Southern Rhodesia, then a self-governing colony of the United Kingdom, entered World War II along with Britain shortly after the invasion of Poland in 1939. By the war's end, 26,121 Southern Rhodesians of all races had served in the armed forces, 8,390 of them overseas, operating in the European theatre, the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre, East Africa, Burma and elsewhere. The territory's most important contribution to the war is commonly held to be its contribution to the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), under which 8,235 British, Commonwealth and Allied airmen were trained in Southern Rhodesian flight schools. The colony's operational casualties numbered 916 killed and 483 wounded of all races.
Southern Rhodesia had no diplomatic powers, but largely oversaw its own contributions of manpower and materiel to the war effort, being responsible for its own defence. Rhodesian officers and soldiers were distributed in small groups throughout the British and South African forces in an attempt to prevent high losses. Most of the colony's men served in Britain, East Africa and the Mediterranean, particularly at first; a more broad dispersal occurred from late 1942. Rhodesian servicemen in operational areas were mostly from the country's white minority, with the Rhodesian African Rifles—made up of black troops and white officers—providing the main exception in Burma from late 1944. Other non-white soldiers and white servicewomen served in East Africa and on the home front within Southern Rhodesia. Tens of thousands of black men were conscripted from rural communities for work, first on the aerodromes and later on white-owned farms.
World War II prompted major changes in Southern Rhodesia's financial and military policy, and accelerated the process of industrialisation. The territory's participation in the EATS brought about major economic and infrastructural developments and led to the post-war immigration of many former airmen, contributing to the growth of the white population to over double its pre-war size by 1951. The war remained prominent in the national consciousness for decades afterwards. Since the country's reconstitution as Zimbabwe in 1980, the modern government has removed many references to the World Wars, such as memorial monuments and plaques, from public view, regarding them as unwelcome vestiges of white minority rule and colonialism. Southern Rhodesia's dead of the war today have no official commemoration, either in Zimbabwe or overseas.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the southern African territory of Southern Rhodesia[a] had been a self-governing colony of the United Kingdom for 16 years, having gained responsible government in 1923. It was unique in the British Empire and Commonwealth in that it held extensive autonomous powers (including defence, but not foreign affairs) while lacking dominion status. In practice, it acted as a quasi-dominion, and was treated as such in many ways by the rest of the Commonwealth. Southern Rhodesia's white population in 1939 was 67,000, a minority of about 5%; the black population was a little over a million, and there were about 10,000 residents of coloured (mixed) or Indian ethnicity. The franchise was non-racial and in theory open to all, contingent on meeting financial and educational qualifications, but in practice very few black citizens were on the electoral roll. The colony's Prime Minister was Godfrey Huggins, a physician and veteran of World War I (1914–18) who had emigrated to Rhodesia from England in 1911 and held office since 1933.
The territory's contribution to the British cause during World War I had been very large in proportion to its white population, though troops had been mostly raised from scratch as there had been no professional standing army beforehand. Since the start of self-government in 1923, the colony had organised the all-white Rhodesia Regiment into a permanent defence force, complemented locally by the partly paramilitary British South Africa Police (BSAP). The Rhodesia Regiment comprised about 3,000 men, including reserves, in 1938. The country had fielded black troops during World War I, but since then had retained them only within the BSAP. A nucleus of airmen existed in the form of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force (SRAF), which in August 1939 comprised one squadron of 10 pilots and eight Hawker Hardy aircraft, based at Belvedere Airport near Salisbury.[b]
The occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in March 1939 convinced Huggins that war was imminent. Seeking to renew his government's mandate to pass emergency measures, he called an early election in which his United Party won an increased majority. Huggins rearranged his Cabinet on a war footing, making the Minister of Justice Robert Tredgold Minister of Defence as well.[c] The territory proposed forces not only for internal security but also for the defence of British interests overseas. Self-contained Rhodesian formations were planned, including a mechanised reconnaissance unit, but Tredgold opposed this. Remembering the catastrophic casualties suffered by units such as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the 1st South African Infantry Brigade on the Western Front in World War I, he argued that one or two heavy defeats for a white Southern Rhodesian brigade might cause crippling losses and have irrevocable effects on the country as a whole. He proposed to instead concentrate on training white Rhodesians for leadership roles and specialist units, and to disperse the colony's men across the forces in small groups. These ideas met with approval in both Salisbury and London and were adopted.
Southern Rhodesia would be automatically included in any British declaration of war due to its lack of diplomatic powers, but that did not stop the colonial government from attempting to demonstrate its loyalty and legislative independence through supportive parliamentary motions and gestures. The Southern Rhodesian parliament unanimously moved to support Britain in the event of war during a special sitting on 28 August 1939.
Outbreak of war
When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 following the invasion of Poland, Southern Rhodesia issued its own declaration of war