The forgotten forces of Africa

Gabriel Beecham

Deputy Copy Editor

Beginning with his own father’s childhood memories, Gabriel Beecham maps the movements of African soldiers throughout the second world war, from Benito Mussolini’s barrage of Ethiopia to the jungles of Burma.

This week sees the 70th anniversary of Operation Supercharge, the famous military offensive during the second world war which saw Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery lead the British 8th Army in a massive frontal assault against combined German and Italian forces near El Alamein in Egypt.

The operation successfully broke through Axis defensive lines established by Erwin Rommel, the famous “Desert Fox”, and forced a retreat. It was the first decisive victory for Allied forces since war broke out in Europe in 1939, and it proved to be the turning point in the North African campaign and a significant morale-boost for the Allies.

My father was born just before the outbreak of war in 1939 in the British colony of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) in western Africa. When we started learning about the second world war in primary school, I remember asking him if he could recall anything about what it was like to live through the period.

He told me that as a small child he saw trenches being dug around Kumasi – the city where he lived, in the south of the country – as lines of defence in case the fighting in North Africa moved southwards. He also remembered seeing ordinary men in the streets, on their way to work, being rounded up by British Army personnel and taken away as conscripts to fight in Burma.

The images have always stuck with me; it was the first time I realised that the war was waged not only by European and American soldiers but also by millions of colonial troops from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

Indeed, as far as Africa was concerned, the conflict did not begin in 1939 but in 1935, when the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini attacked Ethiopia. Backed up by many thousands of indigenous troops from the Italian colonial possessions of Eritrea, Libya and Somalia, and armed with modern planes, tanks and nerve gas, the Italians overwhelmed the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s forces, and by the time of the their surrender in May 1936 the Ethiopians had lost 275,000 combatants to Italy’s 10,000.

As far as Africa was concerned, the conflict did not begin in 1939 but in 1935, when the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini attacked Ethiopia.

Other Africans took this message of the fascist threat to heart and, with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, many willingly volunteered for service. In conversation with the journalist Martin Plaut for the BBC documentary Africa’s Forgotten Soldiers, John Henry Smythe, a Sierra Leonean who served as a navigator with the Royal Air Force, described how he felt compelled to enlist when he learned about Adolf Hitler’s writings:

“Our tutor at school … took this book Mein Kampf to the school, and we saw what this man was going to do to the blacks if he gets into power. It was a book which could put any black man’s back right up, and it put mine up.” Smythe was shot down while flying a bomber sortie over Germany, and was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp for interrogation.

“I said, ‘Yes, I will help you, I will give you my name and number.’ Then he started being a Nazi officer; he screamed at me, shouted at me, then said, ‘You know, tomorrow morning, they are voting whether to execute you or not. Because you are a black man, you should not interfere in a white man’s war.’”

For others, like Marshall Kebi from Nigeria, there were simply no other job options after he had left college. “By that time, the government had no opportunities or posts in the government, so I didn’t want to waste my time. I simply went up to Enugu [in southwestern Nigeria] to join the army – that is, the Royal West African Frontier Force. I didn’t expect anything, I just wanted a military career.”

The RWAFF had been raised in 1900 to garrison British colonial possessions in western Africa, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and the Gold Coast. As Japanese forces progressed through the Far East, it became a priority to defend the Indian subcontinent and the 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions were formed from the RWAFF, participating in the southern front of the Burma campaign.

Not all troops gave their services willingly, however. Korona Yeo, a French Free Forces veteran from the Ivory Coast, described how some were picked up against their will while conducting their business in local markets:

“We were slaves. We had colonialism behind us. We were hit, hit, hit to do everything. They took us just like that. They said: ‘Here are your papers. You’re going to the army.’ That’s how they did it.”

A British Pathé newsreel from 1941 waxes jingoistically about soldiers from the Gold Coast, describing them as “bronze giants of nature … Their fathers fought with spears, but these men handle their modern weapons as expertly as crack white fellows.

“They are not conscripts, but volunteers who have found the Union Jack worth living under and fighting for. They join the people of the other colonies and dominions in the great march towards a free world.”

Allied Supreme Command acceded to de Gaulle’s request that French soldiers lead the liberation of Paris, but only on condition that the liberating division contain no black soldiers.

By August 1944, more than half of the 550,000 soldiers that made up the Free French Forces were colonial troops: among them 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 from sub-Saharan African countries. 17,000 of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, a corps of black soldiers mainly from French West Africa and Senegal, had died in combat by the time France fell to the Axis powers in 1940.

By 1944 the tide of the war was turning and they eagerly anticipated the opportunity to avenge their comrades by liberating Paris. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of France’s government in exile, insisted that a French division be allowed to lead the way in retaking Paris.

Allied Supreme Command acceded to de Gaulle’s request, but only on condition that the liberating division contain no black soldiers. A confidential memo written by the US chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, read:

“It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel. This would indicate the Second Armoured Division which, with only one-fourth native [African] personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made 100% white.”

Britain’s General Frederick Morgan updated him him on details, but did not object, even though (unlike the US forces) the British did not practice segregation among their troops: “It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.

“Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevêne that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.”

Even this proved impossible; in the end, a hotch-potch of white soldiers from French units in the Middle East and North Africa was assembled, and troops from the Spanish military were drafted in to fill the remaining gaps.

The Tirailleurs played no part in the heroes’ welcome on the streets of Paris; many were stripped of their uniforms and sent home. The capping injustice came on 26th December 1959, when their military pensions were frozen.

There were no pensions at all for many West African soldiers who had fought for British forces, despite promises of jobs and compensation. On 28th February 1948, a protest seeking pensions for veterans of the RWAFF’s Gold Coast Regiment took place in Accra, the capital of Gold Coast, with a petition being presented to the British governor. That petition was ignored; instead, the colonial police opened fire into the crowd, killing three former soldiers and wounding 60 more.

The Tirailleurs played no part in the heroes’ welcome on the streets of Paris; many were stripped of their uniforms and sent home.

Five days of riots followed the shooting in Accra, and the colonial office in London set up a governmental commission to investigate the matter. Six political activists were deemed to be responsible for the riots and were imprisoned on 12th March 1948. Demonstrations in support of “the Big Six” became widespread; realising its error, the colonial administration released the six a month later, on 12th April.

One of the six, Kwame Nkrumah, emerged as the leader of the country’s youth movement, and was later to become prime minister and, eventually, president of an independent Ghana. The event proved to be a seminal moment in Ghana’s journey towards self-government.

Soldiers returning to African countries from Burma, Europe, India and elsewhere similarly sowed the seeds of change. In the words of one veteran: “Every soldier who went … got new ideas and learned new things. He came back with an improved idea about life. We, the ex-servicemen, gave this country the freedom it’s enjoying today. We gave this freedom, we brought it – freedom – and handed it over to our people.”

70 years is, quite literally, a lifetime. For those of us currently of college age it can sometimes feel like the events of the second world war are as distant and irrelevant to the details of our everyday lives as the conquest of Hastings in 1066 or the battle of Marathon in 490BC. Perhaps it is worth making some effort to occasionally harken to the words of Cicero:“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.”