African participants in the Second World War
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During the Second World War some 375,000 men and women from African countries served in the Allied forces. They took part in campaigns in the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa, Italy and the Far East.

Men of the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions served with great distinction against the Japanese in Burma, as part of the famous ‘Forgotten’ 14th Army. The 81st was composed of units from the Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (now Ghana), while the 82nd comprised further reinforcements from Nigeria and the Gold Coast. Both Divisions formed part of the RWAFF (Royal West African Frontier Force).

Two soldiers
© Imperial War Museum
 
The King’s African Rifles was composed of units from Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Somaliland (now Somalia) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The KAR fought in Somalia and Abyssinia against the Italians, in Madagascar against the Vichy French, and in Burma against the Japanese.
 
Non-white South African participants included Cape Coloured and Indian members of the Cape Corps, and black South Africans who served in the Native Military Corps. Though both the CC and the NMC made extremely valuable contributions to the Allied cause in auxiliary roles, neither was used for combat, to the displeasure of many of their members.
 
Out of a population of 42 million in the African Colonies of the British Commonwealth, 372,000 served in the Allied cause during the Second World War. Of these 3,387 were killed or reported missing; 5,549 were wounded.
 
 
Their Own Stories
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Al-Haji Abdul Aziz Brimah, 81st West African Division (Gold Coast)
 
Aziz Brimah, son of a chief of the Muslim community in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana), joined the Gold Coast regiment not long after the outbreak of war. He saw service on the front line with the 81st West African Division, fighting the Japanese in Burma.
 
Aziz Brimah
© Christopher Somerville
 
‘We knew that if we didn’t volunteer the enemy would come. Our motives: one, the British helped us to quench our tribal wars. Two, if they have trouble elsewhere, it’s proper for us to help them. Three, it’s also in our own interest - these people have an expanding attitude to cover the whole world. If we did not go out to face them, they would come here ... This fight we took like a Jihad, a Holy Battle. So it was allowed to Muslims. If you don’t fight - they will come to your home, and kill you!'
 
‘When we were coming into India on our ship, rumours went round among the Indians: "The Africans are coming! They are cannibals; they chop [eat] people; they have tails!" So when we went to bathe in the streams, people asked us not to take our pants off - our blue PT pants - in case they would be frightened by our tails! Then the British authorities themselves began to spread the story: "We are bringing in the Africans. When they catch you, they will chop you alive" (laughs) This was the best way they had of putting fear into the Japanese.'
 
‘In the Burmese jungle there was something we called tiger leech. It’s very small, very thin. If it gets to your body it will suck your blood and get bigger and bigger. So we used a cigarette end or a match on the under of that thing; it will take its fangs out. But if you don’t do that, but just pull it off, the fangs will stay within your body, and it will go bad - very bad.'
 
'The Japanese put leaves all over their bodies and they crawl gradually, as if they were trees or grass. We’d been trained and lectured as to all these tricks. If there’s two trees near together they can fix a machine-gun to each one and tie a rope to the triggers, then lie in the middle. If he see you coming, he’d pull this rope: kak-ak-ak-ak-ak! Then that one: kak-ak-ak-ak-ak! Then he’ll release a mortar bomb: bam-bam-bam! You’ll think there are so many people, but it may just be one or two.'
 
‘If you are in a war you forget everything. There was no time to pray. This jungle war was not a child’s play - it was something very dangerous, I think unprecedented anywhere. You become a different person. You left behind every civilian attitude, every gentle attitude. You forgot ... everything. That is why, after the war, they did not let us come home straight away. They gave us two good months, with money, to go to any part of India. It was something to refresh us, to let us come back to a human being.’
 
 
Acting Captain Eric Wilson VC, East Surrey Regiment (attached to the Somaliland Camel Corps)
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Eric Wilson, son of a vicar, was born in 1912 on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. His interest in Africa, originating in childhood with stories told him by his missionary grandfather, was stimulated at school when he came across a statue in honour of Somali soldiers and a British officer killed while fighting insurgents. Wilson was especially intrigued by the sculptures on the statue’s base, which depicted camels and horses in action. After gaining a commission in the East Surrey Regiment in 1933, and a subsequent attachment to the King’s African Rifles, it seemed natural for him to wind up on secondment to the Somaliland Camel Corps.Eric Wilson
© Imperial War Museum
On 11-15 August 1940 Eric Wilson took part in an engagement with heavy Italian forces in British Somaliland (now part of Somalia). The Italians had declared war only the day before, and were about to over-run the British colony. Yao Company of the Somaliland Camel Corps, with Wilson in charge, was manning machine-gun posts - some in concrete pillboxes, some out in the open - on Observation Hill. This was an important position in the Allied defensive line across the Tug Ergan gap between the enemy and the vital port of Berbera.
 
When the Italians attacked on 11 August, they twice managed direct hits which knocked Wilson’s gun off its mountings, killing a Somali corporal and wounding Wilson and several of his soldiers. But the Englishman and his colleagues remounted the gun and made such an effective defence that the Italians were kept at bay. For five days the Allied positions were attacked. Wilson - suffering from an attack of malaria as well as untended wounds - and the surviving Somali soldiers kept the enemy out until a final Italian charge over-ran the position.
 
‘Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed,’ announced the citation for Eric Wilson’s award of the Victoria Cross in the London Gazette of 14 October 1940. But in fact the acting captain had been captured on Observation Hill. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Eritrea. The camp was liberated a few months later, and Wilson was free to continue his daring career - at first in the ‘wild bunch’ known as the Long Range Desert Group, then as 2i/c 11th Battalion, the King’s African Rifles, on their 1944 advance down the Kabaw Valley (‘Death Valley’) in Burma. He caught scrub typhus in north-east India, and after a spell in hospital was invalided out of active service. He finished the war in Uganda, in command of an Infantry Training Centre.
 
 
Johnny Smythe (Sierra Leone): RAF
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Johnny Smythe was born on 30th June 1915, in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Johnny volunteered to help in the war effort and joined the RAF. He was one of only four, out of a batch of ninety men, to complete his training as a Navigator Officer. After spending another year studying to become a navigator, he was posted to a bomber squadron.
 
Johnny Smythe
© Imperial War Museum
 
"We knew what lay ahead of us. Every day we counted the number that returned. We also knew that there was a good chance that we would not return. We met with our first serious trouble during an operation over Mainz in Germany. The plane had several times been pelted by flak and it was in a bad state. Although we lost one of our engines, we still managed to limp back home."
 
"On one occasion we were flying back over England when a German fighter began to dog us. I saw it first and yelled to the rear gunner, ‘Frank, open up!’ It was quite scary because we were flying so low that, had the plane been actually shot down, we wouldn’t have had time to bail out! The noise caused by the two aircraft brought our anti-aircraft fire from the ground, which fended off the German fighter, and we were able to land safely. Another lucky escape!"
 
Johnny Smythe was promoted to Flying Officer. But on his 28th mission, on the night of 18th November 1943, his luck ran out:
 
"We were flying at 16,000 ft when the fighters came out of nowhere. They raked the fuselage and there were flames everywhere. Then the searchlights caught us. I was hit by shrapnel. Pieces came from underneath, piercing my abdomen, going through my side. Another came through my seat and into my groin. I heard the pilot ordering us to bail out. We had some rough ones before but this seemed to be the end."
 
Johnny parachuted to the ground and hid in a barn:
 
"Men in uniform came into the barn where I was hiding behind some straw. Then they opened up, raking the place with automatic fire. I decided to give in. The Germans couldn’t believe their eyes. I’m sure that’s what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man – and an officer at that – was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing."
 
In Stalag Luft One, a prisoner-of-war camp for officers in Pomerania, Smythe helped on the escape committee, but couldn’t break out himself: "I don’t think a six-foot-five black man would’ve got very far in Pomerania, somehow."
 
The Russians freed Johnny in 1945, and a Russian Army Officer embraced him and gave him vodka:
 
"I was fêted because I was black. They took me to a town near the camp and I watched as they looted. A pretty German woman was crying because they had taken all her valuables. I wanted to help her but the Russians wouldn’t listen. I had hated the Germans and wanted to kill them all, but something changed inside me when I saw her tears and the hopelessness on her face."