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  • Vichy Propaganda, Metropolitan Public Opinion, and the British Attack on Madagascar, 1942
  • Eric T. Jennings

On May 9, 1942, as details of the British attack on Vichy-controlled Madagascar reached France, Pétain's Secrétariat d'État aux Colonies dispatched the following telegram to the colony's governor, Armand Annet:

Au moment où la métropole et l'empire fidèle célèbrent avec ferveur la Sainte nationale [Jeanne d'Arc], nos pensées vont vers la colonie éprouvée et ses héroïques défenseurs. Contre le même envahisseur l'île française montre le même courage. C'est le plus bel hommage qui soit rendu à Jeanne d'Arc: le sacrifice à la Patrie et la confiance dans son destin.1

Here Vichy's colonial secretariat enrolled evocative tropes to castigate the British invasion of a French colony. Over the ensuing months, an avalanche of anglophobic invective descended on the French public: Fashoda, Joan of Arc, Mauritius, Canada, India, previous tensions around Madagascar—no quarrel proved too old to be enlisted. Across the Channel, Alfred Hitchcock would soon be commissioned to produce "Aventure malgache," a short film portraying Pétainist Madagascar as an authoritarian viper's nest.2

The Madagascar affair was not just a war of words or of images. The Commonwealth cemetery of Diego-Suarez attests of the fierce fighting of those days, fighting that would resume in September 1942 when United Kingdom troops (many of them African) entered the rest of Madagascar. Indeed, Governor Annet and General Guillemet defended the colony with a tenacity that surprised even the most generous assessors of Vichy's international posture. Guillemet demonstrated his determination in a telegram issued immediately following the fall of Diego-Suarez, which shows that he considered the battle lost, but not the war: "Nous sommes décidés à tirer le parti maximum de nos moyens et à faire payer très cher à l'assaillant toute attaque visant l'occupation des points défendus. […] Nous nous battrons et nous résisterons avec acharnement."3 After the war, a prominent French scientist in Madagascar, Doctor Fontoynont, would recognize the ferocity of the Vichy response to the two-tiered allied landings, in a campaign that involved large-scale sabotaging and guerilla warfare: "des dégats lamentables furent faits par nous-mêmes" on the island's infrastructures, and bridges in particular. This witness' justification for such tenacity rings hollow: [End Page 44]

[Annet] recevait des télégrammes de Vichy lui ordonnant de poursuivre la lutte à outrance. Cependant, parmi ces télégrammes, l'un d'entre eux, m'a-t-on dit, prescrivait d'aller jusqu'au bout, dans la mesure du possible. Il y avait là, à mon avis, une échappatoire en langage quelque peu sibyllin, de façon à tromper les Allemands. Le Gouverneur général ne comprit pas.4

In this rendition, Guillemet's dogged resistance stemmed from a misunderstanding, itself a product of some vast double game putatively played by Vichy. In reality, as would become apparent at postwar trials, Vichy had ordered him to resist a British attack, but to tolerate a potential Japanese incursion.5

Such stretches of the imagination are nevertheless revealing. They betray the contentiousness of the Madagascar operation. Tensions were at their peak in May 1942: Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and Indian Ocean shipping lanes suddenly became exposed. Hence the desperate and strategically risky British move of engaging preciously needed troops in a distant theatre, to rally a French colony to the allied cause. Unlike former actions, like that against Dakar, de Gaulle was not even notified of the coup de main until it was well underway. As Martin Thomas has shown, this drove a wedge between the Free French and the British.6 Most importantly, the Madagascar operation gained considerable notoriety when Vichy's Information Ministry seized the attack as the final proof of English perfidiousness, after Dunkirk and Mers-el-Kébir.

Over the past decade, much attention has been paid to the French colonies that remained loyal to Vichy.7 Similarly, historians have examined how empire was used by Vichy to bolster national pride.8 Although I remain persuaded that Vichy's...


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