Africa’s Role in WWII Remembered

Written by: Timothy Parsons


Timothy Parsons, an editor of Africa and World War II, discusses the legacy of the sub-Saharan Africans whose role in the Second World War is rarely acknowledged. View a clip from a forthcoming documentary about Kenyan veterans of World War II and download an excerpt from Judith Byfield's preface at the end of the post.


Approximately one million sub-Saharan Africans served in some capacity during the Second World War. On the civilian front, even more African women and men produced vast quantities of food and strategic materials for the Allied war effort. The impact of the war on the lives of ordinary people throughout the African continent was therefore unquestionably profound and substantial. The uncompromising Allied demand for manpower and raw material introduced new products and methods of production, altered labor relations, inspired anti-colonial nationalism, challenged established gender norms, and accelerated environmental change on an unprecedented scale.

This African perspective is largely missing from conventional histories of World War II. John Keegan’s otherwise fine The Second World War devotes a single chapter to the fighting in North and Eastern Africa but otherwise ignores ordinary Africans. Similarly, popular nostalgic recollections of WWII as a “good war,” to use Stud Terkel’s famous phrase, have largely erased Africans from the grand narrative of the global conflict. Even a fair number of Africanist historians, while acknowledging that Second World War was a watershed event in African history, have left the details of African participation in the war largely unexplored.

There are a number of reasons for this. Most fundamentally, the African perspective on the conflict complicates efforts to recall the Second World War as a straightforward victory over tyranny, aggression, and racist intolerance. While the Atlantic Charter’s affirmation that “all people had a right to self-determination” was a powerful rebuke of the Axis Powers’ fascism and hyper-nationalism, the uncomfortable fact for the Allies was that, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia, every sub-Saharan African who contributed to their war effort was the subject of a European imperial power. As such, they had no right to self-determination. A great many of the African women and men who participated in the war did so at the behest, if not outright compulsion, of a foreign authoritarian regime.

At best, Britain, France, and Belgium could make the case for the Allied cause by arguing, with considerable validity, that they were better imperial masters than the Germans, Japanese, and Italians.

But this paternalism was based on the assumption that colonized people were less advanced, if not inherently inferior, and African participation in the Second World War produced some decidedly awkward realities that fit poorly within comforting narratives of the good war.  At various times during the conflict, different groups of conscripted African soldiers had to fight each other for the sole reason that they were wearing the uniforms of rival imperial powers.  This was the case when the Allies drove the Italians out of Ethiopia in 1941 and one year later when they seized the island of Madagascar from the Vichy French regime.  Even more problematically, the waring Vichy and Free French factions unapologetically used units of the West African Tirailleurs Senegalais against each other during their struggle for Syria.

These nuances are often missing from conventional histories of the Second World War, but this does not mean that important African perspectives on the war are irrevocably lost. In Kenya, a new generation of historians are working to recover the life histories of surviving participants even though seventy years have passed since the Axis surrender.  For the past three years, my colleague Victoria Mutheu and her associates have been interviewing veterans like David Kimonyi Mouki, who left his job on a settler estate in April 1939 to voluntarily enlist as a infantryman and driver in the King’s African Rifles.  Mouki did so because the army was offering far better pay and benefits than his former civilian employer, not to defend the British Empire.  His motives were fairly typical of people throughout the continent who contributed to the Allied cause, but in time many soldiers and educated civilians came to expect that ideals of the Atlantic Charter would apply to Africa once the Axis threat was vanquished.

Yet in 1945 the imperial powers had no intention of withdrawing from Africa regardless of their avowed commitment to self-determination.  Quite the contrary, they expected their African colonies to make substantial contributions to post-war European reconstruction.  They therefore went to great lengths to play down African contributions to the Allied victory, which helps to explain why Africa and Africans are largely missing from grand narratives of the Second World War.  And this why my fellow editors and authors felt the powerful need to produce this book.

“Kenyan veterans of KAR recall WWII” Courtesy of Victoria Mutheu and Sagwa Chabeda from the forthcoming Feature Documentary “ASKARI.”

Video courtesy of Victoria Mutheu, et al

Download an excerpt from Africa and World War II here.

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About the Author: Timothy Parsons

Timothy Parsons is an editor of Africa and World War II (2015). He holds a joint appointment as Professor of African History in the history department and in the African and African American studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also direc...

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