We left off in August 1944 with Batswana APC companies engaged in allied efforts to overrun the German 10th Army’s last major defences in the mountainous terrain of central Italy, the Gothic line.
A million German troops, reinforced by diehard Italian fascist units manned the line, which resisted sustained allied assault until March 1945. Keeping such large numbers of the enemy pinned down, while the allied invasion of France proceeded was, however, a major strategic objective.
For their part the ranks of British Empire and American forces had been depleted by the withdrawal of units to fight in southern France. The services of the Batswana, along with Basotho, British Indian, and Mauritian, Pioneers were thus in especially high demand all along the frontline.
In August the renaissance city of Firenze (Florence) fell in bitter fighting to the 5th Army’s South African division. Within days the Bakwena Pioneers of 1969 Company had erected Bailey bridges across the Arno River.
Elsewhere Batswana Pioneers were busy manning ammo and petrol dumps, unloading ships, cutting roads and servicing RAF bases. By the end of 1944, with the decline of enemy air activity, many of the Batswana H.A.A. gunners were once more assigned field firing roles, taking part in long running artillery duels.
Apparently writing on behalf of his unit, APC Sergeant Sampson sent a letter with enclosed picture to the British Resident Commissioner in Mafikeng expressing his pride weapon and esprit d ‘corps: “This is a picture of our friend that we are proud of “Mobile Gun”.
With the aid of this machine, the enemy can hardly succeed in shooting or capturing us then it is his last day…today we are calm and collected under all circumstances, burning only with the desire to get a grips on the enemy and so great is our ardour that we feel like tearing him with our teeth.”
The arrival of the Brazilian 1st Division and US 10th Mountain Division at the end of 1944, as well as increased activity by anti-German Italian partisans, helped turn the tide of battle. In February-March 1945 the Americans and Brazilians pushed through the centre of the Gothic Line, while to the east the battle hardened 1972, later joined by 1974 Companies assisted the Americans in pounding German coastal positions near Pisa.
Further inland 1976 Company helped provide cover for the New Zealanders, Poles, Americans, Indians, and allied Italians along the 5th Army’s right flank.
On April 22-23, 1945 Batswana were amongst the multinational forces that crossed the river Po to rapidly advance across the remainder of Italy; sweeping through the northern plains, while taking the city of Venice. By the end of the fighting in May 1945,
With the end of the war the white officers who commanded various colonial African troops in the allied armies recognised that “native affairs” would not return to its pre-war pattern. In August 1945, the Officer Commanding the 1974 H.A.A. Company, G.J.L. Atkinson, thus informed the Protectorate’s Government Secretary, Gerald Nettleton, that there had been no instances of mass disobedience amongst the Batswana gunners, however adding: “But elsewhere there was a lot. It is one of the most important aspects of the behaviour of African troops in this war.
The Depot Commandant had a very interesting talk on this subject, and asked the OCs [Officers Commanding] for their views on how things might be improved- for the next time! He says that mass disobedience occurred amongst all African troops. It is not being hushed up now- it cannot be- and indeed it is the most important fact to be faced. Successful African mass disobedience is a product of this war.”
Back in Botswana the young men who spearheaded the post-war resistance of the BakaNswazwi, as well as many of those who in June 1949 proclaimed Seretse as their true Kgosi, whore their APC uniforms. Elsewhere such dikgosi as Kgari and Bathoen II recognised a new spirit of assertiveness among the veterans.
Yet only a few former APC soldiers, ex-Sergeants Philip Matante and Amos Dambe along with Kenneth Nkwa being notable examples, ultimately played leading roles in the subsequent emergence of the nationalist political parties. Most of the leading nationalist politicians of the 1960s, individuals such as Mpho, Masire, Nwako and Koma, as well as Seretse, were in school during the war years.
Batswana troops came back with new skills that, due to the lack of opportunity at home and racist job reservation across the borders, proved to be of little subsequent benefit to them. The same is true of those blacks who rose to more skilled occupations in Gauteng’s war industries only to be pushed back down the ladder with peace. Local Batswana participated in the great, brutally suppressed, strikes of 1945-46.
Then there is the most overlooked of all local veterans, the women who maintained the nation, nurturing its post-independence leadership. In Molepolole, when their men folk returned in 1946, they sang a song which roughly translates: “Hail Kgosi Kgari, Our men have come home through the grace of God, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bangwato, we are one nation!”