all cities, towns and villages, as well as delineating the coastlines and all significant rivers, while major peaks are marked with spot heights.
The map’s ‘Légende‘ (on the Southern Sheet, lower-left corner) notes the symbols used to identify paved roads; roads passable all-year round; roads only seasonally passable; trails; railways; distances in kilometres between points; hotels; garages; automotive repair shops; post offices; post and telegraph offices; gas stations; and rest stations. Indeed, the map reveals the transport network to be quite patchy, with only the corridor from Majunga down to Tananarive and then on to Fianarantsoa served by a consistent stretch of paved highway.
A large a fragile work that was intended for practical use ‘on the road’, the map is today extremely rare. We can trace only 2 institutional examples of the map, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library. Moreover, we are not aware of any sales records.
Most importantly, however, the present example of the map is unique, as it features important and extensive wartime manuscript annotations added during the Battle of Madagascar. Indeed, it seems that a British officer who participated in the campaign acquired this example of the Carte routiere as an aid to record (and perhaps even to plan) every major aspect of the invasion. The annotations reveal the author to have possessed a high-level, imitate and real-time knowledge of the military action depicted.
Turning to the Northern Sheet of the map, at Diego-Suarez, the actions of Operation Ironclad are noted in red pen as “British Landing 5/5/’42”, while the town was “Occupied night 6/5 – 7/5/’42”.
Moving on to Operation Slip Stream Jane, the map notes the commencement of the action of the main force at Majunga with the note “British Landing 0001 hrs 10/9/’42”. Meanwhile, the British assaults upon both Nossi-Be and Fort Dauphin feature the identical notes “British Landing 10/9/’42”.
Turning back the progress of the main force that was moving from Majunga inland towards Tananarive, the map notes that the “No 1 Fighting Group moved off 12/9/’42”. The progress is followed up the main highway with the force’s daily progress recorded, including mileages. The capture of Tananarive is noted by the line “British Entry into the capital 23/9/’42”.
The manuscript itinerary continues to the south of Tananarive, showing the details of the progress of the British forces on their ‘mop up operations’ from October 12 to November 3, 1942. The British took the town of Antsirabe on October 12, and the last major French base of Fianarantsoa during an action that lasted from October 29 to November 3. A note on the bottom margin of the Southern Sheet notes Governor Annet’s final surrender at the “Armistice signed 00:001 hrs 5/11/’42”.
References: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE C-5890 (1-2); British Library: Cartographic Items Maps X.992. / OCLC: 494471608.