Contemporary political discourse in Britain is saturated by sepia-tinged memorialisation of the Second World War. Parties across the country’s growing political divide invoke slogans and imagery redolent of the ‘blitz spirit’ or ‘going it alone’. Far from being a recent development, politicians have long sought to use these memories for contemporary purposes.
In settler societies such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) narratives and memories of war service played a critical role in emerging settler nationalisms in the twentieth century. War service to Britain, or the experience of war – particularly the First and Second World Wars – acted as a solvent for the white community, and so complicates popular understandings of Britain (and the Empire’s war) as a relatively uncomplicated fight for ‘good’.
What actually happened on the ground in these conflicts was far less important than what they represented to settler societies. These representations were a central part of the way in which nascent settler societies talked about and understood themselves in the decades after, as the British Empire began to collapse.
The people of Rhodesia gave generously to the imperial war effort in both 1914 and 1939. As a proportion of the settler population, the number of Rhodesian servicemen was one of the highest in the empire. Rhodesians, like settlers elsewhere in colonies such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, joined up to defend a shared imperial and ethnic ideal, an image of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ centred upon notions of justice, freedom, and civilisation.
Rhodesian contingents in the First and Second World Wars fought across the imperial armies, often with British and South African units as well as a few dedicated Rhodesian ones. In the Second World War, the country made a particularly notable contribution in the sky, with three RAF squadrons (two of fighter planes and one of bombers) made up largely of Rhodesian pilots. Yet as in other settler societies, as well as Britain, the subsequent narratives of war focused largely upon the white soldiery.
This racial lens was important because it would feed into collective memories of the war, and subsequent stories and understandings of what war service meant, and the obligations it created for the British state. In the settler colonies, this often led to calls for greater political autonomy for settlers, whereas in Britain it fed into understandings of who was a deserving recipient of the new welfare state.
It is only in recent years that the racialised narratives of Britain’s war have begun to be challenged by historians and commentators seeking to rehabilitate the multinational and multiracial nature of Britain’s ‘lone’ resistance to Germany after the fall of France in 1940. Thousands of African, mixed-race, and Asian soldiers fought for Rhodesia in the First and Second World Wars. In the 1960s, black soldiers constituted the majority of the Rhodesian settler state’s police and armed forces, yet their contribution was ignored when it came to calls for independence.
In 1964, as Britain’s African colonies began to gain independence, and the far-right Rhodesian Front (RF) government was locked in interminable negotiations for a form of minority-rule independence that defied continental trends, RF politicians evoked the Second World War as a justification for continued settler control.
This was aided by the personal experiences of many settler politicians, not least the Prime Minister, Ian Douglas Smith, who had served with 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF. Rhodesian settlers’ war record was called upon to paradoxically suggest the ultra-loyalism of the settler colony, whilst also being offered as a justification for its independence. Rhodesia’s Case for Independence, a government pamphlet issued in October 1965 claimed: ‘[i]t hurts when people whose way of life is our way of life, people whose blood is our blood, people with whom we have stood in adversity and triumph… turn.. on us.’
After unilaterally declaring independence (UDI) from Britain at the highly symbolic time of 11am on 11 November 1965, the exact time of the minute’s silence to remember British and Commonwealth War Dead, the idioms of white Rhodesian nationalism were the idioms of Second World War Britain. The spirit of Churchill (who conveniently died in October 1965) was constantly invoked, with Ian Smith claiming that he would move to Rhodesia if he was still alive.
Smith himself was repeatedly compared to Churchill and a ‘keep calm and carry on’ spirit was invoked by the government. To commemorate the UDI, the RF released a pamphlet, Rhodesia’s Finest Hour, whose title evoked Churchill’s famous speech at the opening of the Battle of Britain. Desmond Lardner-Burke, Rhodesia’s Justice Minister claimed in a 1966 memoir: ‘[t]he attitude of Rhodesia today is the same as that adopted b Britain after Dunkirk… we have no beaches, but we will fight in the streets, we will fight in the open.’ William J. Fanning, an ordinary Rhodesian writing to The Rhodesia Herald on 19 November 1965 was also optimistic, claiming ‘[t]he spirit of the Battle of Britain will once again… guarantee Rhodesia a safe and happy future.’
Rhodesia’s rebellion and international pariah status fed into its own ‘lone’ resistance narratives, allowing Rhodesians such as A Whatling to believe that the country could take up the former imperial power’s mantle in Africa and ‘show the world the true meaning of being an Englishman.’ White Rhodesian nationalism in these early years was a heady cocktail of transnational and national influences: ultra-loyalism, imperialism, and debates on what it meant to be both British and Rhodesian.
Yet, as well as providing a convenient frame of reference, these narratives of the Second World War provided an anchor for the white Rhodesian community. They rationalised the settler state’s increasingly violent conflicts with black nationalist liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the liberation war was essentially a domestic, civil conflict against settler racial discrimination it was presented as an existential battle to defend the Western capitalist way of life against a nefarious and overwhelmingly powerful external foe.
In this sense it could be seen as just another battle against a totalitarian system, a continuation of the British (and imperial) struggle against fascism in 1939-45. They provided an important solvent and shared frame of reference to a peripatetic immigrant community that was known for its impermanence, becoming the nucleus around which a Rhodesian identity could cohere.
As the centenary commemorations of the First World War draw to a close, it is worth reflecting on the stories we choose to tell about these conflicts. The wars, which continue to have a close personal resonance for many families in Britain and its former colonies, have given rise to monolithic national meta-narratives that continue to structure the way we see and engage with the wider world.
The renaissance of wartime nostalgia which dominates British politics today is no more or less artificial than those stories which sustained the rebel Rhodesians fifty years ago. They carry the same series of implicit understandings about obligations, sacrifices, and prices that continue to animate contemporary Western political discourse.
David Kenrick is an independent researcher. He received his BA and MA from the University of Liverpool and his D.Phil. from St John’s College, University of Oxford. His first book, “Decolonisation, Identity and Nation in Rhodesia, 1964-1979” was published by Palgrave as part of the Britain and the World Series on 12 December 2019. He has published work in the Journal for Southern African Studies (JSAS) regularly reviews books on imperial history, decolonisation, and settler colonialism for the JSAS, Itinerario, and other journals. He tweets at @dwkenrick
 R. Blake, A History of Rhodesia (London, 1977), p. 168, p. 235. See C. Lee, Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and Genealogical Imagination in British Africa (Durham, N. Carolina, 2014) for an exploration of the role of ‘coloured’ community, as mixed-race people were commonly known in Southern Africa.
 Rhodesia’s Case for Independence, Rhodesian Ministry of Information, Immigration and Tourism (Salisbury, 1965), p. 2.
 D. Lardner-Burke, Rhodesia, The Story of the Crisis (London, 1966),p. 65.
 William J. Fanning, ‘Crushing blow against the forces of evil’, The Rhodesia Herald, 19 November 1965, p. 10.
 Mrs A Whatling, ‘Let us show the world the true meaning of being an Englishman’, The Rhodesia Herald, 22 November 1965, p. 9.
 See P. Godwin & I. Hancock, Rhodesians Never Die (Oxford, 1993) and P. McLaughlin & P. Moorcraft, The Rhodesian War: Fifty Years On (Barnsley, 2015) for explorations of the war in the 60s and 70s.
Figure 1 is in the public domain
Figure 2 is able to be used on a non-commercial licence: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8457).