The Nigerians Who Defeated the Japanese: Defending the Defunct British Empire in Burma – Jide Uwechia

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The Burma Front 1943

When the Japanese almost ran out the Europeans from the entire continent of Asia durning the world war II, it appeared that the European powers were truly doomed at least in Asia. The Japanese war machine was unstoppable.

It was only in Burma, in the year 1943, that European powers were able to contain the enemy. The secret weapon used was the force of the west African soldiers mostly from Ghana, and Nigeria, who fought, overcame and destroyed the Japanese war machine after more than two years of continous warfare in the Burma jungles.

Nigerians made up more than half of the total force of 90,000 West African soldiers deployed to South East Asia after 1943 as part of the British Army’s 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions. Their contribution was never adequately recognised.

The role of Indians and Gurkhas in the field of battle was widely aknowledged. But the Africans were simply ignored by the racist and ungrateful beneficiaries of their sacrifice. For example, when the European Allied commander General William Slim thanked his 14th army at the end of the campaign, he appeared to have forgotten that African soldiers were the bulk of the fighting force that defeated the Japanese. He did not even mention the Africans soilders in his vote of thanks!

The contribution of West Africans was played down in official versions of the Allied war in Asia. Their sacrifice remained unrecognized by the defunct and ungrateful British Empire, and until now, their story is largely unknown even in Asia which they saved.

In fact, it must be emphasized that only two in 10 of the soldiers who fought in Burma against the Japanese were white.

African Marksmen

Japanese soldiers were trained well in the art of jungle warfare, where the first rule was concealment. White soldiers could not operate in the type of terrain which the Japanese dominated. As such, the British sought the help of Africans who were already acknowledged as tough as nails and brave like lions in battle.

Soldiers from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt were deployed to Eastern Asia in 1943, as part of the 81st and 82nd airborne division of the British Army, West African Division. There were about 90,000 of those soldiers and half of them made up the Nigerian Regiment or the 4th Battalion.

Officer positions were reserved for the few white expatriates from Britain and other parts of the empire, with only one notable exception: Lieutenant Seth Anthony from the Gold Coast was the British Army’s first African officer.

The African soldiers were instrumental to the defeat of the Japanese and by doing so, save British India from the occupation and rule of the determined Japanese soldiers who had almost driven the Europeans completely out of all Asia.

This was achieved through a gruelling campaign of sacrifices, death, injuries, mutilations, jungle marches, battles and ambushes, in which supplies were delivered entirely by air.

From Soldiers to Political Force

The war demonstrated to the Africans for the first time, the real nature of the Europeans. As a result of earlier defeats in wars, and later colonial policies, young Africans of that period actually believed in their own inferiority status as compared with the natural superiority of the Europeans.

But the war theatre of the second world war Burma ended all of that delusion. There for the first time, at close quarters without the props and curtains of colonial powers, the African boys realized the cowardly and gutless nature of their so called colonial masters.

Despite the hierarchy established between the few white officers and the brown African soldiers, the war in Burma played a key role in breaking down the race barriers of the era.

They developed a reborne sense of self and a new race pride founded on their baptism of fire deep inside the Burma jungles where they saw the white boys crumble with fear, where they stood their grounds and destroyed the Japanese war machine.

“Initially I saw the white man as someone better than me. But after the war, I considered him lesser…” recalls former infantryman Dauda Kafanchan.

It was boys like this who became the mass supporters of Pan-African nationalists like Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and so many others, who later went on to win political independence for most of those countries.

They were the hard-edge of the new African nationalism. They had forged a new identity, a new consciousness, a determined objective. And they spread continent-wide.

The colonial governments were afraid of those veterans and did all they could to neutralize or frustrate them. In post-war Nigeria, the colonial government gave some veterans land to begin new lives as farmers. The project was also a scheme to reduce their potential impact as a new political force.

Nigerian soldiers who chose to continue their military careers went on to form the core of independent Nigeria’s national army, which retains the 81st and 82nd Divisions to this day.

Many of them later served as a peacekeeper in the Congo and Chad. Unfortunately, they were key resources in the frontlines of Nigeria’s tragic and bloody un-civil war 1967-1970.


Jide Uwechia


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7 thoughts on “The Nigerians Who Defeated the Japanese: Defending the Defunct British Empire in Burma – Jide Uwechia”

  1. I would like to receive news of II world war. My late father Mr. Alphonsus Maduajuiheya Igwechi from Awo-Omamma in Ore East LGA of Nigeria served in Burma. I am setting up a school and foundation to immortalize his name. I need international support and recognition for him. He told his family of the experience they had during the II World War in Burma.

  2. We celebrate our losses “Gollipoli” Singapore “but who pushed the Japs from Asia.
    I have never known till now Thank you Don Jaide .
    When I’m in Singapore for the 60th anniversary of is fall , I will allso remember those that
    fell to free asia.

  3. Nice one jaide. I did my research too a while back and learnt of the lack of appreciation for the African regiment. My dad was 19 in 1943 when he sailed to Burma via India in a can they called ship back then. ThankGod he’s still alive and his strength till date supports the findings you mentioned above.he even went ahead to serve in the Nigerian army and later the airforce where he retired in ’96.
    The Burma crew are far being spent as the once I remember in my area are all gone except for my dad. I believe some of them still exist and before they are gone I really hope for find people ready to celebrate them and stop dis lack of acknowledgement. They represent a special set amongst us.let’s celebrate them. Reach me on this mail

  4. So I just read a novel titled “Burma boy”, very touching and brave, that book prompted me to search the Internet and I’m glad I bumped into this article…thank you very much for this…very inspiring and rich history.

  5. Well if the British defrauded history by taking all the credits in victory over Japan during WWII, writers are expected to follow the story and come out with the unbiased version of it. Nigeria and Ghana were not the only countries that formed the 81st and 82nd West African Division. Countries like the Gambia and Sereleone were part of it and most the articles regarding WWII did not mention anything about them. Of recent, the Gambia Armed Forces held series of interviews with WWII vetrans and we found out that Gambians took party in the war and infact were very instrumental in dislodging the Japanese from the Kaladan River.
    Take note, as a writer you need to balance your story before publishing it.

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