The advent of this coming month will mark the eightieth anniversary of the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, an event that set off the cataclysm of World War II. The global conflict that followed had an immense impact on virtually every jurisdiction, including the Bechuanaland Protectorate.
Our country’s wartime contribution is partially reflected in the number of men who served in armed forces. During the war a total of 10,027 men served in the Bechuanaland Protectorate Companies of the British Imperial Army’s “African Pioneer Corps” (APC). A further thousand or so Protectorate Batswana were enlisted in the “South African Native Military Corps”, while an unknown number also helped fill the ranks of the “Rhodesian African Rifles.”
Given that the territory’s population at the time numbered less than 300,000 (the population counts for the 1936 and 1946 census were, respectively, 265,756 and 296,310), this contribution represented about 15% of all able-bodied adult male Batswana. No part of the British Empire provided a greater proportion of fighting men.
Botswana’s contribution to the war effort, however, went beyond those directly serving in the military. By the end of 1943 over 21,000 additional men were labouring in South Africa’s vital war industries, while others were to be found in mines and commercial farms throughout the region. Villages across the country were thus deprived of between 45-65% of their manpower. (Both the extent and socio-economic impact of this phenomenon was the subject of Isaac Schapera’s classic 1947 study “Migrant Labour and Tribal Life: A Study of Conditions in the Bechuanaland Protectorate”).
Besides the loss of their men folk woman were forced to work on “war lands”, in a largely futile effort to boost local food security. Many also became “Woman War Workers” who sent “gifts and comforts” to the troops.
Children also played a role. In some villages they gathered weekly at Kgosing to learn about the conflict, while listening to Levi Moumakwa deliver the first Setswana news broadcasts over B.P. Radio ZNB-Mafeking, the direct precursor to Radio Botswana. Apparently inspired, the youngsters helped raise funds for the construction of two RAF Spitfire aircraft, which were named “Bechuanaland” and “Kalahari”.
Unfortunately, both the military and civilian contribution of Batswana during the war continue to be relatively neglected.
How many recall that the Batswana Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) gunners of 1977 Company destroyed at least half of all enemy planes shot down in the battle for Syracuse or remember how the smoke units of 1979 Company sacrificed themselves to secure allied ships at Bari?
Or the gallantry of Company 1976 who, after being transferred into the American led 5th Army, played a central role as part of the artillery line that helped stop the German advance on the imperilled allied beachhead during the amphibious landings at Salerno?
Elsewhere, the exploits of the sappers of 1969 Company achieved widespread recognition for their gallantry in working around the clock while under enemy fire to assemble the world’s largest Bailey Bridge across the Sangro River; a feat that opened the path for the liberation of central Italy.
Additional Batswana APC units worked through the winter snow to help build a road across the Apennines mountains to pave the way for the final collapse of Axis resistance on the peninsula. Their “Strada di Bechuana” survives to this day.
Of course, neglect of the contributions of Batswana in the First as well as Second World Wars is consistent with a longstanding global trend to marginalise if not ignore the role of blacks in general in twentieth century conflicts. An extreme example of such racist denial can be found in the actions of none other than Adolf Hitler. In the early hours of Sunday the 23rd of June 1940, the day after the armed forces of France had capitulated to the Third Reich, Hitler celebrated his triumph with a tour of occupied Paris.
For him the personal highlight of the visit was a stop-over at Napoleon’s tomb. He was subsequently quoted as having said that the moment he saluted the French emperor’s sarcophagus “was one of the proudest of my life.”
Then as now Napoleon’s tomb was housed at Hôtel des Invalides, which is situated amongst a complex of buildings that contain museums and monuments celebrating France’s military heritage, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for veterans.
Before leaving the site, Hitler ordered the immediate destruction of just one of the nearby monuments, that of General Charles Mangin.
Why amongst the many was Mangin’s memorial the target of Fuehrer’s wrath? His monument consisted of large bronze statue of the General on a horse surrounded on each side by an honour guard that included African troops. It thus paid tribute to Mangin’s leading role in France’s mass deployment of Africans during the First World War.
In what can be interpreted as another backhanded compliment to the sons of this continent who had played a crucial role in the defeat of the Kaiserreich, the Nazis subsequently destroyed the monument to the African troops at Reims. These actions coincided with instances of black POWs being massacred by the German SS units.