Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War

By Moyd, Michelle | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War


Moyd, Michelle, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. By David Killingray with Martin Plaut. Woodbridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: James Currey, 2010. Pp. xi, 289; maps, tables, photographic essays, bibliography, index. $95.00.

Anyone who has had occasion to work in the fields of African military history, the history of punishment and policing in Africa, or the history of British colonialism in Africa, will undoubtedly have encountered David Killingray's numerous groundbreaking works, most in article form, on these topics. Beginning in the late 1970s, Killingray produced a steady stream of astute scholarship that used colonial militaries, policing, and punishment as lenses through which to view African, and British imperial, history. Throughout, his work has been marked by a conviction that the social history of African colonial militaries makes a meaningful contribution to African historiography generally. Fighting for Britain is in many ways exactly the book one would expect Killingray to produce at this stage of his thirty-year writing career. But it also far exceeds expectations in its scope, innovative use of diverse source materials, and investment in bringing to light the individual, as opposed to unit, histories of African soldiers who fought in British (and South African) colonial militaries during World War II.

Killingray foregrounds the wide-ranging experiences of African soldiers during World War II by letting them tell their stories "in their own words" (p. 1) wherever possible. To do this, the author draws on an extensive body of "oral evidence, soldiers' letters, and other sources" that provide access to soldiers' experiences and sentiments (p. 1). Killingray acknowledges that his focus is on black soldiers who fought for Britain, thus bracketing the already well -documented experiences of white South African soldiers (p. 1). A short introduction explains sources and methods and provides a brief overview of Europe's colonial armies from 1939 to 1945. The rest of the book is divided into eight chapters, with the first offering necessary historical background orienting readers to British colonial Africa's history on the eve of World War II. Chapters 2 through 7 cover different aspects of colonial military practices and soldiers' experiences of the war, such as recruitment, army life (including training and education), strikes and mutinies, combat, demobilization, and postwar politics. Chapter 8 offers a somewhat speculative, yet ultimately convincing, portrait of the impact of soldiers' wartime service on postwar African social histories. Each chapter uses a number of colorful excerpts from soldiers' memoirs, interviews, and official documents to provide insight into soldiers' motivations, fears, expectations, and disappointments during World War II and its aftermath.

Fighting for Britain deserves plaudits for several achievements. First, the book uses photography extensively to provide visual evidence for each chapter's theme. Each photograph is accompanied by a short interpretive essay, reminding readers that photographic evidence does not simply speak for itself, but instead requires interpretation and contextualization. …

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