They also served

2013-05-15 00:00

OVER half-a-million Africans served with the British Army as combatants and non-combatants during World War 2. They served in East and North Africa, the Middle East, Burma and Italy. Their experience is the subject of David Killingray’s Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War.

Most of these men, and a few women, were recruited from Britain’s colonies in West and East Africa, as well as from Sudan, Somaliland, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the Union of South Africa was an autonomous and self-governing Dominion where institutionalised racism was well-entrenched. Despite this, the African National Congress supported the war effort as a means of securing equal rights. “I fight as a subject of King George for a place in his household,” said ANC president Zaccheus Richard Mahabane. “I will not be content with a place in the stables.”

During the war, more than 123 000 Africans, coloureds and Asians served in the Union Defence Force — 37% of the total force. White South Africans were generally resistant to the idea of Africans being in the armed forces, but the need for labourers swept away such reservations and the Non-European Army Services began recruiting in June 1940. Official policy was that Africans should only serve in non-combatant roles; one of the reasons why there was such a poor response to recruiting campaigns. In February 1944, Prime Minister Jan Smuts announced that coloured soldiers would be allowed to carry arms.

Another reason for the reluctance to join up was the African experience of World War 1. As Walter Nhlapo observed in a letter to the Star: “Our brothers faced shot and shell, and bore the perils of war yet there was no cenotaph … to honour our fallen dead.”

The authorities particularly hoped to attract recruits from among the Zulus, “regarded as an archetypal martial race”. However, after a two-year recruiting campaign, only 803 men enlisted. The magistrate at Richmond said he had only “two old boys of between 65 and 70 [who] said they would like to go to wash dishes”.

Killingray says the overall poor response was largely due to institutionalised and legalised racial discrimination which distanced many Africans from the state. Such discrimination was also part of army life: officers were white and the few senior white NCOs were addressed as “sir” by all Africans, even by those of the same rank. “White officers often addressed African and coloured troops in derogatory terms. When black South African troops served alongside British colonial forces, for example in East and North Africa, the differences in treatment were starkly obvious to the rank-and-file of both forces.”

Many Allied officers were distressed by the racist language and attitudes of the colonials, says Killingray. “In 1940, General Sir George Giffard, the then commander of British Forces in West Africa, refused South African officers as ‘their peculiar ideas of the treatment of natives … will be … little short of disastrous’.”

This was what lay behind many of the strikes and protests that occurred both overseas and in South Africa, where the most serious took place at the Germiston air force base on June 4, 1942, when a dispute over entitlement to discharge and the methods of serving beer led to a white reserve brigade being called out to quell a mutiny and three men were shot and killed.

At Garawi in Egypt, accumulated grievances over the harshness of the white officers, a lack of leave and the conduct of the military police, resulted in a mutiny in which three soldiers were killed. At a subsequent court martial, six men were sentenced to death and two to life imprisonment, while two others received shorter terms. The death sentences were later commuted to life.

Despite the racial divides, there were those who saw the war against Germany as a war for freedom. Asked the question: “Why are we fighting?” by an army magazine, one un-named Cape coloured transport driver responded: “War, poverty and death know no colour bar. It is for that reason that the non-Europeans have decided the fight is theirs too. In war … it seems as if all men are truly brothers.”

Which was indeed the experience of Lance Corporal A.J. Hlope, who, while serving in the Middle East, said he thought the character of the “English Tommies … wonderful … they shake hands with us, they talk to us, they sit next to us in cinemas, they smoke cigarettes with us. Even when one goes to the British hospital, he gets the same food with them … he is given a bed in the ward same to other beds … They have offered us more kindness than God has done. It is the first time in life that we have seen people of that kind!”

Contemplating leaving South Africa for service in North Africa left Private Frank Sexwale in tears. “I cried a lot when the train left Durban. The realities of the situation dawned on me now. I was full of spirit when I joined, but … I found I was really trapped … If we had a choice, I would not have gone.”

Travel by sea further accentuated the distant separation from home and loved ones, but, for black South Africans, it also stirred up potent memories of the sinking of the troopship Mendi in the English Channel during World War 1, with the loss of more than 600 men of the Native Labour Corps. Similar disasters happened in World War 2. In May 1941, the Erinpura , carrying two companies of Basuto soldiers from Egypt to Malta, was attacked by Italian aircraft in rough seas and sunk by a torpedo with the loss of more than 600 lives. This disaster and another when the K hedive Ismail was sunk by a Japanese submarine with the loss of 1 134 troops, mainly East Africans, were kept secret in order not to discourage enlistment.

Killingray’s book contains no account of South African black troops in combat, thanks to them being, in the main, non-combatants. Nevertheless they were subject to the rigours of war, not least being taken prisoner. During the North African campaign, 2 000 Africans, mainly from East and South Africa, were taken prisoner. They were put into compounds and used as labour by their Axis captors. Contrary to the Geneva Convention, they were forced to unload munitions from ships and denied shelter during air raids.

Prisoners were also used for propaganda purposes. French colonial captives were killed during the making of a German film Sieg im Westen (Victory in the West). However, an Italian film made to show Italian superiority to Africans had an unexpected outcome. A boxing match “was staged between Primo Carnera, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, and Kay Masaki, a South African of splendid physique who had never been in a boxing ring in his life. The cameras began to roll and Carnera knocked down Masaki. However, Masaki picked himself up and with a terrific blow knocked out the Italian champion.”

Another South African prisoner, Lance Corporal Job Masego, turned saboteur when forced to unload munitions: “From rubble about the camp, he found cartridges and fuse wire, and, using the knowledge of explosives he had acquired as a miner, he made a small explosive device in an empty milk tin.”

Masego later described how, while a fellow POW diverted attention by chatting to a German guard, he “placed the milk tin among the large petrol drums, [and] covered it with straw. I led the fuse from the tin along the ribs of the boat to the hatch … I then put a match to the fuse as I was closing the hatch which was on a hinge.”

Back in the camp, Masego “saw smoke appearing … I then heard a succession of explosions. Later, I saw flame while explosions continued.”

War over, the troops returned to a South Africa, where little had changed. “Resettlement plans offered benefits to ex-servicemen according to rank, gender and race — white veterans were treated generously, non-European very poorly.

“Frank Sexwale’s view of South Africa was that the country he returned home to in 1945 was worse than when he left; conditions for non-Europeans had not improved.”

But as Killingray points out, the war was a watershed moment for sub-Saharan Africa and marked “the beginning of the end of European colonialism in Africa”.

By 1945, the Western European colonial states had declined in political and economic power, and found themselves overshadowed by the two superpowers: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The political balance had also changed in Africa. While most thought colonial rule would continue, the seeds of change had been sown. “Within 15 years of the war’s end, a large part of Africa was either independent or on the road towards that goal.”

• Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War by David Killingray is published by James


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