Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 00:32 UK

Africa's forgotten wartime heroes

British documentary makers Robin Forestier-Walker and Oliver Owen have been tracing Nigerians who fought against the Japanese in Burma during World War II.

On VJ Day, the anniversary of victory over Japan, they tell the veterans' story.

Private Banana
Private African Banana also served as a peacekeeper in Congo and Chad

Mohammed was just 16 when he was pressed into British military service in northern Nigeria against his will.

Now, almost 70 years on, the old war veteran claims he hid his true identity from the recruiting officer.

It was as Private African Banana that he went on to travel 6,300 miles (10,100km) to the jungles of Burma in the Royal West African Frontier Force.

And he has been known as African Banana ever since.

The contribution of West Africans was played down in official versions of the Allied war in Asia, and until now, few have had an opportunity to tell their tale.

In fact, only two in 10 of the soldiers who fought in Burma were white.

The role of Indians and Gurkhas is known. But when Allied commander General William Slim thanked his 14th army at the end of the campaign, he did not even mention the Africans.

Jungle warfare

Nigerians made up more than half of the total force of 90,000 West African soldiers deployed to South East Asia after 1943 as part of the British Army's 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions.

Although the Burma campaign ended 64 years ago, many remain bitter that their contribution was never adequately recognised.

Initially I saw the white man as someone better than me. But after the war, I considered him an equal
Former infantryman Dauda Kafanchan

They were central to the push to clear Japanese forces out of the jungle and mountain ranges of Burma, from where they threatened British India.

This was achieved through a gruelling campaign of jungle marches, battles and ambushes, in which supplies were delivered entirely by air.

Usman Katsina remembers it well.

"Everything that was meant to be used - your food, your clothes, everything - was given to you and you were required to carry it, on your head and back. Some even died from exhaustion, from travelling long distances, with a heavy load," he says.

Some of those who earned the coveted Burma Star had already fought against Mussolini's forces in East Africa.

West Africans also joined special Chindit units under the command of General Orde Wingate.

The Chindits fought deep inside Japanese-held territory to disrupt lines of communication.

Their enemy was an extremely dangerous opponent. Japanese soldiers were trained well in the art of jungle warfare, where the first rule was concealment.

It was a skill the Nigerian troops had to learn too.

"The Japanese in the jungle were just like snakes - they hid before you could see them, it was very hard," recalls 97-year-old Hassan Sokoto.

'Lack of recognition'

Umaru Yola fought in the 4th Battalion, Nigeria Regiment. He described how he was hit in the head with a piece of shrapnel that left him with a hole in his skull.

"I didn't die, so God must have decided to give me a long life," he says.

Nigerian WWII veterans
Many of the veterans feel they were failed by the British after the war

African recruits served as drivers, artillerymen, engineers, medics and clerks, as well as infantrymen and carriers.

Officer positions were reserved for white expatriates from Britain and other parts of the empire, with only one notable exception: Lieutenant Seth Anthony from the Gold Coast was the British Army's first African officer.

Despite the hierarchy, the war in Burma played some part in breaking down the race barriers of the era.

"Initially I saw the white man as someone better than me. But after the war, I considered him an equal," recalls former infantryman Dauda Kafanchan.

In post-war Nigeria, the colonial government gave some veterans land to begin new lives as farmers. The project was also a scheme to reduce their potential impact as a new political force.

"We wanted work. But what could we do? We were under colonial rule and we couldn't change anything," said veteran Dangombe, who found himself without prospects at the war's end.

Nigerian soldiers who chose to continue their military careers went on to form the core of independent Nigeria's national army, which retains the 81st and 82nd Divisions to this day.

Private Banana later served as a peacekeeper in the Congo and Chad. And he returned to the frontline alongside many of his former comrades in Nigeria's bloody 1967-1970 civil war.

But many of his former comrades feel the British abandoned their responsibilities to their former servicemen.

Although they were paid off for their service, some claim they were promised allowances which were never paid, despite their repeated efforts over the years.

And it is not only the money - some veterans are still bitter over what they see as a lack of recognition.

"We were supposed to get Long Service and British Empire Medals" says Dangombe.

"But up until now - nothing."

Print Sponsor


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific