Allan Sinclair: Ditsong National Museum of Military History, 29 April 2020


The fall of France in June 1940 and Japan’s entry into the Second World War (1939 – 1945) in December 1941 were to have a significant bearing on the Union of South Africa and her standing as a role player in both the British Commonwealth of Nations and the Allied war effort. Both nations were situated far from South African shores and one can forgive the reader for thinking that such an impact would be negligible for a small country at the bottom of Africa. This article will explain how this very location made such an impact possible and provide insight into the measures taken to meet the threats posed.

The effect of the fall of France on South Africa

On 10 May 1940 German forces launched their attack on France and the Low Countries. Within six weeks the Allied forces had been defeated resulting in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk and the eventual capitulation of the French Army.[i] On 22 June 1940 the French signed an armistice with Germany by which France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and a free zone in the south. The Government of the free zone established at Vichy was compelled to align itself with Nazi Germany. The former French Republic was abolished and all power was vested in Marshal Philippe Petain. The Regime also retained control over the French Colonial Empire.

The effect of the capitulation of France and the establishment of the Vichy Regime on South Africa was instantaneous. The South African Prime Minister, Field Marshal J C Smuts, openly stated in Parliament that, as far as possible, the country would remain on friendly terms with the Vichy Government. The relationship would be maintained as long as the French possessions in Africa and the Indian Ocean, in particular Madagascar, did not present any danger to South Africa.[1] Smuts also accepted the fact that the French collapse along with Italy’s entry into the war on the side of Germany would see the Mediterranean Sea closed to all but the most heavily guarded of Allied shipping. In turn, the Cape sea route would become the corridor of strategic importance to maintain Britain’s vital lines of communication with the Middle East, India and the Far East. South Africa’s status as an important Indian Ocean role player and a key member of the Allied nations was entrenched as a result.[2]

Madagascar’s allegiance to the Vichy regime troubled Smuts from the outset. He informed the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that the port of Diego Suarez (today Antisiranana) on the island was crucial to the safety of the Indian Ocean.[ii] [3] After the Vichy Government allowed Japan to seize control of French Indo-China on 26 September 1940, the threat of Diego Suarez and other ports on the island being ceded to Japan in similar fashion became a crucial factor in Allied thinking.[iii]

Relations between Vichy and the Allies took a turn for the worse in July 1940 when Britain, fearing that the French Fleet might fall into German hands, took the difficult decision to attack and sink the her former ally’s fleet moored at Mers-el-Keber in North Africa. A total of 1 200 French sailors were killed during the attack and relations between the British Empire and the Vichy Government were formally broken off.[iv] The French attempted to seek improved terms with Germany by suggesting a more active role on the side of the Axis in Africa and offering to provide French pilots to participate in the Luftwaffe’s air offensive against Britain.[4]

The effect of the entry of Japan into the war on South Africa

South Africa’s position in the Indian Ocean became even more noticeable when, after the Japanese attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Japan also entered the war as part of the Axis Pact with Germany and Italy. The attack on Pearl Harbour was followed up by the invasion of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippians and Burma. Spurred on by these successes, the Japanese Imperial Navy stood poised to launch an offensive into the Indian Ocean.[5]

Smuts knew in his mind that the intervention of Japan in the Indian Ocean posed a substantial threat to South Africa’s vulnerable coast line. Defensive measures in place at the nation’s harbours were originally developed as a deterrent against sporadic forays by enemy surface raiders or submarines and by raids of no more than 200 people. The speed and ruthlessness of the Japanese conquest of South-East Asia left Smuts in no doubt that the risk of invasion was a visible reality and the country’s meagre defences and limited naval force were in no way capable of resisting such an attack.[6]

The bulk of the nation’s fighting forces were at the time deployed in the Middle East.[v] At home the 3rd South African Division, which lacked training and equipment and whose battalions had been drained to provide reinforcements for the forces in the Middle East, was the only substantial formation available. The Division’s role immediately increased in significance and, even though it remained under-strength, its main function was converted to provide a force to defend the east coast as well as the mountain passes leading from Mozambique. The defence of the harbours was assumed by volunteer units of the newly formed Coastal Defence Corps and reinforced by the South African Garrison Artillery which provided crews for the coastal batteries. At that stage there were only three flights of Avro Anson Mk I aircraft available for coastal patrols. These flights were re-equipped with Bristol Beaufort Mk 1 aircraft in early 1942. The SAAF proposed that the air capability should be increased to one bomber and four fighter squadrons for adequate defence. None of the required aircraft could, however, be delivered for some months.[7]

New defensive measures put in place

After an attack by the main Japanese Carrier Force on Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and the Bay of Bengal in April 1942, it was assumed that Japan would launch its anticipated offensive further west. Smuts was determined that South Africa should be prepared for this threat along with the dangers proposed by Madagascar.[8] In a speech made to Parliament he stated categorically that such measures could include introducing universal conscription and the arming of all able bodied South Africans regardless of race.[vi] [9]

In May 1942 Coastal Area Command was established with its headquarters in Cape Town to meet the threat and to unify the defence of the South African coast. The Command had control of the strip of land roughly 160 km wide along the entire coast. Its sub-divisions were the cities and major towns along this strip which, for operational purposes, were termed fortresses.[vii] The General-Officer-Commanding, Maj Gen I P De Villiers, took control of all military operations and security within the area as well as the discipline and training of all units including SAAF squadrons placed under his command. At the same time the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic transferred his headquarters from Freetown in West Africa to Simonstown. Over time a combined operations room was set up in the Lady Ann Barnard Room of the Cape Town Castle to pool all information regarding movements of shipping, intelligence and reconnaissance.[10]

On 4 June 1942 Smuts again informed Churchill of his concerns about the weakness of Allied power in the Indian Ocean. He envisaged that the critical value of Durban as a port was well known to the Axis and, with an eye to the future, he agreed to setting up a new naval establishment at Salisbury Island in Durban Harbour as well as a training institution in Port Elizabeth.[11]

The Allied occupation of Madagascar

Madagascar was again revealed to be fundamental to the whole issue. After Singapore had been captured and Ceylon bombed, Allied attention became more focussed on the strategic importance of the island. The Allies believed that the Vichy Government would be compelled under German pressure to let Japan to take occupation of the island or at least gain control of Diego Suarez. This had to be forestalled at all costs and a plan to occupy Diego Suarez, codenamed Operation Ironclad, led to the first major Allied amphibious operation of the war.[viii] With South African security interests at stake Smuts was also keen to participate in the operation.[12]

The invasion force, known as Force 121, was placed under the command of the South African born Royal Navy officer, R Adm Norman Syfret. The ground force component numbered 15 000 troops who would face a French colonial force of approximately 8 000 troops. Initially the South African Air Force provided reliable reconnaissance over Diego Suarez. Later during the landings, three coastal flights under the command of Col S A Melville and nicknamed the Sugar Cane Wing, provided air support.[ix] Durban was chosen as the main staging and supply base for the operation and the expedition was launched from there on 17 April 1942.[13]

The primary objective of Ironclad was to capture Diego Suarez and stop it from falling into Japanese hands. As the operation progressed the difficulties of carrying out amphibious operations became apparent after British armoured units found themselves bogged down in the mud.[x] The eventual capture of the harbour cost 100 British lives and around 600 French colonial casualties. It proved to be no quick victory as the French refused to surrender and retreated south into the heartland of the island.[14]

Smuts felt it important to extend the operation and occupy the whole island. This proposal was not initially accepted as the British troops involved in the landings were urgently required in India. Eventually in September 1942, after Japanese submarines had been found operating in South African waters and the Mozambique Channel, the decision to go on and capture the whole of Madagascar was agreed to. Smuts ordered the 7th South African Motorised Brigade, a component of the 3rd Division and with A Squadron 1st Armoured Car Commando attached, to be made available as part of the occupation force.[15]

South African participation in the occupation of Madagascar

Lt Col C L Engelbrecht, Officer-Commanding the Pretoria Regiment in the 7th Brigade, wrote that the mobilisation of the Brigade was carried out in the utmost secrecy and no-one except the Brigade Commander knew of the destination.[xi] The secrecy was due to apparent intelligence reports that the Japanese were already on route to take possession of Madagascar. It was therefore imperative that the French authorities on the island not be made aware of the impending Allied attack.[16]

The Brigade arrived in Diego Suarez on 24 June 1942 and took up positions in defence of the envisaged Japanese landing and a possible counter attack by the Vichy forces still intact to the south. By 10 September it had become apparent that no Japanese invasion was forthcoming and preparations were made to renew the offensive. The Brigade’s actions were limited by shortage of transport. Nevertheless the First City Regt advanced along the west coast capturing a force of 135 French colonial troops on 14 September. Elements of the Pretoria Regt occupied positions along the east coast while two of the Regt’s companies landed at Tulear (today Toliara) on 29 September and advanced inland.[xii] Hostilities eventually ceased on 30 September and two days later the armistice was signed by the French Governor-General, M Annet.[xiii][17]

Throughout the second phase of the campaign the fighting was intermittent and the Allied casualties numbered 107 troops of whom 18 were South African, the result of tropical diseases prevalent on the island.[18] 

The reality of the Japanese threat to Madagascar and South Africa

The successful occupation of Madagascar did remove the Japanese threat to South Africa but questions have to be raised about the reality of such a threat. Turner wrote that the Japanese Naval Attaché in Berlin, Adm Nomura, met Adm Ficke, the Chief of Staff of the German Oberkommando der Marine, on 17 December 1941 to discuss the demarcation of the respective areas of operation by the Japanese and German navies in the Indian Ocean. While the Japanese proposed that the longitude 700 east should form the boundary of operations, the Germans suggested that a diagonal line running across the Ocean from the Gulf of Aden to Northern Australia be approved with the Japanese operating north of the line while the Germans conducted their operations to the south.[xiv] An agreement was eventually settled upon on 18 January 1942 which accepted the 700 longitude line with a proviso that both navies could extend their influence beyond this line should the situation require it.[19]

Germany and Japan came as close as possible to operating together during the period December 1941 to June 1942. The Japanese initially proposed that both nations should focus on defeating Britain and knocking her out of the war. Adm Erich Rader, C-in-C of the German Kriegsmarine, perceived that the Japanese capture of the Burma and Ceylon would have a sweeping effect on British interests in the Indian Ocean and threaten the oil supply through the Persian Gulf. It would also leave only Alexandria in Egypt and Durban and Simonstown in South Africa available as bases for the large capital ships of the Royal Navy. In his opinion the time was right for a substantial German offensive against British positions in the Middle East and the capture of the Suez Canal.[20]

Rosenthal provides evidence that Gen Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador to Germany, travelled to Vichy in January 1942 to submit an argument for the Japanese to make use of both Madagascar and Reunion while the war was in progress. He added that it was no secret that the purpose of the plan was to use the harbours on both islands to assist Japan in gaining complete control of the Indian Ocean.[21]

Turner argues that, once Adolf Hitler had been informed about Japanese ambitions in Madagascar, he displayed very little interest remarking that he did not believe that the French would consider the matter favourably.[22] Rosenthal documented that Petain eventually turned down Japan’s proposal altogether.[23]

The facts seem to conclude that both Germany and Japan, although wartime allies, shared a mutual distrust of each other’s aims. Co-operation seemed unnecessary to both and, although there was a fair amount of Japanese naval activity in the South African waters, this was restricted to submarine warfare with no surface ships ever penetrating far into the western Indian Ocean.[24]


It is possible that Hitler may have welcomed Japanese intervention in South Africa as means of extending the Axis war effort. It is also possible that he considered the issue to be of no real importance in relation to his main aim which was the destruction of the Soviet Union, against which even the campaign in North Africa paled into insignificance. In the end Japan also took the decision to withdraw from the Indian Ocean and concentrate on its primary focus, to seek out and destroy the remainder of the United States Fleet in the Pacific Ocean.

One argument is plausible. Germany knew that South Africa was divided on the issue of participation in the war and that many Afrikaans speaking South Africans were sympathetic to the German cause. Restricted to using volunteers, Smuts struggled to maintain the strengths of the country’s fighting formations. It is easy to envisage how a conservative, racially-minded opposition based on the doctrine of white Afrikaner supremacy would have reacted to an attack by Japan, a ‘non-white’ power. A Japanese attack on South Africa might even have served to unite the population behind the nation’s war effort.

The major consequence of the fall of France and Japan’s entry into the conflict was that it brought the war to South Africa’s door step so to speak. The battles were no longer only being fought on distant fronts and, while the Cape sea route had become a vital line of communication that had to be defended, Madagascar emerged as a credible threat to this line of communication. Although the evidence points to the fact that the threat of aggression in the western Indian Ocean was not relatively high on the Japanese planning agenda, in most South African minds it remained real, at least until the occupation of Madagascar had been concluded.

[i] The armies of France, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands were all defeated during the German invasion.
[ii] British plans to seize control of Madagascar were contemplated in December 1940. Difficulties experienced in finding the required forces at the time led to the shelving of the operation unless the use of the island by Axis raiders made such an action imperative.
[iii] Rosenthal wrote that Japan formally proposed such an idea to Petain in January 1942.
[iv] South Africa broke off relations with the Vichy Government on 23 April 1942 following the appointment by Petain of Pierre Laval as Minister of State.
[v] These included the 1st and 2nd South African Divisions, a significant number of non-divisional engineering and administrative units and a substantial air force of ten squadrons.
[vi] The Defence Act of 1912 stipulated that only white male South Africans could be armed and used in a combatant capacity. The internal opposition to the country’s entry into the war in 1939 led to the Government’s decision that service in the Union Defence Forces would only be on a volunteer basis.
[vii] At the same time Inland Area Command responsible for the defence of the remainder of the Union was established with its headquarters in Pretoria.
[viii] This would also be the only amphibious operation of the Second World War involving South African formations.
[ix] In an article published in the Rand Daily Mail on 5 March 1948, Adm Syfret placed on record the excellent relations between the Royal Navy and the South African Air Force during Operation Ironclad.
[x] Operation Ironclad provided valuable experience in carrying out amphibious offensives, experience which would prove beneficial for further operations such as the landings in North Africa that were being planned at the time.
[xi] According to Engelbrecht the mobilisation and movement of the 7th Brigade was so secret that not even the GOC 3rd South African Division, Maj Gen Manie Botha, was informed of the mission.
[xii] Engelbrecht stated that the organisation and execution of the landings at Tulear, which involved co-operation with the Royal Navy and troops of the Royal Marines, was exhilarating [sic]. Adm Tennant, the RN commander reported that, with a little more practice, the South Africans could have become proficient in amphibious operations.
[xiii] The Vichy and colonial (Malagasy and Senegalese) forces withstood the Allied invasion of Madagascar in 1942 for a much longer period than the main French Regular Army had done during the German invasion of Metropolitan France in 1940.
[xiv] The information was based on German documents that were made available to the Union War Histories Project after the Second World War.

1. E. Rosenthal, Japan’s Bid For Africa p 51.
2. R. Steyn, Churchill and Smuts: The Friendship p 101.
3. R. Steyn, p 125.
4. M. Burleigh, Moral Combat: A History of World War II p
5. E. Rosenthal, p 42.
6. L.C.F. Turner & H.R. Gordon-Cummings, War in the Southern Oceans p 109.
7. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 109.
8. E. Rosenthal, p 52.
9. R. Steyn, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness, p 140.
10. L.C.F. Turner et al, p and H J Martin et al, p 152.
11. H.J. Martin & N. Orpen, South Africa at War, p 238.
12. S. Woodburn-Kirby (Ed), The War against Japan (Vol II), p 133.
13. J.L. Moulton, in Purnell’s History of the Second World War (vol 3) p 1085.
14. The History Guy (You tube video), The Allied Invasion of Madagascar (29 August 2019).
15. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 131.
16. Library File B.423 (Madagascar)
17. The History Buff (You tube video), The British Invasion of Madagascar 1942 (23 November 2019).
18. S. Woodburn-Kirby (Ed), p 144.
19. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 115.
20. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 116.
21. E. Rosenthal, p 41.
22. L.C.F Turner et al, p 115.
23. E Rosenthal, p 56.
24. H. J. Martin et all, p 182.


Archival Sources

Library File B.423 (Madagascar) located in the archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

You Tube Sources

The History Guy (You tube video), The Allied Invasion of Madagascar (29 August 2019).

The History Buff (You tube video), The British Invasion of Madagascar 1942 (23 November 2019).

Published Sources

Moulton, J L “Madagascar The First Of The Allied Invasions” in Purnell’s History Of The Second World War (Vol 3)


Burleigh M, Moral Combat: A History Of World War 2 (London, Harper Press, 2010)
Martin H J & Orpen N, South Africa At War (Cape Town, Purnell, 1979)
Rosenthal E, Japan’s Bid For Africa (Johannesburg, CNA, 1944)
Steyn R, Churchill And Smuts: The Friendship (Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 2017)
Steyn R, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness (Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 2015)
Turner L F C & Gordon-Cummings H R, War In The Southern Oceans (Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1961)
Woodburn-Kirby S (Et Al), The War Against Japan (Vol 2) (London, HMSO, 1958)

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