Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Its capital is Antananarivo. And, yes, we’ve invaded it a bit.
A couple of early settlements in the seventeenth century did not do very well. British pirates had rather more success. Well-known Scottish pirate or privateer William Kidd (not to be confused with American frontier outlaw Billy the Kid) visited Madagascar, as did plenty of other pirates from Britain. In fact, with its strategic position on trade routes, Madagascar became such a good location for pirates to operate from that rumours even started of a pirate state here. And English piracy in the area even became a diplomatic problem. In 1695, Henry Avery, one of the English pirates who frequented Madagascar, seized a ship owned by the Emperor of India, the Great Mughal. The English East India Company was forced to escort Mughal shipping in order to get its trading privileges restored.
Gradually, Madagscar became an area of rivalry between France and Britain. In 1811, for instance, we fought the Battle of Tamatave. The French fleet paused to capture the port of Tamatave on Madagacsar from the malaria-weakened British garrison here and then battle was joined. It was one of those sea battles where both sides occasionally found themselves sitting round not doing very much due to the fact that there wasn’t any wind to get them where they wanted to go. It turned into a messy engagement in which both sides suffered damage and, fortunately from our point of view, the French suffered rather more. The French ships fled and eventually we cornered the French ship Néréide at Tamatave and captured both it and the port. The ship was taken into British service, and imaginatively called HMS Madagascar.
Subsequently, we saw a chance of spreading British influence by working with a powerful ruler on the island, Radama I. Under the Anglo-Merina Treaty of Friendship of 1817 we agreed to train and support his army, and in the end he united two-thirds of the island under his rule. Radama’s successor was his wife Ranavalona I. She may have been his wife, but she didn’t agree with him on Britain at all. In fact, she ended the treaty of friendship with Britain and wasn’t too keen on some other Europeans either. She did, though, unite us and the French in wanting her gone. In 1845, British and French ships were in Tamatave again, this time attacking Ranavalona’s rule. HM frigate Conway and two French ships positioned themselves off Tamatave and demanded Ranavalona agree to stop some of the actions she was taking against European traders. A British and French landing party attacked the fort at Tamatave, but cooperation between the two parties wasn’t exactly perfect, with British and French wrestling over control of a captured banner. A fair bit of the town was destroyed, and eventually we and the French departed taking assorted property and ships with us.
Ranavalona died in 1861, and with us concentrating our attentions elsewhere, it was the French, rather than us, who took control of Madagascar. By 1942 we were seriously worried about that, because Madagascar was loyal to the Vichy French government and there were fears that the Japanese could be given naval bases on the island and threaten our operations throughout the Indian Ocean. So we decided it was time to invade Madagascar again in an epic operation, Ironclad, which is somehow unknown to most people today. It was to be our first amphibious assault since the disastrous Gallipoli operation, so we decided not to take too many chances and sent a major fleet, with the flag battleship Ramillies, the aircraft carriers Indomitable and Illustrious, the cruisers Devonshire and Hermione, plus eleven destroyers, six minesweepers, six corvettes and auxiliaries.
On 5 May 1942, our 29th Infantry Brigade and 5 Commando landed, with Royal Marines and two other brigades from the 5th Infantry Division. The landings were made near the port of Diego Suarez (now called Antsiranana) in northern Madagascar. Determined Vichy defenders held the invaders off until, in a dramatic, daring and extremely risky operation, the destroyer HMS Anthony managed to slip past the Vichy coastal artillery in the dark and land a Royal Marines force in the heart of the port itself. Luckily the plan worked and Diego Suarez surrendered on 7 May.
Then the Japanese got in on the act shortly after, in one of their most westerly operations, sending midget submarines into Diego Suarez harbour and seriously damaging Ramillies. Two of the Japanese midget submarine crew escaped onto the island and conducted a firefight with the Royal Marines, in which the Japanese were eventually killed.
In the following months British forces gradually pushed forward. We made another amphibious landing at Majunga on 10 September and finally, on 5 November, Annet (the Vichy French commander) surrendered.
We handed control of the island over to Free French forces in 1943.