Page last updated at 00:28 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

The Africans who fought in WWII

A photo of three African soldiers taken during the Second World War
Jagama Kello, middle, left home at just 15 to fight Italian invaders

By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa analyst

The 70th anniversary of World War II is being commemorated around the world, but the contribution of one group of soldiers is almost universally ignored. How many now recall the role of more than one million African troops?

Yet they fought in the deserts of North Africa, the jungles of Burma and over the skies of Germany. A shrinking band of veterans, many now living in poverty, bitterly resent being written out of history.

For Africa, World War II began not in 1939, but in 1935.

I greeted Gandhi with a military salute and asked him: 'What are you going to do for Africa now that India is going to be free?'
Marshal Kebby
Nigerian soldier

Italian Fascist troops, backed by thousands of Eritrean colonial forces, invaded Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee to the UK, but others, known as Patriots, fought on. Among them was Jagama Kello. Fifteen years old at the time, he left home and raised a guerrilla force that struck at the Italian invaders.

Mein Kampf

Other Africans learnt what Fascism could mean for them. Among them was John Henry Smythe of Sierra Leone. His teacher gave him Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf.

"We read what this man was going to do to the blacks if he gets into power. And he attacked the British and Americans for encouraging the blacks to become doctors and lawyers," Mr Smythe said.

A black and white picture of John Henry Smythe looking through a camera.
John Henry Smythe, left, read Hitler's Mein Kampf before joining the RAF

"It was a book which would put any black man's back up and it put mine up."

He volunteered to join the Royal Air Force, becoming a navigator, flying bombers over Germany. Others took a similar view.

Joe Culverwell, who went on to fight for the liberation of Zimbabwe, volunteered the day war was declared in 1939.

"Don't forget in those days we were very loyal Brits - stupid as that may sound now," Mr Culverwell says. "We were brainwashed into being little brown Britishers."

Others were conscripted. They were picked up when they went to visit a local market or on the orders of a local chief.

And many found that once they enlisted they were badly treated. The reality of military life for African soldiers like Nigerian Marshall Kebby was very different from the propaganda.

"As a colonial soldier I had very rough treatment. At that time we hadn't even a single Nigerian officer, all were British. And many of us revolted against injustice, what I might call man's inhumanity to man."


But once the fighting began there was little time for protest. For men like Mr Culverwell, serving in Somalia, being bombed by the Italians was a terrifying experience.

We, the ex-servicemen, gave this country the freedom it's enjoying today.
Marshall Kebby

"Boy that was hell. We all had foxholes. I never felt so frightened in my life. They were bombing 100 yards away. We daren't even look up, you see."

Mr Smythe took part in air-raids over enemy territory.

But on the night of 18 November 1943 his plane was shot down over the German city of Mannheim. He spent 18 months in a prisoner of war camp, where the Germans tried to extract intelligence from him.

"You must use some special instruments to navigate your way here," his interrogator told Mr Smythe.

"He said: 'I want you to co-operate to get you out of this place.' I said: 'I will give you my name and number'. He started to scream at me; became a real Nazi officer.

"He said: 'You know they are talking about whether to execute you tomorrow or not. Because you, as a black man, should not involve in white man's war.'"

Meeting Gandhi

On the other side of the world, Mr Kebby was meeting Indians.

Among them was the leader of India's independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who was addressing a crowd of one million people in Madras. Mr Kebby worked his way to the front.

"It was one of the greatest things I did as a soldier. I greeted Gandhi with a military salute and asked him: 'What are you going to do for Africa now that India is going to be free?'

"He said: 'India will not do anything for you. But India will give you moral support on condition you fight the British non-violently'."

By 1945 the war was over, African troops had helped the allied powers defeat Germany, Italy and Japan.

Graphic, showing the numbers of African soldiers involved in WWII

Mr Culverwell remembers talking to other black soldiers he met about what would happen to them now.

"We used to have long chats about the colour problem and we were determined that we were not going to be treated that way any more."

Freedom fighters

But for most Africans independence was still 15 years away.

In the meantime, the veterans had to get home and find a job.

You can listen to Africa's Forgotten Soldiers on BBC World Service at 10:05am on Friday 13 November.

Many found little gratitude for their years of service and no work.

In February 1948 veterans from Ghana, among them Kalimu Glover went to petition the governor.

But instead of receiving them, police opened fire. It sparked off an outpouring of anger on the streets of Accra.

"After the shooting, we said we should damage all British things in the city. We got stones, sticks to break down shops. We broke them all down. Those were wonderful days: February 1948, Saturday to Sunday."

Mr Kebby is convinced that he and others like him helped end colonial rule.

"Every soldier who went to India got new ideas and learnt new things. We came back with improved ideas about life. We, the ex-servicemen, gave this country the freedom it's enjoying today. We gave this freedom and handed it over to our country."

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