By Penny Crook
Published November 12, 2009
Seventy years after the start of the Second World War, a new BBC World Service documentary will examine the often overlooked role played in the war by soldiers from across Africa.
The war effort was bolstered by soldiers from across the British Empire and Commonwealth but Africa’s Forgotten Soldiers on November 13, 2009 on BBC World Service examines the contribution of soldiers from Africa, who participated in the conflict, fighting their way through the jungles of Burma, across the Libyan deserts and in the skies over London.
It is estimated that more than one million Africans participated in the war, although not all of them on the Allied side.
Presented by the BBC’s Africa analyst Martin Plaut, the documentary features the first-hand accounts of African troops who participated in the war, including the testimonies of ex-servicemen from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
For Africa, this war began in 1935 when Italian forces backed by Eritrean troops invaded Ethiopia. Ethiopian guerrilla forces, known as the Patriots, continued fighting even after Emperor Haile Selassie fled to England. After 1939 Britain began an intensive programme of recruiting soldiers from across its African colonies – some were conscripted by force, whilst others were only too keen to sign up.
The documentary reveals the reality of military life and combat for many of these soldiers, who after initial training were dispatched to the frontlines.
Sierra Leonean John Henry Smythe, was flying sorties as a navigator with a British bombing crew over Germany, when his plane was shot down. He managed to bail out, but was eventually captured on the outskirts of Berlin by the military police. He recalls his astonishment at being held and then questioned by a German who had lived in Sierra Leone and spoke the local Creole language.
The experience of leaving home to fight on foreign soil transformed many of these soldiers. Among those who went to India, there were men who met, talked to and were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.
Nigerian Marshall Kebby recalls travelling to Madras to see Gandhi:
“The crowd was more than one million. I was the only black soldier among the whole lot. People were looking at me. I was not armed. When Gandhi came, I did best to go nearer, nearer. I greeted him with military salute. He was responsive. I said what are you going to do for Africa now that India 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.”
When these soldiers finally returned home, they found little had changed; but as they reveal in this documentary, their own experiences were entirely new, and some went on to fight for the liberation of their own countries from colonial rule.