The British Empire Library

War Bush: 81 (West African) Division in Burma 1943-1945

by John A L Hamilton

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Robin Neillands (The author of "A Fighting Retreat: the British Empire 1947-97" and "The Bomber War: Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive")
The Fourteenth Army of Burma fame is all-too-often referred to in history journals as The Forgotten Army, its exploits and tribulations in that terrible terrain overshadowed by the nearer triumphs of the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy and the Second Army in Normandy and North-West Europe.

All that may change; Major-General Julian Thompson's new book on the Burma campaign is about to be published and in the meantime we have this fine tale by a former officer of the 81st (West African) Division, a well-written and long-overdue tribute to that division and the fine, hard-fighting soldiers it contained.

Drawn from the colonies of Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia, the division was formed in 1943 and served in the hardest actions of the Burma campaign - in the Arakan, as a Chindit force, and along the Irrawaddy. The Japanese of the 28th Army - no mean fighters - regarded the West African soldiers as 'the best jungle fighters' in Fourteenth Army, 'feared for their ability to penetrate the flanks of the Japanese positions', respected as soldiers who never left their wounded - or their dead - in the hands of the enemy. One of the first accounts tells of two companies of the 4th Nigerian Regiment clearing the Japanese from the banks of the Kaladan river and over-running enemy positions at Pansanwa from which 'none of the Japanese in the garrison ever rejoined their battalion.'

And yet the exploits of this division are either sketched in briefly in the official accounts or ignored in other popular histories, though the statistics reveal that the service of the African soldier in Burma deserves much greater consideration. As Hamilton points out, these soldiers have had scant justice, from their commanders at the time and historians since. Who knows that there were more African soldiers in Burma than Gurkhas? Who recalls that African units provided two full divisions, 81st and 82nd (West African) to Fourteenth Army, plus a Chindit brigade, a Recce regiment, an East African division and a range of supporting units? Where is it recorded that some 90,000 Africans served in Burma, every one of them a volunteer?

These men were used to heat and hardship, rough terrain and heavy loads but it was as jungle fighters that the West Africans scored, and - let it be noted - the British were fielding Africans as front line infantry when the American armies in Europe were restricting black troops to supporting arms and segregating their units. Good soldiers require good officers and Hamilton records one occasion when a South African barmaid refused to serve a black officer with a drink; the entire party, British officers and NCOs, having protested loudly without avail, rose as one man and walked out of the bar, leaving their glasses unemptied.

John Hamilton joined the 81st Division as a second lieutenant, aged 23, was wounded and decorated, serving throughout the campaign in two useful posts, as a platoon commander and signals officer. The first gave him close contact with the soldiers, the second gave him a good grasp of events and his splendid history concludes with a memorable quotation 'Whatever the colour of his skin, the blood a soldier sheds is always the same colour'. This point should be remembered as the old African soldiers fade into a history that has ignored their courage and sacrifice for far too long.

British Empire Book
John A L Hamilton
Michael Russell (Publishing) Ltd
0 85955 267 5


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