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.
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.