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The EK1

The road from Majunga to Tananarive

1/1st King’s African Rifles in Madagascar, September 1942


In 1942 the large island of Madagascar that lies off the East African coast was controlled by a Vichy French government that was more friendly towards the Axis powers than it was towards the Allies.  After some argument and debate, but prompted by Japanese advances in the Indian Ocean, the Allies decided to seize the northern tip of the island; the aim of this military action, named OPERATION IRONCLAD, was to deny naval facilities to the Japanese.  The operation was mounted on 5th May 1942 using three British infantry brigades, an Army Commando and a substantial Allied naval force; after some serious and brisk fighting the country around Diego Suarez was seized.  The British casualty figures were 109 men killed or missing in action and 283 wounded; French figures were around 150 killed and 500 wounded.  French West African troops, collectively named Senegalese, were the best infantry in the Vichy force.

The Japanese riposted with a midget submarine attack into Diego Suarez Bay on 30 May which sank the tanker S.S. British Loyalty and damaged the battleship Ramillies which had to be towed to Durban.  The French Governor General of the island, Armand Annet, continued resisting the Allied presence with the troops that he had south of the Diego Suarez area, and with his small air force.  General Smuts in South Africa pressed for the occupation of the whole island, arguing that the Japanese could use other ports on the island as bases.  Although two of the three British brigades used on OPERATION IRONCLAD had moved on to India they had been replaced by an East African brigade group and a Northern Rhodesian brigade, also the South Africans provided a motorized brigade.  With these new formations the decision was taken to occupy the remaining Vichy-controlled area of Madagascar.  The 27th (Northern Rhodesia) Brigade would garrison the Diego Suarez area whilst the other formations fought further south. 

The landing at Majunga

Three consecutive operations were planned under the name OPERATION STREAM LINE JANE.  STREAM would see the remaining British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade and No. 5 Army Commando assault from the sea and seize Majunga on the west coast of the island.  LINE would see the 22nd (East Africa) Infantry Brigade Group and ‘A’ Squadron, 1st (South African) Armoured Car Commando land at Majunga and quickly fight its way the 360 miles to Tananarive, the inland capital of Madagascar.  JANE would see the re-embarkation of 29th Brigade from Majunga to mount a new assault on Tamatave, a port on the eastern coast of the island.  Concurrently as part of STREAM a small diversionary Commando group of 40 men was to land at Morondava, 280 miles south of Majunga.

Above: Moving vehicles off the beach

22nd East African Brigade Group was commanded by Brigadier William Alfred Dimoline OBE MC, and he was the commander of OPERATION LINE.  His Brigade Group consisted of:

·         1st Battalion of the 1st (Nyasaland) King’s African Rifles.

·         5th Battalion (Kenya) King’s African Rifles.

·         1st Battalion of the 6th (Tanganyika) King’s African Rifles.

·         56th (Uganda) Field Battery East African Artillery.

·         9th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

·         60th Field Company East African Engineers.

·         5th (Kenya) Field Ambulance.

The 145th Light Anti-Aircraft Troop, Royal Artillery, was also in direct support for OPERATION LINE.

Because of the narrow frontage on the winding mountain road to Tananarive the Brigade had trained to operate in three Fighting Groups based on the three battalions.  No. 1 Fighting Group was 1/1 KAR and a battery of 9 Field Regiment; No. 2 Fighting Group was 5 KAR and 56 Field Battery; No. 3 Fighting Group was 1/6 KAR and a battery of 9 Field Regiment.  Armoured car and engineer detachments were to move in direct support of the leading Fighting Group as it was anticipated that the Vichy enemy would demolish bridges and defend the demolitions.  Each Fighting Group was led by the Forward Body which was the rifle company tasked to lead the advance at that moment plus mortars, armoured cars, engineers and artillery forward observation parties.  The most effective direct fire weapons in the Brigade were the Vickers machine guns mounted on the armoured cars.

Above: Armoured car at a road block


On 10 September 1942 OPERATION STREAM went as planned; 29 Brigade and the Commandos landed and captured Majunga for the loss of 5 men killed and 9 wounded, all from 29 Brigade.  Brigadier Dimoline’s brigade then started to land but ran into problems on the beach as the South African Marmon-Herrington armoured cars became bogged-in; eventually a bulldozer was landed to tow vehicles away from the sand. It took over eight hours before the Forward Body of No. 1 Fighting Group was clear of the beach with a few armoured cars.

Lieutenant Colonel John Francis McNab (Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders) commanded No. 1 Fighting Group which was spearheading the advance to Tananarive.  His Forward Body was commanded by OC ‘B’ Company 1/1st KAR, Major G. McC. Y. Dawson (Lancashire Fusiliers).   Dawson had prepared an advance guard led by Lieutenant A.E.T. King to speed ahead of the Forward Body in an attempt to prevent the French from blowing bridges over the Kamoro River at Mile 99 and over the Betsiboka River at Mile 131.  King finally got away with his carrier-mounted Askari, one and a half troops of armoured cars and engineer and mortar detachments, reaching the Kamoro bridge at 1600 hours to find it intact and guarded by a few Malagache gardes indigines who were quickly dispersed.

Dawson and his command post caught up with King and one platoon was detailed to guard the bridge whilst the advance continued to Bestsiboka.  But the Forward Body soon ran into a series of obstacles caused by the French felling palm trees and dropping them across the road.  Clearing these took time as the armoured cars were used to drag the trees off the road, and this delay prevented the Forward Body from reaching Betsiboka before last light.  As the armoured cars could not advance in the dark without using lights, which would provide the enemy with targets, Dawson halted for the night.  Meanwhile back at Majunga the remainder of McNab’s Fighting Group was slowly getting off the beach.

Dawson got moving before dawn on 11th September, still meeting obstacles on the road, and he reached Betsiboka at 0630 hours to find the centre span of the bridge lying in the river; however the dropped span could be accessed by vehicles and used as a roadway, so the demolition was not a serious obstacle.  Realising this the French sent a Potez 63 bomber to wreck the bridge but the six bombs it dropped missed both the bridge and Dawson’s Forward Body.  Whilst the sappers worked on cutting vehicle tracks in the 30-foot high banks of the river to join up with the dropped bridge span, King crossed on foot with a platoon to establish a bridgehead.  He soon ran into enemy machine gun and rifle fire from a steep wooded ridge and so immediately attacked that feature.  As King neared the top of the ridge he came under grenade attack from the enemy and six Askari were wounded.  Dawson sent Lieutenant M.L. Hignett and a platoon across the river to assist King, plus a mortar detachment under Lieutenant M.S. Fearn.  Together the three subalterns cleared the French position, killing 10 of the enemy, wounding 4 and taking 37 prisoners.  At dusk that day the first armoured car was across the river and 24 hours later all of the Forward Body vehicles were over the obstacle and ready to advance.

Above: The dropped Betsiboka Bridge

During the fighting at Betsiboka No. DN 12609 Private Joseph of 1/1st KAR had shown conspicuous gallantry and ingenuity in action which led to the award of the Military Medal with the citation:  On 11.9.42 Private Joseph’s platoon had occupied high ground held by the enemy east of the river BETSIBOKA.  Although prisoners had been taken and the enemy had run away there were still a few enemy remaining in trenches who fired at anyone approaching the entrance to the trenches.  Private Joseph during these mopping up operations found out how these trenches were connected up and entering a trench some 30 yards distance from a batch of enemy, crawled through their communication trenches and took them completely by surprise thereby forcing them into the open where they were dealt with by others of the platoon.  Through this Private’s daring and cunning it is conceivable that he saved the lives of a number of his comrades.

The action at Anjiajia

Dawson’s Forward Body continued the advance on 13th September with Hignett’s platoon and the armoured cars leading; again obstacles were a problem.  The South African air force was now operating from Majunga airfield and air reconnaissance showed that the French were destroying bridges and building road blocks all the way to Tananarive.  At dawn the next day ‘C’ Company under Captain J.D.I. Robertson formed the infantry element of the Forward Body and resumed the advance with speed being the priority.  On the following day, 15th September, Robertson reached the Kamolandy bridge where the bridge decking had been removed.  McNab was quickly on the scene ordering a diversion to be cut through the bush and the river forded; by 1300 hours this had been achieved and two hours later the advance reached Andriba.  South of the village a large demolition blocked the road, followed by another two miles further on.  Whilst the engineers made the road passable McNab concentrated his Fighting Group south of Andriba.

At 1030 hours on the 16th September Robertson’s Forward Body reached Anjiajia where a dropped bridge span lay in the shallow River Mamokamita; the surrounding countryside appeared to be peaceful, although enemy positions were seen beyond the far bank they looked to be deserted.  Whilst Robertson and his sapper officer inspected the demolition, 2nd Lieutenant A.P. Palmer was ordered across the river with a section from his platoon.  As he moved uphill on the far bank Palmer came under fire that wounded two Askari; the remaining two sections of the platoon were sent across and Palmer continued advancing up a ridge until he came under fire from higher ground to his left and right.

Above: Askari in Bren Gun carrier

Robertson realised that he had more than a minor contact on his hands and he got his mortars into action and sent Lieutenant R.K.J. Fraser and his platoon across the river to work around the enemy’s left flank.  But the enemy position was deep and heavy machine gun and rifle fire killed Fraser and wounded several Askari.  Sergeant Odilo, Fraser’s Platoon Sergeant, took over command of the platoon continuing the line of advance and capturing a European manned machine gun post; Odilo then mopped up the enemy left flank in fierce close-quarter fighting.  

For his conspicuous gallantry and leadership in action No. 11636 Sergeant Odilo was put forward for a Distinguished Conduct Medal but this was reduced to the award of a Military Medal with the citation:  At the crossing of the MAMOKOMITA RIVER on 16th September 1942 Sergeant Odilo’s platoon was ordered to cut the road behind the enemy position.  His platoon came up a ridge in the face of machine gun fire and were pinned down.  The Platoon Commander being killed and two corporals wounded, Sergeant Odilo who was with the rear section led it up the ridge behind the enemy machine gun position and destroyed it.  He then reorganised his platoon and with hand to hand fighting cleared up the enemy position.  Sergeant Odilo’s bravery and coolness under fire was outstanding and by his action he saved his platoon from a difficult position.

Meanwhile Palmer had been wounded in the arm but under cover of mortar fire he advanced against the second enemy-held ridge and captured it after fierce fighting where many of the Nyasaland Askari discarded their rifles, using grenades and pangas to kill the French troops who opposed them from concealed rifle pits.  Anthony Phillip Palmer’s dedication and composure was rewarded with a Military Cross2nd Lieutenant Palmer was under constant fire for two hours and showed outstanding coolness in the face of the enemy.  His platoon suffered several casualties but owing to 2nd Lieutenant Palmer’s gallantry and devotion to duty his platoon annihilated two enemy positions.

KAR losses in this action were Lieutenant Raymond Kenneth Joseph Fraser and four Askari killed, and Anthony Palmer and seven Askari wounded.  The French lost four Europeans and 18 Senegalese killed plus 18 men who were taken as prisoners.  An advanced dressing station was set up at Andriba, and the dead were buried there.  Interestingly the wounded Askari got on well with the wounded Senegalese – both sides had been prepared to fight to the death and mutual respect had been established.  In contrast later during the campaign wounded Askari would refuse to be bedded alongside wounded Malagache prisoners, whose appetite for battle was minimal.

Above: Askari ready to go

The road to Ankazobe

McNab’s men assisted the engineers throughout the night in constructing a deviation around the dropped bridge and the next morning Major R.N. Cooper (Royal Norfolk Regiment) commanded the Forward Body, having under command both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies.  By late afternoon the airsfield at Marotsipoy was in Cooper’s hands and Allied aircraft were using it the following day to provide Brigadier Dimoline with air support. 

The road now led through rocky outcrops that had provided the enemy with the stones to build 70 road blocks that had to be moved by hand.  The river just before Ankazobe was reached at 0900 hours on 19 September, and as usual the bridge had been dropped.  McNab brought artillery, mortar and machine gun fire down onto enemy positions across the river, plus the fire of the Bofors guns of 145th Light Anti-Aircraft Troop; this concentration of fire caused the defenders to retreat.  A bridgehead was secured whilst a difficult deviation was built, but the first attempt failed when an artillery quad vehicle got bogged in the river clay; a second deviation was built and lined with a firm base of stones and all McNab’s vehicles crossed without further incident.  But this had been a tough day for the troops working up to their wastes in the river.  Meanwhile the Forward Body moved ahead to Fihaonana, being halted by a bridge whose decking had been removed, but Cooper’s men were resourceful and timber was cut to provide new decking.  Brigade Headquarters moved up to Ankazobe followed by No. 3 Fighting Group who were nominated as Brigade Reserve.   

The Battle of Mahitsy

On 21 September the Forward Body was moving again and practising its by now familiar drill of deviating around undefended obstacles when at 1230 hours the leading armoured car came under fire from a 75-mm gun and several machine guns; the strong French defences at Mahitsy had been reached.  The French had deployed three infantry companies, six artillery pieces plus mortars and machine guns to defend Mahitsy.  Captain J. Mulholland’s ‘D’ Company advanced but was soon pinned down by cross-fire from enemy artillery, mortars and machine guns.  Despite this Lieutenant J. Willey’s platoon advanced 50 yards and silenced a machine gun post for the cost of three Askari wounded.  Corporal Rabson was prominent in exercising leadership and moving his men tactically into better fire positions.

McNab moved forward to make an appreciation of the situation but as he could not contact ‘D’ Company nor accurately locate the enemy positions he moved back to higher ground and a good viewing point at Ampanotokana.  At 1600 hours firing broke out again allowing McNab to plot enemy positions on both sides of the road.  Despite having only two hours of daylight left McNab ordered an attack with ‘A’ Company supporting ‘D’ Company on the right and ‘B’ Company attacking on the left.  Captain J.E.S. Clarkson’s ‘A’ Company detoured around the enemy’s left and made contact with the enemy who retired along a ridge, but ‘A’ Company was halted when tracer bullets caused large grass fires from behind which the French lobbed grenades; Clarkson then withdrew to reorganise.

On the opposite flank Dawson’s ‘B’ Company detoured left to clear a small village from where the muzzle-flash of a 75-mm gun had been observed.  The village was taken and the enemy gun was located and neutralised by British artillery fire.  ‘B’ Company then occupied and secured its objective, it’s personal little battle being over.  Geoffrey McCloughlin Yelverton Dawson later received a Military Cross for his gallantry:  Major Dawson throughout the advance from MAJUNGA to TANANARIVE from 10th September 1942 handled his Company in four separate actions with gallantry, dash and resource.  By his personal example of pugnacious gallantry on the night of 21/22 September 1942 at MAHITSY this officer not only gained the enemy position overlooking MAHITSY causeway, but he was able to direct the fire of our own artillery so successfully as to force the enemy 75mm which was harassing our troops to cease fire and withdraw.

On the morning of 22 September Brigadier Dimoline appeared, urging speed and aggression as he had been doing throughout the advance.  During the previous day’s fighting McNab had lost one Askari killed and five wounded; French casualties could not be ascertained because of the wall of fire that burned in front of the enemy positions.  Clarkson’s ‘A’ Company advanced along its ridge on the right of the road, taking two prisoners and two old 80-mm guns.  The causeway that the road ran over was seen to have been blown in three places.  McNab moved his command post up onto the Mahitsy end of this ridge and planned a new attack.

Above: A diversion across a river

Dawson with ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies was ordered to swing around the French left and enter Mahitsy from the rear, clearing villages on the way.  ‘A’ Company 1/6th KAR was ordered forward to clear the blocks on the road covered by a platoon of ‘D’ Company 1/1st KAR; ‘A’ Company 1/1st KAR was placed in reserve.  Before these movements could start two French 65-mm guns sited near Mahitsy engaged McNab’s command post, the armoured cars and the roadblocks.  Eleven Askari were wounded before these guns were silenced by counter-battery and Vickers machine gun fire.

Concurrent British activity then prevailed on the battlefield.  ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies set off at 1115 hours; ‘A’ Company 1/6th KAR continued to remove roadblocks under cover of Allied artillery and air support; and at 1315 hours Lieutenant Willey’s ‘D’ Company platoon attacked the French machine gun posts covering the causeway.  Willey, assisted by fire from the armoured cars and from an artillery battery completed his task in two hours. 

Left: Corporal Rabson MM and Lt General Sir W. Platt

No. 12669 Corporal Rabson, 1/1st KAR, continued his excellent work on the battlefield and was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal but received a Military Medal: During the actions at MAHITSY on 21.9.42 and 22.9.42 this Non-Commissioned Officer showed courage, excellent leadership and devotion to duty.  During the first day when his platoon was pinned down by heavy small arms ammunition cross fire from light machine guns, rifles and mortars, he advanced and gained an excellent position 50 yards nearer to the enemy positions and immediately and accurately engaged the enemy light machine guns and mortars and allowed the remainder of the platoon to gain reasonable cover and fire positions.  During the action of the second day Corporal Rabson was detached from the rest of his platoon to cover the right of the road and the right front.  He had little chance to get cover at any time and was under continuous small arms ammunition fire and in the early stages from the French (65s or 75s) for nearly four and a half hours.  This Acting Non-Commissioned Officer handled his section most skilfully and pugnaciously and for the greater part of both actions during the two days was on his own divorced from his platoon.

When all the demolitions on the road had been cleared ‘A’ Company 1/6th KAR advanced into Mahitsy where it met a platoon of ‘C’ Company from Dawson’s command that was coming back through the town to make contact with the Fighting Group.  Dawson had met negligible opposition.  ‘A’ Company 1/1st KAR and ‘A’ Company 1/6th KAR both moved through the town to occupy the high ground to the south.  The battle of Mahitsy was over.

The action at Ambohidratrimo

The last action fought by McNab’s 1/1st KAR Fighting Group on the road from Majunga was at Ambohidratimo where the Ivato aerodrome was located, just short of Tananarive.  ‘D’ Company 1/6th KAR worked throughout the night of 22nd/23rd September to clear a demolition south of Mahitsy, allowing McNab to send his Forward Body (‘A’ Company 1/1st KAR) forward at dawn on 23rd September.  Light enemy forces were encountered at Alakamisy, eleven miles from Tananarive, but mortar and Vickers machine gun fire dispersed them.

Anticipating trouble at Ambohidratimo McNab sent ‘B’ Company forward to support ‘A’ Company.  ‘A’ Company attacked French defensive positions that could be seen on the forward slopes of hills either side of the route; one platoon attacked frontally whilst two other platoons attacked up each side of the flanking hills.  No. 11947 Sergeant Walasi commanded one of the platoons and he won the battle for McNab by capturing two French field guns.  Walasi was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal but this was reduced by higher authority to a Military Medal.  His citation read: Sergeant Walasi was in command of his platoon in three separate engagements with the enemy during the advance from MAJUNGA to TANANARIVE.  He at all times showed the greatest skill and determination in leadership and his personal courage was an inspiration to those under his command.  At AMBODATRIMO (sic) on 23 September 1942 Sergeant Walasi’s platoon became heavily engaged by enemy machine gun fire, without hesitation or thought of his personal safety he led his platoon in an attack and rushed two field guns and stampeded the gun crews before they could fire a shot from the guns.  He then proceeded to further positions, all the time under heavy fire, and forced the enemy to abandon positions and flee in all directions.  During this encounter he accounted for some 20 prisoners.

Lieutenant B. Darvill’s reserve platoon then went into action on Walasi’s right, using mortars for support whilst the enemy were cleared off the ridge in hand to hand fighting.  The French position at Ambohidratimo was taken for the loss of one Askari killed and three wounded.  Tananarive surrendered as Annet had withdrawn southwards to continue the fight. 

No. 1 Fighting Group was broken up, McNab became Commander of the Tananarive Area and soon received promotion to Acting Brigadier.  His Fighting Group had achieved its mission for the loss of one officer and seven Askari killed and one officer and 31 Askari wounded.

Senior awards

OPERATION LINE had been concluded in just under two weeks.  Lieutenant Colonel McNab had used his men professionally and kept them both motivated and moving forward, whilst Brigadier Dimoline had kept inspiring McNab with the requirement for speed as well as providing the necessary support and guidance.  Both men received honours.

John Francis McNab was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE):  Lieutenant Colonel McNAB commanded the leading “battalion group” consisting of an English Field Battery and South African Armoured Cars throughout the advance of British Forces from MAJUNGA to TANANARIVE IN MADAGASCAR in September 1942.  It was largely due to his enterprise, offensive spirit, energy and example that the distance of 360 miles was covered, and the capital captured, in thirteen days from first landing, despite numerous broken bridges, road blocks, felled trees and other obstacles.  On each occasion when hostile opposition was encountered (there were two occasions when the battalions had to be deployed) Lieutenant Colonel McNAB launched his troops to the attack with promptitude, skill and gallantry and with well-co-ordinated covering fire by his supporting arms, thus quickly overcoming opposition with minimum losses to his own force.  

William Alfred Dimoline OBE MC was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  His citation first described his merits before and during the Abyssinian campaign, and then the Madagascar part stated: He commanded 22 Infantry Brigade Group in Madagascar from the time of its landing at Majunga to the cessation of hostilities with great ability.  His control of operations was skilful and determined, and it was largely due to his organizing and administrative powers that the momentum of the advance was maintained in the face of very great difficulties.

But Governor General Annet and his die-hard Vichy soldiers were still resisting in the south of Madagascar, and it now was the turn of the Askari of 5th (Kenya) KAR and the 1/6th (Tanganyika) KAR Fighting Groups to display their mettle.  1/1st KAR had led the way to Tananarive and had performed its task splendidly.

-Christopher Buckley. Five Ventures. (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1954).
-Kenneth Gandar Dower. The King’s African Rifles in Madagascar. (East Africa Command, in conjunction with the Ministry of Information 1943)
-John Grehan. The Forgotten Invasion. (Historic Military Press 2007). Hubert Moyse-Bartlett, Lieutenant Colonel. The King’s African Rifles. (Naval & Military Press reprint).
-Colin Smith. England’s Last War Against France. Fighting Vichy 1940-1942. (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2009).