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The forgotten war
It was a ferocious war between two great empires, but few remember the African troops who played such a key part in it.
It is one of the forgotten stories of the Second World War - how Britain in its hour of need took almost 100,000 African soldiers to fight in the jungles of Burma against the all-conquering Japanese
1 Sep 2011
On March 8, 1942, Rangoon, the Burmese capital, was invaded by Japanese forces. British forces were driven out of the country and into India [GALLO/GETTY]
The Japanese swept through Asia. The British retreated in chaos and the jewel of its empire, India, came under threat. In desperation, the British turned to Africa for reinforcements which could help push the Japanese back [GALLO/GETTY]
The British campaign to push the Japanese out of Burma was the longest and bloodiest of the Second World War [GALLO/GETTY]
Burma, now called Myanmar, became the scene of a war between two great empires - the British and the Japanese - struggling for control of Asia, leaving hundreds of thousands dead
The soldiers fighting this battle for the British were often referred to as the (***)Forgotten Army(***). It was a multi-national force made up of units from Commonwealth countries
Only two in 10 of the soldiers who fought for the British in Burma were white. With around 100 languages between them, they were led by General William Slim
Nigerian Isaac Fadoyebo was only 16 when he signed up to fight. He is now in his mid-80s. He says: "I saw the army as a good job ... They call it youthful exuberance. We were colonial people. There was no question of loyalty or patriotism. I saw people joining and I followed suit not knowing that I was heading for trouble"
Isaac left Nigeria on a troop ship in late 1943. They docked in Bombay more than six weeks later
From there there they travelled across India to the Burma border
In early 1944, African troops went into combat and the Japanese fought ferociously. For the Africans it was a baptism of fire in the green hell of the jungle
Professor David Killingray from the University of London explains: "They [the African soldiers] were trained in carrying stores and supplies by head in forested areas and therefore you had this carrier potential which could be useful to deploy in the steep valley slopes that were wooded in Burma"
Killingray says that without the African troops the war may have been "prosecuted much more slowly"
Isaac explains what happened when Japanese soldiers encountered Africans: "If they see us they are going to kill us. They don(***)t take us prisoner, no. It(***)s the British, the white people, they take prisoner .... They kill us"
One British officer who led African troops in Burma, Retired Captain John Nunneley, explains: "The huge majority of us felt privileged to command these men and to earn their respect and to have them follow us into action or, indeed, if they were scouts, leading us into action" [GALLO/GETTY]
But Britain as the imperial power stayed firmly in charge. It was almost impossible for an African soldier to become a senior officer. The only exception was Lieutenant Seth Anthony from the Gold Coast - the British army(***)s first African officer
Retired Sergeant Alf Gardner, who led African troops in Burma, says: "They loved being a soldier. Some of them walked miles - probably 100 miles - to come and join the army"
In August 28, 1945, Japanese forces in Burma finally surrendered. More than half of the Japanese soldiers who went to Burma never came back [GALLO/GETTY]
The first person Retired Staff Sergeant Kuniyoshi Naka, a Japanese veteran of the Burma campaign, ever shot was an African soldier. Only 18 of the 100 men in his unit made it home. He says: "When the Japanese soldiers were too exhausted to carry on, they blew themselves up with grenades. Sometimes I thought friends were just going to the toilet. Very often they were actually going to kill themselves"
When the Japanese retreat began, tens of thousands of its soldiers died, mostly from disease and starvation - they called it the (***)Road of Bones(***). Today there are very few Japanese survivors of the Burma campaign and only a handful who actually remember encountering African troops [GALLO/GETTY]
Many of the African soldiers paid a terrible price but their contribution has been all but forgotten - not just in Britain but also in their own countries
It has taken the British a long time to acknowledge their war debt to Africa and the rest of the empire
But by recruiting all those African men to defend their empire, the British in the end may have undermined it
At the end of the war, most of the African soldiers returned home with new ideas and perspectives. They had travelled the world and those who were in the jungles of Burma had seen that white and black were not so different after all
As more and more Africans came to understand that, Britain(***)s imperial authority was fatally undermined
Today, few in Africa are aware of the experiences endured by their compatriots who fought in the jungles of Burma
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