One of the great myths of the Second World War is that of Britain standing alone, for, throughout the war, Britain was never without the support of the Commonwealth and the Empire, and the importance of that support has been much underestimated.
If German forces had been able to land in southern Britain in 1940, they would have been met by Canadian as well as British troops. The fall of Singapore marked a great defeat for Britain and the British Empire but, despite Indian political and religious divisions, the Indian Army continued to block the way to a Japanese advance on India. As late as 1944, Commonwealth and Empire troops retained sufficient cohesion and resilience to enable British and Commonwealth forces to make a greater contribution to the landings in Normandy than the US.
A sensitivity to the problems of the Empire in the interwar period, combined with an awareness of its later disintegration, may have led historians to antedate the demise of the British Empire's military strength and to undervalue its contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War. The role of African troops is one facet of the Empire at war that has received insufficient attention. As David Killingray demonstrates in this fascinating study, more than half a million African troops served with the British Army in campaigns in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Italy and Burma, and some 15,000 of them were killed in action.
African military participation and the nature of African military units reflected the great variety of British Africa, ranging from the Union of South Africa to settler colonies such as Rhodesia and Kenya and to lightly governed colonies where a small number of British officials left day-to-day government to tribal chiefs. For the most part these soldiers served loyally in wars and campaigns, the aims and purposes of which must have been obscure to most of them.
The general view of both the British and colonial governments was that African soldiers were unlikely to stand firm amid the terrors and confusion of modern warfare, but a diary written by a Japanese soldier bears witness to the effectiveness of the King's African Rifles, an East African regiment fighting in the jungles of Burma: "The enemy soldiers are not from Britain but are from Africa. Because of their beliefs they are not afraid to die; so even if their commanders have fallen they keep on advancing as if nothing had happened."
For Killingray and co-author Martin Plaut, this study of the Empire's African soldiers is clearly the result of years of their own research and a comprehensive knowledge of the secondary literature, which they synthesise with skill. They consider not only the military campaigns and the soldiers' experience of war but the impact of war service on the soldiers and their families and the impact on African social and economic development of the demobilised veterans.
The postwar world does not seem on the whole to have been kind to these ex-soldiers. Often conservative farmers, they benefited little from economic changes and were rarely among those who made up the new political elites that were created with independence.
Pensions were inadequate and not always promptly paid, while skills learned in the Army did not always provide a living during peacetime.
Declining empires are not always generous to those who have served them faithfully, nor nationalist regimes prepared to honour those who have fought for colonial masters.
But old loyalties and allegiances die hard and those soldiers who survive still meet in ever-smaller groups on special occasions such as Armistice Day parades. They gather at war memorials and remember, like similar groups in British towns and villages, their former comrades.
As Killingray concludes, African ex-servicemen look back on their wartime service with a strong sense of pride.
Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War
By David Killingray and Martin Plaut
James Currey, 301pp, £45.00
Published 18 February 2010