At the start of World War II in 1939, Uganda had only one battalion. At the time the armed forces were referred to as the King’s African Rifles (KAR).
During colonial days, all armed forces in the East African region, which stretched as far as Somaliland, were called King’s African Rifles.
To distinguish the army groups, each battalion name was accompanied by that of its country of origin.
The Ugandan battalion was called the 4th (Uganda) Battalion. Two of its companies were based at the battalion headquarters in Bombo and the other two in Lokitaung, Turkana, in north east Kenya.
When the war started, the two battalions in Bombo were moved to Jinja briefly before being moved to join the rest in Lokitaung.
At the time, the total number of recruits in the police, KAR and the Nubi reservists in Uganda totalled to 77,000. With demand for military service increasing, many of the non-commissioned officers in the police – who were the majority – joined the KAR. It was from these that other battalions were created.
Ugandans were grouped into medical, field ambulance, motor ambulance and the causality clearing station. There were others like the labour and pioneer units and the East African engineers unit in which most of the recruits from Uganda served, mainly in the battle of areas Egypt and the Middle East.
As the war progressed, Jinja became the infantry training centre for both Ugandans and other recruits from Kenya. To meet the numbers required, the colonial office in Uganda started a recruitment drive. They started by recalling the Nubian reservists in Bombo.
Later in 1941, they opened a training centre in Tororo where new recruits were taken for the first phrase of training.
The 4th (Uganda) Battalion was taken out of the country on August 25, 1939, and moved to Mombasa, Kenya. They were moved in February 1940 to Nanyuki, then Mitubiri – both in Kenya – where they were joined by the 24th (Kenya) battalion.
Then governor of Uganda, Sir Philip Mitchell, paid the Ugandan troops a visit as before they moved to Badeda in the Horn of Africa for their first war action against the Italians.
In the battle for Badeda, they took a sizeable number of Italian prisoners of war and a number of war trophies. The battalion then moved into the Abyssinia district, overrunning the Italians along the way as they headed towards Moyale, Yavello and Soroppa where they faced the toughest resistance.
It was from the battle of Soroppa that Company Sergeant Maj Zefania Mayanja was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal because of exemplary performance.
From the Horn of Africa, the battalion was moved to Kazi camp in Chittagong in India where it arrived in August 1944. It immediately went into action at Chinmagala in Burma were it was met with serious opposition as it tried to capture Leik Hill.
In the two attempts to take the hill, the Ugandan battalion lost 15 soldiers and many more were injured. They later moved to their trophy which was River Chindwin at Kalewa, in Burma.
It was here that a Ugandan platoon commander, Sgt Nekemia Opio, showed bravery when his platoon managed to subdue a Japanese patrol.
After the Leik Hill battle, the Ugandans were taken to Imphal in India in preparation for a Japanese attack, fortunately the Japanese surrendered before the battle.
After that, the battalion was returned to Kenya, and in May 1948 – nine years since they left home –they came back and went on to form the core of what came to be known as the Uganda Army.
At the end of May 1939, the 7th Battalion was formed for internal security. It was formed mainly from the recalled Nubian reservists.
At the beginning of 1941, two of its companies were sent to Kismayu in Somalia via Lamu. They fought in Mogadishu in Somaliland and Assab in Eritrea.
“The two companies were soon upgraded to frontline battalion and formed part of the 28th East African Brigade stationed in the French Somaliland,” Maj Whitehead writes.
They stayed in Somaliland for a while with no action before being taken to Trincomalee, Ceylon, in Sri Lanka in February 1944 for a nine-month training in jungle warfare. They were then shipped off to Chittagong, Bangladesh.
As they advanced south of Burma, they encountered their first war action in Gangaw, Burma.
Thereafter, they joined the rest of the East African forces at Ranchi, Bihar, in India before being repatriated back to East Africa in May 1946.
In August 1940, another battalion was formed in Bombo and shortly moved to Kazi on the shores of Lake Victoria for further training.
Less than a year after its formation, the battalion sailed off to Berbera in Somaliland to guard the garrisons. In October of the same year, they were taken to Eritrea and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) where they worked as guards of prisoners of war who had to go out and work.
After a long tour of duty in Abyssinia, the battalion was sent for intensive jungle training in Moshi, (Tanzania) before sailing to Ceylon, Sri Lanka, in August 1943. They were involved in the preparation for the war in Burma. They reached Burma in July 1944.
According to Monsoon Victory, a book by Gerald Hanley, another Uganda soldier made a mark in the battle.
“During their advance to Kabaw, Corporal Erieza Okadu captured a Japanese light machine-gunner single-handed, killing the whole crew.
It took two days to clear this opposition, during which time the battalion sustained some casualties. After a rest of a few days, the battalion crossed the Chindwin River [Burma],” Hanley writes.
Besides those active in military participation, there were Ugandans who served in non-combat units. Such units included the Uganda Field Ambulance. This was created at the start of the war and moved into the battle theatre during the war manoeuvres at Isiolo in Kenya.
Maj Whitehead says the Uganda Field Ambulance moved to Turkana to support the attack on Namaraputh and Kalam in the advance into Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
It was later split into groups throughout the operations in the Abyssinia and Massawa in Eritrea. After the capture of Gondar, it operated the town’s main hospital, evacuating casualties to Addis Ababa and Kenya. It later moved to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Tanganyika (Tanzania) before sailing to Ceylon, Sri Lanka.
Another unit formed in Uganda was the Motor Ambulance Company at the end of August 1939. It was immediately transferred to Nairobi, Kenya, where it was split into two wings – medical and transport.
It went into action on the way to Abyssinia with its first staging post on the Garissa road at Mwingi, Kenya. Here it received and treated casualties before evacuating them to Nairobi.
In March 1941, the unit moved to Mogadishu where it found many small detachments receiving and evacuating casualties.
It left Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1941 and moved by road to Eritrea, staying a short while in Adua. It then set up a staging post at Adi Arcai, evacuating the casualties from the Gondar operations.
By the end of the Abyssinian war, the unit withdrew with the rest of the forces towards the south of Abyssinia and Somalia until it moved to Nanyuki, Kenya, in October 1944, where it stayed until it was disbanded in October 1945.