Last updated: 12 november, 2009 - 16:41 GMT


Africa's Forgotten Soldiers

Jagama Kello, middle, left home at just 15 to fight Italian invaders

Jagama Kello, middle, left home at just 15 to fight Italian invaders

Seventy years after the start of the Second World War the overwhelming impression is of a conflict fought on the battlefields of Europe by white troops.

Britain’s war effort was bolstered by soldiers from the white Commonwealth – Australia, Canada and New Zealand and later by the United States.

The war in the Far East is often overlooked, as is the fighting that took place in Africa. Yet one million African troops participated in the conflict, fighting their way through the jungles of Burma, across the Libyan deserts and in the skies over London.

For Africa the war began in 1935, when Italian forces backed by Eritrean troops, invaded Ethiopia.

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Ethiopian guerrilla forces, known as the Patriots, continued fighting even after Emperor Haile Selassie fled to England. After 1939 Britain began an intensive programme of recruiting soldiers from across its African colonies. Some were conscripted by force, others were only too keen to sign up.

An intensive programme of training got under way, to turn raw recruits, many of whom had never left their own village, into soldiers.

For a good number it was a real shock: the first time they had eaten processed food, the first time they had seen the ocean, the first time they had been taught to read and write. And all too soon they were transported thousands of miles from home, to fight on foreign soil.

It was years before they would come home, since home leave was almost impossible. When they did return they found little had changed, but their own experiences were entirely new and some went on to fight for their liberation of their own countries from colonial rule.

In this documentary, Martin Plaut hears first hand from the African troops who participated in the war – and who played a critical part in freeing the world from the threat of fascism.

First broadcast 13 November 2009

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