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Operation Ironclad - the Invasion of Madagascar.

5 to 7 May 1942


This is a brief account of Operation Ironclad, the invasion of Madagascar, by a member of No 5 Commando. The total campaign lasted 6 months but the bulk of the amphibious initial landings of Combined Operations and the Commandos was concentrated into a few days in early May 1942.

[Photo; Troop convoy and escorting warships in harbour at Madagascar taken from the cruiser HMS Hermione. © IWM (A 8862).]

On March 23, 1942, No 5 Commando sailed from Glasgow in the Winchester Castle as part of the largest military convoy to leave Britain at that stage of the war. The 365 men of No 5 Commando were part of a larger force, which included the 29th Independent Brigade and the 13th Brigade. The convoy consisted of more than 50 Royal Navy Ships and on reaching the Indian Ocean the total force included 3 Battleships, 3 N Aircraft Carriers, frigates, destroyers and corvettes.

We carried French Intelligence Officers with us and correctly guessed our destination was a Vichy French administered colony. Our briefing eventually explained the absolute necessity of preventing the Japanese from capturing the Island of Madagascar, which would give them access to the third largest natural harbour in the world at Diego Suarez. At a time when transit through the Mediterranean was too risky to attempt, the long route to Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope was of paramount importance. Had the Japanese taken control of Madagascar, supporting the 8th Army in N. Africa or the 14th Army in Burma would have been extremely hazardous and S. Africa would have been vulnerable to attack.

The Landing

At dawn on 5 May, 1942, we followed mine sweeping Corvettes in our assault landing craft (ALCs) and landed at Courrier Bay on the North West Coast of Madagascar, about 11 miles overland from Diego Suarez in the east. There was no opposition, having caught the French forces completely unawares, made possible by a triumph of seamanship from the Royal and Merchant Navies, who penetrated coral reefs believed impassable to a force of our size.

[See the coloured square markers, on the map opposite, for the location of the landing beaches.]

Above us, on cliffs 50 feet high, was a battery of Gin guns. We climbed the cliffs and caught the Vichy gunners by surprise. They were asleep and Amen to that! There were French Officers, NCOs and Malagash and Senegalese troops, who were rounded up and placed under guard.

At first light, the Vichy counter-attack began. On our flank, 40 Colonials with 2 NCOs charged up the hill towards us. We carried out a bayonet charge and the NCOs were killed. The remainder gave up and threw down their weapons. Our casualties were light. Capt "Chips" Heron went forward to take the surrender of a separate party of battery observers on a nearby hill. As they came forward to surrender, some grenades were lobbed over from their rear, wounding Capt Heron and others. They did not get the chance to surrender again.

Cap Diego

In sweltering heat, we marched against a hot wind across the 18 mile long isthmus to Cap Diego loaded heavily with ammo and grenades. There was a fracas with a Troop of Foreign Legionnaires. We wounded around 50 of them before they surrendered and then continued mopping up operations, while 2 Brigades took the capital of Antsirane with heavy casualties after a daring manoeuvre by 50 Royal Marines. They came off HMS Ramilles in Courrier Bay, boarded the destroyer Anthony and, at 8 pm, in pitch darkness, entered the harbour under fire from every gun which could be brought to bear on her. She ran alongside the wharf as the Marines tumbled over the side to gain the shore.

The Commando orders were to attack everything except the barracks and the magazine, which were strongly held but in half an hour they were in possession of both. They had accomplished everything with only one casualty. They prevented much street fighting and damage to the town. The official report quotes "These 50 Marines created a disturbance in the town out of all proportion to their numbers!!"


We then sailed to Mombasa, Kenya to rehearse for the next few operations, one of which involved ramming a boom at 30 knots before pulling alongside the dock to allow us to leap off. On completion of the training, we set course for Majunga, the largest port on the west coast of Madagascar.

[Photo; At the end of Operation Ironclad, the Allied landings on Madagascar. Aerial views of French Bay Harbour, Diego Suarez. General view of the warships and British Merchant ships in harbour. © IWM A 8891.]

The plan, on this occasion, was to steer our landing craft directly into the docks but some of the craft broke down, causing serious delays. We landed in broad daylight against machine gun fire on a small frontage with 4 machine guns. Fortunately, we had good cover from the Royal Navy, which kept our casualties down. We didn't need scaling ladders as we went up that quayside like scuttling rats! I can still see our chaps going down like ninepins out of the corner of my eyes.

We experienced street fighting and disposed of snipers firing from windows. Our first target was the Post Office to cut communications with the capital of Madagascar, Tannanarive and the second was the Residency to capture the Governor and to raise the Union Jack.

We took both targets, during which I had my first face to face 'him or me' engagement. I spotted the barrel of a rifle coming into view from behind a car, followed by a fez. The wearer stood straight up and dodged to the right as he saw me when I instinctively fired from the hip, killing him. I felt quite horrible and will never know if I could have taken him prisoner. Our Captain, Geoff Rees-Jones, took a quick look and said "dead as a door nail, well done Riley". French casualties were heavy.

Tamatave & Tannanarive

We returned to Diego Suarez and transferred to destroyers HMS Arrow, Active and Blackmore. We were escorted by HMS Warspite, the carrier Illustrious, 3 cruisers and 14 destroyers as we sailed for Tamatave, the largest port on the East Coast. We arrived at dawn and formed a semi-circle half a mile from the port docks. Warspite and Illustrious were positioned 10 miles out. With this show of power and under white flag, an envoy approached the enemy to demand unconditional surrender. If he was refused or he was fired on, there was to be a 55 minute bombardment by the destroyers and Warspite's 15in guns, while Illustrious would send in Seafires and Swordfishes. After this, our destroyers would ram the boom at 30 knots, pull hard against the quay and we would leap off.

The envoy signalled he was being fired on. Immediately there was a salvo from HMS Birmingham, the signal for the bombardment. This lasted just a few minutes, in which time 2,000 shells had made contact. White flags popped up everywhere and our destroyers steamed into the harbour with the boom opened for us by the subdued French.

We started the advance on Tannanarive, whilst the KARs advanced from Majunga. The rifles got there first. We then chased the remnants of the French southwards, which is another story. In October, an Armistice was signed. The whole Island surrendered with the French troops signing up for De Gaulle.

We embarked for home, arriving in December. We all got leave and I walked in on my family for Christmas. My mother dropped the teapot and my Father (a Great War veteran) came out with his usual remark whenever he saw me, "I don't believe it!" The bad penny had survived once again!

WW2 Diary of Leading Telegraphist GHL Bowman, JX 181390.

Editorial notes (*) have been added to certain paragraphs in the way of explanation.


Leading Telegraphist, GHL Bowman, served in the Combined Operations Command. He was trained to operate radio transmitters and receivers to provide communications between field units and Commanding Officers and/or Forward Observation Officers and those in charge of firing heavy guns.

The bulk of his recollections are taken from his wartime diary, but his account starts with some amusing anecdotes of his induction into the Royal Navy training in amphibious landings on a remote sea loch in the Scottish Highlands and participation in early Commando raids. His son, Lt Col (retd) David Bowman writes; My father, George Henry Lindsay Bowman (known as Lindsay or sometimes “Bob” to his shipmates), served with the Combined Operations Command as a Telegraphist in 1941 and 1942. The first part of these reminiscences is taken from notes he used for after-dinner speaking.

[Photo; Leading Telegraphist GHL Bowman.]

Induction, Training and Early Commando Raids

When war broke out, I was a shipping clerk in Liverpool, so, when I volunteered for the Royal Navy (RN), I expected to be put in the Writers’or Supply branch but their Lordships thought otherwise and I became a telegraphist. With eleven other volunteers, I travelled to London on the 29th of January, 1940, in arctic weather. It took thirteen hours to reach Euston railway station in London, a distance of just 220 miles.

We arrived at Chatham Barracks (HMS Pembroke) in the afternoon of the next day. After a hurried issue of kit, we were shown to our mess (3FF Anson Block). It was designed to hold about sixty but, that night, there were over one hundred of us. There was a shortage of plates, cups and cutlery and no space for us to sling our hammocks. Being newcomers, we had to make do with *dossing on the deck. After 'lights out', one of the rookies coughed incessantly, which kept disturbing the silence. After a while, out of the darkness, one of the old hands shouted out, “Die you bastard, die!” [1] At that moment, I knew for sure I was in the RN! (*"dossing on the deck" - sleeping on the floor.)

After I completed my “sparkers” course, I received my first draft to HMS Quebec on the 3rd of January 1941, a navy shore based establishment, which was part of the No 1 Combined Training Centre (CTC) on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyllshire, Scotland. The journey through England was uneventful, but that was to change on the last stage of our journey from Tarbet to Inveraray. It involved a nightmarish journey by open truck over a high mountain pass, appropriately called the 'Rest and Be Thankful'.

I was dumped, with several others, in the middle of the night, in the small town of Inveraray, the seat of his Grace, the Duke of Argyll. Here, we began our training for Combined Operations. For nearly a year, I trained with army and air force contingents in landing craft operations on Loch Fyne. One evening, I was duty orderly in the Regulating Office together with an elderly CPO (Chief Petty Officer) Stoker, who had been brought back to help the war effort. In walked a brand new Sub-Lieutenant, RNVR, straight out of *HMS King Alfred, who proceeded to look through a pile of papers on his desk. After a while, the officer spoke, “Tomorrow, Chief, we will do this and after that we will do something else” and so on. The CPO took his pipe out of his mouth, spat into the fire and replied without turning round, “Scuse me Sir, but this isn’t my first bloody war, it’s my third.” Collapse and retreat of the said Sub-Lieutenant! (*HMS King Alfred - a wartime officer training establishment at Hove.)

Despite the rigours of training and living in unheated Jimmy the One huts, I grew very fond of Inveraray. I met many interesting and largely welcoming locals, including an elderly gentleman, who played the harmonium in the Episcopalian church where I worshipped every Sunday. He turned out to be His Grace, the Duke of Argyll! Next in memory is the widow, daughters and granddaughters of the novelist Neil Munroe. Their warm hospitality was a great comfort to a raw recruit. So too was the friendship of a genuine Scottish housewife, Mrs Smith, and her sons, Willie and Donald, who made me very welcome in their home at Barn Park. Mrs Smith did my washing each week. It flew alongside that of his Grace who, I heard, was very casual in regard to his laundry!

My enjoyment of my friends’ company and the delightful mountainous countryside came to an end, when my training to equip me with the skills to join in Commando raids was completed. The first such raid was to the Norwegian Lofoten Islands on Boxing Day 1941, codenamed Operation Anklet. Catching the German occupying forces unawares, we took prisoners and some Norwegian men, who wished to join their compatriots in the UK. My job was not arduous, just to signal back to the HQ ship that the landing had been effected. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the ship, since it was camouflaged against the fjord sides, so the officer in charge ended up doing it himself.

Shortly after returning to Scotland, we were posted to Warsash, on the south coast of England, in preparation for our next Commando raid. This time, *fast motor boats, recently received from the USA, would be our transport. We proceeded in these to Newhaven, where our Commandos embarked. When darkness fell, we slipped out of harbour bound for Boulogne, but sadly, the leading boat grounded on a sandbank and the rest of the flotilla followed suit! On the next high tide we re-floated and returned to the quayside where, **Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, who was then in charge of Combined Operations, was waiting for us. He was not amused. We returned to Inveraray to await our next assignment. (*fast motor boats - probably Higgins or Elco Motor Gun Boats. **Admiral Sir Roger Keyes - a lapse of memory, Keyes had been replaced by Mountbatten in October 1941.)

Operation Ironclad

Lindsay's time at Inveraray was coming to an end as preparations for the invasion of Madagascar came to fruition. News of Operation Ironclad filtered down. As sometimes happened at training establishments, with constant turnover in trainees, accommodation for new intakes was made ready before previous intakes had left. Lindsay was likely caught up in this scenario, as his diary explains below.

7 March 1942. Awoke to the depressing thought that today is possibly my last day in my highland home.

9 March 1942. A typical CTC day of humping kit and gear from one ship to another, a matter of about a ¼ mile, taking all morning and most of the afternoon. Accommodation reserved for us in none other than the swimming pool, until agitation changed it to sleeping one extra in cabins already holding four.

12 March 1942. Endeavouring to settle down after the third move in four days. Accommodation even worse than ever before – the prospect of a month or so aboard does not please. “What does unhappiness mean if we are all unhappy together?” (E M Forster).

18 March 1942. I have been driven into the depths of despair and up again. The reason being a sudden absorption into a two watch routine with resultant lack of sleep. More and more I agree with the Ancient Mariner, “Sleep it is a blissful thing, beloved from pole to pole”.

24 March 1942. Since last entry, have spent a week changing ships and consequent humping of kit plus two days as a stevedore (unpaid of course, not even a meal allowance). *Have been at sea over 24 hours though hardly notice it. (* Convoy bound for Madagascar left Glasgow on the 23rd March).

3 April 1942. Saw flying fish for the first time. They are quite small, no bigger than sprats.

5 May 1942.  Operation Ironclad -  Madagascar. [See coloured square markers for location of beaches.]

Zero Hour, but not for me.* Got up leisurely at about 04.30, bathed before breakfast and checked over kit before falling in on for’ard well deck. By this time, light was well up and the beaches had been established. After an hour’s buffeting in an ALC** we reached White Beach, disembarking deep in water. (* His after-dinner speech notes say “I was on a troop ship and my job was to land with Brigadier Sturges, Royal Marines on the principal landing beach”.**Assault Landing Craft).

Signal trolleys carried ashore and eventually a quarter of a mile over very rough ground. Status established and snake killed. Tent set up, but found unbearably hot – prepared to work in open. A few natives in evidence – no opposition here. 2pm, word received to pack up and remove to Blue Beach. Brown, Meaby and I walked cross country through semi-jungle, across dry river bed and through stinking swamp before arriving at BB.

Effort of walking in heat had exhausted me – first taste of tropical fatigue. After a rest, spirits revived at mention of a bathe, followed by complete rejuvenation thanks to most exhilarating bathe ever experienced! Kept watch (last dog), contacted old pals and had a lemon drink with DPJ before turning in beneath the stars. Bed - hard earth; pyjamas cum bed clothes - a gas cape; anti-mosquito ointment and small piece of netting, complete protective measures. Slept fairly well and awakened at 4.45 to take over morning watch.

6 May 1942. Bathe and wash before breakfast, latter consisting of biscuits, cheese + Nescafe (supplied by Willie). Helped erect tent, rest of morning and afternoon spent in and out of water, dodging the MPs! (Bathing officially prohibited by the *PMLO). Took over first dog from Geoff Johnson but relieved at end of half hour by Pem. Received orders to pack immediately and stand by to go and relieve **FOO1. (*Principal Military Landing Officer with responsibility for the beach area. **Forward Observation Officer, whose job it was to direct remote gun fire onto a target).

Taken at full speed in *Eureka to Red Beach, where Captain Melville, RM, awaited me with motorcycle. Most hectic pillion ride imaginable followed, during which we had two spills, lost my headgear and the officer’s maps. Road abominably bad and light fading. Startled once or twice by stray cattle. Part of road ablaze presumably incendiaries. Met own sentries and, after proving identity, shot past field artillery just as a salvo fired, causing officer to lose his toupee and me very nearly my head! Rest of journey in convoy to Commando HQ where no one knew anything about me or very interested.** After a lot of standing about, contacted FOOs 1 and 3 on balcony of building. Settled down to make myself at home with occasional noises off. As near to front-line as I have yet been. Snatches of sleep but rather uncomfortable. Awakened at 1.45 to set watch, continued to sleep until six. (*The Higgins Eureka was a US built vehicle and personnel landing-craft. **His after-dinner speech notes say that the purpose of the journey was to deliver an ultimatum to the occupying French troops).

7 May 1942. Washed and shaved in water trough, presumably washing place of native soldiers as Diego (Suarez) appears to consist solely of barracks. Number of native prisoners in evidence and a few French. The latter had caused trouble for a while when they escaped from their sunken ships. Parted from FOO1, Captain Marsh Stanley, and proceeded to hilltop overlooking channel and Antsirane. *Set not working satisfactorily. Made tea and got word to pack up and return to HQ. Crossed channel in motor boat with an MO. Held ? (indecipherable) in bow to advertise our identity. All quiet on (Antsirane) waterfront on arrival. (*radio transmitter/receiver).

Set out to walk to Infantry HQ preparatory to spotting for naval bombardment of the town. Picked up by bren gun carrier and taken to Div HQ where we found FOO2 including Meaby. Learnt that the ultimatum to surrender had been received, bombardment stopped by Meaby sending *O-U.  Spent rest of daylight sitting on pavement outside Div HQ. Prisoners (natives) in grounds, frequently visited by womenfolk bringing food and drink. Tried out my French making cocoa but could not make myself understood when asked for spoon. (*O-U. Operational - Urgent signal? In the confusion surrounding the surrender, HMS Ramillies fired several rounds at the French batteries on the Orangea Peninsula before the order could be given to cease fire).

Just as daylight ended, moved to Boulevard Petain, where we found billets in garage of respectable house. Road petered out into wood falling down to beach. Small dwellings occupied by natives and half-castes hidden in the trees. Elected to sleep on iron mattress with Stanley on veranda, repeating anti-mosquito measures and placing revolver close at hand. Spent fairly comfortable night.

8 May 1942   Late arising – washed and shaved followed by protracted breakfast consisting of boiled egg (minute), rasher of boiled bacon (tinned), about half a dozen beans (tinned), biscuits, jam and tea. Lazy morning waiting for dinner. Visited civil hospital (now overflowing with military and flying Tricolour and Union Jack side by side). Large portrait of Marshal Petain at entrance and pro-Vichy notices in evidence. Made tea for dinner after watching Madame coax the small fire into life. Meaby and I explored beach below hospital with view to bathe – mud and general atmosphere deterred us. Walked around bay, past slaughter house and valley of dry bones. Evil looking birds, larger than gulls and possibly a species of vulture, hovered overhead. Met small party of natives coming from marshes where upturned Swordfish lay with engine hanging loose. Inspected plane obtaining a number of leaflets addressed to Soldats de Madagascar (click to enlarge). Wireless set appeared to have been removed, otherwise gear complete and in good condition. Returned to find lettuce for tea, also small orange each. Slept as previous night, but not so comfortably.

9 May 1942. Awakened at 6am for early breakfast prior to route march! Latter eventually began at about 8.30; made our way through town past various barracks to quay. Received water in lager glass from Chinese storekeeper – as afterthought he added a little cordial giving an aniseed flavour – spoilt drink for me. Discussed possibility of returning to ship. Helped to carry supply of provisions back to billet and learnt that party was moving into RA barracks.

Meaby and I received permission to return to ship and lost no time getting down to quay where we bumped into SSO. Received his approval of our efforts of the past few days. After about an hour’s wait, and a rough crossing in Eureka, reached *HMS “Wynyard". Never before have I been so glad to gain ship. Reaction set in – attack of nervous debility necessitated a visit to **SB. Caffeine followed next day by (indecipherable). ( *No ship of this name has been found in any records of the RN or Operation Ironclad. **SB - Sick bay).

14 May 1942. A smile and a whistle on most lips – explanation – first mail arrived for over 7 weeks, my share, 5 letters and a paper.

18 to 21 May 1942. Spent ashore in Antsirane on trials with L/T GM. Spent last day covering countryside over 20 miles in bren gun carrier with *9 set. This mode of transport is very uncomfortable owing to lack of space and great heat of engine. Parts of chassis became too hot to touch.   Otherwise riding in this machine not so bad since springs are good and there are thick rubber sponge seats. The carrier travels up to 40 mph and takes rough road very easily. (*The No 9 set was a British tactical radio).

27 May 1942. Anchored in natural harbour on *East coast – at first sight was reminded of the Norfolk Broads.  No sign of habitation. A peculiar phenomenon noticed for the first time this evening, was a small flash light coming intermittently from the sea about 200 yds from the ship. It was seen after sunset and to my knowledge the moon was not up. I suggested a ship’s flashing, but was told that no signalling was in progress. Believed to be floating life jacket fitted with electric bulb fitting. *(This could be the East coast of Madagascar or East Africa).

30 May 1942. Tanga, Tanganyika. Visited native village on the beach today. Began by bargaining with some of the natives for oranges, bananas and coconuts. They always knew what they wanted though they could all be talked down.

3 June 1942   Mombasa, Kenya. Spent a pleasant afternoon sight-seeing and shopping, with a haircut into the bargain.

8 June 1942. Having returned to DS, with great joy, have received second mail since leaving home. Have had two day-visits ashore, working communications for disembarkation of troops.* As traffic has been light, duties have been very small and in consequence we have been free to enjoy bathing, which is really grand in these parts. Hear, that since the occupation, there has been an alarming number of cases of malaria, as much as 10% of one battalion being casualties. Many deaths have ensued. (*Possibly the 22nd East African Brigade).

23 June 1942. Since last entry, the ship of 1000 drips, has brought us safely to our fifth port of call, Bombay. Large selection of merchant ships spread, in long lines, across the harbour, with a sprinkling of warships.

29 June 1942. A further run ashore, shorn of some of its pleasure by the neglect of the (hotel) night boy to call some of us at 6am. In consequence, we missed the liberty boat and had to hire a native boat, reaching ship 1hr 20mins adrift. For the first (and last I hope) time, I find myself on Jimmy’s Report – got away with caution after enquiries had been made.

30 June 1942. Made my first rail journey out of Britain, doing some 100 odd miles to a higher level. Heard from soldiers stationed here (Napoo), that attitude of “whites” resident here, is very unpleasant. Spent a comfortable, but strange night, in large army camp in bare barn like building.

3 July 1942. Khadakwasla Camp. Arrived here, HMS Salsette, (the Royal Navy Combined Operations base), two days ago after hectic drive in army trucks. The place is in the catchment area of a reservoir and must resemble *Arrowe Park at the time of the Jamboree.  Once again I find myself a pioneer and spend the days road-making and making tents habitable. In this connection, it is comforting to know that officers’ accommodation is no different from the mens'. (*Arrowe Park, Birkenhead, site of the 3rd World Scout Jamboree in 1929).

11 July 1942.  We have been here two weeks, yet still nothing has been done about our new address – consequently it is not possible to give our people a chance of writing to us, except via the ships.

18 July 1942.  At last, we have been given our address so that we have been able to get air-graphs off and, in my case, cables. (Start of illness that was to end in invaliding to UK).

 27July 1942. The foolish separation of us* from other ratings continues and is not always to our benefit. At weekend, our leave was cancelled at the caprice of the SSO. I believe he would not agree to us working about camp so, in retaliation, other officers threatened no transport for our liberty men! When will these officers behave like men? (*telegraphists?)

29 July 1942. BG Hospital Poona. Admitted here yesterday after nearly two weeks of treatment in camp. One doctor, one sister, a VAD and a couple of orderlies seem to be the sole staff to manage about sixty patients.

8 August 1942.  Last few days have been spent mainly reading and taking short walks. Heard the surprising news of my colleagues’ departure on HMS “Wynyard”. [2] Only three CTC men remain in hospital now – and if my operation materialises, I shall be the last to leave. What then I wonder?

17 August 1942. Poona Station. Have been discharged from BG Hospital since Saturday and this is my fourth visit to the station. Owing to line defects, no trains have been running direct to Bombay, so I now anticipate a journey of 12 to 16 hours duration, to cover a bare 120 miles.

22 August 1942. St George’s Hospital Bombay. The journey to Bombay was a long, almost a never ending one with two changes. Total time spent travelling, 26 hours. My arrival here tells me nothing about my colleagues and apparently, we stragglers, are to stay here indefinitely, together with the *WC flotilla. (*Probably the general duties men who kept the barracks and toilets clean).

11 September 1942. Arrived at Bandra Retreat House (for convalescence).

2 October 1942. RN Barracks. Returned here after a beneficial three weeks rest. Rather depressed reaction on returning to bug-ridden barracks.

12 October 1942. Visited by Capt GW today and given summary of *second raid on Madagascar. From all accounts, it was more interesting and far less costly in casualties than the first. Makes me wish I had been with “the boys”. (* Presumably Operation Stream – Line –Jane, launched on 10 September 1942).

17 October 1942. St George’s Hospital Bombay. Admitted here yesterday, for second time.

24 November 1942. “The Medical Board has decided that you are unfit for tropical service and to send you back to the UK.” Thus spake the MO to me last Friday afternoon.

1 December 1942. We said goodbye to Bombay 48hrs ago.

30 January 1943. Bristol Channel. Arrived here and anchored this afternoon.

Telegraphist's "If" Poem. [Author unknown but loosely based on Rudyard Kipling's original.]

If you can keep your nerves when all about you
Are stations jamming hard and blaming you,
If you can “Hold the Air” though others flout you,
Until you get your longest message through;
If you can send and not grow weary sending,
Nor overtire the man who has to read;
If your mistakes are rare but prompt their mending,
If you believe that haste is never speed.

If you can calmly contemplate the chatter
Of greenhorn operators fresh from school;
If you can sit with messages that matter
And wait until they’ve finished — and keep cool.
If you can read through half a dozen stations
The weaker signals that are meant for you
And pick ‘em out with few interrogations
Yet never feel ashamed to ask those few.

If you’re a Jack of all Trades, tinker, tailor,
If there is scarce a thing you cannot do,
If you’re an electrician and a sailor
Telegrapher, accountant, lawyer too:
If you’re propelled by energy that’s tireless,
If you don’t fear a job that’s never done,
Then, take my word, you’re fit to work at wireless
And anything you get, you’ll EARN, my son.

Post script. Having been invalided from India, my father spent six months recovering,  followed by nine months at the HMS Pembroke signal school.  To break the monotony, he volunteered to go on a tour speaking about Combined Operations to factory workers working on Admiralty contracts. He returned to active service in June 1944 as a leading telegraphist on MTBs in HMS Mantis at Felixstowe, where he spent the rest of the war. After demobilisation, he was ordained as an Anglican priest, working as a prison chaplain and then as a vicar in Yorkshire. He died in 1994 aged 78.


Operation Ironclad, Official Despatch dated 16/6/42.


[1] According to Sir Alec Guinness, conditions had not improved when he was at HMS Pembroke in 1941. Blessings in Disguise Hamish Hamilton, London 1985.

[2] The original plan had been for 29 Infantry Brigade, with its supporting Combined Operations element, to go to India to undertake an amphibious assault – Operation Cannibal - in September 1942 on the Arakan Peninsula in Burma.   Because 29 Infantry Brigade was retained in Madagascar until October 1942, and a lack of landing craft, the operation was cancelled. 29 Infantry Brigade went on to form an important part of 14th Army in Burma.

Further Reading

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Supplement to The London Gazette dated 2/3/48

Churchill's Secret Invasion. Britain’s First Large-scale Combined Operations Offensive 1942 by John Grehan. Published 2014 by Pen & Sword Books. ISBN 978 1 78159 382 0.


Dear Geoff,

Some years ago you kindly added my father’s memories of Op Ironclad (WW2 Diary of Leading Telegraphist GHL Bowman, JX 181390) to this web page.

Last year, whilst doing some research at the Imperial War Museum, I saw the private papers of Captain Patterson RAMC who was the medical officer of 5 Commando during Op Ironclad. His diary includes the statement that 5 Commando twice failed to obey orders because the CO was an alcoholic who was later dismissed by Brigadier Festing on  7 May 1942.

The only other reference I have come across to this is a two line footnote in Churchill’s Secret Invasion by John Grehan.  

For my family’s records I have added this to the end my father’s diary entry for 6 May 1942. Please feel free to use the text below, as you see fit.

Best wishes

David Bowman

6 May 1942 ….. .…..

[The official report by the Force Commander, Rear Admiral Syfret, sheds some light on the situation in which Lindsay found himself on the evening of 6 May.

On 5 May the town of Diego Suarez on the North shore of Antsiranana Bay had been occupied by 5 Commando but 29 Brigade had failed to capture the port of Antsirane on the South shore. Early in the afternoon of 6 May General Sturges decided to make an attack on Antsirane that night and he asked Rear Admiral Syfret if the navy could land a diversionary party in the enemy's rear. It was agreed that 50 Royal Marines would be moved to Antsirane aboard a destroyer and that 5 Commando would be asked to find some boats and cross the bay to assist the Royal Marines as they landed. At 1530 HMS Anthony sailed with the Royal Marines, whose chance of success was assessed at less than 50%. At 2129, however, HMS Anthony reported she had successfully accomplished her task but without any support from 5 Commando who "were unable to find boats (and) so could not assist". 5 Commando’s medical officer, Captain J H Patterson RAMC, however, gave a different reason in his diary for the unit’s failure to support the Royal Marines.

"There was considerable talk about going over to Antsirane and catching the French in the back but the project never came to anything although I know now that there were two boats available in working order as Lt Mike Hunt checked up on them as soon as he arrived (on 5 May) and it was only because the Commanding Officer (Lt Col W S S Sanguinetti) was too dithering from being without alcohol for 12 hours that the attempt was never made in spite of repeated attempts to persuade him. An official request for a landing party from the general the next day was ruled out on the same grounds."

Captain Patterson further recorded that he had discussed the situation with the 2i/c who, out of loyalty, refused to overrule the Commanding Officer. On 7 May Captain Patterson went to see the Senior Medical Officer for advice. A short time later Brigadier Festing, the commander of 29 Brigade, arrived at Diego Suarez, sacked Sanguinetti and appointed Major D M Shaw MC to be the commanding officer.]

Deborah McShane posted a message to our Facebook page; "I found this poem amongst my late father in law's paperwork; he received the Burma Star."

The poem refers to the role of the 2nd South East Lancashire Regiment and the 2nd East Lancashire Regiment in the initial landings as part of the 6 months campaign to subdue the whole island.

They were part of the 29th Infantry Brigade (Independent), which made an amphibious landing near Diego-Suarez on the 5th of May 1942 alongside the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, the 455th Light Battery (Royal Artillery), MG Company and "B" Special Services Squadron with 6 Valentine Tanks and 6 Tetrarch tanks. [Source Wikipedia.]

The indistinct 3rd verse reads;

Now before the battle started
All the "Lancs" were full of cheer
But before the battle ended
Death came very near.



Dear Geoff

Although my father destroyed most of his possessions when he knew his life was ending, I did manage to persuade him to not destroy any more. Amongst a tiny collection of papers and photographs is his pass book (diary), which covers his naval service aboard many ships from 1941-1943. There are some wonderful snippets of wartime and social history - surprising how many times he went to the cinema whilst abroad !

I thought that just a couple of pages in particular would interest you and scans are attached. Those pages accompany a Morse code message taken and written down by my father - also scanned and attached.

The diary has dozens of pages but I recall my father saying that he had to use many of the later pages because he had 'Delhi Belly'. I'd love to know that his efforts to record events were not lost to history.


Ray Prichard

Dear Geoff

We've been in touch before regarding medals awarded to participants in Operation Ironclad. Upon scrolling through a medal dealers list I came across this account of a DCM awarded during this operation which I hope may be of interest to your readers.

Kind regards

Glenn Stein (07/12)

Distinguished Conduct Medal, George VI. 3126021 Cpl. H. Lyle, Royal Scots Fusiliers.

D.C.M. London Gazette 16 June 1942.

"During the night attack on Antsirane on 6 May 1942, this N.C.O. was leading his section which was fired on from a Pill Box on the east side of the road. He showed conspicuous gallantry and disregard for danger in entering the Pill Box and capturing over a dozen prisoners."

Harry Lyle was from Mauchline in Ayrshire and was one of four men awarded the D.C.M. for the opening phase of Operation Ironclad, the first large scale amphibious assault undertaken by British forces since the Dardanelles campaign a generation earlier.

On the 5th, with supporting fire from the Royal Navy's “Force H”, troops of the 13th, 17th and 29th Infantry Brigades (the latter including 1st Battalion, the Royal Scots), No. 5 Commando, the whole designated Force 121 landed in Courrier Bay about 12 miles from the main objective, the Vichy naval base at Diego Suarez situated to the east of the town at Antsirane.

The initial landings proceeded without much difficulty but later in the day strong resistance was encountered and plans were made to storm the enemy by night during which Lyle had his encounter the pill box at Antsirane. By dawn the assault had been accomplished with 105 killed and 283 wounded from the raiding force and 150 killed and 500 wounded on the Vichy French side.

Following these operations and the withdrawal of 13th and 17th Infantry Brigades, Lyle and the 29th Brigade remained in occupation because the Vichy French Governor steadfastly refused to surrender. Further strikes were ordered at selected points along Madagascar's coast resulting in the Royal Scots participating in another amphibious landing at Majunga in September. The Regiment was finally withdrawn in mid-October, shortly before the final surrender of the Vichy forces. 

Don't know if of much interest to you but Anglo-Saxon Tanker SEPIA was with the Operation Ironclad convoy early May 1942. Helen 18-03-07.


The first part of this account of Operation Ironclad was written by Geoff C Riley.

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