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Infantry of Ethiopian Guard. 1935

These days humanity marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II that was the Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. As to “African history” of the war it is often reduced to the battles in the Libyan desert during 1940-1943 and to the landing of the US and UK troops in North-West Africa in November 1942. However, Africa’s role in the war was much more significant and multifaceted.

     Here we will focus on one aspect, the participation of African soldiers, all in all about a million of them in combat operations. To begin with World War II for Africa began much earlier than for the European states. It was on the African continent that the first aggressive war was unleashed - the attack of fascist Italy on sovereign Ethiopia (then the country was called Abyssinia) in 1935. As we all know, at the end of the 19th century Italy already had made attempts to colonize Ethiopia, but the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1895-1896 ended with the defeat of the Italian troops. However, the fascist leadership of Italy in the mid-1930s saw in the aggressive war against Ethiopia not only revenge for the shameful defeat, but also a step towards the creation of a large Italian colony in North-East Africa, which would unite Italian Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It was able to significantly increase the military power of the Italian state, rearm the ground units, aviation and the navy, and form and train numerous colonial troops recruited from residents of the North African and East African colonies - Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, making Africans fight Africans, while the European powers actually refused to assist Ethiopia in repelling Italian aggression.

      Italy announced the annexation of Ethiopia, and on May 9, 1936, the Italian king Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia, Nevertheless, the Italian occupation forces could not fully establish control over the territory of Ethiopia, and guerilla warfare was launched in many areas of the country.

Italy joined the side of Germany and in August 1941 occupied British Somaliland, but in January 1941, British troops began counter-offensives from three directions at once: from Kenya through Italian Somalia, from Aden through British Somalia and from Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Italian troops were unable to withstand a strong British army that included units from its African colonies and especially from South Africa. A very important role was played by Ethiopian units in liberation of Addis Ababa on April 6, 1941.

      If Ethiopians fought against Italian fascists for its independence, many African countries, formerly colonies of Great Britain, France or Belgium, became human resource suppliers for the armies of countries participating in the anti-Hitler coalition. Among all the African colonies of the European countries participating in the anti-Hitler coalition, the most numerous contingents of troops were exhibited by British colonies in East, West and South Africa.

Over the years of World War II, a total of 43 infantry battalions, an armoured car regiment, an artillery unit, as well as engineer, signal and transport sections were created in East Africa on the basis of King’s African Rifles that existed from 1902.

Two divisions were formed in there, but the first of them, the 11th African Division was disbanded in November 1941 and another one, the 12th African Division was disbanded in April 1943. However, in 1943, the 11th (East Africa) Division was formed again to fight against the Japanese. The rank-and-file and non-commissioned officers in all these “King’s Rifles” were staffed by Africans – Tanganykans, Kenyans, Ugandans, Nyasalandians, as well as some Nigerians and Kenyans, but all the officer posts were staffed by officers of the British army. The units took part in hostilities against Italian troops in East Africa, against French collaborators in Madagascar, and finally against Japanese troops in Burma.

In the West African colonies of Great Britain West African frontier troops were formed, staffed by the men from Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia. Units of the West African forces took part in the fighting on the territory of Italian Somalia and Ethiopia, and fought against the Japanese in Burma. The British command believed that African soldiers accustomed to the tropical and equatorial climate would be able to fight more effectively against the Japanese units in the Indochina jungle than troops recruited in Europe.

      It’s important to note that the East African and West African units of the British colonial troops honorably fulfilled the missions assigned to them. Very little has been written about this.  Tens of thousands of Africans - residents of the British colonies - died on the fronts of World War II, fighting against Italian, German and Japanese fascists.

       By April 1, 1940, 179 thausand Tirailleurs Senegalese (Senegalese riflemen), a generic name for soldiers, sergeants, and junior officers of units formed in French colonies in West and Central Africa - Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Togo, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Chad and Congo - were serving in the French army. After the war started in September 1939 France, with up to 40,000 troops from the African colonies were among the French troops fighting on the European fronts. After the collaborators actually surrendered their own country, tens of thousands of them were captured by Germans. The most famous prisoner of war was a young lieutenant Leopold Sedar Sengor - a native of Senegal, a poet and philosopher, who later became the country's president and ideologist of negritude. Sengor was able to escape from captivity and join the ranks of the French guerrillas. In memory of the Tirailleurs Senegalese, who fought on distant European lands, he wrote one of his poems.  

    After the invasion of the Nazis, France fell into the hands of collaborators of the Vichy government, the armed forces and political power of the country split. Part remained faithful to the Vichy government; part sided with the French Resistance. The demarcation also affected the French colonies. The 19th Corps of Colonial Forces, three battalions of the French African Corps, five Moroccan units, Tunisian battalion, five Algerian battalions fought on the side of the troops of the “France combattante” under the command of Charles de Gaulle, from the beginning of their participation in the war. In 1944, the Tirailleurs Senegalese participated in the landing of troops of the anti-Hitler coalition in Provence and liberated the territory of France from Nazi invaders. The anniversary of the landing in Provence is a memorable date in modern Senegal and is celebrated as a public holiday in memory of the thousands of Senegalese soldiers who died on the fronts of World War II.

     Belgium was practically unable to provide full resistance to the Nazi invaders in Europe. However, in Africa under the control of the Belgium there were large territories - the Belgian Congo colony, as well as Rwanda and Burundi, which were German possessions before the defeat of Germany in World War I, and then transferred to the Belgian administration. On the territory of the African possessions of Belgium were deployed units of colonial troops, called the Force Public. When Belgium capitulated on May 28, 1940, the colonial administration in the Belgian Congo took the side of the anti-Hitler coalition. The units of the Belgian colonial troops participated in the defeat of the Italian army in Ethiopia. During the fighting on Ethiopian soil, 500 soldiers of the Force Public died while the Congolese soldiers of Belgium managed to capture nine generals and many thousands of officers, sergeants and privates of the Italian army.

       In 1942, the Force Public units were transferred to Nigeria by order of the British command, where hostile troops were landing or invasion from Vichy’s controlled French territories were expected. The number of the Belgian expeditionary forces sent to Nigeria amounted to 13 thousand African soldiers and sergeants under the command of European officers. When the French authorities in the African colonies went over to the side of the "France combattante", the Belgian expeditionary force was transferred from Nigeria to Egypt, where it remained until 1944, serving as the strategic reserve of the British command. By 1945, more than 40 thousand people served in the Belgian colonial forces in Africa, combined into three brigades, auxiliary and police units, medical units, and the naval police. Besides, the Force Public medical unit as a part of the 11th East African Infantry Division of the British Army took part in the fighting against the Japanese forces in Burma,

      A separate and very interesting page in the “African history” of World War II is the participation of South Africans. The racial policy of the state did not allow the admission to military service of representatives of African peoples living in the country. Only white Europeans could carry out military service, but their number in South Africa was limited and far from all of them could be mobilized in the army. Universal conscription in the country was not introduced by that time because of the protests of the Boer population, who did not want to fight with Germany. The South African command had to find other ways to solve the problem of recruiting army units. In particular, admission to the military service of the Coloreds and Indians, which were accepted into motor transport and sapper units and was allowed. From representatives of African peoples, the Native Military Corps was formed, which was also engaged in construction and sapper works. At the same time, the main principle of the South African regime remained throughout the country's participation in World War II - black soldiers were never allowed to participate in hostilities against Europeans, although this rule was not always observed in the real situation.

     The South African army participated in the fighting in North and East Africa. Ground force units and Air force of South Africa played a key role in the defeat of the Italian troops in Ethiopia in 1940-1941. In 1942, South African troops participated in the fighting in Madagascar - against the troops of Vichy. In North Africa, the 1st South African Infantry Division took part in the Second Battle There are also examples of combat cooperation between South African aviation and the Soviet army: during the Lviv-Sandomierz operation in Ukraine, the South African Air Force aircraft carried out reconnaissance flights over enemy territory and transmitted the received information to the Soviet military command. The total number of South African participants in the Second World reaches 334 thousand people, including 211 thousand military personnel of European descent, 77 thousand Africans and 46 thousand Indians and so called Coloured. Besides, in total 26 thousand soldiers, sergeants, and officers recruited on the territory of Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), including, of course Africans.


       The effects of the World War on Africa were multi-faced as well. The war was crucial for liberation of African countries. No doubt, the participation of Africans in fighting the totalitarian regimes that enslaved other peoples exposed them to ideas of self-determination and independent rule.

     While Europeans had been portrayed as super adult and virtually superhuman, the war humanized them in the eyes of their African comrades-in-arms as they fought together in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere and destroyed the myth of European invincibility in the eyes of the colonized peoples. Moreover, the World War facilitated Africa's political liberation partly by undermining the European capacity to hold on to its empires, for example, Britain was exhausted and almost impoverished by the time war ended.

     Furthermore, World War II also influenced the spirit of self-government and self-determination in Africa following the resurgence of Pan-Africanism at the end of the war. It was not accidental that the most notable important Pan-Africanist congress in Manchester that made bold declaration against colonialism was held soon after its end, in October 1945. It was attended by prominent African leaders from different parts of the continent such as Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta who brought their countries to independence. 

Vladimir Shubin, Russian Academy of Science


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Africa soldiers fought against the German Wehrmacht in the Libyan desert
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Allied troops taking cover at El Alamein.
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Ethiopian Troops with Captured Italian Machine Guns. 1935
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Ethiopian Warriors during the Italo-Ethiopian War. 1935
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1941 year. South African troops in Moyale (Ethiopia) after the Italians retreat
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Ethiopian Warriors. 1935