The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners

The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners

The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners

The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners


Relying on extensive oral interviews with WWII veterans in Botswana, Schmitt argues that British military policy during the Second World War directly impacted Bechuanaland's entry into the war, the nature of the soldier's service, and the lives of the individual soldiers. Because Bechuanaland was considered a small, rather unimportant backwater of colonial possessions, policy decisions were often influenced by the political situation in South Africa and by its attitudes towards arming Africans. Unwilling to cause friction with South Africa, Great Britain mirrored that policy with the recruitment, training, and deployment of soldiers from Bechuanaland during the Second World War. Once Great Britain realized that army recruitment strengths were below operational levels, recruiting began in Bechuanaland for many different types of support roles including anti-aircraft gunners, medical transport drivers, and pioneer duties. Over 10,000 soldiers from this small British protectorate served under British command and contributed significantly to operational readiness and effectiveness during the war.

Schmitt notes that African leaders were given quotas to fill based on population figures within the different provinces, but it was stressed that enlistment was to be voluntary. When African leaders had a difficult time meeting the demand, some methods of coercion were used. New recruits were enlisted, trained, and then shipped off to North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to begin their assigned duties. Interviews conducted with veterans highlight the nature of their service and the many challenges they faced with difficult weather, discriminatory policies, and as a result of being near the front lines of combat. The soldiers of Bechuanaland adapted well to military life under the leadership of white officers.


This is a study of how a small British Protectorate in southern Africa, Bechuanaland, went about the complex process of organizing its human and material resources for the Second World War. That process—the process of mobilization and subsequent deployment—is used as a lens for examining the evolution of British military policy in Bechuanaland and how it affected African soldiers in modern warfare. From the end of the nineteenth century, the British developed political and military relations with black Africans in southern Africa that theoretically subordinated them to noncombatants in nearly all military engagements of a colonial nature. Unlike some recent studies that focus on the social and military aspects of war from a microscopic viewpoint, this study steps back in time for a more “1a longue durée” viewpoint often used by traditionally trained military historians. Often criticized by younger historians as being too “imperial,” this approach still offers the richest body of written accounts during the war. Despite the fact that my focus is often on British military policy as it relates to building colonial armies, there is little emphasis on British military campaigns, battle strategies, and military leadership. The overall goal is to understand British military policy and its impact on Bechuanaland soldiers from multiple perspectives including both a “top down” and “bottom up” approach all the while looking for historical trends, continuities, and change over time.


This book traces the history of British imperial policy with regards to the use of African soldiers in southern Africa from the earliest days of conquest to the end of the Second World War. After tracing British ideology on the use and employment of African soldiers in the region prior to WWII, this study . . .

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