WEST AFRICA WAS THERE [Main Title]
- Catalogue number
- COI 644
- Production date
- Place made
- Subject period
- whole: Number Of Items/reels/tapes 1
© IWMLicense Film
Film account of the part played by the 81st and 82nd (West African) Divisions in the third Arakan campaign, 1944-1945.
No action footage. Men of the 81st Division under Major General Loftus Tottenham, ordered to clear the Kaladan Valley, advance through the jungle and use their machetes with "wonderful skill" to set up headquarters on 'Frontier Hill'. The Division is supplied from the air - a "dominant factor" in the Japanese defeat. The enemy are cleared from the hill - they have met their masters in jungle warfare. The 81st push on down the Kaladan. To the south-west the 82nd Division drives through the tunnels on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road to take Buthidaung, and then drive south to the Kaladan Valley; the two divisions link up at Myohaung. The West Africans have thus helped the British drive on Mandalay by containing Japanese forces in Arakan. The 82nd pursues the enemy to Kangaw; part of it is landed at Ru-Ywa. General Burrows visits the troops and is seen with Major General Stockwell. Finally the 82nd goes on to occupy Taungup, Sandoway and Gwa. In Rangoon, to whose capture the West Africans have contributed, the Supreme Commander Lord Mountbatten takes the salute as a West African contingent marches past.
Enhanced data reproduced from COLONIAL FILM CATALOGUE - www.colonialfilm.org.uk
West Africa Was There was the second, and final, part of a series addressed specifically to West African audiences. The film, following on from Far East War Magazine No. 1 (1945), was not intended for release in Britain, and consisted of John Page material on the training of African troops and shots from Movietone News. Gerald Sanger, editor of Movietone News since 1929 and a member of The Queen’s Royal Regiment, produced the film.
John Danford, who wrote the commentary, had served as a Reserve Officer with the Royal Artillery in France, before transferring to the West African Frontier Force. The War Office was asked to provide him with an extension of leave in order to write the commentary, and after the War he served the British Council in Western Provinces, Nigeria, and subsequently in Trinidad and Sierra Leone. Danford was also a professional artist and his collection of West Africa art is housed in the Danford Collection at the University of Birmingham.
The Royal West African Frontier Force grew from a pre-war level of 8,000 to 146,000 by 1945, yet initially East Africa had provided the majority of men for the campaigns in Ethiopia, Somaliland and North Africa. Late in 1942 Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief in India, asked the War Office to consider using West African troops in Burma, and in September 1943, the first auxiliary groups with the 81st Division went to India, before those with the 82nd Division followed in May 1944 (Killingray, 1986, 72).
The Times in January 1944 wrote that ‘a force of West African troops, who are among the finest jungle fighters in the world, is now serving in the Indian theatre and will clearly be a most valuable reinforcement in the jungle campaigns that lie ahead of the South East Asia Command’. The article noted that this was the first time a West African expeditionary force had been sent overseas, but added that the ‘experiment will be watched with great interest, for many of these West Africans are jungle-dwellers, and are naturally more readily trained for jungle warfare than Indian troops’. The article further emphasised that the West Africans have an ‘instinct’ for jungle fighting and claimed that ‘primitive hunters’ in ‘thousands of tribal villages of the jungle and bush’ had been recruited (Times, 14 January 1944, 3).
The Duke of Devonshire, then Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, praised the efforts of the West African troops in Burma in 1945, noting the ‘smartness and keenness of the men’ and again suggesting that they were ‘better suited to the conditions of jungle warfare than their white comrades’ (Crowder 1968, 490). However, Michael Crowder argued that ‘while popular fiction has visions of Africans living in jungle, none of the West African soldiers had ever experienced anything like the jungle of Burma’ (Ajayi and Crowder 1974, 605). Furthermore, David Killingray argued that the notion of thousands of West Africans happily volunteering for military service was a ‘myth’ as he suggested that the ‘high figures for desertion from the armed forces in November 1943 – 42 per cent of all Ashantis and 20 per cent of men from the colony - gives some idea of the unpopularity of military service and conscription’ (Killingray 1986, 74).
West Africa Was There, in illustrating the valuable contribution of West African soldiers to the campaigns in South East Asia, highlights a vastly under-represented aspect of West African history. Yet, this acknowledgement of the African effort was not screened to British audiences, and the film’s propaganda was directed specifically at African audiences.
The film attempts to position the Africans within the identity of the British Empire. In doing so, it emphasises the collaborative efforts – the RAF ‘never failed the West Africans throughout the long and arduous campaign’ – and notes that when Mandalay fell to ‘British and Indian forces, West Africans felt it was their victory too’. The film sought to highlight the ongoing interdependency of Britain and Africa, at a moment when the Indian National Congress was pressing hard for independence and when, in part because of the observations of Africans witnessing the political and industrial developments in Asia, independence movements were also becoming more prominent in parts of Africa.
West Africa Was There also illustrates the importance of home to the Africans, from their ‘native’ song – ‘when shall I see my native land, I shall never forget my home’ – to the ‘most welcome arrival of all, mail from home’. It thus relates the campaign to the defence of the local home and traditions, as well as to the broader Empire. The film claims authenticity, as the opening titles explains that the commentary was written by a member of the Royal West African Frontier Force, but this is a distinctly British account of the experience, written by a British Captain.
West Africa Was There does highlight the distinct roles assigned to the British and African troops. Initially the Africans assume non-combatant roles, cooking the food and providing ‘head transport’, while one shot depicts three Africans collecting supplies from a parachute drop, directed by a white man with a stick. Yet by the middle of 1944 some Africans had taken on combatant roles and a later shot cuts from a white man looking through binoculars to an African soldier firing a gun. The British figures are largely represented as authority figures, from the man handing out post to the final visit of General Burrows, which the commentary, attempting to highlight the unity of the Empire, asserts was ‘greatly appreciated by all ranks’.
First-hand accounts by Africans often emphasised the discrimination that they felt during the War, in relation to both pay and their treatment. While the film, seeking to emphasise British, Indian and African collaboration, avoids this subject, the commentary does assign specific racial characteristics to the Africans. The Africans were assigned ‘the important job of clearing the Karadung valley’, and later are shown ‘using their machetes with wonderful skill’ to clear the jungle. In explaining the success of the Africans during the Burma campaign, the film ascribes stereotypical, and ultimately denigrating, traits to them. The commentary explains that ‘the Japs had met their masters in jungle warfare’, presenting the Africans as uncivilised and as ‘jungle’ creatures in order to illustrate how their inherently different set of skills helped the more ‘civilised’ British.
Tom Rice (March 2008)
Ajayi, JFA, and Michael Crowder eds., History of West Africa: Volume 2 (London: Longman, 1974).
Crowder, Michael, West Africa under Colonial Rule (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1968).
‘John Danford’ information accessed at http://www.ballinacurra.com/history, 15 February 2008.
Israel, Adrienne M., ‘Measuring the War Experience: Ghanaian Soldiers in World War II’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. (Mar., 1987), pp. 159-168.
Killingray, David, ‘Labour Mobilisation in British Colonial Africa for the War Effort, 1939-1946’, Africa and the Second World War, ed. by David Killingray and Richard Rathbone (London: Macmillan, 1986).
‘Mr Gerald Sanger’, The Times, 10 October 1981, 8.
‘West Africans in India: Experts in Jungle Warfare’, The Times, 14 January 1944, 3.
‘West Africa Was There’, COI File (MI536), 28 October 1948.
Associated people and organisations
- Burrows, Montagu Brocas
- Stockwell, Hugh Charles
- Mountbatten, Louis (Earl)
- Loftus Tottenham, Frederick Joseph
- British Army, 82nd West African Division
- British Army, 81st West African Division
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