CHAPTER 25: The Second World War and Africa
History of Africa, by Dr. Kevin Shillington, PhD
St. Martin Press,1995, pp. 362-372
When Britain and France declared war on Hitler's Nazi Germany in September 1939, their African colonies were once more drawn into a European conflict which was not of their own making. Fascist dictatorships were established in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascist political parties believed in the seizure of power by military force, the denial of democratic freedoms, and the racial inferiority of subject peoples (which all sounds a bit like certain aspects of European colonial rule in Africa). Fascists were particularly dedicated to the destruction of all aspects of socialism and communism. In May 1940 Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, brought his country in on the side of Germany and later that
year the militarist government of Japan joined them in what was known as the 'Axis' pact. By the end of June 1940 the German army had overrun northern France and installed a puppet government at Vichy in southern France. A French colonel, Charles de Gaulle, formed a 'Free French' government in exile. This division into 'Vichy' government in France and 'Free French' government in exile was to have an important impact upon France's African colonies, as we shall see below.

Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941 brought the Soviet Union into the war. Meanwhile Japanese forces were busy occupying western China and French South-East Asia. In the early months of 1942 Japan overran British-ruled Malaysia and Burma, and Dutch Indonesia. By then the Japanese attack on the United States Navy in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 1941), had brought the USA into the war. Against the Axis Powers were now ranged the 'Allied' forces of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and the latter's colonies and dominions. The war had assumed a truly worldwide dimension. But what of Africa in this conflict?

While Europe, Asia and north America were drawn into full-scale war between 1939 and 1941, for Africa the war against fascist aggression had in fact begun as early as 1935 with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. (Ethiopia was known to Europeans as Abyssinia, a name thought to be drawn from an old Arabic name for the Aksumite kingdom.)

Fascist aggression and the Second World War in north and northeast Africa

Italy, a relatively new European power, had competed in the Scramble for Africa with rather less success than her main European rivals. In the 1880s she had occupied the Eritrean and southern Somali coasts, but her invasion of Ethiopia had been repulsed at the battle of Adowa in 1896. It was not until 1911-13 that Italy seized Libya, the last-remaining independent Ottoman territory in north Africa. The Sanusiyya Muslim Brotherhood of the eastern Libyan desert, however, organised a brilliant guerrilla campaign which fought the Italian invaders until 1931. In the end Italy only conquered Sanusiyya resistance through the employment of tens of thousands of Italian troops, combined with aerial bombing of civilian targets, the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of civilians in concentration camps, and the construction of massive barbed-wire fences across the Libyan desert. An estimated 100,000 civilians died in the appalling conditions of the concentration camps. The Sanusiyya leader, 'Umar al-Mukhtar, was finally captured and executed in September 1931. With his death, Libyan resistance finally collapsed. Italian forces were now free for Mussolini's long-awaited plan, the re-invasion of Ethiopia and revenge for the humiliation of Adowa.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia

Apart from Liberia, colonised by black Americans in the 1820s and 1830s, Ethiopia by the early 1930s was the only remaining independent African state which had not come under some form of European control. Ras Tafari, a Shoan aristocrat and distant relative of Menelik (died 1913), had become regent to the empress in 1916. In 1930 he succeeded as emperor and took the title Haile Selassie. Ethiopia was by then a member of the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations Organisation) and Haile Selassie expected the other member states to protect his country from Italian aggression. But in this he was to be sorely disappointed. In October 1935 an Italian army of 120,000 men crossed the Somali and Eritrean borders into Ethiopia. This time the Italians had the military advantage of aeroplanes, armoured cars and modern artillery. Even so it was many months before their conquest of the Ethiopian army was complete. By then they had wreaked havoc on the Ethiopian countryside, bombing villages and spreading poison gas from the air.

Ethiopia and the League of Nations

In May 1936 Haile Selassie went into exile in Europe where he addressed the General Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva. He reminded them of their inaction during eight months of Italian aggression against Ethiopia. The very purpose of the League, he argued, was to establish the international equality of all member states, and, in particular, to protect the smaller states from aggression by more powerful ones. He warned that 'International Morality' was at stake: 'God and history will remember your judgement. . . . Are the States [of the League] going to set up the terrible precedent of bowing before force?' But Britain and France, the major powers of the League, did nothing. Ethiopian 'Patriots' had to continue guerrilla resistance on their own. Nevertheless, they managed to keep some parts of Ethiopia free from Italian control. Meanwhile, Hitler's Germany followed Mussolini's example, going on to commit acts of international aggression which were eventually to lead to war in Europe in 1939.

The liberation of Ethiopia

In August-September 1940 Italian forces occupied British Somaliland and invaded British-controlled Egypt from their base in Libya. Recently expelled from continental Europe and facing a direct threat to their Suez Canal route to India, Britain finally reacted to Italian aggression in north Africa. By December the British had pushed the Italians back into Libya and in January 1941 they began the invasion of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie returned to southern Sudan to head a force of Ethiopian Patriots. The British summoned thousands of troops from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. The Belgians dispatched a small force of African soldiers from the Congo, while the Free French governor at Brazzaville sent a small contingent from Equatorial Africa. Volunteer forces were sent up from Rhodesia and Nyasaland to join those assembling in Kenya. And from South Africa came a force of 200,000 volunteers, a third of them black. While the black troops from British east, west and central Africa were armed and provided the bulk of the fighting forces, those from South Africa, as in 1914-18, were not allowed to carry arms. By May 1941 the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, had been retaken and Haile Selassie re-established on his throne. The British, somewhat reluctantly, recognised Ethiopia's independence, though they remained in occupation of the Ogaden and Eritrea.

The war in north Africa

In 1941 Hitler sent a German army, the Afrika Korps, to support the Italians in Libya. They forced the British back into Egypt and came within 100 kilometres of Alexandria. The German aim was to seize the Suez Canal and beyond that the oilfields of the Persian Gulf. At the same time Hitler had longer-term plans for striking south across the desert, seizing the strategically important territory of Chad and re-occupying the former German colony of Kamerun, lost in 1916. But he never got the chance to put these plans into action. The Allied forces finally broke through the German lines in western Egypt at the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. At almost the same time American and British troops landed in Morocco and Algeria. Attacked from both sides, the Germans and Italians were pushed back to Tunisia. Here the remnants of Germany's Afrika Korps was forced to surrender in May 1943.

The war on African soil was finally over. The destruction of the warfare in north Africa, especially the urban areas of Tunisia, had been very extensive. Apart from the massive army losses, countless thousands of Libyan and Tunisian civilians lost their lives and homes. From Tunisia, Africans joined British and American troops in the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy in July and September 1943. And African troops from French and British colonies went on to serve with distinction against the Japanese in the forests of Burma and South-East Asia.

The war in French-speaking Africa

On the outbreak of war in Europe, 80,000 regular African troops were sent from French West Africa to defend French soil from German invasion. Here they suffered heavy casualties and many were captured and imprisoned by the Germans. On the fall of France in 1940 the colonial officials of French North and West Africa declared their loyalty to the Vichy government. This effectively took them out of the war for the next two years. The black governor of Chad, on the other hand, Felix Eboue from French Guiana in South America, declared his loyalty to the 'Free French' government in exile. The governors of the other French Equatorial territories followed his example and for a while Brazzaville became the capital of 'Free France' in exile. A number of French Equatorial Africans served in the Ethiopian campaign of 1941. At the end of 1942, with the Allied invasion of Vichy north Africa, the colonial authorities of French West Africa abandoned their Vichy allegiance and declared for the Free French government of de Gaulle. Once more the Africans of French West Africa supplied soldiers and raw materials for the Allied war effort. At one time, in 1943, Africans from French West and Equatorial Africa made up more than half of the total of the Free French army.

The Impact of the War on Africa and Africans

Manpower and materials

We have already noted the important contribution of African soldiers to the Ethiopian, north African and South-East Asian compaigns. Throughout the war Africa remained an essential source of men and materials for the Allied war effort. Once Ethiopia had been liberated (in 1941), however, it was more difficult to persuade Africans that they should help the Allied cause. The British officially recruited African soldiers on a volunteer basis and used chiefs as the main recruiting agents. Recent research, however, has shown that at times a considerable amount of pressure was used to 'persuade' Africans to volunteer. The French relied more openly upon forced conscription to supply men for the war. Between 1943 and 1945, for instance, over 100,000 soldiers were conscripted from French West Africa.

Africa's importance as a source of raw materials for the Allied armies was greatly increased by the fall of South-East Asia to the Japanese in 1941-42. Colonial administrators used a mixture of force and persuasion to get Africans to produce more goods for the Allied cause. French West Africans were pressured to produce more groundnuts and cotton. The forest zones of western Africa became the sole Allied source of palm oil. The forced labour of up to 18,000 men was used in the tin-mines of Nigeria. Following the loss of the Malayan plantations the forced collection of wild rubber from the forests of the Zaire basin was reminiscent of the earlier decades of the century. And all over British east, central and southern Africa village chiefs were required to organise the cultivation of special fields for growing extra food for the war effort.

Before the war it had been left to the major European merchant companies to control the marketing of African produce and to restrict the prices paid to African peasant farmers. During the war the colonial state moved in to take a more prominent role. All over east, west and central Africa, particularly in the British sphere, colonial authorities set up marketing boards to organise African production for export. At the same time they used the political power of government to impose official price-controls. Thus, although African palm oil, rubber, sisal, groundnuts, cotton, coffee, tea and cocoa fetched high prices in Europe, because of wartime shortage, African producers received no benefit from this. Prices paid to African producers were kept at low fixed rates. Colonial governments were able to pocket the difference and even send subsidies to the Allied war effort. At the same time, with the inflation of manufactured goods from Europe, Africans had to grow more and more export crops just in order to buy the same amount of imports.

Nevertheless, the war did not only have a negative impact so far as African peasant farmers were concerned. It was a period of increasing division between rich and poor peasants, between those who had land and those who had not. Growers of some higher-priced crops like cocoa and coffee gained more than growers of cotton or groundnuts. In addition, there were ways of getting round the restrictive prices of the marketing boards. In Kenya, for instance, where higher-priced markets were kept open for European settler-farmers, some African peasants were able to smuggle their goods on to the open market and so gain the rewards of higher prices for their produce. Among those who benefited from this were some Kikuyu peasants in the so-called 'white' highland district of central Kenya. Competition for land and markets intensified between Kikuyu and white settlers, with potentially explosive results, as we shall see in the following chapter.

The commercial and military demands of the Second World War stimulated colonial governments into investing in African harbours and airports on a scale not seen since the initial colonial investment in railways. In a number of west African ports, such as Freetown and Lagos, docks were deepened and harbour facilities improved. Freetown became a major port for the Allied command of the south Atlantic. Accra airport became an important terminus for the transportation of Allied troops to the north African battlefront. During this period more Africans moved into the growing urban centres in search of wage employment, some escaping forced cropping in the rural areas, others attracted by the wages offered in naval harbour constructions.

Within the Union of South Africa the war stimulated a tremendous growth in manufacturing industry. With a shortage of imports from Europe, South Africa began to manufacture her own food, clothing, chemicals, machinery and tools. The need for Allied shipping repairs gave a great boost to South African steel manufacturing. By 1943 manufacturing had overtaken mining as the largest producer of wealth and employer of labour. With increasing land restrictions and poverty in the rural areas, blacks were already pouring into the rising manufacturing centres of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It was a major period of black urbanisation in South Africa. It was a time of great job opportunity for some. But it was also a time of growing black urban poverty and unemployment as the numbers seeking work far outstripped the numbers of new jobs available. It was a situation approaching crisis point when the 200,000 whites and 100,000 blacks serving in Allied armies overseas returned to South Africa after the war.

The political and psychological impact of the war

In the First World War the colonial powers had used a considerable amount of force to coerce Africans into supporting their colonists' interests in the war. In the Second World War, on the other hand, while some degree of force was still applied, there was a greater tendency to encourage and invite African support for the European war effort. Many of the methods of persuasion used would now be defined as blatant misinformation and propaganda. Nevertheless, it marked an important break with the methods of the past. The British, in particular, used films, radio and officially-sponsored newspapers to spread wartime propaganda. They sought to persuade Africans to cooperate with the colonial authorities, to volunteer for war service or to produce more food and raw materials. In seeking to persuade in this way, rather than relying on naked force, colonial authorities were admitting a need to explain their policies and to open a discussion with their African subjects. Literate Africans were quick to respond.

The voice of the minority of educated Africans - clerks, teachers, lawyers, clergymen and journalists - could no longer be ignored in the wartime French and British colonies. They saw their local newspapers and their prewar welfare associations as a means of expressing their opinions and in particular their criticisms of many aspects of colonial rule. A number of African-run newspapers had appeared in the 1930s. The influence of these grew rapidly in the war years. A single copy of a newspaper would very likely reach a wide audience as it was read aloud at markets and village meeting places far from the major urban centres.

In contrast to the First World War, Africans were widely informed about the course and issues of the Second World War. The West African Pilot, founded in Nigeria in 1938, for instance, published a report on the Atlantic Charter of August 1941. This was an agreement between the British Prime Minister, Churchill, and the United States President, Roosevelt, which laid out the basic principles of what their governments hoped the war would achieve. Relevant to Africans was Clause Three of the Charter: '. . .They [the British and USA governments] respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.' The West African Pilot noted critically that Churchill had quickly claimed that the principles of Clause Three did not apply to Africa. All over the continent literate Africans bombarded their local newspapers with letters protesting that the clauses of the Atlantic Charter should indeed apply to Africa. For the first time demands for political independence began to become a dominant theme of the emerging African political organisations.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 had shocked Africans and those of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic. Hitherto Ethiopia had been held out as a symbol of African self-respect and independence from European cultural and political domination: a proud link with Africa's historic roots and ancient cultures. The liberation of Ethiopia by a British-led but largely African force in 1941 was an inspiration to many Africans: if Ethiopia today, why not the rest of Africa tomorrow? This was the tone of the Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester (England) shortly after the end of the war in 1945. The main theme of the Congress was an end to colonial rule and political independence for Africa. The timing and means of achieving this were not yet clear, but African delegates such as Nkrumah of Gold Coast and Kenyatta of Kenya dispersed to their home countries with a clear goal in mind.

Even in the remotest rural regions of Africa, the forced cropping, conscription and inflation of the wartime period served to heighten peoples' dissatisfaction with the colonial regimes. Into this atmosphere came the returning ex-servicemen with their vastly broadened view of the world beyond the village and the petty tyrannies of the local colonial magistrate. Previously the only Europeans that most Africans had seen had been wealthy, well-educated and in positions of authority. During the war Africans had worked and fought alongside a wide range of working-class Europeans, and found them little different from themselves. They had fought against and killed Europeans, in the name of freedom and democracy. They had observed European poverty in Europe and savagery in warfare. Africans with their range and level of experience would never return to their home countries as a docile and subservient colonial labour force. Few ex-servicemen actually played a significant role in the leadership of the ensuing independence movements. But their influence in undermining the aura and prestige of Europeans in Africa was considerable.

The Second World War also helped change the attitude of Europeans themselves towards their colonies in Africa. Allied Europe, especially France, was made acutely aware of its indebtedness to Africa during the war. In order to ensure continuing African support, European administrators had been obliged to promise that social, economic and political reforms would follow Allied victory in the war. At a Free French conference held at Brazzaville in 1944 de Gaulle had specifically promised a 'new deal' for the subjects of the French African territories. Significantly, there were no African delegates at the conference and there was no suggestion yet of African political independence. But the promises of Brazzaville were followed up in 1946 with the abolition of the hated indigenat and the corvee labour system. In British West Africa the war years saw educated Africans being brought increasingly into higher administrative positions and on to elected local councils. British colonial administrators began to contemplate a time in the distant future when Africans would be allowed some degree of self-government. Significantly, Portugal, which had remained neutral in the war, felt no such obligation to introduce reform in her African colonies.
About the Author:

KEVIN SHILLINGTON graduated in Modern History from Trinity College, Dublin in 1968 and did his post-graduate teacher training at the University of Zambia. In the early 1980s he was engaged in the training of history teachers at the University of Botswana. His years of teaching experience in Africa have included African History at secondary school and university level. He holds an MA and PhD in African History from the University of London and his publications include The Colonisation of the Southern Tswana (1985), a Junior Certificate History for Zimbabwe (with H.Bhila, 1986), a History of Southern Africa (1988), Jugnauth: Prime Minister of Mauritius (1991) and Ghana and the Rawlings Factor (1992). He is currently based in London and works as a freelance historian.
History of Africa
by Kevin Shillington

Book Description
In a single volume, History of Africa offers an illustrated and critical narrative introduction to the history of the continent from earliest times to the present. Beginning with the evolution of mankind itself, the book traces the history of Africa through the millennia of the ancient world to the centuries of medieval and modern Africa. The clear and simple language the wealth of carefully chosen maps combine to make an essential and accessible text.