Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Public Domain

Britain was heavily dependent on colonial wo/man-power, raw materials and even financial contributions. Black people conscripted by Empire suffered racial discrimination throughout a war which was supposedly fought against Hitler's race theories and in the name of freedom and democracy. These contributions are hardly acknowledged.

To win a war, not only troops are needed, but also clothing for them; food for the troops as well as civilians; money for salaries and wages, as well as to purchase whatever is not available ‘at home’; perhaps more importantly, the raw materials to manufacture weapons and ships, airplanes, tanks and vehicles. All these contributions from the colonies have to be acknowledged, but this has been omitted from most histories. But could Britain have won the war without the array of contributions from the colonies?

This is just an outline of contributions from  Britain’s African colonies, except South Africa. The other colonies  of course also contributed. White troops from the colonies are not noted here.

War is declared

The Colonial Empire was not consulted about entry into World War II: colonial governors and the Viceroy of India simply followed Britain's orders and declared war on Germany. One absolute necessity that Britain faced was ensuring the loyalty of the colonies, so a massive pro-‘Mother Country’ propaganda campaign was instituted.

The armed forces

Out of a total population of approximately 31 million in Britain's African colonies, historians estimate that about half a million were recruited from the East, West and Southern African colonies. There were 323,483 recruits from East Africa, of whom 7,301, including the c. 900 on the transport ship taking them from Mombasa to Ceylon, are reported as having died. (Parsons, p.35) About 166,000 men from all the British colonies fought in the Burma campaign against the Japanese; 47,500 served in North Africa and the Middle East and an untold number in North and East Africa. A large proportion of the men served in the Royal Pioneer (labour) Corps. Literally a handful of qualified men were recruited for the RAF as aircrew; when the construction of the new airfields and barracks in the Gold Coast was finished in 1944, about 5,000 men were enlisted as  ground-crew in the West African Air Corps. There was also a West African Hospital Section of some hundreds of men, who served in southern Europe.

There were about 206,000 in the Home Commands in Africa protecting Britain’s colonies against the Vichy French forces surrounding them, and fought against them in Madagascar. The Home Commands included local naval fleets. For example, some 3,500 Nigerians served in the Nigerian coastal naval force of mine sweepers, and escort and patrol boats. 

Exactly how men in Africa were recruited and what proportion served in ‘Pioneer’, ie labour corps, remains hidden history. Historian Ashley Jackson (pp.175, 180) states that 200,000 were recruited by West Africa Command and that a total of half a million served during the war. Many historians state that in most areas the Chiefs were ‘persuaded’ to obtain ‘volunteers’ for the military.

According to historian David Killingray, about ‘15,000 soldiers were killed by enemy action’. (2001, p.439) 5,549 were wounded and 256 were reported as ‘missing in action’. (These are probably unreported deaths.)  Whether the ‘deaths’ includes the 600 who died when the ship carrying them from Egypt to Tripoli was sunk, or the 670 on the ship sunk by the Japanese on its way to Bombay from East Africa, is not recorded. And it is quite possible that ‘non-combat fatalities were under-reported… A great many East African servicemen died from accidents and disease’. (Parsons, p.35)

Military awards

I have not been able to discover how many Africans were awarded military medals for exemplary conduct.

Thirty-one Indians and one Fijian were awarded the Victoria Cross; colonials won a total of 35 Distinguished Service Orders, 180 Military Crosses, 56 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 300 Military Medals; an African soldier in Burma was awarded the British Empire Medal. (Hansard, 17/10/1945, vol.414, col. 1137) Indians were awarded about 4,000 awards for gallantry.  

Racism in the military

On 19 October 1939 it was announced in Parliament that non-Europeans would be accepted in all three services and would even be eligible for emergency commissions. It was only manpower shortage and the need not to alienate the Empire that led to some relaxation of this attitude:  but as far as is known, the Royal Navy continued to exclude Blacks except in   segregated 'RN Establishments' on shore, staffed by non-Europeans in the Gold Coast and in Kenya.  Africans continued to serve within African, not British, regiments.  Literally a handful of appropriately qualified men were accepted by the RAF and trained as aircrew.

The granting of emergency commissions was very rare and the few that were awarded were to medical and dental officers.  Only two were trained as army officers for the African armies: Gold Coasters Seth Anthony in 1941 and T.K. Imbraim, in 1945. 

There was no equality of pay or treatment. East African soldiers were apparently the lowest paid, receiving only about a third of the pay of West African soldiers. An unmarried White British soldier’s pay was 30 pence per day and a Gold Coast private’s was 12 pence. However, when it became necessary to attract skilled/educated Africans, the East African Command increased pay. All the Brits’ pay was increased in 1944, but not that of Africans.

Though flogging had been abandoned as official punishment in the British Army some years previously, it continued to be administered to African troops. Unofficial beatings, both while being trained and while serving, were common.

Other forms of discrimination were being forced to do manual work when recruited as combatants, and to work as personal servants to the White officers. Not surprisingly, desertions were so common that, for example, in the Gold Coast men recruited in the Northern Territories were handcuffed on the march to the military camps in Tamale to ensure arrival. (Killingray, 2010,  p.124) Strikes/mutinies were not uncommon, instigated by lack of leave; unacceptable food, clothing and accommodation; being forced to labour or work as servants when recruited as soldiers. For example, on being told that having freed Ethiopia from the Italians they would now be shipped to Ceylon, the 25 Brigade of the King’s African Rifles (East Africans) revolted, as they had been promised that they would only be fighting in Africa, and hadn’t had any leave for 2 years. ‘Many of these soldiers were surreptitiously court-martialled after the majority of the Brigade received leave, and at least one man was flogged’, reports historian Timothy Parson. (p.205 – full report on pp.203-216)

Raw materials

As Britain was heavily dependent on her empire for raw materials, men and women in India, Africa, the Caribbean and the rest of the colonial empire had to work to support Britain. While the increase in production provided paid labour for some, others were coerced: though forced labour had been condemned by the International Labour Organisation, it was practised in Britain's African colonies. For example, in Kenya in November 1944 there were 18,053 forced labourers and in Tanganyika there were 23,000 in July of the same year; in the period September 1942 to the end of 1944 about 52,400 Nigerians were forced labourers in the Jos coal mines. (The total numbers recruited as forced labour has not been published. It must be emphasised that the government coerced labour for work for private, profit-making companies, not under any form of government control, as well as for government projects such as road building. The workers had no trade union or other rights and if paid, received a pittance.)

The raw materials from Africa were, for example, tin, coal, rubber, cocoa, vegetable and palm oils and groundnuts from Nigeria; bauxite, diamonds, manganese and rubber from the Gold Coast; iron ore and diamonds from Sierra Leone; cattle and diamonds from Tanganyika and wheat, pyrethrum, tea and sodium from Kenya; copper and tobacco from Northern Rhodesia (Zambia); tea, cotton and tobacco from Nyasaland (Malawi);  sisal from all East Africa.  The Compulsory Native Labour Act of 1942 ensured that Rhodesia’s white mine and plantation owners had enough cheap labour to supply Britain with gold, tobacco, asbestos, coal and chrome. Even insufficient research indicates that a considerable proportion of their labour force was ‘conscripted’.

With permission from the Belgian government-in-exile, Britain imported uranium, copper, cobalt, diamonds and uranium from the Congo.

East Africa and Nigeria became the major food suppliers for the military forces in Africa and the Middle East. 

An unknown number of Africans served – and died - on the merchant ships transporting these materials. West African Review reported in January 1946 that 30,189 merchant seamen had died, 1,402 had been wounded, 5,264 were ‘missing’ and 8,115 were prisoners. What proportion were Africans is not known.

Financial contributions

West Africans contributed well over £1.5 million to various war-time funds. When seen in relation to wages of one to two shillings (£1 = 20 shillings) per day, this was a vast sum. The West African colonial governments gave Britain almost £1 million in interest-free loans, while a similar sum came from the Caribbean governments. By the end of 1943 the colonial empire had given Britain £23.3 million in gifts; £10.7 million in interest-free loans and £14 million in loans that were low interest-bearing. (Hansard, 21/10/1943)

Approximately £100 million of British Africa's £223 million in sterling balances was spent on the military. At the end of the war, the colonies' sterling balances in Britain totalled £454 million - these were monies owed by Britain to the colonies for colonial produce.

The home front

Many thousands were employed to build military installations, airfields and naval bases, and improve or construct roads and railways to take bauxite and other minerals more quickly to the ports for shipment to Britain.  For example, about 10,000 men were employed to build air-bases for the US air-ferry service.  Many more thousands laboured to extend the port facilities in Freetown when the West African Royal Naval Command was moved there; and then to keep the vessels moving on the convoy route to the East once the Mediterranean became unavailable to British vessels. How many of these workers were willing recruits, and how many were ‘forced labour’ remains unclear. 

In West Africa, the cost of living rose between 50% and 220% during the war, without a corresponding increase in wages. Labourers received 9 pence to one shilling (12 pence) a day.

The British government took over the control of the export of all major products, paying farmers less than they would have received on the open market. Africans were not consulted about anything - could not be, as there was no representative government.

News, publications and all means of communications were censored, the media was heavily controlled and those labelled ‘seditious’ were jailed – for example, I.T.A. Wallace Johnson, founder of the West African Youth League, spent the war years in jail.  Protests and strikes were suppressed: to give just one example, 558 were arrested and 20 killed and an unknown number wounded in a strike in Uganda in January 1945.

As very few people owned radios, loudspeakers and then cinema screens were erected by the Ministry of Information in towns and villages  to ensure all could hear/watch British propaganda.

Africans established new organisations, such as the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. All demanded at least ‘internal self-government’ and then independence. To ‘keep the peace’ and ensure loyalty, the governors had to respond: ‘unofficial appointments’ of Africans to the Executive Councils of Nigeria and the Gold Coast was approved.


This brief and selective summary should make it clear that Britain was heavily dependent on colonial wo/man-power, raw materials and even financial contributions. It should be equally clear that ‘Black’ peoples suffered racial discrimination throughout a war which was supposedly fought against Hitler's race theories and in the name of freedom and democracy. These contributions are seldom acknowledged now and were not acknowledged then: for example, though some colonial troops were invited to participate in the Victory Parade in London at the end of the war, the distributed film of the Parade omitted them; remonstrations pouring into the Colonial Office forced a hasty restoration. Fifty years later a campaign had to be mounted to force the government to invite colonial representatives to the commemorations at the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.

There is much for historians to explore, for example, about racism in and out of the military, about recruitment for the military and the Pioneer (Labour) Corps; about training and treatment within these forces; about forced labour to produce raw materials; about the persistence of racism. About pensions to widows and disability benefits to the wounded.  Hopefully some will do the necessary research, even if the findings might not be flattering to the ‘Mother Country’.

* Hungarian-born Marika Sherwood was one of the founders of the Black and Asian Studies Association in 1991 and edited the BASA Newsletter until 2007. She is the author of a number of books and articles; her most recent books are:World War II: Colonies & Colonials (Savannah Press, 2013); After Abolition (IB Tauris, 2007); Britain, the Slave Trade and Slavery from 1562 to the 1880s (Savannah Press,2007); The Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams and the African Diaspora (Routledge, 2010); Malcolm X:  visits abroad April 1964 – February 1965, (Savannah Press 2010).


Irving W. André & Gabriel J. Christina, For King and Country, Post Casse Press, 2009

Peter B. Clarke, West Africans at War 1914-18, 1939- 45, London: Ethnographica, 1986

Heinz Deutschland, Trailblazers: Struggles and Organizations  of African Workers before 1945, Berlin: Trade Union Publishing House, 1970

Cameron Duodo, ‘Britain should give credit where credit is due’, New African, June 2008

  ‘Obituary: Major Seth Anthony’, Modern Africa, 13 January 2009 & The Independent, 19 March 2009;

Meyer Fortes, 'The Impact of the war on British West Africa', International Affairs, 2, April 1945      

B.W. Hodder, Tin Mining on the Jos Plateau of Nigeria, Economic Geography, 35/2, 1959, pp.109-122

Wendell P. Holbrook, ‘British Propaganda and the Mobilization of the Gold Coast War Effort 1939-1945’, Jnl. of African History, 26/4, 1985, pp.347-361.

Adrienne M. Israel, ‘Measuring the War Experience: Ghanaian Soldiers in World War II’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 25/1, 1982, pp.159-168

Warahiu Itote (General China), ‘Mau Mau’ General, Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967

Ashley Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War, London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006

Bildad Kaggia, Roots of Freedom 1921 – 1963: The Autobiography of Bildad Kaggia, Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1975

David Killingray, ‘Labour Mobilization in British Colonial Africa for the War Effort, 1939-46’, in David Killingray & Richard Rathbone (eds), Africa and the Second World War, London: Macmillan, 1986.

 - ‘African voices from two world wars’, Historical Research, 74/186, 2001, pp.425-443

- Fighting for Britain: African soldiers in the Second World War, Woodbridge: James Currey, 2010

Timothy Parsons, The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964, Oxford: James Currey, 1999

Marika Sherwood, Many Struggles, London\\\: Karia Press, 1985

        - ‘The Colonies and World War II', Black Cultural Archives Newsletter, # 2, July 1995

       - (with Martin Spafford), Whose Freedom were Africans, Caribbeans and Indians fighting for in World War II?', Savannah Press/BASA, 1999

        -  ‘Coloured Medical Men’, BASA Newsletter, #32, 2002; #34, 2002; #36, 2003

  - World War II: Colonies &Colonials, Kent: Savannah Press, 2013

O.J.E. Shiroya, Kenya and World War II: African Soldiers in the European War, Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1985

Christopher Somerville, Our War: How the British Commonwealth Fought the Second World War, London: Cassell, 1998

Statistical Abstracts of the British Commonwealth, London, 1947

Dudley Thompson, From Kingston to Kenya: The Making of a Pan-Africanist Lawyer, Dover, Mass.: Majority Press, 1993.