African arrows: British colonial troops became the backbone of the armed forces of the independent states of Africa

African arrows: British colonial troops became the backbone of the armed forces of the independent states of Africa
African arrows: British colonial troops became the backbone of the armed forces of the independent states of Africa

Great Britain, which acquired colonies in Asia and Africa of impressive size and population by the middle of the 19th century, felt an urgent need to defend their borders and suppress uprisings, which flared up with enviable frequency due to indigenous peoples' dissatisfaction with colonial rule. However, the potential of the armed forces, staffed by the British, Scots and Irish proper, was limited, since the vast territories of the colonies required numerous military contingents, which were not possible to form in Great Britain itself. Having decided to use not only the economic, but also the human resources of the colonies, the British government ultimately settled on the idea of ​​creating colonial units, staffed by representatives of the indigenous population, but subordinate to British officers.

This is how numerous divisions of Gurkha, Sikh, Baluch, Pashtun and other ethnic groups appeared in British India. On the African continent, Great Britain also created colonial units staffed by representatives of local ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the modern reader knows about them much less than about the famous Nepalese Gurkhas or Sikhs. Meanwhile, the African soldiers of the British Empire not only defended its interests in the colonial wars on the continent, but also took an active part in both World Wars.

Thousands of Kenyan, Ugandan, Nigerian, Ghanaian soldiers died on the fronts of the First and Second World Wars, including those far from their native African continent. On the other hand, the military prowess of the African military caused many questions among the indigenous population, when the colonial troops threw local residents to suppress the uprisings and the weapons of the black soldiers of the British crown were turned against their fellow countrymen and tribesmen. And, nevertheless, it was the colonial troops that became the military school that prepared the creation of the armed forces of the sovereign states of Africa.

Royal African Arrows

In East Africa, the Royal African Riflemen became one of the most famous military units of the colonial forces of the British Empire. This infantry regiment was formed to defend colonial possessions in the east of the African continent. As you know, in this region, the territories of present-day Uganda, Kenya, Malawi belonged to the British possessions, after the victory over Germany in the First World War - also Tanzania.


The Royal African Rifle Regiment was formed in 1902 from the amalgamation of the Central African Regiment, East African Riflemen and Ugandan Riflemen. In 1902-1910. the regiment consisted of six battalions - the first and second Nyasaland (Nyasaland is the territory of the modern state of Malawi), the third Kenyan, the fourth and fifth Ugandan and the sixth Somaliland. In 1910, the Fifth Ugandan and Sixth Somaliland battalions were disbanded, as the colonial authorities sought to save money on the colonial troops, and also feared possible rebellions and unrest in a significant military contingent of natives, who also had modern military training.

The ranks and non-commissioned officers of the Royal African Riflemen were recruited from representatives of the indigenous population and bore the name "Askari".Recruiters recruited military personnel from among urban and rural youth, fortunately, there was a choice of the strongest physically young men - serving in the colonial army for Africans was considered a good life career, since the soldiers received good by local standards. The African military, with the proper zeal, had a chance to rise to the rank of corporal, sergeant, and even go into the category of warrant officers (warrant officers).

Officers were seconded to the regiment from other British units and, until the middle of the twentieth century, they tried not to promote African servicemen to officer ranks. By 1914, the Royal African Riflemen had 70 British officers and 2,325 African soldiers and non-commissioned officers. As for weapons, the Royal African Riflemen were more likely to be light infantry, since they did not have artillery pieces and each company had only one machine gun.

With the outbreak of World War I, there is an obvious need to expand both the size and organizational structure of the Royal African Rifle Regiment. By 1915, three battalions had been increased in strength to 1,045 men in each battalion. In 1916, on the basis of three battalions of riflemen, six battalions were created - two battalions were made from each battalion, recruiting a significant number of African troops. When British colonial troops occupied German East Africa (now Tanzania), the need arose for the creation of a military unit that would guard the new political order in the former German colony. So on the basis of the German "Askari" appeared the sixth battalion of the Royal African Riflemen. The 7th Rifle Battalion was formed on the basis of the Zanzibar Military Constables.

Thus, by the end of the First World War, the Royal African Riflemen consisted of 22 battalions, manned by African troops. They made up 4 groups directly involved in the service in the colonies and one training group. At the same time, the Royal African Riflemen experienced a certain shortage of personnel, because, firstly, there was a shortage of officers and non-commissioned officers recruited from white settlers, and secondly, there was a shortage of African soldiers who spoke the Swahili language, in which the command was carried out. rank-and-file units. White settlers were reluctant to join the Royal African Riflemen, also because by the time this unit was created they already had their own units - the East African Horse Rifles, the East African Regiment, the Ugandan Volunteer Riflemen, the Zanzibar Volunteer Defense Forces.

However, the regiment of the Royal African Riflemen took an active part in the First World War, fighting against the German colonial forces in East Africa. The losses of the Royal African Riflemen amounted to 5117 killed and wounded, 3039 soldiers of the regiment died from disease during the years of military campaigns. The total strength of the Royal African Riflemen at the time of the end of the First World War was 1,193 British officers, 1,497 British non-commissioned officers and 30,658 African troops in 22 battalions.

In the former German East Africa, the ranks of the territorial units were manned by former German colonial soldiers from among the Africans who were captured by the British and transferred to the British service. The latter are quite understandable - for an ordinary Tanzanian, a young peasant or an urban proletarian, there was no significant difference between which "white master" to serve - German or British, since allowance was provided everywhere, and the differences between the two European powers that were so dissimilar in our eyes for the African remained minimal.

The period between the two world wars was marked by a reduction in the size of the regiment due to the demobilization of most of the military personnel and the return to the six-battalion composition. Two groups were created - North and South, with a total strength of 94 officers, 60 non-commissioned officers and 2,821 African soldiers. At the same time, it was envisaged to deploy the regiment in wartime in a much larger number. So, in 1940, when Great Britain was already participating in World War II, the number of the regiment increased to 883 officers, 1374 non-commissioned officers and 20,026 African "Askari".

The Royal African Arrows met the Second World War by participating in numerous campaigns not only in East Africa, but also in other regions of the planet. First, African riflemen took an active part in the capture of Italian East Africa, battles against the Vichy collaborationist government in Madagascar, and in the landing of British troops in Burma. On the basis of the regiment, 2 East African infantry brigades were created. The first was responsible for the coastal defense of the African coast, and the second was responsible for the territorial defense in the deep lands. By the end of July 1940, two more East African Brigades were formed. Five years later, by the time of the end of World War II, 43 battalions, nine garrisons, an armored car regiment, as well as artillery, engineering, sapper, transport and communications units were deployed on the basis of the regiment of the Royal African Riflemen. The first Knight of the Victoria Cross in the regiment was Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey.

The formation of the armed forces of the countries of East Africa

In the post-war period, until the declaration of independence by the former British colonies in Africa, the Royal African Riflemen participated in the suppression of native uprisings and wars against rebel groups. Thus, in Kenya, they bore the main burden of fighting the Mau Mau rebels. Three battalions of the regiment served in the Malacca Peninsula, where they fought with the partisans of the Malaysian Communist Party and lost 23 people killed. In 1957, the regiment was renamed the East African Ground Forces. The proclamation of the British colonies in East Africa as independent states resulted in the de facto disintegration of the Royal African Riflemen. On the basis of the regiment's battalions, the Malawian Riflemen (1st Battalion), the Northern Rhodesian Regiment (2nd Battalion), Kenyan Riflemen (3rd, 5th and 11th Battalions), Ugandan Riflemen (4th Battalion) were created, Riflemen of Tanganyika (6th and 26th battalions).


The Royal African Arrows became the base for the creation of the armed forces of many sovereign states in East Africa. It should be noted that many later famous political and military leaders of the African continent began serving in the units of the colonial riflemen. Among the celebrities who served in the Royal African Riflemen as soldiers and non-commissioned officers in their younger years, one can mention the dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin Dada. The grandfather of the current President of the United States of America, Kenyan Hussein Onyango Obama, also served in this unit.

The Malawian Riflemen, formed on the basis of the 1st Battalion of the Royal African Riflemen, after the proclamation of Malawi's independence in 1964, became the basis of the armed forces of the new state. The battalion originally numbered two thousand servicemen, but later, on its basis, two rifle regiments and an airborne regiment were formed.

The Kenyan Riflemen were formed after Kenya's independence in 1963 from the 3rd, 5th and 11th battalions of the Royal African Riflemen. Currently, the Kenyan Ground Forces include six battalions of Kenyan Riflemen, formed on the basis of the former British colonial forces and inheriting the tradition of the Royal African Riflemen.

The Tanganyika Riflemen formed in 1961 from the 6th and 26th Royal African Rifle Battalions and were initially still under the command of British officers. However, in January 1964, the regiment mutinied and deposed its commanders. The country's leadership, with the help of British troops, managed to suppress the uprising of the riflemen, after which the overwhelming majority of the servicemen were fired and the regiment actually ceased to exist. However, when the Tanzania People's Defense Forces were formed in September 1964, many African officers who had previously served in the Tanganyika Riflemen were incorporated into the new military.

The Ugandan Riflemen were formed on the basis of the 4th Battalion of the Royal African Riflemen and, after the declaration of independence of Uganda in 1962, became the basis of the armed forces of this sovereign state. It was in the 4th Battalion of the Royal African Riflemen that Idi Amin Dada, the future Ugandan dictator who earned the nickname "African Hitler", began his military career. This illiterate native of the Kakwa people joined the battalion as an assistant cook, but thanks to his remarkable physical strength, he moved to the front line and even became the champion of the Royal African Shooters in heavyweight boxing.

Without any education, Idi Amin was promoted to the rank of corporal for his diligence and after he distinguished himself in suppressing the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, he was sent to study at a military school in Nakuru, after which he received the rank of sergeant. The path from private (1946) to "effendi" (as the Royal African Riflemen called warrant officers - an analogue of Russian ensigns) took Idi Amin 13 years. But the first officer rank of lieutenant Idi Amin received only two years after being awarded the rank of "effendi", and met the independence of Uganda already in the rank of major - so hastily the British military leaders trained the officers of the future Ugandan army, relying more on the loyalty of the military personnel nominated for promotion than on their literacy, education and moral character.

Royal West African Frontier Troops

If in East Africa, battalions of the Royal African Riflemen were formed from the indigenous population of Nyasaland, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika, then in the west of the continent the British Empire held another military formation, which was called the West African Border Troops. Their tasks were to defend and maintain internal order in the British colonies in West Africa - that is, in Nigeria, British Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

The decision to create them was made in 1897 to consolidate British rule in Nigeria. Initially, representatives of the Hausa ethnic group formed the core of the West African border troops, and later it was the Hausa language that remained used by officers and non-commissioned officers when issuing commands and communication with the multi-tribal composition of the border troops. The British preferred to recruit Christians for military service who were sent to Muslim provinces and, conversely, Muslims sent to provinces with Christian and pagan populations. This was the implementation of the “divide and conquer” policy, which helped the British colonial authorities maintain the loyalty of the native troops.

The importance of border troops in West Africa was due to the proximity to large French colonies and the constant rivalry between Great Britain and France in this part of the continent. In 1900, the West African Border Troops included the following units: the Gold Coast Regiment (now Ghana), consisting of an infantry battalion and a mountain artillery battery; a regiment of Northern Nigeria with three infantry battalions; a regiment of Southern Nigeria, consisting of two infantry battalions and two mountain artillery batteries; a battalion in Sierra Leone; company in the Gambia. Each of the units of the border troops was recruited locally, from among the representatives of those ethnic groups who inhabited a specific colonial territory.In proportion to the population of the colonies, a significant proportion of the troops of the West African border troops were Nigerians and immigrants from the Gold Coast colony.

Unlike the Royal African Riflemen in East Africa, the West African Frontier Troops were undoubtedly better armed and included artillery and engineering units. This was also explained by the fact that West Africa had more developed statesmanship traditions, the influence of Islam was strong here, territories under French control were located nearby, where the French armed forces were stationed and, accordingly, the West African border troops had to have the necessary military potential to conduct if necessary, war even against such a serious enemy as the French colonial troops.

The First World War in West Africa took place in the form of a struggle between British and French troops against the colonial units of the German army. There were two German colonies, Togo and Cameroon, to conquer which units of the West African border troops were sent. After German resistance in Cameroon was suppressed, parts of the border troops were transferred to East Africa. In 1916-1918. four Nigerian battalions and the Gold Coast battalion fought in German East Africa, along with the Royal African Riflemen.

Naturally, during the war, the number of units of the West African Border Troops increased significantly. Thus, the Royal Nigerian Regiment included nine battalions, the Gold Coast regiment five battalions, the Sierra Leone regiment one battalion, and the Gambian regiment two companies. After World War I, the West African Border Troops were reassigned to the War Office. During World War II, the 81st and 82nd West African divisions were formed on the basis of the West African border troops, which took part in the hostilities in Italian Somalia, Ethiopia and Burma. In 1947, two years after the end of the war, the border troops returned to the control of the Colonial Office. Their numbers have been significantly reduced. The Nigerian regiment included five battalions stationed in Ibadan, Abeokuta, Enugu and two in Kaduna, as well as an artillery battery and an engineering company. Less numerous were the Gold Coast Regiment and the Sierra Leone Regiment (the latter included the Gambian Company).

As in East Africa, Britain was very reluctant to assign officers to Africans in its West African colonies. The reason for this was not only the low educational level of the native military personnel, but also the fears that African unit commanders could raise a mutiny, having received real combat units under their command. Therefore, even in 1956, already at the end of British rule in West Africa, there were only two officers in the Nigerian Royal Regiment - Lieutenant Kur Mohammed and Lieutenant Robert Adebayo. Johnson Agiyi-Ironsi, later a general and military dictator of Nigeria, became the only African who by this time had managed to rise to the rank of major. By the way, Ironsi began his service in the Ammunition Corps, having received a military education in Great Britain itself and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1942. As we can see, the military career of African officers was slower than their British counterparts, and for a fairly long time, Africans rose to only small ranks.

The proclamation of the former British colonies in West Africa as sovereign states also led to the termination of the existence of the West African border troops as a single military entity.Ghana was the first to proclaim independence in 1957 - one of the most economically developed former colonies, the famous "Gold Coast". Accordingly, the Gold Coast Regiment was removed from the West African Border Troops and turned into a division of the Ghanaian army - the Ghana Regiment.

Today, the Ghana regiment includes six battalions and is operationally divided between two army brigades of the country's ground forces. The regiment's servicemen take an active part in UN peacekeeping operations in African countries, primarily in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, famous for their bloody civil wars.

The armed forces of Nigeria have also formed on the basis of the West African Border Forces. Many prominent military and political leaders of post-colonial Nigeria began their service in the British colonial forces. But if in Nigeria colonial traditions are still a thing of the past and Nigerians are reluctant to remember the times of British rule, trying not to identify their armed forces with the colonial troops of the past, then in Ghana the historical British uniform with red uniforms and blue trousers is still preserved as a ceremonial dress. …

At present, in the British army, due to the absence of colonies in the UK on the African continent, there are no units formed from Africans on an ethnic basis. Although the Gurkha shooters remain in the service of the crown, the UK no longer uses African shooters. This is due, among other things, to the lower fighting qualities of soldiers from the African colonies, who never became the "calling card" of the colonial army of London, unlike the same Gurkhas or Sikhs. However, a significant number of immigrants from the African continent and their descendants who migrated to Great Britain serve in various units of the British army on a general basis. For the African states themselves, the very fact of the presence in their history of such a page as the existence of the Royal African Riflemen and the West African Border Troops played an important role, since it was thanks to the colonial units formed by the British that they managed to create their own armed forces in the shortest possible time.

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