Uniforms of the KAR

The uniform of the King’s African Rifles was relatively consistent throughout the life of the regiment, although there were variations between battalions and over time.

KAR circa 1912 by modern model maker Beau Geste

The uniform in the diagram below is from an askari of the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion before the First World War – around 1912.

This askari wears a dark blue jersey and puttees, reflecting the regiment’s colonial policing role, with khaki drill shorts and the black fez inherited by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the KAR from their predecessor regiment, the Central African Rifles; the other battalions wore red fezes.

This askari is not wearing the khaki fez cover with neck flap and fold-down peak that was normally issued for undress or field service, as shown in the modern models by Beau Geste, above right.

The uniform shows the askari’s leather Slade Wallace load-carrying equipment and Martini Enfield rifle with socket bayonet, both of which are Boer War vintage.

Askari, 2nd (Nyasaland) Bn. KAR, 1912

The second uniform, below right, is from an askari of the 4th (Uganda) Battalion in 1917.

He wears a khaki drill uniform with blue puttees and the khaki pillbox cap that replaced the fez in field dress during the First World War – the fez was retained for dress uniform.  Unusually, this askari is wearing boots – most would still have gone barefoot in this period.

He is carrying the 1903 bandolier equipment that was standard issue for the KAR for most of the war, consisting of bandolier pouches attached to the waist belt and canvas supporting straps.  He also carries additional ammunition in a non-standard cloth webbing bandolier.  His rifle is a Lee Enfield 0.303 SMLE with bayonet.

Askari, 4th (Uganda) Bn. KAR, 1917

KAR Askari of the First World War by South African toy maker SAE

The toy soldiers to the left wear pillbox caps, bandolier equipment and puttees – similar to the KAR uniform of 1917.  At first I thought these figures were intended to represent Gurkhas – but they look more African than Asian and there is no sign of the Gurkha’s famous khukri knife.  They were probably made by a company called Swedish African Engineers (SAE) who manufactured toy soldiers in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, to represent the KAR of the First World War.

KAR circa 1917 by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The models by modern maker Dorset Soldiers to the right and the vintage cigarette cards, below, show dress uniform on the eve of the Second World War.

Cigarette card from United Tobacco Companies Ltd. Warriors of all Nations series 1937

The fez was retained for dress uniform for the whole of the life of the KAR but the Australian-style slouch hat replaced the pillbox cap for undress and field wear for askari and the solar topee for British officers early in the Second World War.

Boots were introduced as standard for askari at the same time.

Cigarette cards from Godfrey Phillips Ltd. Soldiers of the King series 1939 (left) and Players Military Uniforms of the British Overseas Empire collection 1938 (right) – click on the picture for details of the medal worn by the soldier on the right

KAR by vintage toy soldier maker Lone*Star

The askari uniform below right is from the 5th (Uganda) Battalion in 1945.

He wears the standard field dress for African and Middle Eastern operations at the end of the Second World War, with drill shirt and trousers tucked into webbing gaiters worn with black ankle boots – very like the Lone*Star toy soldier to the left.

His slouch hat has a brown leather hatband and the left brim is fixed to the crown, so as not to interfere with his rifle when aiming.  The blue unit flash and badge are attached to the turned up brim of the hat.

Askari, 5th (Uganda) Bn. KAR, 1945

The final uniform, below left, is from an askari of an unknown battalion in 1956.  His drill shirt and trousers are worn with short woollen puttees, black ankle boots and 1944 pattern webbing. On his head he wears a soft bush hat, alternatively he might have worn a slouch hat or rifle-green beret for undress wear or on campaign.

He carries the 7.62mm SLR L1 rifle with bayonet which most KAR battalions received in the late-1950s.

Askari, Unknown Battalion, 1956

The uniform images on this page are copyright and used with the permission of Uniforms of the World.

Soldier of the KAR, Ceremonial Dress – Painting by J. Gilson from The Royal Logistics Corps Museum

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Battalions of the KAR

For most of the regiment’s life from its formation in 1902 until Britain’s Central and East African colonies became independent in the early 1960s, the regular peacetime establishment of the King’s African Rifles was six battalions.

KAR Recruiting Poster

Further battalions were raised at times of war or civil unrest.  This was often done by using a company from one battalion as a cadre for forming a new battalion.  The new battalion was then numbered after its parent battalion.  So a new battalion raised from a company cadre of the 6th (Tanganyika Territory) Battalion would become 2/6th (TT) Battalion.  During the Second World War the numbering of offspring battalions was simplified so 2/6th Battalion became 26th Battalion.

The six regular battalions were each associated with one of Britain’s Central or East African colonies.  At independence each of these country’s KAR battalions became the nucleus for its newly independent army.

However, the composition of the six peacetime battalions changed over the sixty-year course of the KAR’s existence, a summary is set out below:-

  • Central African Rifles by modern model maker Nostalgia

    1st (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR – also known as 1st (Central African) Battalion – formed from the earlier Central African Rifles; became the Malawi Rifles on independence in 1964.

  • 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR – also known as 2nd (Central African) Battalion – also formed from the earlier Central African Rifles; became 2nd Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment in 1962 and subsequently the Zambia Regiment on independence.
  • 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR – later known as 3rd (Kenya) Battalion – formed from the earlier East African Rifles; became 1st Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence in 1963.
  • 4th (Uganda) Battalion KAR – formed from the African Companies of the earlier Uganda Rifles; became the basis for the Uganda army on independence in 1962.
  • Uganda Rifles by modern model maker Nostalgia

    5th (Uganda) Battalion KAR – also known before the First World War as 5th (Indian) Battalion – the senior KAR Battalion as it was the first to be raised as the Indian contingent of the earlier Uganda Rifles – disbanded in 1904, reformed in 1916, disbanded again in 1925, reformed again in 1930; became 2nd Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence.

  • 6th (Somaliland) Battalion KAR, disbanded in 1910, reformed as 6th Battalion (Tanganyika Territory) KAR in 1917, in Britain’s newly-acquired Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa, now Tanzania).  Many askari from von Lettow-Vorbeck’s German Schutztruppe re-enlisted in the KAR.  Became the Tanganyika Rifles on independence in 1961.

At the time of independence in the 1960s, there were two further KAR battalions:-

  • 11th Battalion KAR, which became 3rd Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence, and
  • 26th Battalion KAR, which became 2nd Battalion Tanganyika Rifles on independence.

King’s African Rifles Off to War – Painting by P.W.G. Maloba showing 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR, WWII

For much of the regiment’s history, the name “King’s African Rifles” was also used to describe the British East African Land Forces Command – and so a number of other combat and support units were sometimes described as being part of the KAR, including the East African Armoured Car Regiment and the Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC).

Somaliland Camel Corps by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers – with other figures

The SCC were formed in March 1914 from an earlier Camel Constabulary, in recognition of the usefulness of camels in the arid Somali hinterland.

The SCC served with the KAR in campaigns against the Mad Mullah and continued to police the Somaliland territory between the First and Second World Wars until it was overwhelmed after a spirited defence by the Italian East African offensive in August 1940.

The SCC was re-formed and mechanised during the British campaign to recapture Somaliland twelve months later in 1941, but was permanently disbanded in 1943 after a series of mutinies.

Somaliland Camel Corps cigarette card by Players 1938

Through its life the SCC varied in strength between 400 and 700 Askari and 14 to 20 white British officers.

No old toy soldier maker made a figure of the Somaliland Camel Corps in their own era, however modern model maker Dorset Soldiers made the figure shown in the picture above for me about ten years ago – with an officer and askari from the KAR in the foreground also by Dorset Soldiers and an unknown figure in the background.

Post-War KAR

The first significant post-war engagement of the King’s African Rifles was the Malayan Emergency, where British and Commonwealth forces fought Chinese communist insurgents between 1948 and 1960.

KAR Patrol 1950s by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The KAR were withdrawn from Malaya from 1952 onwards because of the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya, which was the regiment’s largest and longest post-war action, continuing until 1960.

From 1953 onwards the 1st and 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalions of the KAR were part of the army of the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

My Father as an officer in 1st Bn KAR circa 1955, smoking the pipe he adopted as a mosquito deterrent, by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The Federation was a semi-independent state within the British Commonwealth, comprising the self-governing, white minority-ruled state of Southern Rhodesia and the British Protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi).

The Federation was formed with the political objective of forging a middle way between majority black rule and the white minority apartheid regime of South Africa.

My father also served in the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (RRR) here in the uniform of the 1950s by modern model maker The Colonial Factor

The Federation was intended to be a permanent entity leading to Dominion status within the Commonwealth, but black nationalists in the Protectorate territories were suspicious of it from the start, rightly suspecting that it would be dominated by the economic and military power of white-ruled Southern Rhodesia.

King's African Rifles, Blantyre, Nyasaland, 1959

King’s African Rifles, Blantyre, Nyasaland, 1959

In 1959 the Federation’s KAR Battalions and the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (RRR) were deployed to suppress political unrest in Nyasaland and again in 1960 to control the border between Northern Rhodesia and the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, which was descending into civil war.

140801-D0061

Australian WWII infantryman by modern model maker Monogram – a good stand-in for a KAR officer or RRR trooper of the 1950s

The Nyasaland Emergency threw the concept of the Federation into question in Britain and by the time of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous winds of change speech to the South African Parliament in 1960, it was clear that the Federation could not survive.

The British decision that Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland should be allowed to succeed and become independent as Zambia and Malawi led to the dissolution of the Federation in 1963.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the King’s African Rifles became the nucleus for the newly-independent armies of Malawi and Zambia, as the Malawi Rifles and the Zambia Regiment.

White metal toy soldier from South Africa, 2005

Askari of 1Bn KAR at the time of Malawian independence, 1964

Southern Rhodesia renamed itself simply Rhodesia and made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in 1965, which led to the Bush War of the 1970s and black majority rule as Zimbabwe in 1980.

2nd Bn King’s African Rifles in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) circa 1958