Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Africans in World War II

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the occasion of the end of the Second World War which pitted the Allied Forces against the Axis Forces that included Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain. By May, Adolf Hitler was already defeated in Europe and this is why the Russians usually celebrate this occasion this month while the Americans continued to battle it out with the Japanese in the Pacific.

Bechuanaland soldiers like it happened with most Africans were serving in North Africa, the Middle East and some parts of Europe. They were called soldiers only for the fact that they wore combat uniforms and were in the theatre of war. But the fact of the matter is that the Allied countries would not have won the war without African contribution.

Britain which ruled almost half the world at the time had done enough to conscript indigenous peoples in the colonies they ruled. The British intelligence had warned that if subject people from the colonies were armed, they would give problems through insurrections as they sought for independence after the war. They could foresee a situation whereby subject peoples would demand independence arguing that if they could fight to protect Britain, they were good enough to self-rule.

Therefore Africans were mainly engaged with logistics units that were bringing supplies to the theatre of war. Furthermore, they were part of the combat engineers who were responsible for building roads and bridges. They played a major role in bringing back to life the various airfields after bombing raids.

The only unit that brought them close to fighting was the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps.  These were supplementary units as the word “auxiliary” implies. In these units they were in the heat of battle and they largely played the role of gunners in the field artillery and air defence units. The British knew very well that with the technical knowledge of these weapons, that would not be useful or that could not be applicable in the use of small arms. The skill was not transferrable to rifles.

Africans were hard working and it is recorded that Field Marshal Montgomery was well pleased with their dedication to work. They were selfless in their application to work. Montgomery made this comment after the completion of the Beirut to Haifa railway line which was completed in record time as African soldiers pushed themselves beyond their physical ability to achieve this feat.

But what the Africans were told through their chiefs was that they were not good enough to handle small arms. The AAPC was very much structured along tribal hierarchy. Chiefs or their sons were promoted to the rank of sergeant. Their subjects could only go as far as the rank of corporal. But for the paramount chiefs, they were all promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major. When the British royal family was visiting Bechuanaland in 1947 to thank the colony in their participation in the war, Tshekedi Khama and his cousin Bathoen Gaseitsiwe were dressed in full military regalia. Their famous picture on the day they waited at Lobatse Airfield for the arrival of the royal family is ecstatic.

A total number of 1 216 AAPC soldiers are recorded to have died in the war even though little is celebrated for these brave warriors. What is even more heart rendering is that a majority of these did not volunteer to go to war. It was not only in Bechuanaland where people likes Chief Masokwane Pule of Gabane were actively opposed to the war. In Basutoland there was an active organised group that seriously undermined the war recruitment.

Most of the members of the anti-colonial Basutoland Commoners League (BCL) were jailed while others went into exile to places like Nyasaland (present day Malawi) and further afield. When persuasion failed in the recruitment drive, the British recruiters turned to coercion as a means of reaching their quota. And this is what BCL was primarily against. The enforcement was rather too ruthless as punishment to refusing to be conscripted included imprisonment and loss of land and livestock. A lot faked injuries while others went as far as inflicting injuries upon themselves. These men were not cowards but this was the beginning of the war of liberation for the many in Africa.

Initially the British government had made an arrangement for citizens of the three satellite colonies of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland to join the Union Defence Force as the Union of South Africa military was known at the time. Very soon a u-turn was made on this decision. It was going to cost the British government more financially as the UDF soldiers were already better paid. The Union of South Africa government equally did not want their units to be contaminated with Africans. Therefore the AAPC soldiers ended up earning peanuts as a private soldier without dependants was paid as little as a Shilling and six Pence a day (that’s about an equivalence of P30 in today’s rates).

Because recruitment was not going as fast as planned in the three satellite colonies, the British closed all the loopholes used by the Africans to skip being drafted. As many were escaping to the mines in the Union of South Africa, an arrangement was made with TEBA (Transvaal Employment Bureau of Africa) to pass on a certain quota to the British recruiters. The young men were taken from their countries believing that they were headed for the mines. To their absolute surprise and dismay, some were shoved through the backdoor into army trucks and they were headed for the training camps.

Certainly the families of soldiers who died in the war can claim substantial amounts from the British government. These men never agreed to go to war. Even those who survived the war and are dying in poverty now have grounds to claim. These men were forced to fight in a war they did not understand. Worse to that; they were paid peanuts as though they were monkeys. But that’s what the British have always regarded us to be.


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