When their abandoned aircraft was found intact and unharmed on a salt pan, hundreds of miles off course over the border in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the mystery deepened. Over the next few months the bizarre tale of their gruesome fate at the hands of a hunting party of Bushmen slowly emerged – leading to a trial that captured the imagination of the world’s newspapers and, over time, a thick file in the national archives both in Botswana and the UK.
Given the exposure at the time it is slightly surprising that the story has largely been forgotten, even in Botswana. The seventieth anniversary of the end of the war in Europe is, perhaps, a good time not only to tell the full story of the murders but also the roles that Rhodesia and Bechuanaland played in conflict.
Despite being one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Empire, Bechuanaland supplied ten thousand troops to the British Army out of a population of just over a quarter of a million. These soldiers served throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean as drivers, mechanics, gunners, and smoke makers. Today, it is hard to imagine the effect on these young men of the transition from life on the edge of the Kalahari to being part of one of the most technological advanced forces the world had seen. Yet when they returned home the majority of the Batswana volunteers slipped back into village life and were largely forgotten. Only recently have their contributions received the recognition deserved, with the British High Commission now hosting Remembrance Day dinners for the surviving veterans.
The exploits of Rhodesian and South African soldiers and airmen are much better recognised. However, the impact these countries made as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme is less well known. In Rhodesia alone more than ten thousand pilots gained their ‘wings’ during the war. While the training syllabus was the same as that used in the UK, the cloud free skies and un-rationed food made the experience a much more enjoyable one. The only shadow was the relationship between the black and white communities, one reason the Batswana volunteers refused to serve with the South African forces.
The Kalahari Killings looks at the above contributions in some detail, but it also follows the life of Gordon Edwards, who before being posted for flying training had an interesting career in the RAF. The highlight of this was being a founding member of 151 Wing, the unit formed under direct orders from Churchill to provide RAF fighters to Russia in the Murmansk region. Here he taught his Russian counterparts everything he knew about servicing the Hurricanes that they would hand over to their new allies. From there, postings took him to Northern Ireland and Egypt before he got his wish to learn to fly in Bulawayo. Gordon was still only twenty-two when he took off on his final flight.
Although the tale of the murders is a (hopefully!) riveting story, with its elements of mystery, magic, and dismemberment, The Kalahari Killings should also give the reader a better understanding of life in Bechuanaland in the middle of the last century. The issues described and many of the characters involved went on to influence the development of Botswana when it gained independence in 1966. Botswana went on to be a very successful sea of tranquillity in a region that would be dominated by racial politics for several more decades, yet the issue of how to deal with the ‘Bushmen’ has never been fully solved.
By Jonathan Laverick