In 1989 I was responsible for producing three half hour programmes for the African Service of the BBC World Service on the contribution African troops to the Second World War. Their role has largely been forgotten, yet more than 1 million troops served in the conflict, mostly fighting for Britain 1. The programmes are one of the few examples of first-hand accounts of the war from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. Yet the inspiration for the programmes could have been more unlikely.
I was canvassing for the Labour Party in the Somers Town area of Camden in central London. I arrived at the door of an elderly woman. In the time honoured fashion I explained why I was there and asked whether she might support the party. No, she replied, “you only help the blacks.” I pointed out that many had fought for Britain during the war. At this point she gave me a look of incredulity, and slammed the door in my face, shouting: “you bloody liar!”
I was outraged and determined to prove my point – even if the woman concerned never knew about it. So I went to my colleagues in the African Service and persuaded them that we should make the programmes. I put out an appeal on the African Service asking for ex-servicemen to contact us. This they did in large numbers. Some wrote back saying simply: “I served in North Africa,” but without further details. Many were more expansive.
One ex-serviceman, Isaac Fadayebo, a Nigerian who had served in Burma, sent a manuscript describing his experienced of being wounded and left behind enemy lines. It was a very moving account. With the help of our reporters and correspondents across the continent we contacted the veterans and recorded their experiences.
These were then turned into the three programmes, with Professor David Killingray of Goldsmiths College providing expertise and guidance about the factual elements of the unfolding story. The programmes were very well received and they were later re-broadcast. But the material they contained was so strong it took on a life of its own.
I gave the written record and the programmes to Professor Killingray. He skilfully wove the testimony of the ex-servicemen into a book, “Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War”2. Photographs that I researched and others held by the Imperial War Museum provided the illustrations.
Professor Killingray also contacted Isaac Fadayebo, and, after some editing, his memoir was published by the African Studies Program, of the University of Wisconsin 3. In 1998 Fadayebo’s story was turned into a drama documentary by the BBC African Service. Years later, my former colleague, Barnaby Phillips, who now works for al-Jazeera, contacted Fadeyebo and produced a marvellous television documentary about his experiences. To make the programme Phillips drew on Fadeyebo’s experiences as well as going to Burma to find the civilians who had nursed him back to health and to Japan to meet the troops who had been fighting him at the time. The final programme, three-quarters of an hour long, was broadcast by al-Jazeera in November 2011 4.
In 1999 the BBC World Service decided to condense my original three half-hour radio programmes into one half hour documentary 5. I decided that it would be better if we included material from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, since from an African perspective it was then that the war began. Two Ethiopian generals were interviewed by our correspondent in Addis Ababa, Elizabeth Blunt. One of them, Jagama Kello, had been just 15 when he joined the Patriots in their fight against the invading Italians. Despite being an elderly gentleman when he was interviewed he had vivid memories of the war, including being ordered by the Emperor Haile Selassie to cut his hair when it ended, so that a British doctor would treat the malaria from which he was suffering 6.
All the material that was used in making the BBC programmes has now been deposited with the Imperial War Museum. This includes the many letters as well as around 20 cassette recordings of the soldiers themselves, some of whose memories featured only briefly in the programmes.
As David Killingray notes, the African troops paid a high price during the war effort. He estimates that the total death toll probably exceeds 50,000 all told 7. If one includes the numbers killed during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, during which chemical weapons were used, the number would be even higher. Ethiopians estimate their losses at between 300, 000 and 600,000 8.
The troops came home in dribs and drabs, some returning as late as 1947. All had stories to tell, but soon their villages and neighbourhoods became sick of hearing about strange countries of which they knew little. Some went on to fight for the liberation of their countries, like Joe Culverwell, who become a Senator in Zimbabwe after 1980. The story of how he beat up white South African troops who objected to his consorting with white nurses while on active service in Egypt is one of the gems of the material included in the BBC programmes.
2. Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War, David Killingray with Martin Plaut, James Currey, London, First Published: 2010, ISBN: 9781847010155
3. A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck, by Isaac Fadoyebo, edited and with an introduction by David Killingray. Madison, WI: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN 0‐942615‐42‐5.
7. Killingray, op cit. p. 8
8. Coming to Terms with Fascism in Italy, by Richard Bosworth, History Today Volume: 55 Issue 11, http://www.historytoday.com/richard-bosworth/coming-terms-fascism-italy