Much has been written on the last war in Malta. However, very little, if anything, is known about the Basotho people’s contribution. Their impression on the Maltese population lives on in the colloquial term ‘Bażutu’, which is also derogatory for an ugly or disfigured person. Their only legacy is a supposed eccentricity in bodily ornamentation and habits, and perhaps Leslie Cole’s painting of Basutos sorting mail.

The Basotho 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. It found such manpower in its trusted human reserves of India and Africa, specifically from Mauritius, Bechuanaland and Basutoland (modern-day Lesotho). Thousands of Africans would be trained in chemical warfare, musketry and parade drill to serve (among other places) in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Italy and Malta.

Two pioneer Mauritian soldiers in Malta. Photo: Joseph Zammit donation to 'Memorja', National Archives of MaltaTwo pioneer Mauritian soldiers in Malta. Photo: Joseph Zammit donation to 'Memorja', National Archives of Malta

The colonial and local perception of the Basotho was always misconstrued. One can point at the fact that the British mispronounced and misspelt the correct title in Sesotho (a Bantu language) – ‘Basotho’, and adopted the corrupted version ‘Basuto’, an attempted direct translation of the correct pronunciation ‘Basutu’, which the Maltese further fashioned into ‘bażuti’ or ‘bażuta’.

As Malta went from defence to offence, it hurriedly readied itself to assist the large invasion force assembling for Sicily. In March and April of 1943, the 1921 and 1923 Coys made their journeys to Malta. After a medical inspection, they moved to Nigret in Żurrieq and in a field just outside Lija under canvas. Others would arrive and make home out of Wolseley battery in Delimara, areas of Żabbar, Binġemma and Palazzo Gomerino in winter.

Throughout their stay, all Basotho Coys would also form detachments and camp in other locations. 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.

Not all Basotho and other foreign troops destined for Malta reached the island. In late April, two Basotho Coys, Indian seamen and British Palestinian-Jewish soldiers in Alexandria, embarked on the troopship Erinpura on a convoy of well over 20 vessels. Of 1,215 troops on the convoy, over 700 were Basotho.

The Erinpura 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 Basotho losing their lives trapped in the lower decks they sheltered in for safety from strafing and shrapnel.

The Basotho were renowned for their singing. It is 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! Bombard! Thundered!

One can observe a certain attractive-disgust, an awkward fascination with the ‘barbaric’ otherness of the Basotho, but wholehearted admiration for what the British referred to as their ‘singing’

The Basotho that reached Malta mostly (but not entirely) carried out manual labour. Some were put to work on Manoel Island barracks, cable laying, unloading supplies, road repairs, ‘general dump’ clean-ups and runway building, sometimes even through the night. This is how the Maltese collective memory of the Basotho has chosen to remember the ‘Basuto’: as labourers.

It is also because toiling on runways and driving lorries stacked with ammunition were oftentimes the only sights the Maltese had access to of these foreigners at work. The truth is that some were also soldiers alongside pioneers, and their diaries record ample training with weapons. Most coys had some level of proficiency and even trained on the ranges in Malta.

Like others, the Basotho also enjoyed swimming and especially football. Basotho played football against the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and other regiments and corps, as well as against other Basotho coys.

“Football,” writes Deborah Shackleton of her interviews with AAPC veterans, “was remembered as one of the ‘highlights’ of military service by nearly all”.

The religious life of the Basotho in Malta is unknown, alongside their displaced lives, thousands of miles away from home. Throughout 1943, at least 80 Basotho were confirmed at St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral (Valletta’s Anglican church). On November 11, 1943, Cpl. Mongakane was reported dead with mention of a funeral. However, there is no mention of M. Alotsi on October 29, 1943, in the respective war diary. Both are buried at Mtarfa Military Cemetery where their graves can still be found. One can point at the then ongoing typhus epidemic as a possible cause; following Mangakane’s death, men from all coys were given a series of inoculations.

Tombstone of Cpl. Mongakane. Photo: Military

Tombstone of Cpl. Mongakane. Photo: Military

Tombstone of Pte. Alotsi. Photo: Military

Tombstone of Pte. Alotsi. Photo: Military

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 blankets. This was also the time to sing. The Basotho held a long-standing tradition of what is described reductively as ‘singing’. This is most likely a reference to their vocal choirs, or the inherently competitive sefela performances, popular with the miners, which some Basotho were before becoming pioneers. This matches with the mention of singing contests between coys.

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 Basotho, but wholehearted admiration for what the British referred to as their ‘singing’.

Leslie Cole sketching a AAPC personnel. Photo: Unknown photographerLeslie Cole sketching a AAPC personnel. Photo: Unknown photographer

During their service in Malta, ‘Basutos’ also attended one ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) party, their diary reporting that the “shows were greatly appreciated”. Leading up to late December, even sheep were purchased for Christmas. The 1921 Coy diary writes that: “the men are happy and contented”. In other Malta related regimental war diaries the state of morale is almost never mentioned, let alone if men are ‘happy’ or ‘contented’. It is indicative of the particular perspective and attitude the British Empire held towards its African auxiliaries.

This sense of exotic admiration 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. Basotho pioneers on the island had the opportunity to participate in the empire’s celebrations. A Times of Malta article dated June 27, 1943, 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, Basotho lined the road as the royal entourage passed by.

The war diary of 1923 Coy records that ‘Basutos’ hailed the words “Khotso Pula” as the king passed by. These words are enshrined on Lesotho’s national emblem to this day and can be loosely 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 Maltese, 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 ‘OOOH...-LAAD’. The Australian correspondent alleged it was their jungle war-cry. Whatever it was, it was heartfelt and sincere and completely understandable to the spirit. Good old Basutos.”

Times of Malta, August 1, 1943.Times of Malta, August 1, 1943.

Other Bechuana and Basotho companies were in Malta, some just in transit, as well as personnel from Mauritius. It is not clear where all the men 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 July 13, before embarking for Taranto, and travelling through mainland Italy as part of working parties.

It is evident that the Basotho are the only African companies from the AAPC to have left their lasting 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 passed by or camped in. What is certain is that, despite their important contributions to the island, their story is almost completely absent in official publications on Malta in World War II.


Nikolai Debono is a member of Battlefront Malta.


Author’s note

Anyone who has any information to share on the ‘Basuto’ in Malta may e-mail it to

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