My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.
Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?
The story-teller’s picture. Mikthos bodied slowly, painfully, as always. Senses on high alert. The first few seconds, before the molecules settled, they were at their most vulnerable. A local seeing them could stiff them before they even had time to reach for their morsars. Next to him, Tarthil hissed, ‘Creatures!’ As soon as they were able, both of them drew their morsars, aiming at the group of beasts huddled round a table in a cramped, musty room. Several krontiks passed. Nothing happened. Finally, Mikthos put his morsar back in its groop. ‘They’re not moving,’ he said. ‘Not alive. It’s as if they’ve been stiffed mid-action.’ Tarthis glanced at him uneasily. ‘Something dreadful has happened here. Time itself has stopped. This is no place for us, Mikthos. Back to the spacehip!’
The picture-taker’s story. A challenge, this one – whatever story you make up is bound to pale in comparison to the reality. This is the Battle Box in Singapore’s Fort Canning Park, where the last defence of the island was organised in the face of the advancing Japanese army in 1942. Despite Churchill’s order to defend vigorously, it became clear that “Fortress Singapore”, deprived of water and ammunition, could not be held. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival , in charge of the defence, held his final meeting in the Battle Box on February 15th. The decision was taken to surrender.
Now a tourist attraction, the Battle Box houses a sober reconstitution of those last hours. Churchill considered the fall of Singapore as the worst miltary defeat in British history, a verdict many would agree with. Due to a lack of equipment, and poor morale amongst the inexperienced troops based there, an island which had been thought impregnable fell in less than 70 days. Inside the bunker, you get a good sense of the tension and fear of the time, and it’s with some relief that you step back out to normality, wander through the park, and sit down at a terrace for a glass of honeydew melon.
Over to you. The next Pic’n’Post deadline is Monday 30th March, 6 pm GMT – entries can be sent between now and then by linking to your post in the comments. A reminder of the rules is here.