We last left off with the observation that, at the time of outbreak of the Second World War, the bitter experiences endured by veterans who had served during the First World War in the “South African Native Labour Contingent” had contributed to a firm consensus that any Batswana participation in another armed conflict against Germany had to be different.
As it was, initially the British did not see the need for any local troops. Notwithstanding the rapid fall of Poland to the Germans in the first month of the war, the British and French forces were, prior to May 1940, lulled into a false sense of security behind the massive defences of the Maginot Line in France.
The German’s lightening advance through France in May-June 1940 thus came as a severe shock. On the 22nd of June 1940 the French capitulated, by which time the British army had been evacuated home in complete defeat.
A largely overlooked aspect of the otherwise infamous Fall of France was the massacre by some German SS units of captured black African troops serving in the French Army.
One here must emphasize “black” given that the darker skinned troops from across the continent were separated from their lighter skinned, mostly North African comrades before being marked for execution.
As previously noted this racist targeting of Africans by the Nazis was accompanied by the destruction of the war memorial to “Force Noire”, the black troops who had fought for France in World War I, as well as the further destruction on Hitler’s personal order of the monument to Force Noire’s most prominent champion, General Charles Mangin.
The massacres and desecrations were a reflection of the extreme racist contempt that Hitler and his fellow Nazis felt towards the presence of any black people, much less black troops, in Europe. Before the war the Nazis had forcibly sterilised members of the small black and mixed race community that existed within Germany itself.
Subsequently, many disappeared into the concentration camps alongside Jews, Romani and other ethno-racially targeted groups.
By the end of June 1940, Britain thus stood alone in Europe against Nazi Germany, now joined by Fascist Italy and the smaller Axis states. Yet, in the following December a proposal by local dikgosi, led by Tshekedi Khama, to create a “Bechuanaland Protectorate Labour Corps” under imperial British rather than South African command was firmly rejected.
While there were once more openings for blacks to serve as labourers within the SAUDF, London was still content to look primarily to the white elements of the British Empire and Commonwealth for military manpower.
The British only reversed their policy in June 1941, nearly two years after the war’s outbreak, when they finally agreed on the need for more troops from Botswana and elsewhere in Africa. In this context, they for the first time sanctioned the formation of an indigenous military force under imperial command for High Commission Territories, i.e. Basutoland (Lesotho) and Swaziland as well as the Bechuanaland Protectorate.
This belated call to arms was a product of growing desperation. By the middle of 1941, the Germans had driven the British out of Libya and Greece and were threatening the Suez Canal, the very lifeline of the Empire.
The new unit of the imperial army that Batswana, Basotho and Swazi were to be recruited into was called the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (APC). The demeaning term “Auxiliary” was however subsequently dropped, in recognition that the African Pioneers performed at the same level as those from Britain and elsewhere in the Empire.
From the beginning, the Batswana response to the recruitment drive was overwhelming due to the strong support for the APC amongst most of the territory’s dikgosi. Underlying the dikgosi’s wish to have their men in uniform was a continuing desire to contrast their people’s loyalty to MmaMosadinyana with the overt pro-Nazi sympathies of many Afrikaner/Boer nationalists.
Tshekedi Khama, in particular, hoped that the creation of Batswana military units outside of the SAUDF would ultimately serve as a post-war political counterweight to South Africa’s continuing desire to incorporate the Protectorate.
In British military terminology of the period “Pioneers” or “sappers” were troops who carried out such functions as the building or rebuilding bridges, roads and fortifications. Yet, before the war was over, a quarter of the APC’s companies were in fact serving as gunners operating 3.7 inch Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) artillery. The term “Pioneer”, nonetheless, survived for the entire unit until 1946 when the APC was superseded by the short-lived High Commission Territories Corps.
Recruitment into the APC was largely carried out by the dikgosi. In some of the Tribal Reserves, a letsholo meeting was held to formally declare war on Majeremani (Germans) and Maitali (Italians). Mephato were then called upon to provide a quota of men. Although the most senior mephato were excluded, many who came forward were middle-aged.
Amongst the Bakwena, the Mathubantwa regiment of the late Kgosi Sebele II, which included many veterans of the First World War, was given the task of rounding up recruits.