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During the First World War, some Batswana served overseas in France with the unarmed South African Native Labour Contingent. But the most powerful chief, Kgosi Khama III of the Bangwato, boycotted recruitment for that force.

In 1939 Bechuanaland automatically declared war on Germany with Great Britain, while the Union of South Africa initially refused and became potential enemy territory. There was chiefly resistance when, in early 1941, the call went out again for unarmed "native labourers" to join the South African detachments fighting under the British in Egypt. Instead, the chiefs were very willing to provide men for the British Army–to be given firearms training as well as providing labour. The result was the formation of Bechuana, Basuto and Swazi companies for an African Pioneer Corps within the British Army - with about 10,000 men from Bechuanaland, about twice that number from Basutoland, and about a third of that from Swaziland.

Training began at Lobatse in July 1941, and the first Bechuana companies for the coast by train in September 1941. Once they were in the Middle-East, the African Pioneer Corps proved its worth in building roads and fortifications against potential Nazi invasion and in guarding camps. The more senior companies were then engaged by other sections of the British Army - and some were subsequently attached to the United States Army. They served as heavy artillery gunners, specialist bridge-builders, camouflage smoke-makers, drivers and mechanics, and front-line supply store shifters.

Those who went to Italy saw the most military action, year by year across the mountains from Sicily to as far as the borders of Austria and Jugoslavia, including one of the most intense battles of the Second World War - at Monte Cassino (known in Setswana as Marumong, the place of bullets).

Men from Bechuanaland also went in roughly equal numbers to work in South Africa, which was booming with new factories that replaced imports and manufactured war materials. The impoverished Bechuanaland colonial administration invested what it could in disease control and livestock improvement, and required the chiefs to boost agriculture with compulsory mass labour on masotla (royal fields then known as "warlands").

Post-war promises of local development were not fulfilled. Bechuanaland Protectorate reverted to its pre-war role as impoverished appendage of South Africa. But there was one final flourish of the old wartime partnership between the British crown and the people of Bechuanaland, in 1947, when King George VI of Britain came visiting with his family - to thank the people, and especially the soldiers, for their wartime service.

Copyright © 2007 N. Parsons. Last updated 16 Sept. 2007. [PAGE ENDS]