WWII in the African Continent

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Abyssinia, with Brigadier Daniel Arthur Sandford (left) and Colonel Wingate (right) in Dambacha Fort, after it had been captured, 15 April 1941.

As in the 1914-18 conflict, the Second World War saw African colonies drawn into what was primarily a European conflict, and once again throughout the war the continent was a crucial source of men and materials for the colonial powers involved – chiefly Britain, France, and Italy. The British depended on their African territories particularly heavily, recruiting men from both west and east Africa, and coming to rely on the various colonies’ agricultural produce and industrial sectors. At the same time, Egypt was of vital importance to the success of British geopolitical strategy, owing once more to the artery that was the Suez Canal; Egyptian nationalism, accordingly, was a constant source of anxiety in London, and even while German tanks rumbled into the Western Desert along the coast road in 1942, British armored vehicles surrounded government buildings in Cairo – not to protect them, but to keep an eye on the movements within. Egyptian nationalists were resentful of the renewed British military presence, and their loyalty was wholly contingent upon events. Elsewhere, Britain could generally rely on the loyalty – or at least grudging acquiescence – of its African subjects. South Africa was the partial exception: here, according to the Statute of Westminster of 1931, there was no constitutional obligation to become involved in the war with Germany, and indeed a significant minority within the Afrikaner political establishment lobbied for neutrality, or at least non-belligerence. There was even some tacit sympathy for the tenets of Nazism. But there was in the Union enough of a sense of imperial loyalty and of the moral and cultural obligations of Dominion status to carry the day, and the government, under Smuts, secured support for a declaration of war in parliament – just. As he had during the Great War, Smuts became an important member of the Allied command, as well as a valued confidante of Churchill himself, and spent much of the war outside South Africa.

France was in a rather different position. The armistice with Germany in June 1940 placed the French African Empire in an ambiguous and dangerous position; they appeared to be at the mercy of the Germans, while Churchill himself was perfectly willing to contemplate an attack on Francophone territory if necessary. Initially, territorial governors had little choice but to offer their loyalty to Vichy; but the colonies at length declared for de Gaulle’s Free French movement, beginning with the “peripheral” territories which were followed (albeit somewhat more reluctantly) by Senegal and Algeria. In so doing they provided vital strategic and material support for the war effort, particularly in the context of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theaters of operation. As for Italy, the only Axis power with territory in Africa, it made extensive use – as it always had – of troops recruited in Eritrea, from which it had invaded Ethiopia in 1935; from his new “East African empire,” comprising Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Italian Somaliland, Mussolini eyed Sudan and Kenya, and from Libya Italian forces invaded Egypt, an adventure which handed the British their first morale-boosting victories in late 1940. Italian aggression in east and north Africa, indeed, was short-lived: much to Hitler’s disgust, Italian armies were defeated relatively swiftly in northeast Africa, for example, in 1941-2.

For Africans, indeed – and also for African-Americans in North America and the Caribbean – the Second World War had in many ways begun in 1935 with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from colonial Eritrea, neither the first nor the last time that that particular frontier zone would be the cause of regional instability. With the partial exception of Liberia – partial, as Liberia was in many respects an American vassal state – Ethiopia was the only African state which could in any sense be described as genuinely “independent” north or south of the Sahara; but it was now the target of Mussolini’s expansionist ambitions. It had long been one of the core aims of the Fascist state to build a “new Roman empire,” and it would spring in part from Eritrea, driven by the quest for revenge for the defeat of the Italians in the hills around Adwa by Menelik in 1896. This was a stain on Italy’s honor which it was Mussolini’s destiny to eradicate; and accordingly, through the early 1930s, he was simply looking for an excuse to unleash vengeance on the Ethiopians. Notably, he sought international support prior to 1935 by arguing that Ethiopia was an anachronism, a savage and unstable state whose sovereignty was an affront to the civilized world; it practiced slavery, and was no more worthy of international recognition than any other African people – thus its destiny must lie in Italian hands, as an Italian protectorate. Some, in London and Paris and elsewhere, were privately loath to disagree; yet Mussolini’s public language made the British and French governments uncomfortable, redolent as it was of the aggressive imperialism of an earlier era. Il Duce’s speeches seemed to belong to the 1880s, not the 1930s, and ironically it was Italian imperialism, rather more than the empire of Haile Selassie, which seemed curiously anachronistic. And, after all, Ethiopia – like it or not, and many had their doubts – was now a full sovereign member of the League of Nations.

Nonetheless, in an era when even small European states might be sacrificed for the sake of wider security, Ethiopia could expect little support from the League of Nations, and in any case Britain and France had secretly, and somewhat ignominiously, already accepted the Italian subjugation of Ethiopia. Claiming an unprovoked attack by the Ethiopians at some watering holes close to the Somali border, Italy invaded in October 1935. This would be no repeat of 1896: the disparity between Italian and Ethiopian military technology and organization was now vast, and Italian armored columns, backed by aircraft and the occasional (and illegal) use of poison gas, swept all before them. Haile Selassie’s army was much depleted, equipped with much the same weaponry as Menelik’s had been forty years earlier, and was no match for a modern European army, despite some desperate heroism. By early 1936, the Ethiopian army was all but smashed, and Mussolini’s forces entered Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie had already fled into exile, his hopes of British and French assistance dashed; besides some half-hearted sanctions, London and Paris were not prepared to alienate Italy over this relatively minor “crisis.” The emperor spoke to the General Assembly of the League in Geneva, warning that it might be Ethiopia today, but it would be Europe tomorrow; and from thence he went to England, where he would remain until much larger events over which he had no control restored him to his throne. In fact, the Italians could never really claim to be in control of Ethiopia in its entirety; guerrilla activity on the part of the “Patriots” continued for the duration of the Fascist occupation, and swathes of the country remained beyond Italian jurisdiction.

Abroad, Ethiopia became a cause celebre – liberal opinion in Britain was outraged, for example, and a dedicated group of intellectual Ethiophiles gathered around the displaced emperor in his hour of need – while within the African-American community and inside Africa itself, Ethiopia became the focus of “pan-African” protest and nascent nationalism respectively. Ethiopia, the embodiment of free and ancient “black” civilization, had long been a source of inspiration to early African nationalists and African-American political activists alike. Among the latter, it had inspired the Rastafarian movement in the Caribbean, named after Ras (“prince”) Tafari, as Haile Selassie was known prior to his accession to the imperial throne. Passionate Afro-romanticists, the Rastafarians perceived Haile Selassie as the “Lion of Judah,” of biblical genealogy – the emperor belonged to the so-called Solomonic line, claiming descent from King Solomon himself – and wove wonderful myths around this great, ancient, and “true” African civilization. Menelik’s defense (indeed affirmation) of Ethiopia’s independence during the European partition only served to underpin its status as Africa’s only “great power.” Now, the Italian invasion was regarded as an outrageous violation, a holy sacrilege, and a generation of African-Americans and African nationalists looked increasingly to Ethiopia as the symbol of their struggle against colonialism and racism, and as the ultimate source of “black pride,” or négritude.

They did not have to wait long for Ethiopia’s “liberation,” such as it was. In early 1941, Allied forces – the British using troops from west and central Africa, reinforced by French and Belgian colonial units from central and equatorial Africa – advanced into both Italian Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the Italians generally put up scant resistance, the bloody battle of Keren, northwest of Asmara in Eritrea, being a notable exception. By May 1941, Ethiopia and Eritrea had both been “liberated,” and Haile Selassie restored to power, although this was compromised somewhat by the presence of British military and political “advisors.” In Eritrea itself, the British, resource-starved and short of men, set up a tenuous administration – the British Military Administration – which relied heavily on Italian personnel to carry out the day-to-day running of the colony, now nonetheless classified as “occupied enemy territory.” In the early 1940s, indeed, it was the continued prominence of former members of the Fascist administration which so aroused Eritrean indignation, and prompted at least some Eritreans to look south to Ethiopia as the champion of their final “liberation” from foreign domination. Haile Selassie and the Amhara political establishment, as we shall see, were only too happy to fulfill the role, and within months of the Italian defeat the Ethiopians were beginning to lobby for the supposed “return” of Eritrea to the “motherland.” Other Eritreans, however, eschewed any suggestion of union with Ethiopia, and their own lobby would intensify in the years to come. The political battle would be bitter, and would soon become a violent one.

The only other theater of actual combat on the continent was along a coastal strip a few miles wide facing the Mediterranean. The Italians had invaded Egypt from Libya in the late summer of 1940, but had soon been pushed onto the defensive by a comparatively small British force which proceeded to advance into Libya itself. The situation was only transformed with the arrival of the German Afrika Korps, which – notwithstanding some further ebbing and flowing of the front line – was soon driving into Egypt, toward the Suez Canal, apparently unstoppably. Egyptian nationalists grew restless, and anti-British sentiment heightened; Cairo was tense. However when the British halted the Germans at El Alamein in October 1942, the tide turned, and Suez was safe for the British Empire – for now. In fact the threat from Egyptian nationalism was to prove rather more durable than that offered by Field Marshal Rommel. As British and Australian forces now drove the Germans back into Libya and toward Tunisia, at the other end of the Mediterranean a US army landed in Morocco and Algeria to end the uneasy political ambiguity there brought about by the Vichy arrangement. Allied forces, closing in from west and east, met in Tunisia and expelled the last Axis troops from Africa in May 1943.

African soldiers also served beyond the continent itself. Troops from the Francophone and Anglophone zones served in Italy between 1943 and 1945; and the British made extensive use of African regiments in Burma, the “forgotten war.” By the end of the war, there were over 370,000 Africans serving in the British armed forces. Many had become politically acute through their wartime experience, and had developed heightened awareness of the colonial system and the world in which it functioned. Some, professional soldiers proud of the regimental colors and “traditions,” would be demobilized and retire peacefully back into their communities; but others would have a major influence over those communities, where they might be drawn to – or even become the agents of – radical politics, and the instigators of political protest, in the postwar period. Returning war veterans had a much broader view of the world and a more informed view of Europe. As in the 1914-18 conflict, only on a much larger scale, Africans had served alongside Europeans of various classes, though their interaction with working-class whites must have been a particularly novel experience; they had killed Europeans, and seen European weakness and failure at close quarters. The myth of European supremacy – moral or otherwise – was finally exploded, and it was this shift in African perceptions of their colonial masters which was to prove of enormous and lasting significance.

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