This film is held by the BFI (ID: 21189).


A film made for African audiences showing how Basuto troops are occupied in the Allied cause.

A title reads 'Middle East: Basuto fire fighters in action'. A fire has been lit on a stone jetty. At the fire station, the alarm is sounded and a group of uniformed Africans get into a fire engine and drive off. The response on the scene is then shown, as the hose is unloaded and set up to pump water from the sea. Two firefighters direct the hoses onto the fire until the flames are extinguished. The next sequence is introduced as 'Italy: Basuto troops with a mountain battery'. The troops here are responsible for the wellbeing of the pack animals. They are seen grooming, shoeing, cutting hay, loading up and leading out the animals. The sequence includes shots of an African vet attending to a horse and European and African men sitting down and smoking.



A synopsis of Basuto Troops on Active Service appeared in the March 1945 issue of Colonial Cinema. ‘Like their comrades in arms from Swaziland, Basutos did fine work in North Africa, Sicily and Italy’, the magazine reported. It added that ‘the first sequence shows their smartness and efficiency as firemen – very important work in any army; and the second pictures their work as muleteers supplying mountain batteries in Italy’ (Colonial Cinema, March 1945, 23). The film was intended for exhibition in Africa. Indeed, when a questionnaire sent out by the Colonial Film Unit to mobile cinema operators in Africa during 1943 asked a cinema operator in Basutoland for the most popular films in the area, he replied ‘The Basuto in the Middle East – or at least the work of the A.A.P.C. [African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps.] there, with a fairly good share of Basuto scenes’ (CO875/10/11).

The Basuto war experience began in earnest in 1941 when General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, issued a call for African soldiers to support the fighting fronts in the Middle East. The African Pioneer Corps recruited 22,000 Basuto, and from 1943 – after initial experiments in March 1942 – these troops were used to ‘dilute’ white regiments (Jackson, 2006, 260). The troops performed a variety of roles, with thousands now trained as 3.7 inch mobile gunners and thus engaging with the enemy directly for the first time. Others trained at the Army Fire Fighting Centre in Abbassia (Jackson, 2002, 746). Brian Gray, in his 1953 account of Basuto soldiers, wrote that ‘For three years Basuto fire brigades of sixteen men each and two or three UK NCOs gave protection to vital points throughout the Middle East. Virtually every military fire brigade in the Middle East was diluted with Basuto and it may fairly be said that they were the firemen of the Middle East’ (Gray, 1953, 79).

By 1943, after the defeat of the Axis forces in Africa, the Basuto troops were increasingly deployed in Sicily and Italy. Basuto companies landed in Italy in September 1943 when the Eighth Army invaded and many were drafted into the mountain regiments of the Royal Artillery. Ashley Jackson noted that ‘560 Basotho of the 1921 and 1929 companies were trained as muleteers in autumn 1943’ (Jackson, 2002, 747). These men were ‘especially recruited because of their skill in working with the beasts in their mountainous homeland’ and as well as transporting ammunition and supplies to imperial soldiers fighting in the Italian mountains, they would also evacuate the wounded to casualty clearing stations (Jackson, 2006, 264). In many instances, given the treacherous terrain, parts of the journey would be made by the men, ‘each carrying sixty pounds of ammunition and supplies’ (Jackson, 2002, 747).

By the end of the War though there was evidence of increasing frustration and dissatisfaction amongst the Basuto troops, who had previously been told that they would return home as soon as Germany was defeated. Thousands of Basuto men were still serving in the Middle East at the end of 1945 and British reports suggested that the troops were now ‘a liability and not an asset’, with ‘mass indiscipline’ within the companies. There were increasing disputes between British officers and African other ranks, sit down protests and violent confrontations. For example, a detachment of North Staffordshires with tommy guns and tanks quelled a potential riot amongst a Basuto Company in November 1945, while a ‘notorious mutiny’ at No. 57 Military Prison and Detention Barracks at the very end of 1945, culminated in British paratroops opening fire on the rioting Basuto detainees (Jackson, 1999, 449).  



Basuto Troops on Active Service unites two separate films, which in terms of film style appear vastly different. The first sequence is carefully staged and features numerous shots edited together in order to highlight the speed and urgency at which the Basuto firemen operate, while the footage in Italy contains lengthier shots of the Africans tending to the mules. Although this composite film was released towards the end of the War, these two sequences may well have been shown in Basutoland before, particularly as the Colonial Film Unit questionnaire indicated the popularity of, and desire for, footage of Basuto troops in 1943. The film’s message by 1945 may have shifted within the context of an impending victory – from a call to arms to a celebration of imperial co-operation – but this image of contented and co-operating Basuto troops still serves an important function at a time when reports indicated increasing dissatisfaction amongst the remaining Basuto troops.

In many respects, the image of the African troops projected within the film is a subservient one – they put out fake fires and look after mules – and the Basuto men are, in the final sequence, presented almost as cattle. Yet the representation of the Africans is more complex than this and, as a film intended for African audiences, functions in part as a means of control within a colonial rhetoric of British instruction and gradual development. First, the film highlights the uniforms and, in the words of Colonial Cinema, the ‘smartness and efficiency’ of the firemen, using costume as a signifier of the perceived social developments of the Africans under British supervision. Then, in the second segment, the film emphasises the interaction between the Europeans and Africans. For example, Europeans sit and smoke with Basuto troops in an informal context, promoting this ideal of social interaction and of imperial collaboration. Finally, the film depicts skilled Africans. For example, an African vet tends to a horse, while a European stands and holds it. Ultimately this film offers a further indication of how the British wished to represent the Africans to African audiences. The end of the War brought enormous debate about the position of the Africans within a rapidly changing Empire, and viewed within this context, the film seems to promote evolution not revolution, projecting an image of gradual development for the Africans under British supervision.

Tom Rice (August 2008)


Works Cited

Colonial Cinema, March 1945, 23.

Gray, Brian, Basuto Soldiers in Hitler’s War (Basutoland Government, 1953).

Jackson, Ashley, Botswana, 1939-1945: An African Country at War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Jackson, Ashley, ‘Supplying War: The High Commission Territories' Military-Logistical Contribution in the Second World War’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 3 (July 2002), 719-760.

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

‘Replies to Questionnaire on Films Shown’, CO875/10/11, held at the National Archives (PRO).




Technical Data

Running Time:
7 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
605 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit







Production Organisations