Batswana at the battlefront

SHARE   |   Monday, 25 July 2016   |   By Dr Jeff Ramsay

 In September 1943 the eyes of the world were firmly fixed on an Italian beachfront of Salerno, where the American 5th army had landed in force, confident of their ability to quickly secure the Italian mainland from the grip of Hitler’s Third Reich. But, within days they were nearly forced to evacuate. Having landed expecting little resistance, they instead found themselves and pinned down by the full might of the German 1Oth Army. On shore all that stood in the way of the German Tank formations and the sea was a line of artillery that included the Batswana of the 87 Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Regiment. The Batswana had been brought ashore with the expectation that their large 3.7 Guns would provide air cover against high altitude bombers. But, replicating lessons they had earlier learned in the Sicily campaign they instead depressed their barrels for field firing against German tank and artillery concentrations resulting in one of the great strategic turning points of the entire conflict.

Between 1941 and 1946 just over 10 thousand men served in the Bechuanaland Protectorate Companies of the African Pioneer Corps (APC), another thousand or more had been enlisted in the South African army. Given that the territory's population then numbered just over a quarter million people, this contribution represented nearly 20% of all able-bodied adult male Batswana. No part of the British Empire provided a greater proportion of fighting men. Botswana's contribution to the war effort, however, went beyond its provision of troops. By the end of 1943 over 21,000 additional men were in South Africa, labouring in its vital war industries. Villages across the country were thus deprived of between 45-65% of their manpower. Besides the loss of the woman were forced to work on "war lands", in a largely futile effort to boost local food security. Many also became "Woman War Workers" who sent "gifts and comforts" to the troops. Children also played a role. In some villages they gathered weekly to learn about the conflict while listening to Levi Moumakwa deliver the first Setswana news broadcasts over B.P. Radio ZNB-Mafeking, the direct precursor to Radio Botswana. Apparently inspired, the youngsters helped raise funds for the construction of two RAF Spitfire aircraft, named "Bechuanaland" and "Kalahari".

Both the military and civilian achievements of Batswana during the war have often been either forgotten or ignored. Who remembers that the Bangwato HAA gunners of 1977 Company destroyed at least half of all enemy planes shot down in the battle for Syracuse, which marked the beginning of the end for Mussolini’s Fascist Empire? Is there not value in recalling how Batswana smoke units helped secure the allied fleet at Taranto? Elsewhere Bakwena sappers of 1969 Company worked from dawn to dusk under enemy fire to assemble the world's largest Bailey Bridge across the Sangro River, paving the way for the liberation of northern Italy.

Botswana Society Golden jubilee illustrated talk - Batswana at war on the battlefront and homefront 1939-46 by Dr Jeff Ramsay – Wednesday 27 July at University of Botswana block 247 lecture theatre 1 at 600 pm (1800 hours)