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Batswana In The Middle East 1945-48 (Part 2) – The HCTC

JEFF RAMSAY
We left off in December 1945 with the violent suppression of a mutiny amongst Basotho APC troops, resulting in three deaths and a dozen more wounded.

The incident had been sparked by the earlier death of four Basotho in a Zionist Irgun bombing of a Jerusalem Police station.

That none of the Batswana APC companies joined in the action may in part be attributed to their attachment to their chain of command, which was rooted in their traditional regiments or mephato as well as their formal military rankings.

In this respect, many of the Sergeant Majors (RSMs), the highest NCO rank then open to Batswana, were senior royal relatives. British dispatches, in this respect, notably credit RSMs Rasebolai Kgamane, Molwa Sekgoma and Mookami Gaseitsiwe for maintaining loyalty amongst the troops at the time.

Notwithstanding their nonparticipation in the mutiny, there were those amongst the Batswana who had advocated taking up violent measures, as reflected in the following communication: “The Makgoa will realise that we mean what we say about the promise to send us home be kept. Officers will know soon as a few of them are stoned or stabbed (as the Basotho have done before and will do again) active steps will then be taken to begin to repatriate these men.”

In the aftermath of the mutiny the British War Office recognised that the repatriation of the APC units could not be delayed indefinitely.

As an investigative dossier concluded: “These reports of Basuto and Bechuana Companies in Palestine make rather dismal reading. The reason for their attitude is only too clear and it is unfortunate that they should have got the idea that they are being exploited because they are Africans. But facts were unmistakable; seven months after the war against Hitler had ended, these men were still in the army and still in the danger zone.”

Yet despite the widespread resentment amongst the veteran APC Companies, their military contribution to the British position in Palestine was judged to have been of value. It was therefore decided to raise fresh troops from amongst the three High Commission Territories for a new post-war military force to be known as the High Commission Territories Corps (HCTC). 

HCTC recruitment thus began in the early months of 1946 with 3,600 signing up for two and a half years of service. The Corps deployment in Palestine began in May 1946 and lasted until almost the end of the British mandate in May 1948.

For nearly two years the Corps thus performed guard and logistical duties during the period when what had been primarily an insurgency by militant Zionist groups spiralled into a full scale

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civil war between the Arab and Jewish population with the Batswana and other British Empire forces often caught in the crossfire.

To a greater extent than the APC before it, the HCTC companies were tribally and ethnically mixed, which gave rise to at least some tension within their ranks; as one veteran, Rex Sechele, recalled: “My company had people from all over Botswana – Bakgatla, Bangwato, Bakwena, Bakalaka. Even though we were in one Company there was tribal discrimination. All the other tribes were one but the Kalanga tribe was discriminated against. There were some instances where some of the Kalanga went on strike because they were ill-treated by other tribes. All the [Non-Commissioned] officers were from other tribes and there was no officer from the Kalanga area.”

As it was, a number of Bakalanga were promoted as NCOs, notably including the future political leader Sergeant Major Amos Dambe.

By early 1947 the British presence in Palestine was understood to be transitional, pending a determination of the territory’s future in the context of the conflict between its Arab and Jewish populations. In May 1947 this task fell to the multi-national United Nations Special Committee on Palestine or UNSCOP.

In the above context the role of the HCTC in the region, unlike the APC before it, evolved into more of an international peacekeeping mission than a defence of imperial interests. While the UN mission itself may be judged to have been a failure as it was ultimately unable to prevent the outbreak of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, the HCTC carried out its own assignments with distinction.

From the beginning, however, there was strong opposition to the formation of the HCTC itself, as well as its overseas deployment. For the most part the Bechuanaland colonial administration took a paternalistic concern about what might be the long term effects of maintaining large numbers of Batswana in areas of external conflict.

It is entirely possible, however, the HCTC would have survived as a permanent force following the British withdrawal from Palestine had it not been for the vigorous opposition of the neighbouring settler regime of the Union of South Africa, whose politicians were increasingly concerned about the prospect of having “armed natives massing on its borders”.

Thus it was that in 1948 it was decided to disband HCTC, meaning that unlike many other African territories at independence Botswana did not have a colonial military formation to serve as the nucleus of a national army.



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