David Killingray, Martin Plaut. Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey Ltd, 2012. 301 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84701-047-6.
Reviewed by Raffael M. Scheck
Published on H-War (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
David Killingray has for a long time been the leading expert on British recruitment in Africa. His latest book on African soldiers in British service during World War II provides a rich picture of the experiences of African servicemen in the British army, based on the testimonies of participants. Killingray draws from an analysis of life stories sent to the BBC in connection with a program on the service of Africans in World War II (directed by Martin Plaut, who is in fairness listed as a contributing author), and he uses some oral history through interviews and letters from archival collections. Killingray can draw from a rich participants’ source base that fills French colonial historians working on French recruitment in Africa with envy.
The book starts with the situation before 1939, when Italy was considered the main threat to British Africa and when British authorities shared a general reluctance to deploy African troops outside of the Continent and against armies with white men--except as unarmed military laborers in uniform. Killingray stresses the very weak military presence in the vast British African empire at the start of the war. Yet, the war led to the recruitment of more than 500,000 African soldiers organized among others in the Royal West African Frontier Force (West African colonies), the King’s African Rifles (Eastern Africa), the Sudan Defence Force, the Somaliland Camel Corps, and various formations in Rhodesia, South Africa, and Egypt. African servicemen served in many different theaters of war, such as Abyssinia, North Africa, the Levant, Madagascar, Italy, India, and Burma. Among the British African servicemen opposing the Japanese in Burma--around 120,000--was Hussein Onyango Obama, the maternal grandfather of current U.S. president Barack Obama. Of these 500,000 soldiers, approximately 15,000 died in the war, although only a small share in frontline combat (Killingray mentions that African servicemen were more vulnerable to diseases than Europeans and had significantly higher casualty rates away from the front, which may indicate a generally lower standard of health and physical fitness). Throughout the book, Killingray carefully highlights differences among the different forces and the territories from which they were drawn, stressing that British colonialism was inconsistent and somewhat malleable.
A chapter on recruitment points out that on the surface many Africans volunteered for army service, but that on closer look there always were pressures. Under the British system of indirect rule, recruitment relied above all on the local chiefs. The vastly increased need for soldiers led the colonial authorities to apply more pressure on the chiefs, meaning that ultimately many African soldiers were conscripted. But there was also some patriotism, lust for adventure, and the notion that the empire should contribute to a war against a racist fascist alliance (represented in Africa primarily by the Italian fascists). Altogether, the line between volunteers and conscripts was sometimes hard to draw.
A point of interest for French colonial historians is that the ideology of martial races, which was prominent in French African recruitment spearheaded by General Charles Mangin, also colored British official thinking on the places where recruitment should be most intense. In general, the British colonizers believed that martial qualities were most likely to be found among the most remote tribes: “To many Europeans an origin of perceived simplicity marked out the ideal African soldier” (p. 42). On the basis of works by South African historian Louis Grundlingh, Killingray points out that recruitment was most discriminatory in South Africa, where the white government for a long time refused to admit black soldiers to combat duty and ensured that they received very low military wages.
Killingray shows that army life offered adventure, excitement, and welfare benefits but also much boredom and occasional, sometimes fatal, danger. For many Africans, the army provided an encounter with Western lifestyles (for example in clothing, food, and eating habits) and skills (such as driving and literacy). Although African servicemen used some of the opportunities offered by army service, their chances to rise in the ranks were very slim, not least because of discrimination by white officers. One frustrating aspect of army service was that it often isolated the soldiers from their families for a long time. Many soldiers heard little from their families throughout their war service. Mail was unreliable, and many soldiers worried about the well-being of their families and about spousal infidelity. Soldiers themselves had sexual relations, however, much to the concern of the military authorities, who tried to impose a color bar for fear of local unrest, particularly in India.
A fascinating chapter focuses on mutinies and strikes in the army, which were often triggered by racist officers. One of the largest cases of indiscipline was a sit-down strike of a Mauritian unit upon arrival in Madagascar in December 1943, after a series of frustrating experiences at the hands of white officers and following several rather sadistic orders. More than 350 soldiers were arrested and 500 were tried; the initial sentences were severe, but many soldiers received early releases, so that in 1946 all but six of the mutineers were free. Aside from open mutiny, absenteeism and desertion were frequent, particularly in units initially stationed near the homes of the soldiers during harvest time. In some areas, severe tensions developed between African troops and local civilians. In an army base in India, African servicemen clashed with civilians; they committed rapes and killed six local people. In Eritrea in 1945, a drunken brawl provoked civilians to stone three African servicemen, triggering a terrible revenge by the troops in the barracks, who killed forty civilians and wounded more than seventy (p. 128). As was the case with colonial troops from the French army, soldiers from British Africa had to wait a very long time for repatriation (up to two years), and the long wait inspired further unrest and disorder. A special case were the South African servicemen, who suffered from strict apartheid but sometimes found a taste of freedom in Europe, where the color bar was not strictly enforced. Efforts of the white officers to maintain discrimination led to mutinies and an unusually high percentage of desertions.
The chapter on war draws on fewer sources than the other chapters because testimonies of combat are relatively rare and because many Africans were used as support troops rather than frontline combatants. Many combat accounts focus on the battles with the Japanese in Burma. One interesting testimony claims that the Africans would frighten a group of Japanese prisoners by first killing one or two prisoners and then pretending to roast and eat them. The surviving prisoners were set free so that they could tell their comrades that the Africans did indeed eat prisoners (p. 158). In several cases, African patrols carried a collection of severed heads of Japanese soldiers when returning to their quarters (p. 164). Not surprisingly, the Japanese seem to have been very afraid of black soldiers. Unfortunately, little information exists about the Japanese treatment of black prisoners, but the fragmentary evidence suggests that hardly any black prisoners in Japanese hands were left alive. These dynamics are interesting in light of the massacres of black French soldiers by the German army in May and June 1940, which were also often triggered by allegations that black soldiers mutilated and ate German prisoners.
Sadly, the book provides little information on prisoners of war, aside from a few fragmentary accounts of prisoners treated badly by the Italians and Germans (although it seems that the Italians and Germans, unlike the Japanese, at least did not generally kill British Africans upon capture). Some of these prisoners were, like French colonial soldiers, used in German propaganda films. Perhaps the life stories in the BBC collection contain few testimonies on captivity, which is usually not an experience likely to inspire glorious memories.
The repatriation of the 300,000 African servicemen was a low priority and led to many frustrations. The soldiers, when they finally arrived home, found that their newly acquired skills did not help them much in their home economies. The army’s welfare umbrella closed over them, and widespread unemployment in many colonies except Gold Coast (Ghana) gave them few opportunities to regain a stable economic footing. As Killingray highlights: “It was a tragedy that postwar colonial economies were simply too weak and ill-developed to be able to absorb and put to good use all of the skills that had been rapidly acquired and developed in the brief war years” (p. 184). Many soldiers also returned to trouble in their private lives. Some wives had taken different husbands during their absence, and returning veterans sometimes encountered hostility and suspicion from neighbors who believed that the army had turned them into criminals. To make matters worse, veterans often felt that they did not receive the payments they were due. Killingray relativizes these perceptions by pointing out that most expectations were unreasonable because there was no army pension for unwounded soldiers, although apparently some false promises had been made during recruitment. Those soldiers who came back wounded or handicapped did usually receive a small pension but were left with insufficient support.
The end of the book addresses the important connection between the war and the end of European colonialism. Killingray takes a very careful approach here, pointing out that although the war in many ways had shattered the notion of white superiority among African servicemen and destabilized colonial rule, most Africans in 1945 expected colonialism to stay for a long time. That returning servicemen brought home ideas of civil rights inspired by their contact with African Americans in the U.S. army and that they were inspired by nationalism in their contact with Asian peoples is a myth. Certainly, African servicemen returned from army service with a heightened sense for racial discrimination (and, for South and East Africans, with a new appreciation for the mass poverty in India, which undermined their notions about the people of Indian origin in Africa). Yet, the participation of veterans in independence movements was not particularly strong, although it was more pronounced in Gold Coast than in East Africa. Some veterans doubtless shared the notion that the war was fought against Nazi Germany for its racism, and sometimes veterans concluded that racial discrimination therefore should not have a place in postwar British colonial society either. The veterans did not, however, foster a sense of pan-African unity; if anything, army service heightened their sense of belonging to one particular territory. Overall, Killingray finds that returning veterans, despite their new experiences and skills, often were a conservative force after the war looking to recreate their prewar normalcy.
The final chapter analyzes the social impact of war service, which represented “the largest mobilization and movement of men within and out of Africa in modern history” (p. 236). One of the most lasting influences was perhaps the close encounter with Western lifestyles, including clothing and eating habits. The war thus may have created new demands and aspirations. The soldiers’ experience triggered a widespread desire among Africans to learn English as well as improve their literacy and numeracy skills. Yet, again, Killingray throws in a word of caution: “Military service may have exposed men to new ideas but in all probability it did not substantially change their spiritual perceptions of the world” (p. 251). It seems almost as if the author regretted ever having asked the question about the social impact of the war and the soldiers’ service on Africa, as he avoids giving a clear answer, probably with good reason in light of the geographical and individual complexities.
Altogether, this is an impressive and carefully researched account that treats the excellent source material with appropriate care. The book has few weaknesses. Certainly, this reviewer regrets the brief treatment of captivity, as prisoners of war often shared a different set of experiences than regular servicemen. One minor error in the book is that it repeatedly states that Italy entered the war in May 1940 (it was actually on June 10, 1940). But in general, this is a precious analysis of the experiences of African servicemen that will provide a comparative point of orientation for other colonial empires. Killingray’s book confirms the trend of recent works that tend to question the connection between wartime service and support for independence movements. The mutinies and the unrest of African servicemen, though often responses to discrimination and racism, did not simply carry over into a rebellious attitude against the colonial authority.
. Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960, Social History of Africa. (Portsmouth, NH and London: Heinemann and James Currey, 1991), 28-31.
. Julien Fargettas, Les Tirailleurs sénégalais. Les soldats noirs entre légendes et réalité 1939-1945 (Paris: Tallandier, 2012).
. Raffael Scheck, Hitler’s African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
. See, for example, Gregory Mann, Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
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Raffael M. Scheck. Review of Killingray, David; Plaut, Martin, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War.
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