What Mr Sanders Really Did


Written by Veronica Bellers



Comrades in Arms


"The sun burns and the hot winds blow
In pitiless accord
And we who serve the sceptre know
We may not draw the sword.
From aching eyes and bitter hearts
Deliver us, O Lord."
Richard Owen in Western Kordofan in frustration at not being able to join up in World War II

When the 1914-18 war began, "Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck had less than 5000 men under arms, including a few hundred Europeans. Later, however, by utilising every conceivable resource, he brought into the field at various times nearly 4000 Europeans and over 20000 warlike 'Askaris'. The East African campaign was therefore a SERIOUS MATTER and the problem was increased by the incredibly difficult nature of the country where thick bush, particularly in the South, gave every advantage to the defending force."

The two World Wars did much to break down the barriers between African and European. Sir Philip Mitchell, in his book 'African Afterthoughts', saw this when looking back on his experiences in the East African Campaign in 1914 against General von Lettow-Vorbeck:

"Another thing the war did for many hundreds of Europeans and thousands of Africans was to introduce them to each other, so to speak, in a way and with a completeness hardly to be achieved otherwise. First-line transport was exclusively by porter and it took three porters to keep a rifle in the first line, even with an African infantry regiment, so that a column on the march and in camp was in fact a large mass of Africans with whom their British officers and N.C.O.s marched, slept, ate, washed and had their being in a physical closeness of a quite exceptional kind.

On patrol on the frontier in 1914 and 1915 and in German and Portuguese East Africa from then until the armistice everything that I had and used, including four days' rations, clothing, bedding, knife, fork, spoon, plate and mug, had to go into two porters; loads, restricted in most King's African Rifles battalions to forty-five pounds each; in that shape I rubbed elbows with my Africans comrades in a manner which did me a great deal of good and for which I have been grateful ever since.

Rations were, of course, simple; normally bully beef, or, in cattle areas (which were relatively few), tough fresh beef, weevilly biscuit, coffee, or tea, salt and sugar; jam more usually yesterday and tomorrow than today! And often ... we had to make do with anything we could get - buck meat, zebra, even giraffe or hippo, sweet potatoes or cassava, or maybe a little maize, rice or millet, green bananas, occasionally river or lake fish and wild honey. All shared alike, of course, officers and men, and all frequently went very hungry for weeks on end."

The military contribution to the war effort in both World Wars by both West Africans and East Africans was magnificent and has not been fully acknowledged by most historians. One distinguished officer of the Kenya Administration, Lt Col Oscar Watkins, CBE, was given the task of raising the Carrier Corps for the East African campaign. In 1919, in his report he wrote:

"From small beginnings, learning its lessons as it went, it has entered on its registers nearly half a million men. From Somaliland in the north, from Portuguese East Africa in the south, from Nigeria, Gambia and Sierra Leone in the west, from the great lakes and the headwaters of the Congo and the Nile from the snow-clad peaks of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, came contingents to the Corps. Men who a few years ago had never seen a white man, to whom the mechanism of a tap or door-handle is still an inscrutable mystery, have been trained to carry into action on their heads the field wireless or the latest quick-firing gun. ...Men of the cannibal tribes of the interior, sons of the arabs who filled Africa with the agonies of villages raided for slaves, Hausa and Mende, Somali and Galla, Kavirondo and Kikuyu, Wanyamwezi and Wanyika and Wakua, and countless other tribes besides have learned that they had a bond of union in the 'Carrier Corps' as they called it and fearless champions in its officers and NCOs"

During the Second World War Kennedy Trevaskis served with African troops, The King's African Rifles, in what became known as the Abyssinian Campaign to drive the Italians out of Somaliland and Abyssinia. His unit was one of the first to arrive in Somaliland and a military bungle saw the unit captured by the Italians.

As a prisoner of war, Trevaskis, led by Shaukat Hyatt Khan, spent his time digging a tunnel but one of his African soldiers, Private Kenani, wiled away the time making a tiny Union Jack from scraps of material.

It was on April Fools' Day 1941 when one moment we were passing the time in our customary fashion and the next gazing intently through the barbed wire at a small column of armoured cars approaching us. Could they be British armoured cars? No sooner had we asked ourselves the question than a head popped out of the leading car wearing an unmistakably British steel helmet. A few minutes later we were shaking hands with our liberator, a young British Bimbashi of the Sudan Defence Force. What an April Fools' Day that was!

Our captivity was at an end but, as the curtain came down, an unforgettable little scene took place. We were all shouting, shaking hands and thumping each other's backs when suddenly somebody pointed to the flagstaff which towered over the camp. Looking up, I saw Pte Kenani, the bad boy of my platoon, shinning up it. On reaching the top, he tore down the Italian tricolour and then replaced it with a diminutive homemade Union Jack. "Long live Bwana King George!" he shouted. "Long live British Empire!" Sgt Kabanda appeared at my side. "We all knew that we would win", he said. "The British always do!"

But very few Administrative Officers were allowed to join up and it caused great bitterness amongst some. In the light of what happened to him later this bitterness was never quite forgotton by Pat O'Dwyer right to the end of his life.

He was "on the reserve of the R.W.A.F.F. (Royal West Africa Frontier Force) and each year I had done an attachment with them either in Freetown or in Daru. Things started to blow up (in August 1939) and I was wondering whether and when I would be called up. One evening I was shooting with Peter Youens in Port Loko and the international news was very bad and the next morning I got the wire ordering me down to Freetown...

In the R.W.A.F.F. I was given a platoon. Up to then the troops had never worn any boots or puttees, instead they polished their shins and feet. Now War had come it was thought that they must wear boots and puttees. Having just been issued with these I was ordered to take my platoon up to French Guinea to liaise with the French Commandant. This meant going up through Port Loko and Kambia and a lot of marching. The troops' feet got so sore that they all took their boots off and hung them round their necks. We marched through French Guinea and the people in the country seems so quiet and morose and I could not help comparing them with the happy and laughing Africans on our side. Yet when Independence came to all the African countries years later, the erstwhile French colonies seemed to behave much better than our old colonies.

the task of the R.W.A..F.F for the time that I was with them was to man the beaches against a possible attach by the Germans from the sea. The fear was that the Germans would take over Uruguay and launch an attack on the West African coast from there. In between sojourns on the beach with my platoon we use to do some training in the bush. One day we were in thick bush just off Jumley Beach when we were attacked by the most vicious swarm of bees I have ever come across. The troops were carrying heavy equipment such as Lewis guns when every single one of us was attacked. The troops had to chuck all their equipment away and run for it. I defy the Brigade of Guards or anyone else to stand up to wild bees when they are angry. I joined the troops in running and we all made for the sea with bees buzzing and biting us as we went. Only when we all got under the water did we escape from the onslaught."

In August 1940 the R.W.A.F.F. was posted to Port Loko and Pat was redesignated D.C. there.

"Detachments of troops came up from Nigeria and the Gold Coast and were posted there. ...The Army had to defer to me for anything they wanted in connection with the African or the country side. In this way I felt quite important but I felt awful when they all left on their way to Burma to fight the Japs, and in spite of my efforts to join them I was not allowed to do so."

Interest amongst the civilians in the fortunes of the Allies during the Second World War varied. In Bornu Province, Nigeria, where some of the district Heads were of such ancient lineage that they could trace their families back a thousand years, the enthusiasm for the war effort was considerable.

"Every Tuesday evening" wrote Rex Niven, "I would go to the Middle School to talk to the boys about the war news. I drew on the blackboard and showed them the maps. The boys took a great interest, and asked intelligent questions. ... After the Middle School I would go along the Dandalo to the Shehu's gate and there sit down in a circle of townspeople and tell them too about the war news. Great was their interest. I gave the news in Hausa and a 'shouter' yelled it in Kanuri. Oddly the crowd varied with what sort of news it was: if we were doing well there might be two or three thousand people, if not so well it would dwindle to hundreds."

On another occasion Rex Niven was asked to act as umpire - flying in a Blenheim - to the French Air Force who wanted to test two navigators: "It was a good flight and they reached the points indicated. At Biu we came down to a few hundred feet and circled the town, flying low over the streets. I had been able to send a message to the Chief so that the people would not be alarmed - it was the first time that anyone down there had seen an aircraft. The people were delighted and waved: later, of their own accord, they collected some hundreds of pounds for the 'Spitfire Fund' -the official theory of which was that 3,000 would buy a new Spitfire fighter. Bornu in all raised enough for three."

In Brass District South Western Nigeria, on the other hand, in June 1941 Johnnie McCall was not having quite the same success. He held eight flag days in eight different places over the period of eight days in aid of the Red Cross. Brass District was a very scattered area and the third flag day was held in Oloibiri, at just about the point where the mangrove bush merges into the rain forest.

"There is a Native Court and a Rest House here," he wrote in a letter to his family in Scotland "placed on the only solid piece of land in the neighbourhood. It is a typical creek station, with the ebbing and flowing waters of the tide, instead of the running waters of the main branches of the Niger, as in many other places of the Brass District. There are thirty two villages under the Ogbeyan Clan, and most of them seem to have come in today.

...The programme started with a Service in the local Church. There was a packed congregation. After the Service, everyone moved up to the Court Compound, and when I say everyone, I include about thirty two schools. ...Nearly every school had a band, and moreover each band was anxious to show its paces so each band was playing at the same time, but different turnes and with different time. ...Add to it the singing of all the scholars, several hundred of them, the shouts of the spectators each shouting at the other at once and you have a fairly accurate picture of the African really enjoying himself.

There followed a speech by myself - the only time during the day that I could hear myself speak - the sale of Red Cross Flags, musical drill by the scholars and they are very good at this - due, I suppose, to the Native's innate sense of rhythm - the opening of a new Dispensary, a Red Cross raffle sale which I conducted, break for lunch, Native dancing in the afternoon followed by a further raffle sale, until the party finally wound up with a mammouth Native dance in which everyone took part - you know, I have described them to you before, everyone waggles round in a circle with posteriors going back and forwards to the rhythm of the drums. ...We havn't counted the money yet, but when I do I shall let you know how much was collected but don't expect too much because the collection is almost entirely penny penny, if not halfpenny halfpenny."

When the war ended Rosemary Downson was in Garissa in Northern Kenya with her husband John. He was on safari when she heard that Churchill would be announcing that the war was over. Not wanting to hear the announcement on her own, she wrote a polite little note to the only Europeans in the station at the time, two Italian prisoners of war, inviting them to come to her house to hear the announcement with her. The Italians equally politely refused. Rosemary, therefore, listened to Churchil's long awaited announcement and then went into the kitchen to celebrate with her cook, Ikuna.

"Ikuna!" she said "Isn't it wonderful, the war is over!"

Ikuna was in the process of taking a tray of scones out of the over, he granced over his shoulder to her and said, "Yes!...who won?"



Back to Table of Contents | Back to Articles | Chapter 14




Share