2023 Regiments

‘Basuto’: A Lost Chapter in Malta’s War

Very little, if anything, is known about the Basotho during the Second World War in Malta. Although local legends are plenty, there are no documented accounts, save for the odd Facebook post. However, their impression on the Maltese population lives on in the colloquial term ‘Basutu’ which is derogatory for an ugly person. Unfortunately, their only legacy is a supposed eccentricity in bodily ornamentation and habits, and perhaps Leslie Cole’s painting of Basutos sorting mail. 

‘Malta Convoy Basutos Deal with the Overflow Mail on the Causeway, the Palace, Valletta’ by Leslie Cole, © Art.IWM ART LD 3254. Most likely, this is a representation of the old Palace armoury which was emptied of arms and armour for safekeeping and converted into a mail sorting office in 1942. One can note the dark remains of mannequins in the background.

The Basothos Coys. (companies) in Malta were part of the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (AAPC). After the Fall of France, Britain looked to its colonies to bring up the numbers it needed for the years ahead. It found such manpower in its trusted human reserves of India and Africa. Thousands of Basothos from Basutoland (modern day Lesotho) and Mauritians would be trained in chemical warfare, musketry, and parade drill to serve in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, North Africa, Cyprus, Sicily, Italy, and Malta. 

There is some evidence in pre-war years of Basothos holding some place in Maltese public knowledge. On the 21st of July 1932, the Times of Malta ran an article titled ‘The Cure for Tuberculosis: Basuto Medicine Man’s Aid’. The short piece described a medicinal plant found in south africa, whose curative properties were revealed by the Basothos. Perhaps this is indicative of the finite Maltese perception the local population and garrison had of Basothos before their arrival. Specifically, the fact that the British mispronounced and misspelt the correct title in Sesotho; ‘Basotho’, and adopted the corrupted version ‘Basuto’, an attempted direct translation of the correct pronunciation; ‘Basutu’, which the Maltese further fashioned into ‘Bazuti’ or ‘Bazuta’.

AAPC personell at work in Malta

As Malta went from defence to offence, it hurriedly readied itself as a military base capable of assisting the large invasion force assembling for Sicily. In March of 1943, 1923 Coy. (company) travelled to Egypt by train from Nahr Ibrahim in Lebanon, not far from Bawden’s picture of Jdeideh. By early April they were in Alexandria to board HMS Princess Kathleen with 1921 Coy. headed for Malta who had come from Byblos. On the 12th of April, 1921 and 1923 Coys. disembarked in bad weather onto the quays of Malta, with the former briefly accommodated at St Andrew’s barracks. After a medical inspection, they moved to Nigret in Zurrieq. 1923 Coy. was sent to Pembroke before setting up their beds under canvas in a field just outside Lija. A few days later, 1949. Coy. would disembark and make home out of Wolseley battery in Delimara, with 6 sections ‘in hut’ and 8 under canvas. By September they moved to a new site close to Hompesch gate on the outskirts of Zabbar. There is space to suggest that such remote accommodations partly reflected the British sentiment that the African troops needed dissuasion from mixing with the local population.

Church Parade-Service conducted by a Sergeant Padre, 1975th Bechuana Coy, 64 Group AAPC, near Jdeide, Lebanon, by Edward Bawden, IWMARTLD2218

The last to arrive were 1950 Coy. and 1969 (Bechuana) Coy. respectively. The former had left Durban in March, aboard H.M.T Pulaski. Of their journey they write: ‘Training other than educational impossible owing to crowded men’s quarters, and consequent lack of deck space’. They would travel to Mombasa Kenya, reporting scabies and lice, before reaching ‘Port Suez’. Here, 373 ‘native’ ordinary ranks, boarded a crowded train to Qassasin camp, one of the largest British training centres on the continent. On their arrival in Malta on the 21st of May, they were also billeted far away from locals, in Bingemma Gap and Palazzo Gomerino in winter. Throughout their stay, all Basothos Coys. would also form detachments and camp in locations as needed such as Xghajra and Floriana. 

Not all Basothos and other foreign troops destined for Malta reached the island. In late April of 1943, 1919 and 1927 Basotho Coys., Indian seamen, and British Palestinian Jewish Soldiers (from the 462nd Hebrew transport Coy.) in Alexandria embarked on the troopship Erinpura on a convoy of well over twenty vessels. Of 1215 troops on the convoy, over 700 were Basothos. The Erinpura, equipped with obsolete 12 pounder anti-aircraft guns, was hit by a bomb and sank very quickly off the coast of Benghazi. Norman Clothier notes that only 203 troops reached the shores of Tripoli safely, with over 600 Basothos losing their lives trapped in the lower decks for safety from strafing and shrapnel. The Basothos are renown for their singing, and it fascinating but certainly not surprising that Clothier also documents a song about this tragic event written by survivors which begins with the following verses:

The day we were bound for Malta

Ships were sunk

By the German flying birds

They thundered! thunder! thunder!


Bombard! Bombard! Thundered!

The Basothos that reached Malta mostly (but not entirely) carried out manual labour. 1923 Coy. was put to work on Manoel island barracks, cable laying, unloading supplies, and ‘general dump’ cleanup. 1921 Coy. worked on ‘Hal Far Quarry’, ‘Hal Far road’, and ‘Luqa’. The exact type of work is rarely and vaguely mentioned. However, from the few instances where it is described in better detail, it ranged from ammunition unloading and stacking, supply transport, and, most crucially, road repair and runway building, sometimes even through the night. This work also brought them in contact with ongoing events on the island. 1949 Coy. often had trouble resuming work at the docks due to the ongoing strikes. 1921 Coy. write about their practice parade on the new Safi Aerodrome on the 14th of May 1943 before the official opening the next day with 24 Basothos providing a ‘representational detachment’. One Times article dated August 8th 1943, narrating the story of the invasion of Sicily, states that Safi aerodrome was completed in two and a half months, thanks to assistance from the A.R.P (Air Raid Precautions) servicemen, Maltese labourers and ‘with Basuto and Mauritian troops chocolate coloured and cheerful, performing miracles with picks and shovels’. 

AAPC personell working in Malta

The religious life of the Basothos in Malta is unknown, alongside their displaced lives, thousands of miles away from home. In May, 11 Basuthos from 1923. Coy. were confirmed at St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral (Valletta’s Anglican Church) and 40 more from 1950 Coy. and 29 from 1949 Coy. in September. On the 11th of November Cpl. Mongakane from 1921 Coy. is reported dead with mention of a funeral. However, there is no mention of M. Alotsi from 1950 Coy. in the respective war diary. Both are buried at Imtarfa Military Cemetery where their graves can still be found. One can point at the then ongoing Typhus Epidemic as a likely cause of death. Following Mangakane’s death, the men from all Coys. were given a series of inoculations. Reports concerning doses are found on the 13th, 14th, 15th, 21st, and 30th November. This would not have been the first illness to befall Basothos. Besides scabies on troopships, one pioneer from 1923. Coy. had suffered ‘bronchial pneumonia’ back in May. 

We only get a glimpse of their Maltese stay outside of their duties on Sundays, when the extant diaries describe attending mass, cleaning clothes, and airing their blankets. Most notably, this was also the time to sing. The Basothos held a long-standing tradition of what is described reductively as ‘singing’. This is most likely a reference to their vocal performances, possibly the inherently competitive sefela performances, popular with the miners, which many Basothos were before becoming pioneers. This matches with the mention of ‘singing Contest’ between coys. Perhaps it was also an effective means through which inherent ethnic tensions, present since the inception of separate pioneer Coys for each tribe, could be released, as well as an opportunity for poetic expression.

In June, 1921 Coy. held a ‘singing competition’ against 1923, the latter competing against 1949 in October. We can get an idea of the impression this had on the locals from 1944, when a Times of Malta column piece concerning a variety show documents Basotho singing as ‘the most original of all’. The author adds that ‘for the first time in any stage we heard the strangely beautiful barbaric melodies of Basutoland. My one regret was that there is no means of recording this unique experience’. One can observe a certain attractive-disgust, an awkward fascination with the ‘barbaric’ otherness of the Basothos, but wholehearted admiration for what the British referred to as their ‘singing’. 

Basotho lifela 'singing'

During their duty in Malta, they also attended one ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) party, their diary reporting that the ‘shows greatly appreciated’. Leading up to late December, even sheep were purchased for Christmas.  The 1921 Coy. diary, writes of their Christmas: ‘the men are happy and contented’. In no other British regimental war diary is the state of morale mentioned, let alone if ordinary ranks are ‘happy’ or ‘contented’. It is, perhaps, indicative of the particular perspective and attitude the British Empire held towards its African auxiliaries. Another clue lies in Basotho criminal records. Murders and thefts are documented across multiple British regiments, for the AAPC in Malta there is a record for petty theft and rape. The latter was not only imprisoned, but recommended to be incarcerated in the Colonial Troops’ prison in Palestine, and eventually back to his home country on the grounds that he could not speak english, and “does not eat the same type of food as Maltese and United Kingdom personell”. More so, the fact that “he is a Basuto”, potentially outcast and mistreated, would result in his sentence being “somewhat similar to solitary confinement” (6551/1943). 

Leslie Cole sketching an AAPC ordinary rank in Malta

This sense of exoticism and condescension, is evident in a humorous mistranslation from the King’s visit to Malta on his way to the 8th army in North Africa in June of 1943. Basothos on the island had the opportunity to participate in the Empire’s celebrations. A Times of Malta article dated June 27th reports that the King left his visit to one of Malta’s airfields by driving ‘through a solid double file of cheering Basutos’. In Naxxar, Basothos lined the road as the royal entourage passed by. The war diary of 1950 Coy. records that Basothos hailed the words ‘Khotso Pula’ as the King passed by, as others had done to Churchill in Italy. These words are a common greeting but also enshrined on Lesotho’s national emblem to this day and can be translated to ‘peace’ and ‘rain’. Such phrases were, undoubtedly, exotic observations for spectators. One of which being a Times of Malta correspondent, who reported that: ‘English and Melissa, Scots and Irish, British all, had one thought in their mind as the King drove past. And yea, so had the Basutos. These did not hurrah. They “000H…-LAAll.” The Australian correspondent alleged it was their jungle war-cry. Whatever it was, it was heart-felt and sincere and completely understandable to the spirit. Good old Basutos.’

AAPC ordinary rank in Malta. His belt is adorned with regimental cap badges aswell as some type of dagger.

By August, Basothos were working in Naxxar gap, as well as several ammunition dumps and cable laying. They work with RASC on Manoel island, the Royal army ordnance Corps in Xaghra, and in Tigne clearing debris. This is how Maltese collective memory of the Basothos, in its fogginess, has remembered the ‘Basuto’: labourers. Perhaps it is also because toiling on runways and driving lorries stacked with ammunition are the only sights the Maltese had access to for these foreigners at work. The truth is that some were also soldiers alongside pioneers, and their diaries record ample training with weapons. While some were better equipped than others, most coys. had some level of weapons proficiency. In July, 1923 Coy. records training on ranges. The following month, together with 1921 Coy. They exchanged their two Breda machine guns for the much better Bren. They would also organise demonstrations, and shooting competitions with their new Enfields, replacing the ill-famed Italian rifles. Basothos in Malta were also trained to use gas-masks, even using gas chambers to ensure proper technique.

As R.A.R Bent notes, the 1966 (Bangwato tribe) and 1969 Coys. (Bakwena and Batawana tribes) were also in Malta, as well as others in transit. However Basothos were not the only Africans to serve thousands of miles away from home in the Mediterranean. The 1969 Bechuana (Bakwena) Coy. lost one of its ranks, R. Otukile, on the island and is buried at Pembroke Military Cemetery. There is also some evidence pointing at the 1501 Mauritian Coy. listed for Malta. It is not clear where all Coys ended up after Malta, or when and if they returned home. However, the 1969 Bechuana Coy. had a very short stay in Malta, leaving for Sicily on the 13th of July, before embarking for Taranto, and traveling through mainland Italy as working parties .

Times of Malta, 4th August 1943

It is clear that the Basotho were the only companies from the AAPC to have left their mark in Malta. Besides their place in people’s memory as labourers to the British Military, there are also several anecdotes floating between fact and legend. One being that one or more Basotho had children with local women, and fragmented recollections of a variety of places where they marched past, passed by, or camped in. What is certain is that, despite their important contributions to the island, their story is completely absent in official publications on the Second World War in Malta.


Basotho war diaries, 1921, 1923, and 1950 Companies, 1943, National Archives UK.

CSG-01- 6551-1943, ‘Transfer of M. Mpale to a Prison for Colonial Troops in Palestine, National Archives of Malta. 


It is worth briefly mentioning that on the 16th of December 1943 Malta received 100 pounds from the Basutoland War Charity Fund.

With special thanks to Simon Cusens for providing the images and sparking our interest which led to this research.
Dedicated to the memory of Norman Clothier 


Nikolai Debono

On behalf of Battlefront Malta