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The Forgotten Conflict - Batswana In The Middle East 1945-48

JEFF RAMSAY
When Batswana enlisted in the African Pioneer Corps from 1941 they were assured by both their Dikgosi and British officials that their tour of duty would last until the final defeat of Hitler’s Reich.

Thus in the aftermath of the 8th May 1945 unconditional surrender of Germany most of the “fighting Becs” expected that they would soon be able to finally return to their country and loved ones.

For their part, the British had also initially timetabled the return of all of the High Commission Territories Pioneer units (APC), i.e. Basotho and Amaswati as well as Batswana, by September of 1945. Yet by the end of the month only 14% of the force had actually been repatriated.

As it was, the last of the Batswana companies konya escort recruited for the war only departed from Egypt in March of 1946, arriving at Clairwood Camp in Durban the following month.

There they were finally discharged with each being given a new suit, their accumulated back pay and an additional £10 to cover transport home.

The reason for the delay in the APC’s demobilisation was twofold.

On the one hand in the aftermath of the war there was a genuine shortage of shipping to cater for the return of British Empire servicemen.

This situation was further aggravated by the fact that the Japanese only agreed to finally surrender four months after the fall of Germany, in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the imminent prospect of a joint US-Soviet invasion of their home islands. 

In this context, the APC was ultimately given lower priority than the return or redeployment of service men from other areas. While the preference given to some, such as liberated POWS from East Asia, can be seen as having been reasonable, it is also true that white units, as well as units whose post-war loyalty was more suspect than the APC were placed ahead of the queue by the British War Office (WO).

There was, however, an additional motive for the delay. With the drawdown of Indian, South African and Australia-New Zealand (Anzac) forces from the region, Britain’s Middle East Command (MEC) found the continued presence of the APC units to be useful for upholding their authority in Egypt and the adjacent territory of Palestine, where imperial interests were coming under increasing challenge.

Thus it was that although by August 1945 all of the APC companies had been withdrawn from Italy and elsewhere, most remained stationed for another seven months in these two territories, in the face of growing post-war resistance to continued British occupation.

Their ultimate

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withdrawal very nearly coincided with the arrival of 3,600 fresh troops of the APC’s rebranded successor force - the High Commission Territories Corps.

Although recognised as an independent kingdom in 1922, Egypt had remained under de facto British occupation, which up until 1952 was exercised through a royal puppet regime.

Nationalist resentment in the country had been aggravated by the virtual British military takeover during the war, which had effectively shattered all pretence of Egyptian sovereignty. 

Although most of the British, including Batswana forces were confined to the Suez Canal Zone in 1947, their continued presence in the country was still resented.

Like other imperial forces, the Batswana troops thus experienced mutual hostility from the local Arabic speaking population. As one Motswana veteran, Selebatso “S.G.” Masimega, noted:

“Arabs were a peculiar people I can’t understand. They saw Africans as very queer, pro-British, and some of them would often speak to the African soldiers to tell them that the Batswana take the British to be their gods...Arabs regard Africans as a minor people under the British; the called us ‘British dogs’”

In Palestine the situation was much more tense with both Zionist (Jewish) and Palestinian guerrillas fighting the British, as well as each other, in the run-up to the full scale 1948-49 war that would ultimately give birth to the State of Israel.

This event coincided with what Palestinians  refer to as the “Nakba” or tragic uprooting of much of their population that is the foundation of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From late 1945 many Batswana and Basotho companies that had been battle-hardened in Italy were thus deployed in Palestine over their protests.

Most were stationed either at Esdraelon, near the biblical town of Nazareth, or in Jerusalem. As part of the British occupation they were targeted by Zionist and Arabs insurgents alike, although the former claimed more APC casualties. As another veteran, Julius Segano, observed:

“(Our) coming home was delayed because of Palestine and the Arabs. So now is another experience, guerrilla warfare. We used not to carry guns when going into villages, but there in Palestine we had to.”

In December 1945 resentment among Basotho APC troops boiled over into a full scale mutiny after four of their comrades were killed in a Zionist (Irgun) bombing of a Jerusalem police station.

The mutiny was ultimately put down by force, during which three Basotho were killed and a dozen more wounded.

(To be continued)



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