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Ntwa Ya Hitler (10) – When Batswana Built Bridges In A Day

We left off with at the port of Bari, Italy, where the Batswana of 1979 APC Smoke Company lost five men, with another seven critically wounded, while distinguishing themselves by putting up smoke screens credited with saving allied ships.

For his personal heroism in rallying “the daring dozen” following the initial Luftwaffe attack, Corporal Chitu Bakombi was awarded the British Empire Medal.

It is one of the sad ironies of history that great examples of human productivity as well as self-sacrifice, have often occurred during the course of wars.

This was certainly true of the Second World War, which constitutes an extreme example of humankind’s productive as well as destructive capacity. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that one finds incredible examples of productivity amongs the Batswana APC. As with any military formation the routine tasks of some of the troops were, in this respect, mundane but vital.

Many Batswana, for example, manned petrol depots during the British 8th Army’s advance up the Italian peninsula. In a 12-hour period one 90-man unit was reported to have washed, filled, stacked and loaded 295,000 litres of petrol.

Another 70-man unit did 215,000, while a 120 man group prided itself on a consistent output of 40,000 an hour.

Other Batswana companies took pride in their ability to assemble prefabricated Bailey Bridges, in a day. These bridges were designed with the capacity to withstand the weight of entire armoured columns.

Apparently a few of these “Bechuana bridges” were at least until recently still in service in some rural areas, as are fortifications built by Batswana in Lebanon.

In 1943 the Bakwena of 1969 Company won special praise for their speedy construction of what was then the world’s biggest ever prefabricated bridge over the Sangro River (a feat that was featured on the cover of Life Magazine).

During the winter of 1944, in the face of bitter cold and often intense German shelling, the same Company joined several other Batswana units in building and maintaining a road across the Apennines Mountains from Castel del Rio to Castel San Pietro. The resulting “La Strada di Bechuana” (“Batswana road”) nowadays appears on Italian roadmaps as SP 21.

The Batswana themselves apparently called the Apennines route “kapoko” (snow or sleet). When the ice melted the corridor enabled elements of the American commanded multinational 5th and British 8th Armies to seize the great city of Bologna, while finally outflanking the German 10th Army in the Po valley.

Batswana were also kept busy laying and maintaining railway track. One war correspondent could not resist the line that it was now the Bechuana Pioneers (rather than Mussolini) who “kept the trains of Italy running on time”.

It is difficult to generalize about the experiences of those Batswana who served

in the African Pioneer Corps (1941-46). Only in recent years has there been a limited effort to collect and record surviving accounts. From the available documentary, as well as oral, evidence it is clear that their experiences varied greatly.

Some Batswana were thrust into combat roles. Others were not. Some forged close, even intimate, contacts with foreigners: Europeans, Arabs, other Africans and (especially black) Americans. To others such men and women remained an alien mystery.

About 40% of the masole participated in the bloody two-year allied advance up the Italian peninsula. There they were often cold and wet; spending icy winters in tents or crude billets in the snow covered Apennines Mountains.

Most of the other Batswana spent the war more quietly in the burning sands of Egypt and Libya.

Batswana troops were greeted by such notable figures as King George VI, Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts and top Generals like Montgomery and Mark Clark. On 26th of March 1945 a handful of Batswana joined some Basotho and Swazi in having what was considered the great honour of an audience with Pope Pius XII, a reflection of the Vatican’s growing interest in the High Commission Territories.

For many, the experience of war strengthened their Christian convictions. This helped to spur a post-war expansion of independent church movements, as well as a more modest growth in the traditional mission based churches, which then enjoyed the exclusive sanction of dikgosi.

Before gaining prominence in the Freedom Squares ex-APC Sergeant P.G. Matante honed his oratory skills as a Pentecostal preacher, at one point launching his own “St. Phillip’s Apostolic Church”.

A few veterans were exposed to the alternative doctrines of Communism and Pan-Africanism in semi-clandestine meetings. Cross-cultural contact was, however, often limited by language.

Only a few Batswana then spoke English, much less Arabic or Italian. From 1943 existing informal programs to promote both literacy and English were given an official boost with the appointment of Education Sergeants.

Another tool for promoting literacy was a newsletter from back home edited by the Director of the Bechuanaland Education Department, Henry Dumbrell. This publication was inserted as a supplement into copies of the APC weekly newsletter Indlovu/Tlou.

The soldiers were also issued with copies of the self-described “leading South African native newspaper” Umtetli wa Bantu, which was sponsored by mining interests and otherwise contained home news forwarded by the colonial government.

In 1944 these home news efforts were expanded and consolidated with the launch a new, officially sponsored, Setswana newspaper- Naledi ya Batswana.

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