Saturday, June 3, 2023

This Gabane man helped defeat Hitler

The 1953rd man to be enlisted in the Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners was a fresh-faced 21-year old, freshly-arrived from South Africa where he had been working in a Johannesburg gold mine.

“I was in the Department of Mine Survey,” says this clear-voiced World War II veteran who looks much, much younger than his chronological age.

At 95, he is so uncommonly sprightly that he still reports to the main Gabane kgotla every weekday, maintaining military precision with time and dress. Between that age and his level of physical agility exists an information gap on how he manages such feat. On filling that gap, he explains that although he imbibes, he has always avoided “brandy” which, as used, can be a generic name for super strength alcoholic beverages like brandy itself, vodka and whiskey. His poison of choice is mokuru, traditional sorghum brew, but he hastens to add that he is going easy on it nowadays.

“I have to look after my health,” he says matter-of-factly.

Grasping the scope of the interview and hearing mention of a video camera, he determines that the civvies he is wearing wouldn’t visually do his story justice. And so, he disappears into the main house and when he reemerges a few short minutes later, he is decked out in a charcoal ceremonial dress and clutching a black briefcase in his right hand. On the left breast pocket of the jacket is an engraved military nameplate from which hangs a row of medals. Engraved on the plate is, “EC 1953” and below it the bearer’s rank and names in full, “WOII Mositakgomo Molatlhwa.” The “EC” is derived from Bechuanaland. When the interview starts in earnest, he reveals the middle name that could obviously not find a place on the plate: Ephraim.

Molatlhwa’s participation in World War II is tied directly to what happened in three different parts of the world while the future Warrant Officer Class 2 tended his family’s cattle herd. Two years earlier, German leader, Adolf Hitler, had turned the world upside down by starting a war that was outpacing the Allies efforts to contain it. Britain, which at this time was the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s colonial ruler, was not doing too well in the war. Singapore had recently fallen and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government turned to colonies to procure extra military labour. Word was relayed to the Resident Commissioner who, in turn, asked dikgosi (supreme traditional leaders) to provide young men from their respective tribes. The result was that 10 000 Batswana men were conscripted and upon arrival in Europe and the Middle East, organised into the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps which was a subgroup of the Royal Pioneer Corps in the British Army.

While fully aware of the perils of putting his life on the line, Molatlhwa (like his father before him who fought in World War 1) eagerly embraced this mission because he recognised the need to exercise the broader responsibilities of international citizenship. However, for some young men there was no way on God’s earth they were going to sacrifice their lives in an overseas war when it was much safer to roam the bush, rounding up stray cattle and enjoying the legendary hospitality of fellow Batswana along the way. Molatlhwa says that when insufficient numbers stepped forward, dikgosi were forced to conscript all those who qualified.

Travelling by ship from Durban, the men arrived in Egypt after two weeks and were taken inland to a desert where they underwent six weeks of rigorous basic training. A critical mistake that they made on the first day almost cost them their lives. With only a faint idea of what sort of danger they were in, the men built a Bechuanaland-type bonfire in the evening, unwittingly revealing their location to the enemy. In no time a dreadful din broke out as fighter jets swooped down, unleashing a torrent of bombs and causing panic down below. This was the men’s official introduction to World War II. Fortunately no one died because the camp activated its defence system and was able to repel this attack.

Received wisdom is that the role of Batswana recruits was limited to doing manual work but that is not entirely true. Initially, all Britain needed its colonies’ recruits to do was make roads, unload and unload ships, trains and lorries as well as build railways and defensive positions. Molatlhwa explains that as the war progressed and more manpower was needed at the frontline, the role of Africans was moved a level up.

“We were taught how to use firearms and told that our guns were our friends. When we were given 50 rounds of ammunition, we were instructed to put each bullet to good use, to never miss, to never fire when we didn’t know who the target was and to always get orders to fire from our field commander. We were told to never pick things up from the ground: a wallet with money, a wad of currency notes or a beautiful pen lying on the ground could be jury-rigged and would only need a slight touch to explode,” he says of this training which was provided by instructors from the British Army.

Adjudging illiteracy among its ranks to be hindering operational efficiency, the British Army recruited teachers to teach the Batswana men English as well as how to read and write. Molatlhwa says that these teachers, who were themselves British, would move from section to section providing such education. Whoever was his English teacher should be proud because for someone without formal education, Molatlhwa handles conversational English quite well. The interview is conducted in Setswana but every now and then, he slips in some English as he recounts his war experience: “but you are in pain”, “recruited another 5000”, “teach Oral English”, “You must discover your enemy”, “domestic complaint”, “you can tell that this person is a soldier; he’s not a civilian”, “Who goes there?” and “Suez Canal was blocked”.

Some of the men would never return home. According to Molatlhwa, one man in the first batch to be sent off to the war died en route and was buried on an island whose name he has blanked on. Some more men would die in action and when such tragedy struck, the message would be relayed from the High Command to the colonial office in Mafikeng which, in turn, would contact district commissioners on the ground who would get in touch with the kgosi who would break the grave news to the concerned families. The bodies (some of which were badly mangled) were not repatriated home but buried in the Middle East with full military honours of the west – those Molatlhwa mentions are the draping of the coffin with the Union Jack and mass salute from comrades as the coffin of the fallen soldier was being lowered to his final resting place.

In the early part of 1945, the tables began to turn on the trinity of aggressors made up of Germany, Japan and the Italian Socialist Republic in Northern Italy – a German client-state led by the deposed Italian prime minister, Benito Mussolini. Molatlhwa says that through a public address system rigged up at his base camp, soldiers were kept abreast of how the Allied war effort was progressing.

“In the final days of the war, we knew through these broadcasts how far away the Red Army was from Berlin,” he states.

Seventy years later, he still remembers the date and time it all ended: noon of May 1, 1945 when “Germany surrendered unconditionally”. Having mopped up pockets of resistance, his company was back at its Syria base on that day and at that time when the good news was announced. At this point, the Bechuanaland boy who had joined the war as a bare-armed private was now a Warrant Officer Class 2. A feeling of relief and pride came over Molatlhwa when he heard the news about the end of the war. He knew that not only had he had been part of a successful international military campaign, he also taken pro-active steps to ensure that Third Reich villainy would never be visited upon Bechuanaland.

“I knew that I could back to living the way I always had, which would not have been possible had Hitler won the war. Materially, I have nothing to show for fighting in the war but I am happy that I protected my freedom as well as that of my children and grandchildren,” Molatlhwa says.

War is a million times the usual dose of tragedy and the worst imaginable thing could have happened in the Middle East. However, Molatlhwa remains stoical about his service which he likens to working in the South African mines. The evidence he marshals in service of that argument is that, with the rudimentary safety standards of the time, death in the mines could (and did) easily intrude on one’s comfort.


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