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During WW2, West African soldiers were conscripted to fight on the side of British troops first in Abyssinian ( today’s Ethiopia) and then Burma.
Though they were said to have joined the army voluntarily, there is much talk of forced conscription.
In the historical fiction, WWII Revisited—Memoirs of a Forced African Conscript, the role of the gallant troops from the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast ( now Ghana) and Nigeria played in defeating the Axis Alliance made up of Germany, Italy and Japan is highlighted.
On their arrival in the Burmese jungle, the West African troops had to construct airstrips, bush paths and roads with the barest of implements to facilitate their movement.
I am sharing Chapter 27, THE BURMA- WEST AFRICAN HIGHWAY to whet the appetite of the book lover.
Happy Reading

Chapter 27 The Burma–West African highway
A few days after the welcome speech of the representative of the General Officer Commanding, the troops were asked, after a tough day’s training session, to gather at the assembly point for yet another address, this time by one of the leading officers of their division.
After everyone had been called to order, the officer began to address them:
“Brave Soldiers of the 81st Division, give me your attention”, he began. Absolute silence prevailed in the assembly as all eyes were directed at him.
“It is superfluous to mention here that every one of you is aware why you are here. Just by way of a reminder, I want to stress the fact that we are here to confront the intransigent Japanese; not only that, but also to rout them out, to make it clear to them it doesn’t pay to go about invading the territories of other countries.
“Before I go on to state the specific role you will play, I want to provide you with a short background account in regard to the genesis of the conflict. For some of you it may come as a repetition; for the sake of those who are not as informed as yourselves, I ask you to bear with me.
“In the middle of January 1942 Japan invaded Burma from Thailand. You may want to know what led them to that unprovoked act? Two reasons have been cited.
1) Japan at that time was occupying China. The Nationalist China army which was resisting the Japanese occupation was receiving a steady stream of military aid from the British. The aid was being transported from the Burmese capital Rangoon, along the Burma Road, the main land route leading from Burma to China. By invading Burma and taking control of the Burma Road, Japan sought to cut the important supply route to the Chinese opposition.
2) The invasion was part of the strategy of the so-called Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – to expand their territories through military conquest. Taking control of Burma would further that cause by placing the Japanese at the gate of India, where they believed general insurrection against the British presence in the vast territory of India would be ignited. That could eventually lead Britain to lose control of their vast Asian colony; Japan could then capitalise on the situation and take control of India. You may call it wishful thinking; I have no doubt in my mind that the Japanese entertained that scenario at the back of their minds. “Initially, the Japanese scored remarkable successes in their endeavour; in March 1942, Rangoon, the Burmese capital, fell to them.
“After the initial setbacks, British and Indian forces regrouped and attempted to dislodge the invaders. The Japanese invaders, who in the meantime had set up well-prepared defensive positions, easily warded off the British Indian Offensive. In May 1942, the Allies were forced to retreat from Burma into India, accompanied by thousands of refugees who had to endure untold suffering, many dying in the process. Well, the Japanese occupation has persisted to this day; otherwise, you wouldn’t be here!” He paused for a while to take a look at his men. From the look of their faces, every one of them appeared to be following his speech very attentively.
He continued after a momentary interlude:
“As far as we are concerned, our area of operation will be mainly in and around the valley of the River Kaladan in the Arakan region. The Arakan is a narrow strip of land, about 400 miles in length and lies sandwiched between the Bay of Bengal and the west of the country. It is cut off from the rest of the country by a range of mountains, by the name of Arakan Yoma. “In the south, the territory is made up of open and largely flat paddy fields, mangrove swamps and wide rivers which flow in winding loops akin to the movement of snakes. “Whereas the south is flat and swampy, the north consists of mountains and dense jungles – jungles so thick that even on a bright sunny day, with the sun high in the sky, one would require a torch to find one’s way in the gloom resulting from the thick canopy of leaves and branches that prevents hardly any ray of light from penetrating through to the ground.
“The main bulk of our Division will be assigned the task of supporting the Indian XV Corps, an infantry division of the British India Army, in the task of dislodging the Japanese from their strongholds of the Kaladan valley.
“A small fraction of our Division will be attached to the Chindits. For the sake of those who will be in that group, it is worth noting that the Chindits is a special force within our proud army trained to carry out surprise attacks behind the lines of the Japanese foe. The duty of those of you who will be assigned to them will be to guard and defend their bases against possible enemy incursions whilst they are away on their guerrilla-like attacks against the adversary.”
He paused for a while to cast his glance around. Just as in the case of Kakra, each one of the men remained still and focussed. Kakra put on a brave face, not wanting to betray the heightened anxiety that was going through him. He was days away from the battlefield, it was clear to him. Would he come out alive? Would he ever see again the face of Panin and other members of his family? If he should succumb to the assailants’ bullets, would his body be retrieved and given a decent burial?
Their superior continued his address after the short interlude. “So men, we are about to begin the march into the Arakan. Before us lies thick, thick jungle. There are no roads, not even jungle paths, along which we can drive our vehicles to transport both our material supplies as well as our troops. We need to construct a road from scratch. We have no machinery to help us – indeed, we don’t!
“What we have are basic tools and instruments – picks, shovels, machetes, explosives, etc., and more importantly, strong, well-built and highly motivated men ready to labour and shed their sweat to make this happen.
“Men, are we ready for the task? If so, shout yeah after me!”
“Yeah!” the yells of the men filled the air.
“Y-a-a- a- a -a -a-h!” the men screamed all together. “I am really impressed by your motivation, enthusiasm and sense of duty”, the officer said. “So, get ready for action! Starting from early tomorrow work will begin on the construction of our ‘Jungle Highway’!”
As ordered by the senior officer, the soldiers went into action the next day to construct the announced access road. Starting from their Indian base at Chiringa, they went into action to construct a road through the jungle across the Indian–Burma frontier, right up to the Burmese town Satpaung on the banks of the Kaladan River. At the same time as the troops laboured with their picks and shovels, they all the time remained alert, ready to fight at any moment. For even as they laboured, the Japanese were attempting to make incursions with the goal not only to inflict casualty but also disrupt their progress.
After several weeks of hard work involving among other things, cutting through seemingly impenetrable jungle, hills, huge rocks, etc., the jungle road stretching over 75 miles ( 120 km) was completed. The West Africans aptly christened the “highway” created through their sweat and labour “the West Africa Way”.
No less a figure than the General Officer Commander of the 81st Division, General Woolner, was on site to commission it personally.

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