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Ntwa Ya Hitler (6) - From Tunisia To Sicily

We left off with the gunners of APC companies 1971-76 having mastered the complexities of the deadly 3.7-inch Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) artillery.

With their new skills in March of 1943 they were integrated into combat units of British 8th Army under General Montgomery.

This coincided with the final advance against the Axis, German and Italian, forces in Tunisia. Besides Montgomery’s men the allied forces in the region by then included the British 1st Army and American and Free French 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 amongst 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.

While some Batswana became HAA gunners other veteran units specialised in the use of smoke screen machines. Most of the time these “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. Batswana units carried out both missions with distinction.

A quarter century ago, in 1995, various district museums around the country marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War by holding special days for the surviving APC veterans.

This author fondly recalls the gathering that was held at the Kgosi Sechele I Museum in Molepolole, where about 40 APC veterans, many wearing their medals along with remnants of their uniforms, joined diplomats, VIPs and ordinary members of the public in a ceremony that also opened the Museum’s tribute exhibition entitled “On the Frontline, Batswana participation in World Wars I and II”.

Most of the crowd of several hundred, who included many young people, were at the time seemingly stunned to hear some of their grandfathers relate their wartime experiences. It seems that a whole generation had grown up not realising that Batswana had indeed served as combatants in the conflict.

Amongst those who especially captivated the audience was former APC Sergeant Otlule Seboni, who produced a map in which he had coloured Italy red. He explained to the audience that the red stood for the blood of fallen comrades, describing Italy as a place in which shells used to “rain down like hailstones”.

He went on to describe lives still haunted by deadly air attacks and the lethal fire of German 88 Flak

Guns. It was in Italy that the “10,000 men from Bechuanaland” truly became hardened by the rigors of continuous combat.

Their baptism of fire began on July 10, 1943, when the Batswana and Basotho Pioneers of the British 8th Army became the only Africans to take part in the allied invasion of the Italian island of Sicily, codenamed “Operation Husky”.

Not all of the Basotho made it. In the run up to the invasion, Batswana watched as the lives of 618 of their Basotho comrades were lost when their transport, the merchant flagship ship S.S.

Erinpura was sunk during a massive Axis air attack on a 33-ship convoy carrying troops from Benghazi to their forward base at Malta. Additional victims included 140 Palestinian Jews and 54 Indians. An Israeli memorial to the Jewish fallen is located outside of Jerusalem.

The first Batswana to land at Sicily were the Bakwena and Bangwato of 1972 Company of the B troop 209 H.A.A. 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.

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 virtually unopposed as the Italians, who were now beginning to revolt against their Fascist regime, generally decided not to resist.

Unfortunately, part of the German 10th Army was also garrisoned on the island. The German counterpunch gathered force in July 14 with the belated arrival of Luftwaffe (German Air Force) heavy bombers.

The principle target of the German aircraft was the shipping and docking facilities at Syracuse that then served as the primary supply line for the allied forces on the island, which also included the American 5th Army under Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley.

Over the next two weeks the men of 1972 Company 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, apparently for the first time, began to also 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).

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