The Shipboard Radio Station of the British Landing in Madagascar
Following the signing of the German-French armistice in the Compiègne Forest on June 22, 1940, due to the German Western Offensive, France was divided. The northern part with the capital, Paris, was under German occupation, while the unoccupied south, including the spa town of Vichy in the Allier department, became the seat of a new French government from July 1940. This government controlled about 40 percent of French territory, including the colonies, and had an army of 100,000 men. Henri Philippe Pétain, celebrated as the “Hero of Verdun” in World War I, assumed nearly absolute power as the head of state of the “État Français,” replacing the previous Third Republic.
At the beginning of 1942, the British had concerns that Madagascar, a French colony with authorities loyal to the Vichy government, could serve as a refuge for Japanese submarines. “Operation Ironclad” was initiated to occupy the island of Madagascar controlled by Vichy France during World War II. It began on May 5, 1942, and concluded with the surrender of the last fighting French units on November 8, 1942.
The primary objective was to neutralize the French naval base of Diego-Suarez (now Antsiranana) at the northern tip of Madagascar.
The HMS Winchester Castle participated in the occupation of Madagascar. This passenger ship from 1930, operated by the British Union-Castle Line for passenger and mail services between Great Britain and South Africa, played a versatile role. The 20,019 gross register tons (GRT) motor vessel was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched on November 19, 1926. With a length of 192.33 meters, a width of 22.86 meters, one chimney, two masts, and two propellers, the construction cost £1,080,493. Equipped with sonar and wireless direction finding, the Winchester Castle was used during World War II as a training ship, auxiliary cruiser, and landing troop transporter.
During the Allied landing in Madagascar (Operation Ironclad) in May 1942, the Winchester Castle served as the headquarters ship for the Allied landings on the island controlled by the Vichy regime. It was accompanied by the ships Keren, Karanja, Llandaff Castle, and Sobieski, escorted by the battleship HMS Ramilles. After the successful landings, the Winchester Castle anchored in the bay of Diego Suarez.
On May 7, 1942, the port of Diego-Suarez fell into the hands of the British. In the capital, Tananarive, the Vichy radio station then launched propaganda broadcasts to discredit the British and hinder their progress in occupying the southern part of the island. They claimed that Diego Suarez was destroyed by bombs and that there were many civilian casualties.
An anonymous British officer who spoke French decided to use a powerful transmitter on board the HMS Winchester Castle. A studio was set up in cabin 136, and a signal sergeant assisted with the technology. The ship’s transmitter was tuned to the frequency of Radio Tananarive. As soon as the French station ended its broadcasts in the evening, the officer turned on the transmitter on the Winchester Castle and opened the microphone: “Hello, hello, this is Radio Diego-Suarez, stay tuned. An English officer is speaking to you.” He then informed the residents of Madagascar that the situation in Diego-Suarez was normal, and there were no civilian casualties. He even read 25 reports from civilians to reassure their families. This information was subsequently gratefully adopted by Radio Tananarive.
Originally, Radio Diego-Suarez was supposed to broadcast only a few times, but due to its success, it was decided to extend the experiment. The officer’s prepared texts were reviewed and refined linguistically by the French cook on board. Radio Diego-Suarez could eventually broadcast regularly. In the evening, Radio Tananarive concluded its programs with the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and shortly thereafter, Radio Diego-Suarez started its program with La Marseillaise as well. Personal messages for the population were disseminated, along with useful information and a program called “Paroles de Churchill,” aiming to correct the propaganda of the Vichy regime.
The ship left the port three weeks after the landing and sailed to Mombasa and then to New York. Therefore, a studio was set up on land in a former cinema. Radio Diego-Suarez broadcasted in French and Malagasy, and the music programs became more diverse. On November 5, 1942, the British troops captured Tananarive. Radio Diego-Suarez then ceased its broadcasts.
Martin van der Ven (2024)
Harold Ettlinger: The Axis On The Air. Indianapolis – New York 1943.