The British Empire Library

Fighting For Britain: African Soldiers In The Second World War

by David Killingray

Courtesy of OSPA

John Lonsdale (7 and 11 KAR 1956-58; Emeritus Professor of Modern African History University of Cambridge)
This splendid book, with marvellous illustrations derived from the Imperial War Museum, will delight Old Africa hands. Its distinguishing quality is its use of old soldiers' reminiscences, many of them recorded by the BBC Africa Service in 1989, for the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of Hitler's war. But Killingray also analyses official views, noted from the files of The National Archives at Kew.

Historians of modern Africa have ascribed great importance to the Second World War. Colonial Africa seemed so stagnant before 1940, and in such a hurry after 1945, that the corrosive or stimulating effects of the war--depending on one's point of view --seemed obvious. But Killingray joins the increasing number of historians who doubt that African soldiers themselves did much to accelerate history. War service did not make them all nationalists. More was due to larger historical processes: Britain's exhaustion, Africa's increased value as a dollar-earner, rapid urbanization, and the rise of literate nationalisms that recruited comparatively few old soldiers but made the most of the diplomatic pressures of the Cold War.

Killingray outlines the backwardness of colonial Africa in 1939, to show the environment from which soldiers came. More recruits came from unlettered rural districts, with scarcely a lorry, than from towns where literacy and machinery were more common. But Africans seem to have accepted motor transport, trains, uniform, inoculation, barrack life, time discipline and other cultural innovations as readily any other soldiers thrust into a modern army--sea voyages alone excepted. This lack of 'culture shock' applied as much to mral recruits, often forced or tricked into service, as to educated men who had a better idea of why they had joined up. British propaganda against Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese seems to have been an effective stimulant to loyalty; more surprisingly, it does not seem to have raised too many unrealisable hopes at the war's end.

Killingray shows that the African soldiery endured much the same experiences in much the same way as any soldiers anywhere: boredom, unfamiliar rations, endless basic training, worries about how wives were behaving (accentuated by poor postal services or illiteracy), or the army's issue of condoms for off-duty purposes: 'Do Europeans like wearing shoes in the bath?' was one soldier's astonished reaction. But where British troops might have resented class distinctions, African soldiers met racial differentiation, in rank, pay, and conditions. In general, such discrimination does not seem to have caused great bitterness --but British officers nonetheless insisted that white South Africans must not command West Africans. The alleged radicalising effect of meeting African-American troops also seems to have been a myth. But Killingray has not noticed an instance of discrimination visible in Commonwealth war cemeteries where South African dead rest: not only in segregated plots, but with messages from bereaved parents engraved on almost all white headstones, some on the coloured and, at the back, none at all on the black (mostly medical orderlies), whose parents appear to have received little consideration.

There is a chapter on indiscipline. The Mauritius Regiment and a Somali battalion of the King's African Rifles (KAR) were disbanded for what were more strikes than mutinies; Ashanti recruits, despite their warrior past, were the most frequent deserters -- but not in face of the enemy. The chief complaint of non-white South Africans was that they were not permitted to take armed, combatant roles--and in Kenya Michael Blundell restored order in his Pioneer battalion only by promising that they would become riflemen. Delayed leave was the surest cause of unrest among African troops; their sexual relations with white women the chief cause of concern among their officers. Killingray concludes that the 'industrial relations' of African armies were just that: African soldiers behaved like workers in uniform.

We read little of the experience of battle --in Ethiopia, North Africa, Italy, Madagascar or Burma. By and large Africans earned their officers' respect--although one KAR battalion broke and ran when first under Japanese fire. Killingray is more interested in how soldiers reacted to their often slow demobilisation and 'reabsorption' into civilian life. Colonial authorities worried lest they be contagiously dissatisfied with the slim opportunities available in still backward economies for the drivers, clerks, mechanics, and so on that many had become. Such worries were misplaced. The ex-servicemen's protest against price inflation in Accra in 1948, and the lethal police panic it caused, arguably lit the fuse of sub-Saharan Africa's nationalisms. But it is entirely misleading as a basis for generalisation. Most demobilised soldiers were content to return to rural life and, in the words of a KAR marching song, 'look after our cattle for ever.'

Readers who served in any part of Africa will find stories and people of interest here. Killingray is most at home in West Africa. Any who served in Kenya will be surprised to read that the 'white highlands' were carved mainly out of Kikuyuland rather than Maasailand. But it is the personal experience and reflection of individual African soldiers that gives this book its historical strength and emotional appeal.

British Empire Book
David Killingray with Martin Plant
Boydell & Brewer
978 1 84701 015 5


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