For the next two weeks we will take a short break from our “Orphan and the Ants” series to look at some snippets of Batswana participation in the Second World War, which will be the subject of an illustrated Botswana Society Golden Jubilee Lecture by this author next week Wednesday, July 23, 2016 from 6pm, at the University of Botswana.
Seventy-three years ago this month, beginning on July 10, 1943, the Batswana gunners and smokers of the African Pioneer Corps (APC), along with their Basotho compatriots were the only African combat units assigned to take part in “Operation Husky” the code name for the allied invasion of the Italian island of Sicily.
As part of General Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army, the “Fighting Becs” had already demonstrated their competence under fire in the final stages of the North Africa campaign, having been the first indigenous African artillery units entrusted with frontline duties:
“They then met Rommel’s Germans in the Egyptian Sahara Desert, at the battlefield did man and son face each other, shooting bravely did Matshaba-leKgomo stand, and pushed the German’s army back, hitting them as that ran.” – Alfred Mabe Besides Montgomery’s men the allied forces in the region by then included American and Free French as well as additional British Commonwealth units, who collectively forced the final surrender of the Axis forces in North Africa on May 13, 1943.
It was in the context of the North African victory that in June 1943 Batswana gunners were among those honoured to receive a visit from King George VI as well as be given the frontline responsibility of providing high altitude air-cover over the Libyan capital Tripoli during the British monarch’s stay.
The run up to the invasion had, however, been marked by tragedy for the APC. As part of a 33 ship convoy transporting troops from Benghazi Libya to forward bases in Malta, Batswana had watched as the lives of 613 of their Basotho comrades were lost when the their transport, the flagship S.S. Erinpura was sunk during a massive Axis aerial assault: We blacks were on three ships...of the Sothos from their ship 600 died and there were eighty survivors. – Segolwe Pilane
During Operation Husky the first Batswana ashore were the Bakwena and Bangwato gunners who had been merged into the B troop 209 Heavy Anti-Aircraft (H.A.A.) Artillery Battery, who joined other elements of the 8th Army’s 73rd Regiment in taking the ancient port city of Syracuse. On the same morning they were followed into battle by the Bangwato of 1977 Smoke Company.
Most of the time the “smokers” were expected to blind enemy aircraft from their potential targets. But, smokescreens were also used in ground fighting to conceal attacking formations. This was an especially dangerous operation requiring units to position themselves between their own and the enemy’s lines. During the war Batswana smokers carried out both missions with distinction.
At Sicily one company landed behind enemy lines but avoided capture. Once off the beach, the Bakwena and Bangwato began deploying their smoke screens and 3.7 H.A.A. guns as well as a battery of captured Italian Ansaldo artillery they had also been assigned to. The landing, itself, had been only lightly opposed by the Italians, who were now beginning to revolt against their Fascist regime.
Unfortunately, part of the German 10th Army was also garrisoned on the island. The German counterpunch gathered force on the 14th of July with the belated arrival of German heavy bombers. The primary target of the aircraft was the shipping and docking facilities at Syracuse, which was then the primary supply line for the allied forces on the island, which also included the American 7th Army under Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley.
Over the next two weeks the Batswana gunners distinguished themselves by shooting down 11 enemy planes, about half of the total downed over Syracuse. As the 8th Army pushed northward towards Messina the H.A.A. units, for apparently the first time, also began to successfully use their 3.7 guns in field firing against German ground forces around Cantina.
By mid July additional Batswana Companies had also landed, namely 1967 (Bangwato), 1968 (Bangwato), 1969 (Bakwena), 1970 (Bangwaketse), 1979 (Bangwato), 1983 (Bangwaketse) and 1990 (Bangwato).
On the August 11, the 1967 Company came under concentrated aerial attack at Lentini airfield. Heretofore the Batswana had miraculously suffered only two wounded during the entire invasion. But at Lentini five were killed and 26 wounded when a formation of 30 enemy planes swept down with anti-personnel bombs.
The Lentini raid was the worst single attack suffered by Batswana during the war. Five Batswana Pioneers were subsequently commended for their unfailing courage during the raid. Their names (as recorded) were: Sergeants Otukile and Petoro, Corporals Phatsimo and Ditogile and Private Ntshonyalo. The last was among those who had fallen.
The invasion of Sicily led to the swift collapse of Italian Fascism. Fighting on the island was still ongoing when; on July 25, 1943 the country’s notorious dictator, Benito Mussolini, was deposed and arrested by his own Grand Council.
The last Axis resistance on the island capitulated on August 17, 1943.