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Africa and the World War II

THESE days the humanity marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the World War II that is the Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.

As to “African history” of the war it is often reduced to the battles in the Libyan desert in 1940-1943 and to the landing of the US and UK troops in North-West Africa in November 1942.

However, Africa’s role is the war was much more significant and multifaceted.In this paper we will focus on one aspect, the participation of African military, all in all about a million of them in the combat operations.

To begin with the World War II for Africa began much earlier than for the European states.

It was on the African continent that the first aggressive war was unleashed - the attack of fascist Italy on sovereign Ethiopia (then the country was called Abyssinia) in 1935.

As weall know, at the end of the 19th century Italy already made attempts to colonize Ethiopia, but the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1895-1896 ended with the defeat of the Italian troops.

However the fascist leadership of Italy in mid-1930s saw in the aggressive war against Ethiopia not only revenge for the shameful defeat, but also a step towards the creation of a large Italian colony in North-East Africa, which would unite Italian Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It was able to significantly increase the military power of the Italian state, rearm the ground units, aviation and the navy, and form and train quite numerous colonial troops recruited from residents of the North African and East African colonies - Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, making Africans fight Africans, while the European powers actually refused to assist Ethiopia in repelling Italian aggression.

Italy announced the annexation of Ethiopia, and on May 9, 1936, the Italian king Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia, Nevertheless, the Italian occupation forces could not fully establish control over the territory of Ethiopia, and guerilla warfare was launched in many areas of the country.

Italiajoined the side of Germany and in August 1941 occupied British Somaliland, but in January 1941, British troops began counter-offensive from three directions at once: from Kenya through Italian Somalia, from Aden through British Somalia and from Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

Italian troops were unable to withstand a strong British army that included units from its African colonies and especially from South Africa.

A very important role was played by Ethiopian units in liberation of Addis Ababa on April 6, 1941.

If Ethiopians fought against Italian fascists for its independence, many African countries, formerly colonies of Great Britain, France or Belgium, became human resource suppliers for the armies of countries participating in the anti-Hitler coalition.

Among all the African colonies of the European countries participating in the anti-Hitler coalition, the most numerous contingents of troops were exhibited by British colonies in East, West and South Africa.

Over the years of World War II, a total of 43 infantry battalions, an armored car regiment, an artillery unit, as well as engineer, signal and transport sections were created in East Africa on the basis of King’s African Rifles that existed from 1902.

Two divisions were formed in there, but the first of them, the 11th African Division was disbanded in November 1941 and another one, the 12th African Division was disbanded in April 1943. However in 1943, the 11th (East Africa) Division was formed again to fight against Japanese.

The rank-and-file and non-commissioned officers in all these units Rifles were staffed by Africans –Tanganykans, Kenyans, Ugandans, Nyasalandians, as well as some Nigerians and Kenyans, but all the officer posts were staffed by officers of the British army.

The units took part in hostilities against Italian troops in East Africa, against French collaborators in Madagascar, and finally against Japanese troops in Burma.

In the West African colonies of Great Britain West African frontier troops were formed, staffed by the men from Nigeria, the Gold Coast .

(Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia. Units of the West African forces took part in the fighting on the territory of Italian Somalia and Ethiopia, fought against the Japanese in Burma.

The British command believed that African soldiers accustomed to the tropical and equatorial climate would be able to fight more effectively against the Japanese units in the Indochina jungle than troops recruited in Europe.

It should be noted that the East African and West African units of the British colonial troops honorably fulfilled the missions assigned to them.

Tens of thousands of Africans - residents of the British colonies - died on the fronts of World War II, fighting with Italian, German and Japanese fascists.

By April 1, 1940, 179,000 The TirailleursSenegalese(Se negalese riflemen), a generic name for soldiers, sergeants, and junior officers of units formed in French colonies in West and Central Africa - Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Togo, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Chad and Congo - were serving in the French army.

After the war started in September 1939 France, up to 40,000 troops from the African colonies were among the French troops fighting on the European fronts. After the collaborators actually surrendered their own country, tens of thousands of them were captured by Germans.

The most famous prisoner of war was a young lieutenant Leopold Sedar Sengor - a native of Senegal, a poet and philosopher, who later became the country’s president and ideologist of negritude.

Sengor was able to escape from captivity and join the ranks of the French guerrillas. In memory of the Tirailleurs Senegalese who fought on distant European land, he wrote the poem.

Continues Tomorrow...

 

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Author: Vladimir Shubin, Russian Academy of Science

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