15,000 African soldiers died fighting for the British in WWII. Olly Owen shares the wider history related to a film he made with the help of friends that documents the memories of a few Nigerian veterans from the 81st and 82nd Division Royal West African Frontier Force. Their stories – along with the footage from the Imperial War Museum and Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League – exposes the collective amnesia evident in mainstream narratives of WWII.
Saturday 15th August marks the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan day, the final end of World War Two. Across the world, many events commemorate the exploits of those who fought in Britain’s ‘forgotten army’ in the Far East but the many African soldiers who served in those campaigns will be absent from the celebrations. We made a film based on interviews with some of the remaining veterans as a contribution to redressing that balance and reminding viewers across the world of their role.
Nigeria’s ‘Burma Boys’ made up nearly half of more than 90,000 men from Britain’s West African colonies who joined up from the start of the war in 1939. Recruited into the Royal West African Frontier Force alongside soldiers from the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana (then the Gold Coast), the first to get called up were those who already had much-needed skills such as drivers, but later many recruits were barely beyond school age. All were supposedly volunteers, but in reality they came by various routes – some in search of advancement and adventure, while others were given no choice.
Nigerians were no strangers to bearing arms and lugging supplies for the British. Many had already fought in the First World War, when British administration in the country was barely a decade old – more than five thousand fought the Germans in neighbouring Cameroon. In World War Two, their first foray was to East Africa, joining British and other African troops to push the Italians out of Abyssinia and Somaliland. Hunter and veteran Maidoa Sankara remembers facing Italian troops in the trenches near Mogadishu – “They were whites, not Africans” he recalls of the army they defeated. Also in Abyssinia was unconventional guerrilla officer Orde Wingate, who would later take a brigade of Nigerian soldiers on his second Chindit expedition ‘Operation Thursday’ deep behind Japanese lines in Burma.
But the vast majority of the 45,000 Nigerian soldiers fought in the 81st and 82nd Divisions in Burma’s long and arduous Arakan campaigns, from February 1944 until nearly the end of the war. This entailed a slow push through the jungles of the mountainous Kalapanzin and Kaladan valleys, designed to tie up as many Japanese troops as possible in the coastal strip while Indian and British forces advanced in a more conventional war to the north.
From the start, the terrain itself was hostile. With no infrastructure to transport supplies, the West Africans first had to cut their own jeep tracks and then rely on parachuted airdrops from the RAF, becoming the world’s first army to be supplied entirely this way. All of those supplies were then carried on the heads of soldiers along hillside paths and across water-filled chaungs.
Jungle war in Burma was an up-close affair. Although there were pitched battles against Japanese formations well dug-in at strategic points, most of the fighting was a nerve-wracking affair of patrols and ambushes. Gordon Thomerson, a British officer with Nigerian troops, was machine-gunned from just five yards away. “I never saw the chap who shot me”, he recalled. Casualties were high – 82nd division lost more than 2,000 men during the Arakan campaign. In all, more than 50,000 African soldiers died during the war.
War had its effects on morality too. While some veterans spoke of treating Japanese prisoners well, others executed them once captured. African troops caught behind enemy lines were also lucky if they could evade capture, as shown by the remarkable story of Isaac Fadoyebo, sheltered by villagers for nine months until the British advanced again.
As the campaign went on, fatigue increased, especially as the war in other theatres ground to a halt. “White man, take us back home. We are tired.” run the words of a song in Hausa recorded by British RWAFF officer Charles Carfrae and preserved in the Imperial War Museum’s sound archive. It carries on relaying the mounting frustration of the Hausa recruits, “Please pardon us, the Germans have already surrendered.” When the end did come, the atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were distant events, marginal to the Burma Boys’ experience of the war. “We fought well and killed many of them” says veteran Musa Dawakintofa, “That’s why they surrendered, because they didn’t want us to enter Tokyo.”
Just as in Europe, the war in West Africa had a home front. Cities such as Freetown, Lagos and Kano became hubs in sea and air supply routes, sparking economic and social changes. The ripples of mobilisation even touched distant villages via the streams of letters dispatched by soldiers trying to direct family affairs from six thousand miles away.
West African publics were aware of the causes of the war, as captured in popular songs about Hitler, and for some of the Burma Boys, the Japanese they encountered were simply another type of Nazis. The British kept up the propaganda war with newsreels and film, such as West Africa Was There, made by the Ministry of Information in 1945 specifically for screening in cinemas in Africa. Uniquely for the period, it shows African soldiers in an empowering light, operating radios, shooting Bren guns, working and socialising with white comrades and being bandaged by them too.
The war may have brought everyday equality, but the post-war world did not live up to its promise. General Slim neglected to mention them in his victory speech at the end of the campaign. West African troops were among the last to be shipped home from the Far East and even while they waited in India, dissent was breaking out over unpaid allowances. On reaching home, many found their war service did not count for much.
Administration jobs were found for some, while others were given land to farm in newly-cleared bush areas. Sabon Gida in southern Plateau State was among several towns founded in this way and still bears the motto ‘home of the veterans’ on the town signs. But many remained unemployed, and complaints about indigent ‘Boma Boys’ hanging around the Lagos docks litter police reports of the period. Today, many veterans remember bitterly the lack of recognition, the war bonuses and British Empire Medal they repeatedly lobbied for, and hopes frustrated first by the colonial government and then by successive military regimes.
Neither does the historical record give them much recognition. While white officers with the RWAFF held reunions and wrote memoirs, the memories of West African troops, many of whom were illiterate, have mostly not been preserved. All those who served in Burma consider themselves a ‘forgotten army’ compared to the more celebrated exploits of those who fought in Europe, but African troops are reduced to a historical footnote even within that.
As their own countries passed into a post-independence era where the war and the Empire are distant and irrelevant to their booming young populations, their contribution is being forgotten at home too. Outside their own memories, the few traces of the war in Burma are kept up by military establishments; Nigeria’s army still has an 81st and 82nd Division and bases named after far-away victories in Kalapanzin, Myohaung and Dodan, the last famously the former Lagos base of military rulers. The UK’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst also now plans to acknowledge Africa’s role with a permanent exhibition.
Few of the veterans survive today. Turbulent post-independence history and poor human development has seen to that, as did the civil war from 1967 to 1970, for which many of them were re-mobilised. Mostly in their 40s by then, many died both in the fighting and from the bush conditions. Many veterans we interviewed carried serious injuries from what they called ‘Ojukwu’s war’ and those on the Biafran side fared worse. Some of the Burma Boys carved out eminent careers in independent Nigeria, becoming government workers and traditional rulers. Fadoyebo, for example, had a long career in the civil service and a happy retirement in Surulere. However many among the survivors were marginalised by history, and live in relative poverty. Veterans’ welfare organisation, the Nigeria Legion supports those who know how to access it, working with Britain’s Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League to provide emergency handouts, but many just survive on the support their families are able to give.
This film project began by lucky coincidence – a friend researching community histories in Plateau mentioned that two of his oldest interviewees were Burma veterans, and as I – like many others – had never heard of their contribution before. We decided to use our own money to make a trip around Nigeria recording as many as we could. We relied on the help of friends, of families of the veterans, and on the goodwill of the Nigeria Legion and Nigerian Army to reach them. The footage will be lodged with the Imperial War Museum in London for posterity, and we are also thinking through options for archiving it or making it accessible in Nigeria. The memories in it belong to a unique generation who are fast passing; we would strongly encourage those who are able to continue this work to collect more, before they are lost to Nigeria and the world.
Watch the film here:
About the Contributor:
Dr Oliver Owen is a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development. His current research is a study of new transformations in revenue and fiscal governance in Nigeria, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Prior to this, he attained a DPhil at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, where he undertook an ethnographic study of the Nigerian Police Force. He also completed an undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology in Cambridge, and an MSc in African Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has worked in Lagos and London, as a journalist and investment risk analyst covering the West African region. In 2015, Owen won the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for his research on the Nigerian Police Force, coming second in the Outstanding Early Career Impact category.