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Of Sea Lanes, Strategy, and Logistics: Africa’s Ports and Islands during the Second World War

The African continent’s strategic significance during the Second World War and the military activity that occurred on African soil revolved around ports. Some of them were located on islands, but the majority was on the mainland. Between 1939 and 1945 African islands and ports gained military and strategic prominence, particularly because of their proximity to key sea lines of communication. Africa was strategically important because of its resources, which needed to be utilized by belligerents while at the same time denied to enemies, continuing the colonial practice of resource extraction; it was also strategically important because some of the major belligerents possessed African colonies that were a source of military competition – Italy attacking British colonies, for example, which eventually sucked in American and German forces, and the British attacking French and Italian colonies. Africa was also strategically important because of the valuable ports and sea routes that enveloped its coastline, many of which were vital for belligerents transporting military personnel and equipment from one part of the world to another, and vital for the maintenance of the global trading activity of the Allied powers. Furthermore, these sea routes gave access via African ports to overland (i.e. road and rail) routes and air routes that were logistically essential for the movement of military goods and for delivering military effect to the battlefield.

These strategic factors meant that Africa was subject to significant military action. Heavy fighting took place in North Africa and East Africa, and smaller military operations occurred in West Africa, Madagascar, and islands such as Fernando Pó and Réunion. There were also extensive military operations in Africa’s coastal waters. Its ports, and islands such as the Comoros, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, were used as military bases and for a range of other war-related tasks such as intelligence gathering, surveillance, cable and wireless communication, and radar direction finding. African ports were the must-have military shunting yards of the Imperial and Allied war effort. The enormous range of wartime military activity in and around Africa requires more thorough integration into our understanding of the Second World War, and Africa’s pivotal role in it.

Africa’s eastern seaboard and its offshore islands were part of an extensive network of sea lanes and security provision stretching across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal, and the East Indies. Durban and Mombasa were prized assets, but so too was Port Sudan and the port of Massawa seized from the Italians and expanded and operated by American and British forces. The Cape and the Red Sea were important waterways, upon which the British and Allied war effort in the Middle East and beyond depended. West Africa, meanwhile, was a crucial variable in the security matrix of the Atlantic and the all-important battle to secure the convoys sailing between Britain and the Americas. West African bases were also critical in channelling shipping between the western and eastern hemispheres. Control of the waters of the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Guinea, the Mozambique Channel, Cape Agulhas, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Red Sea was ultimately indispensable.

Denoting the continent’s often overlooked strategic importance, Africa was home to major British and Allied military command structures, often headquartered in port cities. Middle East Command was headquartered in Cairo and Allied Force Headquarters North Africa was established in Algiers. West Africa Command was established in 1940 in Accra. East Africa Command covered East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and British Central Africa. It was created in September 1941 to relieve pressure on the overstretched Middle East Command, with headquarters in Nairobi. Its subsidiary, designated Islands Area Command with headquarters in Diego Suarez in Madagascar, was responsible for Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles.

After the Japanese raids on Ceylon in April 1942, the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet, responsible for guarding the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the eastern shores of Africa, was transferred to Kilindini Island in the port of Mombasa in Kenya. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was based in Alexandria. The Royal Navy’s South Atlantic Command was based on Freetown in Sierra Leone. Extensive use was also made of South African bases such as Simon’s Town, Cape Town, and Durban by both the Royal Navy and the South African Naval Force. RAF Coastal Command maintained a presence in West Africa for Atlantic operations, making extensive use of bases in the Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone, and squadrons of Catalina flying-boats were stationed in South Africa to extend the range of searches for enemy vessels. East Africa was home to an RAF Group dedicated to Indian Ocean patrols and searches in conjunction with the ships of the Eastern Fleet. The RAF’s 246 Wing comprised three Catalina flying-boat squadrons (209, 259, and 265) which patrolled the Indian Ocean from March 1942 until the end of the war. There was a major base at Kipevu in Mombasa and detached bases in Aden, Diego Suarez, Dar-es-Salaam’s Kurasini Creek, Masirah, Mauritius, Oman, the Seychelles, and Tuléar in southern Madagascar. These flying-boats also used bases in South Africa at Congella in Durban harbour, Langebaan in the Western Cape, Lake St Lucia in Natal, and Lake Umsingazi at Richards Bay, also in Natal. Not only Africa’s ports, islands, and coastal waters were important during the war, but also its lakes and lagoons.

Some ports became significant strategic prizes or assets, to be utilized or at least denied to the enemy: in September 1940 the British raided Dakar in a failed attempt to secure the important colony of Senegal for the Free French and Allied cause, and to secure a better located and better-equipped port than Freetown for the tasks of Atlantic convoy protection. Cape Town and the naval base at Simon’s Town were both used as staging posts for warships, troopships, and merchantmen travelling between east and west, and Simon’s Town also acted as a base for submarines and warships operating in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the Southern Ocean as Axis raiders and submarines were hunted and convoys protected. The Allied war effort depended upon the movement by sea of large numbers of service personnel and military equipment, and the Cape route attained a status not known since the opening of the Suez Canal, because for long periods of the war the Mediterranean was shut to shipping, and the canal itself threatened by Axis bombs and sea mines. The entire British and Allied military position depended upon this sea route, and it was heavily used; for example, the fifty-two separate ‘Winston Special’ convoys between Britain and the East that sailed via the Cape included 458 troop ships carrying 1,173,010 British and Allied military personnel.

HMS 'Queen Elizabeth' in Alexandria harbour, Egypt surrounded by anti-torpedo nets. (Source: © IWM (ADNO 8064))

On North African shores, Alexandria was the major naval base for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. It was the scene of a costly Italian attack in December 1941 when three human torpedoes and a submarine managed to damage two British battleships, a destroyer seriously, and a tanker, swinging the naval balance in the Mediterranean in favour of the Axis. The port of Mers El Kébir in Algeria was the site of a grisly episode in which the Royal Navy attacked a heavy concentration of the French fleet in order to prevent it from falling into German hands and to demonstrate Britain’s resolve to the Americans, killing over 1200 French sailors in the process. Tobruk in Libya was a pivotal port in the fighting between British and Axis forces that extended back and forth from Egypt to Tunisia because it allowed armies to be supplied as they fought along the coastal strip. The Anglo-American invasion of Algeria and Morocco in November 1942 witnessed the landing of over 100,000 Allied troops at Algiers, Casablanca, Oran, and Safi. This invasion initiated the final phase of the fighting in Africa, Axis forces eventually being overwhelmed. They surrendered in May 1943 following the capture of the port cities of Bizerte and Tunis. In the Horn of Africa, the British blockaded and from late 1942 occupied the French port of Djibouti, from where Vichy sympathisers had been providing information on Allied convoys transiting the Red Sea.

African ports and islands were important during the Second World War for three key reasons: because powerful nations required the export of Africa’s resources for their economic benefit and war-related utility, and needed to deny the same to enemy states; because sea routes around the continent and leading off from the continent needed to be defended using its ports and island bases; and because fighting took place on air, land, and sea in and around Africa, and ports and islands were therefore contested for military and strategic reasons. The unexpurgated book chapter on which this post is based features several case studies, viz. Bathurst (Gambia), Pamanzi (Comoros), Tuléar (Madagascar), Massawa (Eritrea), Fernando Pó (Gulf of Guinea), and Port Sudan (Sudan), as well as reviewing the wartime roles of Freetown (Sierra Leone), Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles.

N.B. A version of the paper was presented at the African islands conference at the University of Texas at Austin in October 2014 via Skype and Google Hangout On Air.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Professor Ashley Jackson is Professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College London and a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford. He has published widely on aspects of British imperial history, with a special interest in the Empire during times of war and with regional specialisms in the history of Africa and the Indian Ocean region. He has also written on the popular culture of the British Empire, the Empire's built environment, and Winston Churchill. He joined the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in 2004 after eight years as a Research Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford, and a brief spell as Lecturer in Imperial and Commonwealth History at Oxford Brookes University. He completed his British Academy-funded master’s (1993) and doctorate (1996) at New College, Oxford, where he also served as Junior Dean.

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