We left off in the middle of 1941 with dikgosi throughout the Bechuanaland Protectorate calling up their mephato or age regiments for enlistment in the African Pioneer Corps (APC).
Batswana ultimately accounted for just over 10,000 men out of the 25,000 who served in the APC, which also included troops drawn from Lesotho and Swaziland.
Officially, the APC was an all-volunteer force. But, for most people the word of the kgosi was law, although a few politicised migrants back from Gauteng refused. Others avoided service by either hiding or migrating to South Africa, where their labour was in heavy demand in the burgeoning wartime industries. In a few areas such dodgers became known as “Maseapitse”, as in those who ran from the horses of the dikgosi.
Notwithstanding the resistance by some to enlistment, many others readily volunteered for kgosi and country. In the post-war years there would be some tension between those who did and did not go.
After signing papers and swearing in before a local D.C., often in their kgosi’s presence, the recruits were sent to the Pioneer Corps Group Headquarters and Depot (camp) at Lobatse. There they were divided into Companies, units of about 350 men each.
The officer corps at Lobatse H.Q. was headed by Lt. Colonel R.S. Boothby (later replaced by Lt. Colonel J.H.M. Edye), who was assisted by five additional senior officers from the Royal Pioneers Corps (UK) plus five Assistant District Commissioners, who were commissioned as lieutenants. Amongst the depot’s senior local NCOs was Company Sergeant-Major Phillip G. Matante.
In the winter months of 1941 seven Companies were rapidly formed at Lobatse, which ultimately supplied all of the Batswana who went on to serve as gunners during the war. They were 1971 Company (Bangwaketse) 1972 (Bangwato) 1973 (Bakwena) and 1974 (Bakgatla, Balete and Batlokwa) 1975 (Bangwaketse) 1976 (Bangwato) and 1977 (Bangwato).
Once in uniform the main activity for the men at Lobatse was drilling. With guns in short supply family weapons were initially pressed into service. The British officers who led the basic training soon realised that the Batswana were readily able to adapt skills and patterns of teamwork they had in most cases acquired as migrant labourers in South Africa, as well as their own communities, to their new role as soldiers.
In September 1941, the 2,500 men of 1971-77 Companies left Lobatse for Durban. After a week’s wait, they boarded ships bound for Port Suez, Egypt. Some spent a couple of weeks en-route, with stopovers in Mombasa, Kenya and Aden, southern Yemen, which involved inland marches.
Others aboard the R.M.S. Mauritania (II) took only nine days to reach Suez. Launched in 1938 as the first of a new generation of luxury liners, the Mauritania had been converted into a transport vessel in 1940, in which role she ultimately carriers over 340,000 troops.
Even when stripped down for military service the Mauritania had a grace and, perhaps more importantly to Batswana at sea for the first time, stability all her own. By the end of November 1941, 1971-77 companies had all arrived in Egypt. According to the former APC Major R.A.R. Bent, who’s 1952 book “Ten Thousand Men of Africa” is the earliest published account of Batswana troops in the war, many Batswana initially called the local Arabs “Mangaria”.
This name was derived from the Arabic word “mangariya”, food, which was then in short supply for the civilian population of British occupied Egypt. Beggars would thus surround His Majesty’s troops in the streets asking for “mangariya”. Once landed, the Batswana companies were taken by lorry to Qasassin, a dusty town some 35 kilometres west of the Suez Canal that was the location of the main Pioneer Corps Depot for the British forces in the Middle East. There the Batswana joined some 20,000 other Pioneers drawn from throughout the Empire.
In addition to the British there were men from such places Cyprus, Kenya, Malta, Mauritius, Palestine (then divided into separate Arab and Jewish units), Seychelles, Sudan, Tanganyika (Tanzania), Uganda, and Yemen. These units were able to mix freely, but international contact for most of the Batswana was limited by the language barrier.
Few then spoke the imperial lingua franca, English.The Batswana APC quickly made a good impression on the Qasassin Commander, Brigadier Picot-Moodie, who assigned them to exclusively perform critical guard duties until their 1943 redeployment to Italy.
Upon arrival each Motswana was issued full battle kit which included fatigues (combat dress), steel helmet, gas mask, and canteen. The two protruding ammunition poaches that one strapped across one’s chest were instantly dubbed “mabele”.For many troops the most prized piece of equipment was their Mannlicher Carcano 6.5 mm assault rifle. These captured Italian guns were substitutes for the modestly higher calibre British Lee Enfield Mark 3 rifle, which were then in short supply.
The Lee Enfield’s subsequently became the standard armament of Batswana, as well as most British and other imperial troops. For the more suspicious Batswana the provision of guns were proof that they, unlike their predecessors in the First World War, were indeed now proper soldiers.