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Ntwa Ya Hitler (5)

JEFF RAMSAY
We left off in November 1941 with the arrival of the first seven companies of Batswana APC, some 2,500 troops altogether, at the Qasassin Pioneer Corps depot in Egypt, where they were assigned guard duties while receiving further combat training.

The urgent motive behind the additional training became apparent in December 1941 when six of the companies, 1971-76, were dispatched to the then French League of Nations mandate territory of Lebanon-Syria, which had been occupied by other units of the British 9th army a few months earlier in fighting against Vichy French forces.

Prior to this, the French collaborators had granted landing rights to the German Luftwaffe (Air Force), thus threatening the vital Suez Canal.

Similar considerations had also resulted in the British occupying both Iraq and Iran, then sovereign kingdoms, whose governments were alleged to have come under the influence of military officers sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Then, as now securing the oil from these two countries, and Saudi Arabia, was strategically vital.

Notwithstanding these interventions, the British position in the Middle East remained vulnerable throughout 1942. There was in particular the fear of a German invasion of Lebanon-Syria through then neutral Turkey.

Such a Blitzkrieg could capture the oil fields and doom the Suez, while opening the door to further German drives into Asia and Africa. If the invasion did come, the Batswana would be called upon to fight, notwithstanding the APC’s initial status as a logistical support unit.

In the early months of 1942, the Batswana companies were kept busy building and upgrading defences in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. One of the biggest projects was the construction of fortifications at Majdaloun. Others helped establish a rail link from Egypt to the Lebanese capital Beirut via Haifa in Palestine. In addition to hard work, the Batswana had to adjust themselves to a winter environment of snow and icy winds.

Once the defensive infrastructure had been largely completed, the Batswana troops were redeployed to undertake garrison duties along the potential invasion route. But the Germans never came.

The original companies were eventually transferred back to Egypt, but other Batswana were deployed in their place. By the end of 1942 some 25 Batswana companies, totalling 10,027 men, had been mobilized. Of these, all but one spent some time in Palestine, Lebanon and/or Syria.

While the first wave of Batswana were stationed in Lebanon, three companies, 1977, 1979, 1983, were posted along Suez Canal performing guard duties. A few Batswana were also detached to help guard King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, while he was in Egypt.

Along the Suez sleep was often interrupted by Luftwaffe night-bombing. At one point there was some further excitement when the German commandos launched an

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unsuccessful paratrooper assault in an attempt to sabotage the canal.

In January 1943, the veteran APC companies 1971-76 were transferred from Lebanon to the Royal Artillery Base Depot at Almaza, Egypt. There, they underwent two months of intensive gunnery training before being assigned to man 3.7 inch Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) batteries.

Although 3.7 H.A.A had proved its worth in the Battle of Britain, it was known as a notoriously difficult weapon to master. The biggest Anti-Aircraft weapon in the British arsenal, to load, aim and fire one of the massive guns required the close cooperation of a half dozen men.

The calculations required to hit fast flying enemy aircraft were especially complex. Initially this task was left to experienced British gunners. But, to the surprise of many of their superior officers, Batswana soon proved capable of taking over the “no. 1” firing position.

At first many of the British had in fact openly wondered whether the “Becs” should be assigned to H.A.A. duties at all. Most of the Batswana had not been to school and thus had to be given a crash course in mathematics for artillery. Any initial academic shortcomings were, however, compensated for by superior teamwork and enthusiasm.

In February 1943, the Officer in Charge of Middle East Anti-Aircraft Defences, Major-General Pollock, came to Almaza to inspect the Batswana target practice. Impressed by their rapid progress, he immediately confirmed their transfer to full combat duties.

Thus, in March 1943, Batswana operating both mobile and static 3.7 H.A.A.s, were amongst the first African gunners assigned to Montgomery’s 8th Army. Having defeated the German General Rommel’s Afrika Corps at El Alamein the previous October, the 8th Army were then pushing steadily across the sands of the then Italian colony of Libya to link up with American and Free French forces in Tunisia.

At the time, Batswana pride at being part of Monty’s team was manifested in songs such as “Tsholetsang Montgomeri”:

“Tsholetsang Montgomeri, Moetledi wa rona, E uta Modimo o ka thusa Moetledi Montgomeri, Phenyo ya ona ya gagwe, Huri!, Huri! Montgomeri.”In June 1943 Batswana gunners providing air-cover for Tripoli, the Libyan capital, were honoured with a royal visit by King George VI.

The monarch also met other Batswana then unloading ships and manning stores in Malta, which since 1941 had been subjugated to almost daily bombardment by Axis warplanes.

They were thus present when the island’s residents were awarded an unprecedented collective Victoria Cross for their bravery under fire.



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