This film is held by the BFI (ID: 669511).


An illustration of the role of African servicemen in the Second World War. The King's African Rifles and the Royal West African Frontier Force are seen on manoeuvres in Ceylon, the Gold Coast regiment are shown building a ferry, and the Nigerian Artillery Regiment are seen carrying and assembling their weapons. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, anti-aircraft crews practise firing their weapons and sailors are shown receiving their preliminary training in physical exercise and squad drill. Pilot Officer Peter Thomas, the first African pilot with the Royal Air Force, is seen taking off, flying and landing his aircraft.



In October 1943, a note in the journal Colonial Cinema explained that ‘Considerable progress has been made with the film on the African campaigns which is being compiled from library material’. As ‘a preliminary’, it added, ‘many thousands of feet of film received in this country from various sources were examined carefully for material suitable for this film’. The completed film, Africa’s Fighting Men, comprised entirely of items that had previously appeared in the first eight issues of Colonial Film Unit’s fortnightly 16mm silent newsreel, The British Empire at War. Colonial Cinema regretted that some of the stages of the war were not adequately covered on film, but said that the CFU still ‘hoped to compile a documentary which has a great deal of historic value’ (Colonial Cinema, October 1943, 4).

By April 1944, when discussing the use of newsreels in mass education in Africa, Colonial Cinema reserved particular praise for Africa’s Fighting Men. ‘When compiled into a film, they [the sequences] present a most creditable record of the contribution the African colonies are making to the fighting forces of the Empire. This film’, the report added, ‘has been in greater demand for universal circulation than any other of the Unit’s productions or compilations’ (Colonial Cinema, April 1944, 15). Although initially presented as a silent film, Colonial Cinema stated in January 1944 that ‘There have been so many calls for this picture that a sound version has been made. One 35mm copy is being sent to the Principal Information Office in Nairobi and one to Accra’ (Colonial Cinema, January 1944, 4).

As with all CFU productions, Africa’s Fighting Men was primarily intended for African audiences, yet it also played to British audiences as part of the touring ‘Colonies Exhibition’. The exhibition opened in Newcastle in October 1943 and moved to other cities including Southampton, Cardiff, London, Hull and Glasgow over the next year. Africa’s Fighting Men served as part of a programme, along with Machi Gaba and Progress in the Colonies (Kenya), that played at the exhibition’s film theatre. Colonial Cinema deemed this a success, reporting that 5,549 out of 8,066 visitors had viewed the films in Newcastle, while they were now playing to ‘packed houses in Southampton’. The films were used here to educate British audiences – ‘One devoted school teacher came day after day with different groups of children’ – and sought to challenge popular perceptions of the Empire. ‘The great majority of people in Britain still think vaguely of the Colonies as hot countries thousands of miles away and inhabited by “Natives”’, the journal stated, adding that this exhibition was ‘admirably designed to give a clear idea of what and where the Colonies are, and of how the people live and are governed’ (Colonial Cinema, December 1943, 3).

The final item within Africa’s Fighting Men features Pilot Officer Peter Thomas. Thomas had arrived in Britain in February 1941 and was the first African to qualify for a commission in the RAF. He was positioned as a role model for West Africans, broadcasting on the BBC radio show ‘Calling West Africa’ and, with his interests ‘extended to social welfare and labour problems’, assumed ‘other responsibilities on behalf of the Colonial Office’ (Lambo, 1994, 158). Robert Kakembo, writing in An African Soldier Speaks, suggested that Thomas, alongside other prominent African war figures, helped to generate pan-African, rather than specifically tribal, pride amongst Africans. ‘We are all happy and clap our hands’, Kakembo wrote, ‘when we see in the pictures in a cinema, Pilot Officer Peter Thomas of Lagos, the first African to be granted His Majesty’s Commission RAF. We are proud of him. He is one of us. He is an African’ (Kakembo, 1946). Although the number of black pilots remained low – a memorandum for the Air Ministry in early 1945 estimated that 422 ‘coloured’ (West Indian, West African and South Asian flyers) had served as aircrew during the war, with a further 3,900 serving as ground crew – the Colonial Office widely publicised their efforts (Francis, 2008, 59). For example, Flying Officer Ulrich Cross from Trinidad, who spoke on BBC radio’s Calling the West Indies, featured prominently in the film, West Indies Calling. The Colonial Film Unit also produced an extended film, ‘Pilot Officer Peter Thomas, RAF’ (No. 40), which also showed Thomas ‘during his leisure time, when he takes part in the social and religious life at the Station’. Towards the end of the War, Thomas was admitted as a law student at the Middle Temple (his sister Stella was the first female barrister and magistrate in West Africa) but he died in January 1945 after hitting high ground while flying out of RAF Madley in Herefordshire (Lambo, 1994, 156). 



As a film intended for African audiences, Africa’s Fighting Men sought to recognise the African war effort, encourage further African support for the War, and promote a message of continuing imperial interdependency. These messages are most explicitly revealed through the commentary, which outlines the ongoing efforts and support of the Africans in the war effort: ‘the people of Africa are doing excellent work to help the Allied cause both by the production of raw materials and by assigning men for the armed forces’. It suggests that their efforts have been widely recognised – ‘such regiments as the King’s African Rifles and the Royal West African Frontier Force are known the world over and Africans have played their part in the war from the Abyssinian campaign to the victory in Sicily’ ­– and, in particular, emphasises the role and support of the British in training the African men. The commentary talks broadly of ‘the Africans’ and assigns specific racial characteristics to them: ‘they are at their best when fighting in the bush’, ‘the great strength and endurance of the African is an invaluable asset in work like this’.  It presents the Africans as ‘brave, loyal men who are ready for any sacrifice’ and repeatedly locates them within an imperial context: ‘these African soldiers are typical of the colonial troops from every part of the Empire’, ‘like every part of the Empire’.

The images largely reinforce these messages, as the Africans are presented across the first five items as a collective body, repeatedly shown training. Indeed, the film’s representation of the African war effort is perhaps most notable for its lack of action footage. This was a source of criticism amongst African audiences. ‘Show us films of actual fighting face to face’, wrote an African teacher from Chalimbana, ‘bombing towns, sinking ships, so that we may understand war: not manufacturing aeroplanes, repairing guns, inspecting troops etc., which are mostly unintelligible and quite uninteresting to us Africans’ (Smyth, 1988, 290). Captain Dickson of the East Africa Command Mobile Propaganda Unit, which toured Northern Nyasaland in late 1943 and early 1944, was also critical of the ‘ill chosen’ sequences within these composite films. He argued that the scenes of Askari transporting gun carriage wheels over the river (evident in the third item ‘With Our African Troops – Artillery in Action’) ‘revives the most hideous memories of the Carrier Corps in the E.A. campaign of 1914-1918 and confirms Africans’ worst suspicions regarding present-day service conditions’. He was also critical of the opening item, showing jungle training in Ceylon, claiming that the footage of Askari ‘naked but for shorts and boots, and wielding machetes’, led Africans at home to assume that ‘they don’t even give you proper uniform in the K.A.R. now’ (Smyth, 1984, 350). Dickson reserved some of his criticisms for the film style itself, writing that ‘practically 100% of films sent out by the Ministry of Information proved quite impossible for Africans [to understand]’ as they followed European film conventions (Smyth, 1988, 291).

The final item, ‘Pilot Officer Peter Thomas, R.A.F.’ does differ however from the previous five items. While the earlier items presented a collective African mass training overseas, this final item focuses on an individual African man, who excels in his work and is presented within a British context. The final sequence sees Thomas shaking hands with a European and framed as his equal. This subject was exceptional enough to warrant its own CFU film, but appears here in stark contrast to the repeated scenes of Africans training and transporting materials.

Tom Rice (October 2009)


Works Cited

‘Complete Victory in Africa’, Colonial Cinema, October 1943, 4.

‘The Colonies Exhibition’, Colonial Cinema, December 1943, 3.

‘Africa’s Fighting Men (Sound)’, Colonial Cinema, January 1944, 4.

‘News Films’, Colonial Cinema, April 1944, 15.

Francis, Martin, The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Kakembo, Robert, An African Soldier Speaks (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1946).

Lambo, Roger, ‘Achtung: The Black Prince: West Africans in the Royal Air Force, 1939-1946’ in David Killingray ed., Africans in Britain (London: Cass, 1994), 145-163.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘War Propaganda during the Second World War in Northern Rhodesia’, African Affairs, Volume 83, No. 332 (July 1984), 345-358.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The British Colonial Film Unit and sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 8, Issue 3 (1988), 285-298. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
14 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
507 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Ministry of Information
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit







Production Organisations