More than a million African soldiers fought for colonial powers in World War II. Few of them understood why. Survivors received little compensation and veterans are calling for recognition of their rights.
The Fourteenth Army, like the Eighth Army, was a multinational force made up from units that came from all corners of the Commonwealth during World War II. Many of its units were from West Africa, India as well as British units.
It was often referred to as the “Forgotten Army” because its operations in the Burma Campaign were overlooked by the colonial powers, contemporary press, and remained more obscure than those of the corresponding formations in Europe for long after the war.
For most of the Army’s existence, it was commanded by Lieutenant General William Slim.
Nigerians made up more than half of the total force of 90,000 West African soldiers deployed to south east Asia after 1943, as part of the British army’s 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions. But while the role of Indians and Gurkhas in the campaign to drive the Japanese out of Burma is well-known, allied commander General William Slim did not mention the African soldiers in his speech thanking the 14th army.
Seventy years on, many remain bitter that their contribution was never recognised fully. This is their story, of surviving two years of intense jungle warfare, of helping secure Victory over Japan, through exclusive, never before seen footage of West Africa divisions fighting in Burma, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, and Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.
In 1945 not only was the Fourteenth Army the largest army in the Commonwealth, it was the largest single army in the world with about half a million men under its command. Men of the 81st and 82nd West African and 11th East African Divisions served with great distinction.
On 20 May 1944, the division sailed for Ceylon, where the complete division was assembled on 20 July. In August the organisation was slightly changed, with supporting arms which had previously been distributed between the brigades being controlled centrally by the division HQ. The division was organised on a “head load” basis, with porters carrying all heavy equipment and supplies. Although many of the troops were from the savannah of northern Ghana and Nigeria, they were well-trained and effective when operating in jungle and mountains.
After further training, the division took part in the third Arakan campaign in December 1944 under Indian XV Corps. On 15 December the Division captured Buthidaung on the Kalapanzin River and created a bridgehead on the east bank of the river. This allowed allied troops to control the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road which had been contested for three years and enabled the transport of 650 river craft by road through railway tunnels to Buthidaung to supply Indian troops in the Mayu Range.
The 82nd Division (supported by 28th Anti-tank Regiment IA and 33rd Mountain Artillery Regiment IA) then crossed a steep and jungle-covered mountain range to converge with the British 81st (West Africa) Division on Myohaung near the mouth of the Kaladan River. This move forced the Japanese to evacuate the Mayu peninsula which they had held for almost four years and retreat south along the coast. As they retreated, British commandos from the 3rd Commando Brigade and units of the Indian 25th Infantry Division landed in inlets and chaungs ahead of them. Caught between the troops landing from the sea and the pursuing 82nd African Division, the Japanese suffered heavy casualties.
At this point, air supply was withdrawn from the Arakan front to allow the transport aircraft to supply the Allied forces in Central Burma. The 82nd Division’s carrier battalions carried all supplies and equipment for the division from this point.
The Japanese 54th Division holding the Arakan was divided into two detachments holding the roads across the Arakan Hills leading from An and Taungup. The 82nd Division was asked to cross the Dalet Chaung and hilly terrain to approach the An Pass from the north west, while being supplied by air. The 1st and 4th (Nigerian) Brigades suffered heavy casualties in opening the routes to Kaw and Kyweguseik in late February. The 4th Brigade even lost two of its commanding officers. By March, the division captured Dalet Chaung and the strategic supply base of Tamandu, in coordination with Indian units.
The Gold Coast 2nd Brigade based at Letmauk subsequently became the target of intense Japanese counter-attacks, sustaining heavy casualties. They were forced to withdraw, covered by the 1st (Nigerian) Brigade. By sending long distance fighting patrols to harass the Japanese flanks, the Nigerian unit was able to force a Japanese retreat and retake An on 13 May, 1945. Meanwhile, the main body of the division, with the East African 22nd Brigade under command, advanced south from Tamandu. By the end of May Kindaungyyi, Taungup and Sandoway had been captured. Campaigning ceased during the monsoon rains but the war ended a few weeks later.
During the third Arakan campaign, the 82nd Division suffered 2,085 casualties, the highest of any unit in XV Corps. Some of those killed were buried in jungle tracts, but many Nigerian graves remain in cemeteries at the Dalet Chaung near Tamandu and the Taukkyan War Cemetery. Others are remembered at the War Memorial in Rangoon.
Other commemorations of the division’s (and its component formations’) service are the names of Dodan, An, Myohaung, Arakan and Marda Barracks in Lagos; Letmauk Barracks in Ibadan; Dalet, Mogadishu, Colito and Kalapanzin Barracks in Kaduna; and the Chindit Barracks in Zaria;