On May 7, 1945, just before midnight, Private First Class Domenic Mozzetta of the United States Army’s 97th Division shot at a German sniper near Klenovice, Czechoslovakia. He couldn’t know it at the time, but he had just fired the last official bullet in World War II’s European theater of operations.
The Japanese would finally surrender in August of that year, bringing the entire war – which cost more than 80 million lives if the aftershocks of disease and famine are taken into account – to an end.
The silencing of the guns sounded the death knell for Europe’s African empire and fuelled the wave of decolonialization that swept across the continent from the mid-1950s through the 1960s.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the French army recruited around 300,000 North African and 197,000 West African men, with more being pulled into the conflict as it spread around the globe. On top of this, nearly 400,000 African soldiers from Britain’s colonies were called up to fight.
British units from the Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) comprised the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions and the famous King’s African Rifles (KAR) was made up of men from Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Somaliland (now Somalia) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
More than 90,000 West Africans played a crucial role in driving the Japanese out of Burma, helping stave off an invasion of British India, and the KAR fought the Italians in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), the Vichy French in Madagascar and the Japanese in Burma. French West African soldiers, fighting with the Free French forces, invaded Sicily and Italy.
White South Africans and Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe) fought alongside their Allied peers but, with the exception of the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) which fought with distinction in Burma, their non-white counterparts tended to be relegated to auxiliary roles and did not face combat.
When the war ended, an immediate programme of ‘whitening’ the war effort began. The fact that Europe had been forced to use African fighting forces was a source of great discomfort for many Europeans who were, to put it mildly, discomfited by the idea of black men killing white.
As John Morrow, a University of Georgia historian, points out in his paper Black Africans in World War II: The Soldiers’ Stories, “African soldiers proved to be highly capable troops in… difficult conditions” and despite high levels of illiteracy were able to fight independently of their white commanders, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Yet after the war, “a politically expedient policy of ‘whitening’” began. French leader Charles de Gaulle replaced black soldiers with French conscripts and partisans – but only after stripping them of their uniforms and weapons and grouping them with African POWs being liberated from German camps.
This was actively supported by British and American leaders. Brave African soldiers who fought alongside the British, especially in Burma, were denied the ultimate military honor of the Victoria Cross.
These soldiers, many of whom had fought with great courage and distinction on foreign battlefields, returned home after 1945 to the reality that once the war was won, their colonial rulers wanted to revert to their old ways, breeding resentment and distrust.
In 2009, a BBC documentary team tracked down some of Africa’s forgotten wartime heroes to hear their stories and, even though the war had been over for 64 years by then, the fact that their contributions had not been adequately acknowledged still rankled. It also found that, having fought alongside white soldiers, any sense that whites were in some way superior was challenged by their battlefield experiences.
“Initially, I saw the white man as someone better than me. But after the war, I considered him an equal,” former infantryman Dauda Kafanchan told the BBC.
Morrow says that “British and French attempts to omit, diminish, or discredit the achievements of African soldiers stemmed from their intent to ignore or limit African demands for equality and independence, in the same fashion that white Americans’ refusal to acknowledge the combat service of African-American soldiers was intended to keep the latter ‘in their place’ and forestall the granting of equal rights to black citizens under the law.”
But this wouldn’t be allowed to stand. As historian Tom Hartley wrote in Sheffield University’s ‘New Histories’ magazine, “the old colonial powers Britain and France had won the war but lost the battle – their statuses as the biggest names on the world stage was now over.”
Having fought to preserve freedom across Europe, it became very difficult for proponents of colonialism to continue to support the oppression of Africans.
“These moral issues, along with the financial cost of propping up an empire with Europe so devastated, led to a movement away from colonialism.”
This movement was supported by the Atlantic Charter, signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, which spelled out their justification for going to war with Germany and its allies, became a rallying point for African nationalists and gave them a powerful political tool.
Clause 3 of the Charter states that “[the British and American governments and people] respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
In The Saylor Foundation’s World War II and the Road to Independence, this “was intended to apply only to the European countries which were overrun by German Nazi forces [but] Africans appropriated it and used it for their own purposes,” leading to the “vast politicization of the African masses.”
Rather than arguing for better treatment, less discrimination and greater opportunities, African nationalists were now demanding a complete end to colonial rule.
In 1945, when the fifth Pan-African Congress took place in London, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, the future leaders of independent Ghana and Kenya, stood up and demanded an end to British colonialism.
In an essay entitled ‘To what extent was World War Two the catalyst or cause of British Decolonisation’, hosted on his Active History website, teacher and academic Russell Tarr argues that the war did so much damage to the British economy that that the Empire was forced to break up.
At the time, as The Saylor Foundation and others note, European powers had no intention of granting independence to their colonies – they thought it was too soon for self-governance. Africans, in their view, needed more training and education before they could be trusted to rule themselves.
In fact, Herbert Morrison, the post-war Labour Party Deputy Prime Minister, said that giving the colonies independence would be “like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun.” The fact that the British wanted the process to be slow had more to do with the economic benefits of an almost endless supply of cheap raw materials than any inherent concern for the wellbeing of their African subjects, but the gradual change was never going to be acceptable to battle-weary and hardened veterans.
While the history of colonial and post-colonial Africa has generally been well recorded, it is only in recent years that the role that Africans played in World War II, and the subsequent impact that this would have on the continent in the wake of the conflict, is getting the attention that it deserves.
These forgotten soldiers are at last being properly remembered – not only for the significant part they played in defeating the scourge of fascism but also for their role in winning independence for their native lands.