The War Illustrated No. 229, Vol. 9, March 29th 1946

I doubt if the part taken by the troops drawn from our East and West African Colonics is sufficiently appreciated. That is hardly surprising, because there were no war correspondents specially assigned to record their achievements. In the Journal of the Royal African Society (October 1945) Mr. E. E. Sabben-Clare, a Tanganyika District Officer, has, however, given a comprehensive review of the services rendered by the African Divisions in Asia and of the circum­stance of their formation. 1 frankly acknow­ledge that in this present article I depend mr.inly on the information he gives. It is, I think, generally well known that normally no British units are stationed in our East and West African Colonies, and that what might be called the garrisons responsible for local defence and internal jccurity are provided in the main by the King’s African Rifles and the Royal West African Frontier Force lespectively. Under pre-war con­ditions these had rather the char­acter of a military police and were composed chiefly of lightly armed infantry units commanded and trained by British officers assisted by a small number of British non-commissioned officers. Together they numbered about 20,000 men, and although they had rendered conspicuous service in Africa they had practically never been used outside it. In the Abyssinian campaign they had shown themselves more than a match for the best Italian troops, bit until after the fall of Gondar the question of using African troops in Asia against the Japanese was not raised, and it was with some hesitation that the decision to do so was taken. The African is liable to home-sickness and is never happy for long when re­moved .far from his family, and finding officers and N.C.O. instructors accustomed to deal with Africans for a force of the size needed was a problem. lpA ST African Troops in Ceylon and West Africans in Burma Furthermore, the African recruited from piimitive surroundings and ignorant of any language but his own reputedly took long to train, yet obviously many new recruits would be required and to meet the Japanese, then at the height of their reputation as jungle-fightcrs, a high standard of training was inessential a force which would have to be composed of all arms. Nevertheless, when we became engaged in two wars no source of fighting material could be neglected, and early in 1942 the first East African troops were dispatched to Ceylon. West African troops could not, however, be spared until the Allied landing in North Africa removed the danger of attack from Vichy-controlled African territory. In the event, neither East nor West Africans were required on active fronts in Asia until the beginning of 1944, though one East African brigade took part in the Madagascar landing and stayed for sometime on garrison duties. Early in 1943, as all danger in Africa had passed, it was decided to use a considerable African force in Asia. The East African contingent in Ceylon was increased to a division, and two independent E.A. brigades were formed later. A West African force of two divisions was, in the middle of the year, sent to Burma, the 8 1st W.A.D. being the first of the African contingents to come into action. This Division, less one brigade. B y M AJ.-G ENERAL SIR CHAR LES G WYNN K.C.B., D.S.O. operated on the Arakan front and advanced into the Kaladan Valley in order to draw off Japanese forces which might threaten the main force moving towards Akyab. Supplied entirely by air it took six weeks, cutting a track 150 miles iony, to admit the passage of its guns and motor vehicles before emerging into flats round Kyauktaw. There it took the dominating Pagoda Hill, but, ordered to demonstrate still farther south towards Akyab, only a small party of E.A. scouts attached to the Division was left to hold Pagoda Hill, and this the Japanese by a characteristic outflanking counter-stroke overran without difficulty. The main army nearer the coast had also by this time been WEST AFRICAN WARRIOR, armed with a machete as used on night patrols in Burma. Appreciation of the War services of such well- trained men is expressed in this page. Photo. British Offici.il heavily counter-attacked and up.held The Division was therefore forced to retire and fought its way back during the remainder of the dry season, often under difficult condi­tions, almost to its original starting-point. Meanwhile, the third brigade of the Divi­sion had been trained as airborne troops and been chosen to form part of the long- range penetration group co-operating with General Stilwell's force. It was a strange experience for men, many of whom in Africa had never seen aircraft. With the Chindits the brigade took part in many engagements, and acquitted themselves with great credit. T n 1944 the 11th E.A. Division also came into action. After completing its training in Ceylon it had been transferred to Chitta­gong in Assam, and from there,in August, it was flown to the Manipur front to take part in the counter-offensive while the mon­soon was at its height. Here it became the spearhead of the attack in the Tamu area. In appalling weather it fought its way down the Kabaw Valley and captured Kalewa on the Chindwin, where it established the bridge-head over the river from which the main advance into northern- Burma started. This, by general consent, was an exception­ally brilliant operation, for the Kalewa Valley presented many difficulties. On com­pletion of its task the 11th E.A. Division was relieved by the 20th Indian Division. Meanwhile, the 81st W.A. Division had again taken the inoffensive Arakan. In September 1944 it once more advanced into the Kaladan Valley, this time, however, with page 740- porters replacing motor vehicles which had proved entirely unsuitable to the conditions. The Division gained much in mobility by the change and manoeuvred the Japanese out of prepared positions by outflanking move­ments directed against their communications. There was some hard infighting January 1945 about Kyauktaw, and after some further successes the Division at the end of the month was relieved by the 82nd W.A. Division, which had arrived in India during 1944. This Division continued the advance southward, outflanking and harassing the rear of the Japanese who were attempting to prevent the series of amphibious attacks by which new airbases along the Arakan coast were being secured. In the amphibious operation which cap­tured Ramree Island one of the two addi­tional East African brigades which had arrived during 1944 took part, while the other helped to clear the area west of the Chindwin. By this time the African troops in Burma numbered 120.000 men, one-tenth of the whole army em­ployed there. It will be seen that they had taken an important share in the actual fighting, and in addition they had rendered valu­able service in the rearward organizations of the army. pROUD of Their Service A Awards wand Mentions” To meet the great expansion of the original military forces of the African Colonies it had, of course, been necessary to extend the area of recruitment to sections of the population, sometimes the most primitive, that had never before been lapped. For example, the tribes of southern Nigeria con­tributed their quota, though formerly the R.W .A.F.F. had been recruited from the reputedly martial and more advanced peoples of the northern districts yet the new material to a surprising degree lent itself to training. npHE difficulty of finding officers familiar with African mentality was in the first instance met by drawing heavily on those employed in Government service and private enterprises in the country. Northern and Southern Rhodesia and South Africa also made valuable contributions, but it became necessary to employ officers and N.C.O.s who had never before encountered Africans. Considering the comparatively short period they were inaction the casualties among African troops were considerable, though not excessive 1,544 were killed or died of wounds, 4,640 wounded and 328 missing— the last figure being surprisingly small. It may bethought that Africans would have been to some extent immune to malaria and would have stood the climate better than British or Indian troops but it was found that they had no advantage in this respect and, as in the case of other troops, they owed much to the medical service. Africans may well be proud of the list (not yet complete) of the Service awards they received. To date it includes 15 B.E.M., 8 M.C., 15 D.C.M., 133 M.M., and 407 mentioned in dispatches, as well as a few still higher distinctions. On the whole,, it is evident that the experiment of employing Africans in Asia justified itself. But perhaps the experiment cannot be considered com­plete until it is seen how the returning troops will be able to readapt themselves to their African surroundings.
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