Kenya Colony in World War II

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Kenyan sailors aboard a British Royal Navy minesweeper, 1945.

The involvement of the British Colony of Kenya in the Second World War (in Swahili: Vita Kuu ya Pili ya Dunia) began with the declaration of war on Nazi Germany by the British Empire in September 1939. Though minimal fighting occurred in Kenya itself, it remained an important economic asset for the Allies and also contributed a significant number of soldiers to fight in the British Army.

Outbreak of war[edit]

"Should Hitler win the war and come marching towards Kenya, we shall be tied by our necks with yokes thus carrying and pulling carts like oxen..."

A Kikuyu wartime song[1]

Kenya bordered Italian East Africa to the north, and at the start of the war, it was feared that the much larger Italian army would advance into Kenya as it had into British Somaliland. The King's African Rifles (KAR), responsible for the defense of the whole of British-occupied east Africa with the Somaliland Camel Corps and Sudan Defence Force, numbered just 2,900 men in 1939,[2] compared with the 250,000 Italian colonial troops in the region.[3] A drought in 1939-40 and accompanying crop failure, known at the time as the "Famine of the Italian", also encouraged Kenyans from the agricultural Akamba in eastern Kenya, who had not traditionally joined the army in large numbers, to enlist.[4] Enemy aliens in the colony were interned or placed under supervision.

Military involvement[edit]

African soldiers of the King's African Rifles train in Kenya, 1944.

During the war, Kenya was one of the single most important recruiting grounds for the British Army in Africa. During the course of the war, 98,240 Kenyans were recruited as Askaris into the King's African Rifles (KAR), representing 30% of the unit's total strength.[5] The vast majority of soldiers from Kenya, of whom most were volunteers, were overwhelmingly black, however the policy of racial segregation in the British Army meant that they were commanded by white officers and NCOs. Blacks were not able to rise above the rank of Warrant Officer. Kenyan soldiers served in the successful East African Campaign against the Italians, as well as the invasion of Vichy-held Madagascar and the Burma Campaign against the Japanese, alongside troops from west Africa. Kenyans also served in the Royal Navy and some individuals also served in the Royal Air Force.

Nigel Gray Leakey, a white NCO in the King's African Rifles from Kenya, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in East Africa.

In 1942, the entire British Eastern Fleet transferred to Kilindini near Mombasa in Kenya, after its existing base at Colombo in Ceylon became threatened by the Japanese. The Far East Combined Bureau, an outpost of the British codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park, was also moved to a former school in Kilindini in 1942, where it worked on deciphering Japanese naval codes.[6]

Kenya also gave its name to a British cruiser which served during the war, although it did not directly contribute to its crew.

Economic contribution[edit]

Kenya was an important source of agricultural products in the British Empire, supplying significant quantities of Tea and Tobacco. Traditionally, the Kenyan highlands (where much of the agriculture was centred) were controlled by white farmers. Greater demands for agricultural products during the war had led to 200,000 Kenyan labourers forced to squat on white-owned land in return for work by 1945.[7]

Detainment[edit]

Significant numbers of Italian soldiers captured during the East African Campaign were interned in camps in Kenya, where they were used in civil infrastructure projects. Amongst those detained in Kenya was the Italian writer, Felice Benuzzi, who attempted to escape in 1943 by climbing Mount Kenya, though subsequently re-surrendered to the British. He detailed his experiences in his popular book, No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1947).

Legacy[edit]

"we [sic] Africans were told over and over again that were fighting for our country and democracy and that when the war was over we would be rewarded for the sacrifice we were making...The life I returned to was exactly the same as the one I left four years earlier: no land, no job, no representation, no dignity."

Kango Muchai, a KAR veteran from Kenya[8]

The economic mobilization of Kenya during the war led to an unprecedented level of urbanization in the country, swelling the population of Mombasa and Nairobi by as much as 50%.[9]

Kenyan soldiers returning home afer the war were much less likely to accept to degrees of racism which had existed in the country before the war.[10] Returning Kenyan soldiers also found themselves competing with Indian migrants for scarce jobs, and little better off than before the war .

When the ban on political activism was lifted in 1944, the Kenya African Study Union (KASU) was founded in October 1944 as a nation-wide political party to campaign for independence from the British and the creation of a multi-ethnic state.[11] Although few Kenyan soldiers joined the party itself, many were active in the pro-independence movement which would culminate in the Mau Mau Uprising in 1952.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Riria Hitler agatua tukohwo njoki ta cia ng'ombe..." quoted in Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  2. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  3. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  4. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 61. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  5. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  6. ^ "Mombasa was Base for High-level U.K. Espionage". Coastweek.com. Retrieved 10 July 2013. 
  7. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  8. ^ Quoted in Lonsdale, John, Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno (eds.) (2003). Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford: Currey [u.a.] p. 221. ISBN 9780821414842. 
  9. ^ Lonsdale, John (1999). "East Africa". In Roger Louis, Wm.; Brown, Judith M.. The Oxford History of the British Empire. IV: The Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 538. ISBN 0-19-820564-3. 
  10. ^ Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. pp. 220–1. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  11. ^ Lonsdale, John, Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno (eds.) (2003). Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford: Currey [u.a.] p. 16. ISBN 9780821414842. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Killingray, David (2010). Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. ISBN 978-1-84701-015-5. 
  • Gadsden, Fay (1986). "Wartime Propaganda in Kenya: The Kenya Information Office, 1939–1945". The International Journal of African Historical Studies 19 (3): 401–20. doi:10.2307/218973. 

External links[edit]