Not too long ago I heard someone who had become head of MI5 (the British internal secret service) had served in East Africa during World War 1. As can be imagined, this got the cogs going and eventually the name Percy Sillitoe was revealed as the man.
The opportunity to divert from immedate research priorities came with having to prepare my talk on the formation of the Legion of Frontiersmen and MI5/6. Surprisingly, there was no direct link but it is clear that Sillitoe’s experiences in Africa set him in good stead for his future career back in the UK.
In short, Sillitoe ended up in Africa with the BSAP (British South Africa Police) in 1911, moving to the NRP (Northern Rhodesia Police) soon after. It was in this capacity that he saw service in World War 1 on the Northern Rhodesia – Congo border, before being taken ill requiring some time to recouperate in South Africa and returning to a political role in Northern Rhodesia. Marriage led him to a career in England and Scotland reforming police services wherever he went, until he was eventually appointed head of MI5 after World War 2. On retirement he ended up working on a diamond smuggling project which took him back to Africa.
This was a fascinatig and insightful read into a man, little known, who had a huge impact on policing as we know it today. And it seemed only appropriate that the two events which marked new stages in his career involved Africa – the first with the BSAP/NRP both controlled by Cecil Rhodes initially and concerning gold and diamonds. The second, being employed by Ernest Oppenheimer of De Beers – originally a Rhodes’ company.
A striking feature of Sillitoe’s work was his understanding of human nature and the realisation that a happy workforce would lead to a loyal workforce – something many of today’s managers could take on board. His time in Africa reinforced and honed this perception.
And for more of the African story not published in the biography, see this Exclusive.
It seems appropriate to consolidate here what is currently known of Percy’s World War 1 and Africa experience based on Tim Wright’s The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police.
22 May 1888 – born in Tulse Hill, London
25 April 1808 – Joins BSAP
Oct 1910 – Corporal at Vic Falls
8 Feb 1911 – Lieut Barotse Native Police (BNP)
13 Nov 1911 – At Fort Rosebery on route to Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission escort officer to end of 1912.
Suffered Blackwater fever
1914 – served with Town Police detachment – opened the first police station in Lusaka, was the only commissioned officer
His sleeping quarters were struck by lightening, but he was in the livingroom having tea with the Assistant Magistrate from Chilanga
Prevented game poaching by Boers
August 1914 In Lusaka during attack on Abercorn; left to meet the gun crew (May Jackson) at Broken Hill to go north. With 600 carriers undertook 520 mile march averaging 18 miles a day when the norm for carriers was 15 miles.
After reaching Abercorn, Percy was sent with 50 NRP to link with the Belgians and engage with the Germans at Kituta. He returned to Abercorn when it was discovered that the Germans had left.
19 Oct 1915 – at Fife with 50 NRP
29 Jan 1916 – Edward Northey arrives in Zomba (Sailed 4 Dec 1915, Cape Town 24 Dec, 7-11 at Livingstong with Cmdt Gen Edwards)
Orders Sillitoe with two columns totalling 138 men to go from Fife to take Luwiwa ad organise food collections once occupied.
2 Apr 1916 – Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) Temporary Captain Officer Commanding E Company
30 Oct 1916 – in command of the area Alt Iringa to Salimu
15 August 1917 – Transfers to Tanganyika Service adn becomes OETA Bismarcksburg (Occupied Enemy Terrritory Administrator)
Nov 1918 – Political Officer, Dodoma
26 May 1920 – relinquishes command of NRP
1953 – Chief Investigator, De Beers
5 Apr 1962 – died Eastbourne
The Northern Rhodesia Police Association online archive