The Gweru War Museum
The other day I was in my Jeep, with the top down, speeding down Lobengula Avenue. Lobengula is the main drag in Gweru, a sleepy farming town of 150,000 in the Mashava Hills of central Zimbabwe. Gweru is about halfway between Harare, where I live, and my destination that day of Matopos Hills, where I was headed with my family to view Cecil Rhodes's grave, hewn out of the rocks near the Botswana border. Cruising down Lobengula, I was heading out of town, when suddenly, to my right at 2 o'clock slightly high, I spotted a Russian T-34 with its 76 mm barrel seemingly trained right on me. Never one to pass up a tank in the grass, I screeched to a halt to check it out. I then noticed not far away a second tank, a U.S. Stuart. Both, as it turned out, were static displays in the overgrown grass in front of a modest, slightly run-down building bearing the faded sign, "The Midlands Museum."
The Midlands Museum, I soon discovered, is an unpretentious five-room building housing Zimbabwe's one and only war museum, also known as the Gweru War Museum. It dates back to the colonial period, when the country was known as Southern Rhodesia, and there is a fair amount of British military equipment and aircraft from the first two-thirds of the 20th Century as well as a few German items, presumably captured during the world wars. The museum has been updated (politically corrected) in recent years with exhibits on the Chimurenga - the native struggle first against Cecil Rhodes in the 1890's and later against the Ian Smith regime in the 1970's.
The displays are chronological, starting about 1890, when Rhodes and his band marched up in khakis from the Transvaal, toting Martini-Henry .45 caliber carbines, and planted the Union Jack in what was then known as Matebelaland. Rhodes, who was already immensely wealthy from his South African diamond investments, dreamed of connecting Africa with a Cape Town to Cairo railroad and was worried the Portuguese would try to link Mozambique with Angola, cutting off his plans. Later in the exhibits comes the First World War, featuring exhibits on raids into German Tanganyika to the North and westward across the Kalahari into deutsche Südwestafrika.
The Second World War follows. Here Rhodesians fought mainly with the 8th Army in North Africa and Italy, but there were Rhodesian air squadrons active also in France and Germany during the last year of the war. Ian Smith, by the way, was a fighter pilot in one of the squadrons attached to the 8th Army in Italy, where he was shot down behind enemy lines and fought with anti-fascist partisans for a while. Rhodesians also played a role in taking Italian East Africa in 1941, coming in from Kenya, turning left at Mogadishu, and fighting their way up to and past Addis Ababa. This IEA campaign was very hard fought, involved several hundred thousand men on both sides, lasted nine months, yet is hardly mentioned in most World War II histories. Many of the Indian, South African, Free French, and other Commonwealth units making up the 8th Army first became battle-hardened in Italian East Africa.
One of the rooms is dedicated to the nearby Thornhill and Guinea Fowl air bases where a significant number of RAF pilots were trained in the '30's, '40's and '50's. Southern Rhodesia was to the RAF what Arizona and Texas were to the US Army Air Corps, a place where student pilots could learn to fly unhampered by cloudy weather. Out back there is a Spitfire, a Gloster Meteor, and a DeHavilland Vampire on display. Thornhill Field is still an operational base; a squadron of Migs fly out of it now.
One piece of trivia I learned at the museum: Richthofen's last victim, his 80th, in April 1918 was a Rhodesian, an 18-year old Lieutenant Lewis. Unlike most of those Richthofen shot down, Lewis survived. Richthofen always aimed for the pilot in his aerial maneuvers. Others, like the German ace Oswald Boelke for instance, went for the engine or the tail and in such cases the British or French pilots were more likely to survive the crash. Richthofen's bullets destroyed Lewis's cockpit and controls and pierced his sleeve and trousers and actually shot off his goggles, but miraculously Lewis was not hit and managed to crash land his Sopwith Camel behind German lines and was taken prisoner. A day later, Roy Brown, a Canadian, shot down Richthofen (although for the last 74 years, the Australians have been claiming their ground troops actually did it).
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