10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen

Peter Baxter - March 10, 2018

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
A British SAS Mobile Patrol in the Western Desert. The first use of ‘special forces’ in modern war. Wikicommons.

World War II in Africa

World War II on the great continent of Africa was a sweeping affair. It ran from the Northern Territories of Kenya to the Tunisian peninsular and involved some of the greatest land battles of human history.

When war in Europe broke out in September 1939, Adolf Hitler had no interest in Africa at all. His ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, had that covered. The Italians controlled Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia, and bearing in mind how weak the British were, struggling to survive the Battle of Britain, there seemed no reason why the Italians should not march into Egypt and lift the Suez Canal out of British hands. They could have, and they really should have.

The first shots fired were in Somalia. Somalia was divided into British and Italian spheres, and in August 1940, the Italians launched an invasion of British Somalia, a territory congruent more or less with modern Somaliland. This was achieved reasonably easily, after which Mussolini looked south, picturing all of British Africa in Italian hands. He also pictured Egypt in Italian hands, and so for the time being, the Italians in Somalia adopted a defensive position. In September 1940, as the opening act of the Western Desert Campaign, the Italians dropped the drawbridge on Italian Libya, and swarmed into Egypt.

It is generally understood that the Italians should, without difficulty, have taken Egypt. However, a few miles into Egypt, they dug in and waited. Mussolini was beside himself, but his general on the ground, Rodolfo Graziani, simply would not advance.

This gave the British a chance to regroup, and in December 1940, they launched Operation Compass, which routed a vastly superior Italian force, and drove them back deep into Libya. Some 135,000 Italian prisoners of war were taken, and astronomical amounts of fuel and equipment.

Adolf Hitler, when he heard the news, was abruptly made aware that the Italians, for all of their weight and bravado, were not capable of dealing with North Africa unassisted. German troops were diverted from the Eastern Front to fortify the Italians in Libya, introducing the great name of General Erwin Rommel onto the battlefield.

Things began to turn around immediately. As the Italians were steadily being pushed out of Ethiopia and Somalia, in another abject military performance, Rommel launched a counter-offensive in North Africa. At the end of long supply lines, the British advance was rolled back into Egypt. Thus began the see-saw struggle of Axis and Allied forces battling in long-range engagements along the North African coast.

The change came with Operation Torch, the US entry into the War, which began in November 1942. In March 1943, the Axis alliance in Africa surrendered. The reason was a combination of German reverses on the Eastern Front, and the overwhelming balance of power offered by the United States. Italian military prowess was roundly disproved, and in May 1941, after a racing retreat across Ethiopia, the Italians were defeated and King Haile Selassie returned to power.

The War, of course, then shifted to Europe.

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
Mau Mau Fighters in the Aberdare Forest of Kenya. The first authentic ‘Liberation Struggle’. Libcom.

The Mau Mau Uprising

Enormous numbers of young, black Africans fought on the Allied side during WWII. Many of these were involved in campaigns in Southeast Asia, in particular the Japanese retreat from Burma. Many were stationed in India, and the Indian independence movement, led by the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, inspired them deeply. The defeat of fascist totalitarianism also promised a new future, and many young blacks returned to their colonies, only to be disappointed to discover that none of these lofty principles applied to them.

It was said in Kenya in the late 1940s that when the white man returned from war, he was given a farm, when black man returned from war, he was given a bicycle.

As the dust of WWII settled, and as India was granted independence, the liberation movement in Africa began. The Mau Mau Uprising was the first, and only war of liberation fought by the British in Africa. It was a curious affair because it was less than a war, but a great deal more than a civil disturbance.

The Central Highlands of Kenya were known then as the White Highlands. The combination of altitude and the tropics created a perfect climate, and with deep soils, a perfect agricultural landscape. This was where white colonists settled, while the Kikuyu people, the original owners of the lands, were maintained as squatters to provide labor.

It was the Kikuyu, the most politically active of the Kenyan language groups, who led popular resistance to white land occupation, and white political domination. It began on the streets of Nairobi more or less immediately after WWII, but it became the subject of such intense police action, that in the early 1950s it began to manifest as a guerrilla movement in the heavily forested hills and mountains of the White Highlands.

The Mau Mau was a deeply traditional movement, atavistic, and looking to some improbable return to a utopian past. It was intensely violent, and its main targets were what were seen as Kikuyu collaborators. Ironically, it was a Kikuyu ‘Home Guard’ that led the fight against it, supported by a British and local ‘Police Action’. What this implies is that the British would not acknowledge the uprising as a war, but civil unrest, and so emergency courts and gallows became the main weapon of war.

It was also doomed because, as a military action, it was unsupported. The Cold War had not begun in earnest, so no Chinese or Soviet weaponry was involved, and it was linked to no sympathetic neighboring countries. It was easily isolated and destroyed, and by the late 1950s, it was an irritation rather than a threat. It nonetheless brought the question of Kenyan independence to the fore and forced the British to begin negotiations. Kenya was granted independence in December 1963, and although the incoming government was reluctant to acknowledge the Mau Mau, it has since offered it some acknowledgment as being part of the independence process.

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
French Troops pictured with a captured FLN Fighter. Return of Kings.

War in Algeria

One of the first and perhaps one of the most bitter wars of independence in Africa was the Algerian War, which took place between November 1, 1954, and March 19, 1962. It was the tipping point of French decolonization and a seminal moment in Frances evolution from an empire to a republic.

The French were occupied during WWII. This deeply compromised the France’s sense of itself as a great, global power, and it was largely thanks to General Charles de Gaulle, and the Free French movement, that a sense of French self-worth was maintained.

Algeria was not regarded as a colony, but as an integral part of France. This, of course, had to do with proximity and centuries of social interaction, but also, once again, as part of France’s image of itself as an imperial power. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu rocked that self-image, and there was a definite sense that Algeria would not be allowed to go the way of Indochina.

Algerians, however, had other ideas. As the French celebrated VE day, independence activists in Algeria began demonstrating. What began as a march ended up as a massacre, and almost 100 French settlers, or pieds-noirs, were singled out and murdered. In November 1954, soon after Dien Bien Phu, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launches armed revolts throughout Algeria, issuing a proclamation calling for a sovereign Algerian state. Before long, French troops were on the ground.

As befitting the reputation of the French armed forces, they took no prisoners. As French civilians were targeted by the FLN, the French army responded with disproportionate force, and very quickly the bodies began stacking up. Bombings and attacks against civilians continued, and heavy reprisals followed.

The French Fourth Republic, implemented after WWII, was imperiled for numerous reasons, but it certainly won no friends in its response to the war in Algeria. French pieds-noirs agitated for the great General Charles de Gaulle to be installed in power. It was imagined that de Gaulle, as a staunch nationalist, would bolster the French position in Algeria, but he did not. What he recognized instead was that the days of French empire were over, and that not only would Algeria inevitably gain independence, but so would the rest of Africa.

After an attempted coup d’état, and deep expressions of discontent, the French military and settler establishment bend to the inevitable. In May 1961, negotiations began. By July 1962, elections are underway, and six million Algerians put their mark on an independence ballot. Thus commenced the beginning of the end of the French empire in Africa.

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
UN Troops getting down to business during the 1960 Congo Crisis. Pininterest.

The Congo Crisis

The Belgians were always reluctant colonizers. The vast territory of the Belgian Congo was inherited as part of the discredited legacy of King Leopold II. When, in the late 1950s, African nationalist movements began agitating for independence, the Belgians were only too glad to give it to them. Fearful of an Algeria-style civil war, power was handed over to the first candidate to hold his hands out for it, and that someone was a firebrand idealist by the name of Patrice Lumumba.

The Belgians, however, made the same mistake as many other colonial powers, and that was to construct a glass ceiling above which no indigenous African could rise. The result was a civil service with no senior black bureaucrats, and a defense force with no black officers. Handing over power, therefore, to a black political elite was all well and good, but as whites began to leave, the administration was staffed at a senior level by those without any training to govern.

In the case of the Army, Belgian officers were retained, simply because no indigenous officers existed, and the army could not be handed over to a corps of major generals who had been corporals a week earlier. Within a month, the Force Publique mutinied, which set the spark to the tinder of probably one of Africa’s ugliest wars.

The armed forces mutiny set in motion a series of secessionist declarations, that each devolved very quickly into a civil war. The southern province of Katanga, the mineral-rich region of Congo, was quick to declare separate independence, but because of its mineral wealth, and the weight of Belgian investment, Belgian boots were on the ground fairly quickly. Into the picture dropped a United Nations multi-national forces, and suddenly the world body found itself in the only hot war of its existence.

In the meanwhile, central government began to crumble very quickly. Lumumba was dismissed by his deputy, who was in turn dismissed by Lumumba. When his appeals for Western military support were ignored, Lumumba began talking to the Soviets. That certainly did not go down well, and before long, Lumumba was arrested, and held incognito while significant damage was done to his person.

Who was behind it has never been fully ascertained, but by February, Lumumba was dead, with fingers pointing at the US, at the Belgians and at the UN.

The bloody chaos continued until 1965 when a massively over-promoted staff officer of the army called Joseph Mobutu seized power in a military coup. The country became Zaire, and Mobuto its de facto king. Mobuto would define African kleptocracy and would rule Zaire as his personal bank for over thirty years. The Congo never recovered and is still the original African basket case.

10 of the Most Blood Soaked African Battles and Conflicts the World Has Ever Seen
A suspected guerrilla held by Rhodesian mounted infantry Source: Medium.

The Rhodesian War

The Congo borders Zambia in the south. At the time of the Congo Crisis, Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia, and it was part of a large complex of British colonies that included Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. As the Congo Crisis unfolded, panicked Belgian refugees flooded south, convincing white Rhodesians that any concession made to black nationalism in their colony would result in precisely the same thing. Nyasaland became Malawi in 1964, and Northern Rhodesia Zambia a few months later, but Southern Rhodesia, the future Zimbabwe, committed itself to fight.

Suspicious of the intentions of the British Government, which seemed determined to hand over its colonies in Africa to the Africans whatever the consequences, Southern Rhodesia declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965. The result was that Rhodesia became a rebel republic, unrecognized by any major country, and sanctioned by the United Nations. Rhodesia hoped that this would result in a fait accompli, but it did not. The tide of history was against it. What occurred instead was war.

Nationalist groups formed up in exile in Zambia, and began a guerrilla campaign against a well-organized and well-armed Rhodesian security force. The result for a long time was a bloody, but one-sided war. Nationalist guerrillas were forced to cross the Zambezi River to enter Rhodesia, and they were easily identified, tracked down and killed. They were killed in large numbers.

In 1975, however, a long-running war of independence in Mozambique came to an end. Exhausted by years of war, Lisbon lost its resolve and capitulated, and suddenly Rhodesia had on its eastern frontier a 400-mile hostile front. The war was no longer one-sided. Nationalist groups, led mainly by Robert Mugabe, adopted a human wave approach, flooding the country with poorly armed and trained cadre, who nonetheless stretched the capacity of the Rhodesian security forces beyond its functional capacity.

Rhodesian tactics then switched to domestic security containment and heavy cross-border raids that wreaked a massive cost in enemy manpower. Nonetheless, the trajectory of the war was unchanged. The loss of an entire revolutionary brigade counted less than the loss of a single Rhodesia combat group, and the end was inevitable.

The war reached a negotiated conclusion at the end of 1979. Although undefeated, the Rhodesian Security Forces could no longer sustain war. The transfer of power came in April 1980, as the Union Jack was lowered, and the flag of the Republic of Zimbabwe was raised in its place. The cost of life of this war was astronomical, but as its first indigenous leader, Robert Mugabe took the oath of office, harder times still were yet to come.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Zulu: The True Story”. BBC, Dr. Saul David. February 2011.

“Isandlwana.” National Army Museum.

“A Chronology of the Algerian War of Independence”. The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens. November 2006

“Congo Civil War (1960-1964)”. Black Past, Ryan Hurst

“Second Anglo-Boer War 1899 – 1902”. South African History

“An Overview of the East Africa Campaign”. Peter Baxter. Peter Baxter History, August 2011

“East African Campaign. An Archive of WWII Memories.” Written by the Public and Gathered by the BBC