Wacht Am Tyne

Military History for the Terminally Obsessed

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Mistaken Identity and a Semi-Book Review

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Some of you may have been following this recent story, namely – as with a few people who I know have – because it’s a story that has had barely little popular coverage; the eviction of around 2,000 people from the island of Diego Garcia in the 1970s to enable the building of a US air base there. This little corner of the Indian Ocean might seem irrelevant to the topic of military history, but I was determined to put some effort into what would serve as both my first ‘essay’ (although what I’m likely to produce for this page is barely worthy of the term, both literally and academically) and give a bit of a plug to a good book in my collection – The Beachhead Commandos by A. Cecil Hampshire, a rigidly academic yet tremendously enjoyable history of the Royal Navy Commandos during the Second World War. From this book, I was going to recreate a particular raid launched on Diego Garcia, Operation Ironclad – but no.

No, because I ballsed-up royally on this. I got my placenames so utterly mixed up that I had been reading the BBC article and linking the place with Diego Suarez, which is in Madagascar… But hell, I may as well do the article anyway…

Operation Ironclad revolved around one particular aspect: the possibility of the newly-combatant Japanese utilising the Madagascan ports (controlled by Vichy France) in order to conduct operations across the entire span of the Indian Ocean, more specifically to assault the Middle Eastern convoy routes. To prevent a potential hand-over of the facilities by Vichy France to the Japanese Navy, the wisest course of action was to deny the French the facilities outright. Diego Suarez, “which can be compared with Scapa Flow as a fleet anchorage”, was to be reached by a naval landing party in force by a series of bays 10-12 miles west of the installation (a tactic considered unfeasible by the French, and as a result this route was the least defended).

In the pre-dawn of 5th May 1942, Royal Navy assault forces landed without incident while, ahead of them at the objective, aircraft from the two carriers attached to the taskforce (including HMS Indomitable)bombed an airfield and several ships alongside in the harbour itself. This achieved near-total neutralisation of enemy air cover and harried the harbour defences in advance of the ground assault. However, efforts were made consistantly throughout the landings to allow the Vichy defenders an opportunity to cede without bloodshed; leaflets were dropped and Allied officers carried letters to be handed to senior enemy commanders to explain that surrender was available (although Hampshire notes that only once did such a transaction take place, when a detachment of the Royal Scots Fusiliers came upon a French naval officer and staff – the French officer was handed the note and actually allowed to drive off on his way to arrange the surrender of his men. No one heard from him again…).

Diego Suarez was taken with the aid of a detachment of Royal Marines of HMS Ramillies, who were dispatched via an accompanying destroyer into the harbour itself after an erroneous report that the landing party enroute from the west had ground to a halt. Marines and ground forces linked up after this dramatic dispatch, and by the 8th all French forces at Diego Suarez had surrendered. Operation Ironclad, however, would continue until September, for the smaller ports on the western coast of Madagascar continued to resist. Hampshire, his book detailing the Royal Navy Commandos, goes into detail on the Commandos’ role after the first phase of fighting had ended – ‘general protection of the beaches’ was the term given to their supervision and safeguarding of the secondary landings, of men and equipment deployed ashore in order to facilitate the neutralisation of Vichy forces on the island as a whole. This role was taken up again in September, when new landings were necessary to the west and east in order to put down Vichy resistance where it remained. To elaborate a little more, and to provide a small taste of what this entailed, I shall quote en bloc from the chapter:

“At one point during the attack on Majunga, one of the ports on the west coast, where the assault troops had met with little opposition on the beaches or in the town, the naval follow-up personnel came under heavy sniper fire which delayed boarding and anti-sabotage operations. This was eventually ended by the beach party who went into action with their Lewis guns and grenades. Along with crews of the landing craft the party successfully coped with a break in communications with the advancing British troops by bridging a 300-yard wide river with a rope ferry.”

And, to quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.” As I said at the start, I originally wanted to just throw in a bit of associated history with that deportation thing – all of this is superfluous given that I got the places mixed up, but I’ll try to salvage something from this: The aforementioned book, which is part of a number of titles in The Vault that I refer to as ‘The Hitler-Mask Section’ (I’ll probably tell that story sometime; it involves a hyperactive teenage girl, a dead man’s private library, and is absolutely free of any sordid or unsavoury details that this description may infer…), is a book I’m glad to have picked up by chance because in a way it forced the topic into my sphere of awareness. For those of a nautical ilk and/or have a penchant for the Special Forces genre, I’d recommend this as something you – as with myself – will most likely be surprised to have encountered, because Hampshire has compiled a book that takes you through a more obscure topic of the Second World War with enough clarity and substance to enable you to soak up every last detail he manages to almost nonchalently include alongside the anecdotes and the contextual material.

(NB: all quotes and data taken from ‘Chapter Four: Operation Ironclad’ pp. 37-45)

Written by nikkiwilliams

29 October, 2008 at 8:02 pm