One of the striking aspects of the recent Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in London was all the wreaths laid on behalf of dominions and colonies that were once part of the British Empire, and some of which remain part of what is now the Commonwealth.
Adolf Hitler intimated that he would guarantee the Empire in return for a free hand to colonise the East, particularly Russia. But for Winston Churchill's defiance, such a deal might well have been attempted. After the fall of France in May 1940, a cartoon depicted Britain as standing "alone" against Nazi Germany.
The cartoonist was wrong. Within a week of the British declaration of war in September 1939, South Africa and the other three dominions had issued their own declarations. The British governors of more than 50 other countries had also declared war. Another cartoonist depicted the British as standing alone with 500 million other people. Neither Russia nor the US were yet fighting with the British.
South Africa's role in the war is well known (as is her shabby treatment of her black soldiers). But sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, according to Ashley Jackson in The British Empire and the Second World War, produced more than half a million soldiers for the British Army. They came from all over the continent, including 36 000 from what are now Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland (BLS). Uganda's 60 000 under arms constituted 10% of her male population in the relevant age group. The four West African colonies contributed 200 000 soldiers. Rhodesians were among the 39% of the Royal Air Force's aircrew that came from outside Britain.
African troops helped inflict defeats on enemy forces on their own continent, but they also served beyond Africa. Basotho muleteers carried ammunition up to Allied soldiers in the Italian mountains and on the return journey evacuated Australian and other wounded. A Swazi company was among the first to enter Rome when it was liberated. Nearly 80 000 West African infantrymen and 46 000 East Africans fought in the Burma campaign against the Japanese. By the summer of 1945, a quarter of Admiral Mountbatten's personnel in South-east Asia Command were African.
Support for the war effort went beyond the battlefield. Ports around the continent were kept open for Allied shipping. Dozens of airfields were built. West Africa housed assembly plants from which 7 000 aircraft were flown eastwards and then up into Egypt to confront the Italians and the Germans.
Mass production was mobilised. Supplies from food to boots were shipped to Allied armies in Russia and elsewhere. According to Andrew Unsworth, writing in The Times, the people of Lesotho paid for 25 Spitfires. The people of British Somaliland also helped pay for Spitfires. Ugandans sent money to British charities. The African Women's War Workers on the fringes of the Kalahari knitted balaclavas, socks, and gloves for soldiers, among them their menfolk in the army.
South Africa aside, no African country went to war by decision of its own government. As was often the case with colonial rule, the British relied on the co-operation of local kings, queens, and headmen to mobilise their people. Jackson points out, however, that British colonial officials and their indigenous collaborators were able to capitalise on a degree of acceptance and legitimacy that British rule had fostered over the years. This, he says, is often overlooked "because it does not sit comfortably with the common view of imperial rule as something that was ceaselessly contested by colonial populations".
No doubt some local rulers were also thinking strategically, to extract later concessions from the British. The BLS leaders, for example, were keen to block General Smuts's desire to incorporate their territories into South Africa. Many also recognised that a Nazi victory would have dire consequences for Africa.
The war bankrupted Britain. It could no longer afford to keep its empire even had it wished to in the face of nationalist demands which the war helped to stimulate. But that empire's achievement in helping to destroy Hitler is one of the greatest in global history.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.