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Books & arts

Fights for freedom: Africa, Britain and the Second World War

Review of David Killingray’s ‘Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War’

Alex Free

2010-07-29, Issue 492

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David Killingray’s ‘impressive’ synthesis of primary and secondary sources on Africans' contributions to the British Second World War effort ‘presents an excellent overview of the experiences of African soldiers called upon to fight in defence of their colonial master,’ writes Alex Free. Although ‘analytically inconsistent at times’, this does not detract from ‘what is a sophisticated and coherent narrative and encouraging antidote to historiography’s historical predilection for histories-from-above,’ says Free.

In an impressive synthesis of primary and secondary sources on Africans’ contributions to the British Second World War effort, David Killingray’s ‘Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War’ presents an excellent overview of the experiences of African soldiers called upon to fight in defence of their colonial master. A detailed and illuminating narrative weighing in at nearly 300 pages across 10 chapters, ‘Fighting for Britain’ explores the impact of service in the British armed forces for African men and their families and communities at large. Complemented by a wealth of war-related articles and chapters (as befitting an eminent historian in this field), the book draws on a range of testimonies from African soldiers and covers everything from changing attitudes to status and education to the experiences of men embarking on overseas travel for the first time, capturing the voices of the diverse figures encouraged into military service.

As a history-from-below, ‘Fighting for Britain’ is largely led by these voices in pulling together a narrative of African involvement in the war, tackling motivations for signing up, discussions of military training, exposure to unfamiliar technology, treatment by superior officers and ultimately demobilisation. Providing a vivid window on African soldiers’ war-time experiences of everything from combat, education and sport to boredom and alcohol, the book is eminently readable, and includes an interesting selection of annotated photographs and maps to enhance the intermeshing of stories and accounts within.

Over the period 1939–45, around one million men from Africa (‘and a very small number of women’) served the various colonial powers in the war, with the majority of troops recruited by Britain serving in dangerous non-combatant roles (p. 144). When it comes to writing about African colonial soldiers, Killingray notes that historians’ concerns since the late 1970s have generally been around the socio-economic consequences of military involvement, a concern which he suggests has directed attention away from considering soldiers’ actual experience of battle. Commenting on the paucity of battleground reflections from soldiers who spoke to BBC Africa in 1989, he somewhat cryptically wonders whether such a dearth may be ‘in part shaped by the prevailing agenda of African historians and researchers’ (p. 144). At any rate, this book seeks to meet the need for a scholarly title pulling together African soldiers’ experiences into a cohesive narrative. Indeed, given the alarming contemporary resurgence of political movements rooted in xenophobia, prejudice and profound distrust of the 'other' within places such as the Netherlands, the UK and the US (arguably led by far-right groups but by no means restricted to them), books such as 'Fighting for Britain' which overtly document and narrate the 'contribution' of oppressed people in preserving a country’s way of life help to ensure that those outside of a Western purview are not simply written out of history.

In presenting the human and social face of the war, ‘Fighting for Britain’ is strong on documenting men’s anxieties around being away from home for extended periods (pp. 99–100), the strain on personal and community relationships and the demands for education which emerged as a result of military involvement (p. 194). Unsurprisingly, certain would-be soldiers wholeheartedly resented the notion of fighting to defend systems which underpinned their own inferiority (p. 68). In South Africa, for example, involvement in the war sharpened awareness of racially discriminatory employment laws, while swift growth in the country’s manufacturing industry ‘helped to erode many of the white job reservation agreements and gave black and Coloured people new opportunities to access skilled work’ (p. 195).

As we experience a period in which many African countries mark a half-century of independence from European colonialism, it is befitting to look back on the evolution of a consciousness of resistance around fighting under the aegis of exploitation, as well as the war’s role in accelerating anti-colonial ideas. In the late 1950s, the Zimbabwean nationalist leader Ndabaningi Sithole talked of the strong erosion of the myth of white supremacy many felt as a result of seeing white soldiers in battle – ‘[b]ullets had the same effect on black and white’ – while legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène echoed such experiences with respect to serving under the French (‘When a white soldier asked me to write a letter for him, it was a revelation – I thought all Europeans knew how to write’) (p. 211).

While it is naturally difficult to generalise about a political consciousness in flux across an entire continent, Killingray is perhaps somewhat inconclusive on the question of the war’s links to changing attitudes, socio-economic demands and eventual assertions of political liberation. Part of this inconsistency results from the need to come to a ‘conclusion’ at the end of each chapter, whereby we are told ‘a bit of extra knowledge of the world does not mean attitudes were changed to any great extent’ (p. 115), but then hear of a small but notable number of examples of ‘mutiny’ around racially defined discrepancies in pay (p. 125) and challenges to colonial rule and the Native Authorities in East Africa (p.182), as well as pressures on local elders and chiefs.

The author’s conclusions that most men in the post-war period were simply concerned with personal affairs are well argued, but even if the majority of people didn’t experience rapid attitudinal changes, there were changes nonetheless. When it comes to debates around the role of ex-servicemen in emergent nationalist movements, Killingray ultimately settles for drawing upon Richard Rathbone’s conclusions that in Ghana the servicemen’s post-war political activity was simply in proportion to that of other interest groups (p. 207).

But just as creating a false mythology around ‘ex-servicemen as political martyrs’ is certainly to be avoided in a serious scholarly work, too narrow a focus on one group should not cloud a bigger picture of how ‘fighting for Britain’ would become ‘fighting against’ as new socio-political ideas crystallised in the wake of war-time participation. The book is about experiences, but part of those experiences were also the day-to-day material demands of the war effort on Britain’s colonies and the consequent accelerated extraction of raw materials on the back of exploited African labour. These too were ‘fights’ for Britain that were central to African people’s involvement in the war and which merit much more consideration, just as the same could be said about the need for greater discussion of women’s experience of the war. There is also the question of the legacy of the war itself and its relation to emergent independence movements: A battered Britain saw its empire and position in the world in decline at a time of ‘winds of change’ and growing national consciousness within African countries, ultimately resulting in decolonisation. The author may well legitimately respond that the focus on men’s actual military experience of the war has been consciously counter to historians’ previous concern for ‘social and economic history’, but at any rate it seems greater discussion of this history – in combination with the existing material in his book – would make an otherwise excellent book even stronger.

In sum, ‘Fighting for Britain’ is a highly readable, very well-informed account of African people’s involvement in the British Second World War effort. It is replete with first-hand examples and voices from African men and draws upon a formidable range of materials and sources. The book comes across as a little bit analytically inconsistent at times, but this is arguably no different to any effort to answer necessarily generalised questions around such a huge, diverse continent as Africa. While the book is manifestly about African soldiers, its analytical reach would be enhanced by more extensive discussion of the social and material demands of war-time involvement – in short, a broader interpretation of what ‘fighting’ entailed. Nonetheless, this is not to detract from what is a sophisticated and coherent narrative and encouraging antidote to historiography’s historical predilection for histories-from-above.


* David Killingray (2010) ‘Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War’, James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk, ISBN: 978-1-84701-015-5.
* Alex Free is assistant editor, Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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