As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway. Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.
A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.
Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged. So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.
The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December. The ruse? Well, that was still to play out. A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast. The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska. En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.
Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over. That was the plan.
The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans. Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.
Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.
As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.
Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa. I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War. Well, you’re not alone. For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.
But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack. A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.
The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.
The US Navy wasn’t buying it.
Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway