Africa and the Second World War
Written by Daniel Grice, Young Historians Program
Whenever we discuss the global conflict of World War II the contributions of different nations and continents are always thought of. Whether that be the staunch resistance of Britain and France against the German Reich’s tyranny, the industrial contributions of the Canadian and American home fronts or even the sheer losses of the Soviet Union the contributions of these nations made to the war are never forgotten.
Yet when discussing the historiography of the Second World War the continent of Africa and the contributions of the different nations of Africa have been severely neglected within our collective knowledge of World War II. While we have knowledge of the battles of El Alamein or Operation Torch we don’t consider or acknowledge the contributions of the rest of the African continent.
This can be explained by a famous quote from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who stated “history is written by the victors” this quote illustrates why the contributions of the African continent are not recognized within our history of World War II. This is because the post-war period decolonization was becoming a key political issue for the various colonies of France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy. To attempt to counter this support for decolonization the governments of these countries limited and downplayed the contributions of their African colonies to sustain and continue their colonial rule. Yet now we must recognize all the contributions made in the Second World War. According to the Barnett group, roughly 1 million men fought in the Second World War across the continent of Africa, and roughly 15,000 in British service died.
A good example would be the contributions of the West African nation of Nigeria, that provided various resources from food, ammunition, and vital minerals for Britain’s war effort. Additionally, it was a vital base for Britain to sustain itself while the Germans blockaded them from the rest of Europe. Yet the contributions of Nigeria were not just strategic or resource-based but also by direct action. Roughly 45,000 Nigerians enlisted into the British Army to fight in West Africa and Burma (modern day Myanmar). This desire to enlist was mainly inspired by the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia by fascist Italy in 1935. Nigeria’s contribution highlights the fact that the Second World War was not just a conflict that affected Europe, Asia or the Americas but it also affected the African continent. Further, their effort to fight against fascism should be equally recognized alongside the other fronts of the war
Mentioning the invasion of Ethiopian in 1935 is another notable area of the Second World War that has had limited coverage in the history of the conflict. While the 1935 invasion and occupation of Ethiopia is seen as precursor to the increasing tensions on the international stage that led to the Second World War, the reconquest of Ethiopia is often just a simple footnote in the history of the Second World War. Once Ethiopia was officially occupied in 1937, after the fall of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the exiled Emperor spent the next three years attempting to convince Western democracies to support of the liberation of his homeland with little success.
Thankfully, this drastically changed In 1940 when fascist Italy declared war on Britain, France and the rest of the Commonwealth. Italy swiftly occupied Britain’s colony of British Somaliland‘s triggering a swift response by the British government who decided to support Haile Selassie’s campaign to liberate Ethiopia as well as British Somaliland. Selassie himself rallied support from Ethiopians as well as other local tribes against the Italians, and this eventually culminated with an invasion on January 10, 1941 with the Emperor himself crossing into his occupied empire alongside these Ethiopian free forces. The capital was recaptured and the liberation of Ethiopia completed by 5 May 1941. However, a remnant of the Italian occupation force remained in Ethiopia conducting a guerrilla war against the government which lasted until the new Italian republic signed an armistice between Italy and the Allied powers in 1943.
This conflict once again is rarely covered within the history of World War II which is a shame because the threat that Italy posed while in Ethiopia was enormous towards the war effort. Specifically, it would have given the Italians the opportunity to cut Britain off from its prized colonial possession of India and all of the resources and manpower that it provided.
A final aspect of the war in Africa can link to the Free French movement within Sub Saharan Africa, which was the base from where Charles de Gaulle was able to rally his cause for a continuation of the war against Germany. While these forces mobilized around that goal in 1940, their contributions were vital to sustain the flame of French resistance against the German occupation even if their initial successes were quite limited.
Despite initial setbacks to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces, the mainly sub-Saharan African units were vital in the support of British forces in the defense of Egypt as well as the conquest of Libya. Not long after these conquests, Charles de Gaulle was able to form The French National committee which was an opposing government in exile to the Vichy puppet state. Without the support of these African nations, the impact that Charles de Gaulle had in the war would not have been as significant.
Overall, I want to illustrate these different theaters and contributions towards the Second World War as a recognition that the fight in Africa was just as important as the fight in Asia, the Pacific and Europe. From the resources these colonies provided, the application of military power to divert enemy resources away from the European theater and to provide opportunities for exiled governments to continue the fight against fascism. Victory in Africa meant victory in the war.
Top left corner photo - Finish Troops establishing a machine gun nest in the snow
Top Center Photo - Emperor haily saliasy
Top right corner photo - Allied forces capturing an Italian flag during the reconquest of East Africa
Far left center photo - Senagalsie infantrymen in France 1940
Center photo - Nigerian forces being inspected by British forces
Far left center photo - Nigerian forces in india about to cross into Burma
Bottom left corner photo - “White death” simo haya
Bottom center photo - More destroyed soviet equipment
Bottom right photo - Russian equipment and dead soldiers at the battle of Raate road