HISTORY is full of surprises. Sometimes, when you least expect it, a historical nugget, probably worth its weight in gold, falls onto your lap and takes your breath away.
Last week, when the UK was commemorating the heroic deeds of its soldiers during the second world war, I stumbled on an article about Lesotho raising enough money to pay for 24 Spitfires for Great Britain’s war effort!
Now, Lesotho may be renowned for its spectacular mountain range, breathtaking fauna and even for its own dinosaur, the Lesothosaurus. But it certainly isn’t among the league of nations anyone would confidently approach with a begging bowl.
If the mountainous Kingdom is poor now, it certainly was even more so during the second world war.
I don’t know the production cost of a single Spitfire, but a figure of £5,000 has been cited in one report. That would mean the tiny Kingdom somehow found £120,000 in its coffers to send to mighty Great Britain!
I can only imagine that the footsoldiers who scoured the Kingdom’s scattered villages with a rallying call to locals to sell their goats, cows or even horses to raise money for the war effort, must have been extremely persuasive, or used coercive methods not duly recorded in history.
Moreover, more than 20,000 Lesotho men answered – or were compelled to answer the call to arms. They joined other African forces that campaigned through Burma, the Middle East, North Africa and Italy.
Writing on the BBC website, David Spenser Evans of the Spitfire Heritage Trust acknowledges that after the war, the contribution made by Africa was relegated to the margins of history.
“This was Britain’s darkest hour. And yet this small nation, five and a half thousands miles away, raised the money to pay for 24 of these magnificent Spitfires. It was an enormous contribution,” Spenser notes.
It beggars belief that as the 70th anniversary of World War II was being commemorated around the world, the role played by more than one million African troops in defeating Hitler and Mussolini didn’t warrant s special mention. That history, it seems, has been conveniently folded and stored in the dim corners of British museums.
Tragically, some of those veterans are still alive and living in poverty while their British counterparts are in comfortable retirement.
One of those Lesotho veterans, Thuso Hlomeli, 93, even told Spenser his British army service number “as if it had been issued yesterday, not in 1943.”
Hlomeli also remembers how he was tasked with the job of searching through the rubble of a bombed out town in Malta, to remove and dispose of dozens of bodies.
While the British press chose to focus on the fact that Spenser and his team spent five years crafting of a replica Spitfire which they handed to Lesotho as a very belated thank you present, there has been a deafening silence regarding the welfare of the veterans who live in poverty.
Having played a crucial role in “saving the beacon” for one of the richest countries in the world, with their lives and with their contributions to buy 24 Spitfires, Lesotho is left to languish in the lower rumps of developing nations in the world.