Studies of the Second World War in relation to Africa mention the strategies of German General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. They might also highlight the British 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, who fought Rommel’s forces in North Africa in a three month campaign. But the North African sphere of the Second World War saw action not only for European personnel, but soldiers drawn from Africa by each side.
In 1939, almost the entirety of the African continent was a colony or a protectorate of a European power: Belgium, Britain, French, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Just as the experiences of Indian soldiers fighting for Britain vary, so do those of Africans who fought. Not only did they fight across the spheres of the Second World War, their service depended on whether their country was a colony of an Axis or Allied power. This article looks at the broad experiences of French and British colonial troops.
600,000 Africans were enrolled by the British during the Second World War to provide security to their own countries and other British Colonies under threat from the Axis powers.
The British publicly proclaimed their African troops to be volunteers and most often, this was true. Propaganda systems disseminating anti-facist information were published to garner support.
But whilst widespread conscription in colonial territory was prohibited by the League of Nations, the level of choice afforded to African recruits was variable. Colonial forces may not have conscripted directly, but many soldiers were forced to arms by local chiefs employed by European officials.
Others, searching for work, took employment in nondescript roles in communications or similar, and did not discover until they arrived that they had joined the army.
One of the British regiments was the King’s African Rifles, formed in 1902 but restored to peacetime strength after the First World War. At the start of the Second World War, it had just 6 battalions. By the end of the war, 43 battalions had been raised from across Britain’s African colonies.
The King’s African Rifles, comprising of natives of the East African Colonies, were led mostly by officers drawn from the British Army, and served in Somaliland, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Burma during the Second World War.
The British paid colonial soldiers in accordance with their rank and their length of service, and also their ethnicity. Black troops were sent home with a third of the pay of their white contemporaries. African soldiers were also barred from ranks above Warrant Officer Class 1.
Their racial profiling did not end there. An officer of the King’s African Rifles wrote in 1940 that ‘the darker their skin and the more remote parts of Africa they come from – the better soldier they made.’ Their service and underpayment was justified by the argument that they were being brought closer to civilisation.
In addition, despite its outlawing in the interwar years, senior members of the East African Colonial Forces – mainly those from white settler communities with more investment in the colour hierarchy than those born in Britain – argued that corporal punishment was the only way to maintain discipline. In 1941 the power to award corporal punishment was approved for courts-martial.
The illegal use of summary corporal punishment by commanders continued throughout the war, their arguments using the stereotype of African troops having short memories. An English-born missionary complained in 1943 of the flogging of African soldiers for petty crimes, which had been illegal elsewhere in British forces since 1881.
The French had maintained an army, the Troupes Coloniales, in French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa since 1857.
Among them were the Tirailleurs Senegalais, who were not only from Senegal, but from the West and Central African colonies of France. These were the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule. The recruits were initially social outcasts sold by African chiefs, and ex-slaves, but from 1919, universal male conscription was enforced by the French colonial authorities.
A veteran of the French colonial forces remembered being told that ‘the Germans had attacked us and considered us Africans to be apes. As soldiers, we could prove that we were human beings.’
When the Second World War began, African troops made up almost one-tenth of the French forces. Soldiers were brought to the European mainland from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, these African soldiers were abused and massacred by the conquering forces. On 19 June, when the Germans won Chasselay, to the northwest of Lyon, they separated the Prisoners of War into French and African. They murdered the latter and killed or wounded any French soldier who tried to intervene.
After the occupation of France in 1942, the Axis powers forced the French Armee Coloniale to reduce in number to 120,000, but a further 60,000 were trained as auxiliary police.
In total, more than 200,000 Africans were recruited by the French during the war. 25,000 died in battle and many were interned as prisoners of war, or murdered by the Wehrmacht. These troops fought on behalf of both the Vichy and the Free French governments, depending on the loyalties of the colony’s government and sometimes against one another.
In 1941, Vichy France granted the Axis powers access to Levant to refuel en route to their battle for the oilfields of Iraq. During Operation Explorer the Allied forces, including Free French colonial troops, fought to prevent this. They fought, however, against Vichy troops, some of which were also from the French African colonies.
Of the 26,000 colonial troops fighting for Vichy France in this operation, 5,700 chose to stay on to fight for Free France when they were beaten.
French colonial troops became essential to France when one and a half million French men were in German prisoner of war camps after the Fall of France. They made up the majority of the French fighting force in Operation Dragoon, 1944. This Allied landing operation in Southern France is seen as the main French effort in liberating their own homeland.
One of the regiments to be awarded the honour of the Ordre de la Libération – awarded to heroes of the Liberation for France – was the 1st Spahi Regiment, which was formed from indigenous Moroccan horsemen.
Despite this, after the efforts of 1944 – with the path to Allied victory clear and the Germans out of France – 20,000 Africans on the front line were replaced with French soldiers in a ‘blanchiment’ or ‘whitening’ of the forces.
No longer fighting in Europe, Africans in demobilisation centres faced discrimination and were informed that they would not be entitled to veteran’s benefits, instead being sent to holding camps in Africa. In December 1944, the Thiaroye massacre of protesting African soldiers by white French soldiers in one such camp resulted in 35 deaths.
The promise that the Tirailleurs Senegalais would be granted equal citizenship of France was not granted after the war.