Africans in World War Two Asia: Encounters Across Continents

Oliver Coates
Jun 17 · 8 min read
African soldiers visiting a Buddhist temple in Burma (IWM 94/2441 V. E. Harris, Photograph Album)

Around 73, 290 West Africans and 46,050 East Africans fought in Asia during World War Two. For many, visiting Asia was the first time they had left the continent of Africa.

The total number of West Africans is likely higher, because they did more than serve in combat units and, once non-combatants such as nurses and engineers are included, the total is closer to 100,000. Either way you compute the total, the scale of the African presence in wartime Asia is astounding. These numbers far exceeded the 16,472 West Africans and 30,000 East Africans who were sent to the Middle East, or even the 56,100 West Africans who participated in the East African Campaign.[1]

The presence of so many West Africans in Asia had few precedents and, unlike their counterparts on the East African coast, West Africans had little historical contact with India. Despite the unique nature of this West African presence in Asia, their story has remained marginal to Asian and even African history, let alone the global history of World War Two.

There is much in the history of these wartime African travelers to engage those interested in either Asia or Africa, as well as readers interested in Empires, cultural exchange, the history of ideas, or the communication within the Global South. Although the African presence in Asia was framed by war, it was not always defined by it. There is much evidence of cultural, religious, political, linguistic, and economic interaction between Africans and Asians.

Despite the sheer diversity of experience that characterized Africans’ time in Asia, it is important to realize that this was no utopian realm of intercultural exchange. Africans in Asia faced recurrent and open racism. The British Army imposed disparities in terms of pay discrimination, dietary regimes, restrictions on leave, and African troops were subject to corporal punishment, long after the practice had been abolished for British soldiers. Although Africans were fighting for the Allied war effort, they were treated as inferior to European and Asian troops alike. These inequalities continue to be ignored in much historical writing about World War Two, and had a devastating impact on the lives of many soldiers who returned to a life of poverty in Africa, with little support from colonial governments.

Despite these hardships, Asia also provided a space where African, Asian, American, and British soldiers could interact outside of the straightjacket of colonial assumptions about race that prevailed back in Africa.

These wartime relationships are only one aspect of a growing body of historical research, including the work of historians such as David Killingray, Tarak Barkawi, Kaushik Roy, and Timothy Parsons, which has provided a clearer picture than ever before of the combat experience of African troops in Asia.[2]

A multifaceted picture of African military service in Asia emerges, highlighting questions such as morale, responses to trauma, and life away from the front line. The network of military camps in India meant that Asia became a space of new material encounters, novel foods, and experiments in leisure. Military service was not simply about fighting; it also acquainted Africans with often unfamiliar foods, such as bread, tinned meat, and tea; as well as new objects such as wristwatches, gramophones, and film.[3] Africans explored cities such as Calcutta and Delhi, visiting historic sights, attending films, and meeting local people.[4]

Contemporary African writers have attempted to recreate the experience of African troops in Burma, as well as asking searching questions about the psychological impact of fighting on those Africans who returned home after the war. Novels such as Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy,and Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic breathe new life into the conflict.

Above all, the voices of individual soldiers have started to gain prominence in our understanding of African contributions to the war. This process has developed in the past two decades despite the dwindling pool of living witnesses to the conflict. Surviving veterans in central Nigeria participated in a documentary on their experiences (linked below). While African soldiers’ written testimony has explored through radio broadcasts and online documentaries.

Nigerian soldier Isaac Fadoyebo wrote a memoir of his time in wartime Burma and how he was sheltered by Burmese farmers after coming trapped behind enemy lines (Photo credit: Barnaby Philips)

Soldiers’ writings reveal the extent of Africans’ intellectual investment in Asia during the war [5]. As well as personnel correspondence, larger scale African-authored war memoirs exist, such as that penned by the Nigerian soldier Isaac Fadoyebo (pictured). Trapped deep behind enemy lines in Burma, Fadoyebo later wrote a lengthy narrative about his time in Burma. Offering a unique portrait of friendship between West African soldiers and Burmese villagers, and of African perceptions of Burma, Fadoyebo’s memoir has much to offer historians of Burma and South-East Asia. [6]

West Africans spent time in India on either side of their deployment in Burma. The 81st Division of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) was active from 1943 on the Burmese peninsula, fighting alongside British and Indian soldiers as part of the 14th Army. From 1944, the Force’s 82nd Division also fought in Burma.[7] A myriad of supply and support units employed African clerks and technicians in India.

Perhaps the best-known aspect of West Africans’ time in Burma is the exploits of the African guerrilla force who, alongside British and Indian soldiers, formed part of special operations group, known as the ‘Chindits’ or Long Range Penetration Group. [8] Including men from the RWAFF”s 81st Division, the Chindits served in the impenetrable forests and hills of northern Burma. They were tasked with penetrating behind Japanese lines and engaging with the Japanese Imperial Army in close combat.

Later, West Africans played a critical role in the capture of Myohaung in Burma, and in the amphibious operations off the Akyab (now Sittwe) peninsula on the Burmese coast.[9] After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the 82nd Division remained for over a year in Burma undertaking a variety of civil and law enforcement roles.

The history of West Africans in Asia is framed by paradox. As we have seen, acute racial discrimination persisted within the British military, resulting in lower pay and poorer quality food for Africans. Yet, military service in Asia brought Africans from often modest backgrounds into direct contact with Asian peoples and cultures, whether in the Deccan, Bengal, Burma, Ceylon, or Southern India. Military service introduced Africans to aspects of Asian cultures which might have otherwise remained obscure. Some soldiers picked up a smattering of South Asian languages, like the Nigerian soldier Isaac Fadoyebo who could still recall some Bengali decades later; others developed an interest in Hinduism and Jainism.

Although military documents remain reticent on the topic, encounters between Asians and Africans were an integral feature of African military service in India and Burma. Even if the precise outlines of many such encounters escape archival documentation, we can still grasp their rough outlines. Military welfare reports document African soldiers drinking tea with Indians, and ordering rickshaw rides around local towns. In Agra, African war reporters spoke with local guides and their families. Some men eloped from their camps to visit Islamic festivals in Lahore, or to explore the Himalayas; in Bengal, a handful of African troops visited China.

The precise legacy of these unprecedented cross-cultural encounters remains controversial. While many have asserted that troops returned to Africa fired-up with anti-colonial nationalism, there is little evidence of a large number of men bringing political ideas from India back to Africa. Within India, it is easier to document the impact of Africans’ experiences of the sub-continent. Soldiers wrote back to Africa describing the towns they had visited in India, and expressed economic and social observations of Asian societies. Other men wrote to newspapers in West Africa describing their experiences of visiting archaeological sites, and expressing their interest in India’s past.

Beyond the political and economic spheres, African troops were exposed to the religious cultures of South Asia, with some men travelling to attend Islamic festivals in northern India. For Sunni Muslims from northern Ghana (then the Gold Coast) and Nigeria, there may have been a degree of familiarity and shared sentiment in encountering other Sunnis from South Asia; soldiers also toured Islamic monuments from the Mughal past, particularly the Taj Mahal. [10] It is plausible that such men, when confronted with Islamic culture in India, may have felt more at home in Asia than their British officers.

Soldiers’ perceptions of India varied according to subtle and poorly understood contexts, such as their own levels of literacy, ethnic background, prior knowledge of Asia, or the area of India in which they travelled. This last point is perhaps most significant as local cultures varied enormously throughout the subcontinent, particularly in relation to conceptions of skin colour and caste.

Whether visiting the historic forts of the Deccan or the touring the Himalayas, African soldiers forged their own interpretations and understandings of India. Their writings, and some of their photographs, have been collected in the archives of retired army officers, or British Army publications from the time, as well as the West African press. Detailed studies of Africans in South Asia remain rare, but several compelling documentaries, including those by Olly Owen, Jack Tosh, and Barnaby Phillips explore African soldiers’ experiences in Burma, and are freely available online.

African wartimes experiences in Asia reflect a key moment of cross-cultural contact between African and Asia. The experiences of soldiers in India and Burma demonstrate forms of communication and exchange between two different areas of the ‘global South’ a full decade before Bandung and the world of diplomatic elites. They show us how Africans engaged with the cultures of South and Southeast Asia, and became fascinated with their politics, history, and society.

[1]Killingray, David. ‘The Idea of a British Imperial African Army,’ Journal of African History (1979) 20:3, 421–436, 433.

[2] Roy, Kaushik ‘Discipline and Morale of the African, British and Indian Army units in Burma and India during World War II: July 1943 to August 1945,’ Modern Asian Studies (2010) 44:6, pp.1255–1282; Parsons, Timothy, The African rank and file: social implications of colonial military service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902–1964 (1999) Oxford: Heinemann.

[3] Killingray, David. Fighting for Britain, (2010) Woodbridge: James Currey, 93, 249.

[4] Coates, Oliver. ‘World War II and West African Soldiers in Asia, 1943–1947,’ in Toyin Falola and Kenneth Kalu (eds.), Exploitation and Misrule in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa (2019) Basingstoke: Palgrave, 191–215.

[5] Coates, Oliver. ‘’The War, like the Wicked Wand of a Wizard, Strikes Me and Carry Away All that I have Loved:’ Soldiers’ Family Lives and Petition Writing in Ijebu, Southwestern Nigeria, 1943–1945,’ History in Africa (2018), 45, 71–97.

[6] Coates, Oliver. ‘Narrative, time, and the archive in an African Second World War Memoir: Isaac Fadoyebo’s A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck,Journal of Commonwealth Literature, (2016), 51:3, 371–386; Aderinto, Saheed, ‘Isaac Fadoyebo at the Battle of Nyron: African Voices of the First and Second World Wars, c. 1914–1945,’ in Trevor Getz (ed.) African Voices of the Global Past, (2014), New York: Routledge, 107–138; Phillips, Barnaby, Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten African Army (2015) London: Oneworld.

[7]Stapleton, Timothy, A military history of Africa, Volume 2 (2013) Santa Barbara: Praeger, .232–4.

[8]J. Hamilton, John, War bush: 81 (West African) Division in Burma, 1943–1945 (2001) Norwich: Michael Russel.

[9] Haywood A. and F. Clarke, History of the Royal West Africa Frontier Force (1964), Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 379.

[10] Coates, Oliver. ‘Between Image and Erasure: Photographs of West African Soldiers in India, 1944–1946,’ Radical History Review (2018) 132, 200–207.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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