Back to contents



Another large proportion of the Pioneer Corps consisted of the Colonial Companies recruited from India, Cyprus, the Seychelles, Palestine, Kenya, Uganda. Tanganyika and the High Commission Territories of South Africa – Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland.

In relating how these levies were raised, the language in Major Rhodes-Wood’s History betrays the colonialist and rather patronising attitude that was still prevalent at the time.

‘The King-Emperor was at war and the Paramount Chiefs of Basutoland and Swaziland, with the District Chiefs of Bechuanaland, sent out their war cry over the mountains, swamps, high and low veldts, and the bushland and the men of the Territories responded in their thousands […] they converged on the depots of their respective nations united by a deep and abiding loyalty to the Crown – fifty-two companies, each of 350 men, from Basutoland; twenty-five from Bechuanaland; nine from Swaziland; the finest men the African continent had to offer.’ (1)

One wonders how many of these men returned to their native lands still loyal to the King-Emperor and how many were changed by their war experiences and joined the national liberation movements.

Levies were raised in Nigeria from the Ibo and Yoruba tribes in the South and Hausas and Felani from the North. They were also raised from the Cameroons and Sierra Leone.

The bulk of these newly recruited colonial companies were dispatched to Egypt and North Africa. These levies had to endure the same chaos and appalling conditions as the Pioneer companies in France.

The Africans arrived in Egypt clad only in the clothing they had on them when they left their native land. They were vulnerable to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases due to the low night temperatures and needed to be urgently provided with warm clothing, blankets and medical facilities. Only when the men were on their way to Egypt did Lieutenant Colonel Prynne, the commander of the Depot that was to receive them, learn that no clothing was available since it had been assumed that the men would have been issued with uniforms before leaving their own country. Lieutenant-Colonel Prynne, had to fight the army bureaucracy for even the most elementary facilities. He didn’t even have any blankets in stock. They had all been issued to other units.

‘In the turmoil that ensued someone at General Headquarters conceived the brilliant idea of immediately shipping masses of warm clothing to South Africa for the men, only to have to order that it be shipped back again when it was pointed out that the men were not in South Africa but at sea and daily expected at Suez. Once again Colonel Prynne resorted to unorthodox methods which would have appalled a more conventional man in order to meet the emergency. By guile he conjured the warm clothing from Ordnance and by guile acquired his 50,000 blankets from other camps in the neighbourhood – but only the night before the men disembarked and just in time to send them by truck for issue to the men as they came ashore from the transports.’ (2).

In addition to the problems of clothing and blankets the construction of things which even General Headquarters considered essential for natives – shelter, latrines, wash-houses, etc, -was not progressing. It appeared the C.R.E. in charge of this work was a religious fanatic who was deliberately going slow on the work because “the natives were all pagans”!.. Colonel Prynne exercised all his persuasiveness to convince the man that ninety per cent of them were catholics before he would agree to speed up the work. Fortunately he never later visited the Depot to check up on the men’s religious beliefs!(3)

A huge Base Depot was set up at Quassasin in the Sweet Water Canal Area . The War History describes it thus;

‘Most remote of all the military camps in the Canal Zone, set deeper in the desert than any other, nothing at all in the bleak landscape was already more “open” than the three square miles of desert at Quassasin now designated as a “Base Depot”. Open to the burning sun of day and the bitter winds of night, open to the full force of gritty sandstorms and stinging dustwhirls; bleak, barren, desolate. Here and there an occasional, newly erected, empty cookhouse broke the monotony of the landscape; a rusted length of piping projecting nakedly from the sand showed where water had been laid on; and huddled together in a few rows of tents 800 disconsolate Palestinian and Cypriot Pioneers, survivors of the campaigns in Greece and Crerte, as forlorn as the prospect which surrounded them. Such was Quassasin on the first day of June in 1941.’ (4)

More incompetence plus racial discrimination forced Colonel Prynne into more conflict with General Headquarters over the provision of medical facilities.

The British military hospitals would not accept Colonial troops. The reason given was that the medical staffs did not know the languages of the men and so could not diagnose or treat ailments with certainty, nor were many of them conversant with tropical diseases. General Headquarters, Egypt, refused to provide a special hospital.

‘In desperation Colonel Prynne turned to the Director of Medical Services of the Union Defence Force (South African Army) who was internationally famous for his knowledge of native problems and who agreed there should be special hospital arrangements at the Depot to guard against and deal with any epidemic. He, too, tried to persuade the British medical authorities to make adequate arrangements for the Colonial Pioneers, but having achieved no success decided on his own initiative to bring up from South Africa a general hospital specially staffed and equipped to deal with them and place it at the disposal of the Depot, acquiescing to Colonel Prynne’s plea that no mention of the proposal be made to British General Headquarters until the hospital was already on its way to the Middle East.

The arrival of this South African hospital caused something of a furore in Cairo. General Headquarters insisted that they could not accommodate it, nor would they approve of Colonel Prynne’s offer to erect a complete 1,000-bedded hospital from spare tentage which he held in store. Since, however, the South African medical staff was on the spot and a compromise had to be reached they finally agreed to the Depot Commander erecting the hospital temporarily until proper accommodation could be provided.’ (5)

The Colonial Pioneers were subject to discrimination in other areas. The N.A.A.F.I. canteens had a ruling that they did not serve colonial troops. Cinemas in other base depots were not for the use of Colonial troops, nor was the Pioneer Base depot to have its own.

Once again on Colonel Prynne’s initiative help came from South Africa.

‘ The South African Parliament voted a sum of money to be devoted to the welfare of British Colonial Pioneers and the Union Forces carried out the task on a scale that was far ahead of anything that was done for British troops at the time. They stocked, supplied the personnel for, and ran canteens and welfare generally and also sent up from South Africa two excellent mobile cinemas.’ (6)

Though these facilities were still segregated and the colour bar was not breached, this account, taken mainly from Major Rhodes-Wood’s semi-official History shows how an officer, concerned for the welfare of his troops, had to battle and conspire secretly against the military establishment for elementary facilities. It is astonishing that the help came from imperialist and colonialist white South Africa which exploited and discriminated against its own African population!

The Palestinian companies were originally composed of a mixture of Jews and Arabs, the former predominating. They suffered heavy casualties in the Greek and Crete campaigns. The survivors were withdrawn to Egypt, reorganised and segregated into wholly Jewish or Arab companies (7). Had there bee tension between the two groups ? The History is silent on this.

Eventually the Quassasin Depot became probably the largest unit in the British army reaching a strength of 23,000 men. By December 1941, 10,000 men per month were passing through it to form operational companies.

The Basuto, Bechuana and Swazi companies were attached to the Ninth Army in Palestine and Syria. The Indian, East African and Mauritian Pioneers were attached to the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. In Palestine, Syria and Lebanon the Pioneers were engaged in road and bridge building, railway construction and tunnelling and spared the battle casualties that were suffered by those with the Eighth Army. However, coming from sub-tropical regions, they suffered from the climatic conditions; the snow they had never seen before, the icy mountain winds and the ceaseless gales. Although it was midwinter only tents were provided for their accommodation and they lived and worked through a procession of days and nights of damp clothes, damp beds, wet feet and water-logged bivouacs. Writing home one Swazi soldier told his family

‘We met our first experience of snow as we drove past Damascus… and life was very critical because of the snow…and none of us thought we would ever be warm again. I can tell you it was even difficult to sleep or get up in the morning because the snow was so heavy on top of our blankets. The worst of all time was during the night when the snow was so heavy on top of your blankets. And in the summer there was the heat. I thought summer would treat us better than winter but it proved to be worse. I noticed that (Syria) was beating my country by so many degrees of heat.'’(8)

In the Western Desert the Pioneers were engaged in road and rail maintenance, manning ammunition and supply dumps, laying pipe-lines and airfield construction. Due to the swift advances and retreats, the Pioneer companies often found themselves in direct contact with enemy forces. During Rommel’s advance in May 1942, 1823 Company, with units of the Royal Artillery and Rifle Brigade, were caught in an enemy attack, surrounded and taken prisoner. The same enemy force overran British positions to the south of Tobruk where 1213 Indian Company was working. Being unarmed the Indians were in no position to resist and two-thirds of the company were taken prisoner, the remainder evading capture and in due course linking up with the garrison at Tobruk.

Why, despite their being in direct contact with the enemy and frequently under fire, were the Indian Pioneers unarmed? This was at the insistence of General Headquarters India(9). Were the military establishment in India worried about the obedience of these Indian Pioneers in view of the rising tide of the struggle for national independence in India? They had good reason. In 1946, there were wide spread mutinies in the Royal Indian Navy. In contrast the 4th Indian Division remained a reliable fighting unit for the British army to the end.

The entire personnel of 1503 Mauritian Company, working on the docks in Tobruk, were taken prisoner on June 21st 1942 when the fortress surrendered.

1803, 1808 and 1810 companies were caught up in the German advance in June 1942. They were entrained in railway sidings at Abu Haggag ready for evacuation but the nearest locomotive was at Fuka, some miles to the east. While waiting in the stranded railway-trucks they were subjected to a dive-bombing attack. Direct hits were scored on the train and on nearby trucks containing petrol. The fire illuminated the train which was subjected to further bombing. The Pioneers suffered heavy casualties.

The German advance continued eastward to El Daba where 58 Pioneer group was concentrated. Once again there was no transport to move the companies and the situation became critical. Fortunately a senior Pioneer officer, Colonel Stather, arrived and he forcefully enlisted the ‘cooperation’ of a number of R.A.S.C. drivers, This ensured the eventual evacuation of the Pioneers in the nick of time.(10)

Such were the experiences of the colonial Pioneers recruited to “serve the King-Emperor” who was still denying them the democratic freedoms won earlier by his domestic subjects.

Back to contents


1 WHRPC p.117
2 ibid p.124
3 ibid p.124
4 ibid p.119
5 ibid p.122
6 ibid pp.122-3
7 ibid p.156
8 ibid p.130
9 ibid p.154
10 ibid p.154