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Bahrain in the Second World War

Immediately after the United Kingdom had declared war on Nazi Germany, the ruler of Bahrain (Shaikh Hamad) sent the following telegram to the King of Britain.
"...For nearly a century, the Khalifa shaikhs of Bahrain have been on terms of friendship with the British Government...
...Our sympathies in this war which is now being waged against the evil forces of Nazism are with Great Britain. If we possessed an army, we would offer it to the British Government "
In other words, Bahrain was at war.

He also sent a check of £ 30,000 to help the British war effort. Two months later, the Shaikh of Bahrain said that all Muslims should support the Allies, this came at a time when Mussolini styled himself as "the new Caliph Omar". 

The local community started a fund for war charities and in November 1940, a fund was established to buy fighter aircraft for the RAF. By 1943, enough money was raised to buy ten fighter planes,

Bahrain's Defence:

Even though the fighting was restricted to Poland and mainland Europe, Shaikh Khalifa (who was in charge of public security) and Charles Belgrave (British advisor to Bahrain) began discussing defence plans for Bahrain. On the 1st of September 1939, Camel and horse riders were assigned to protect the strategic oil pipelines and refinery. After the demoralizing events of Dunkirk, a special defence force of 150 soldiers was raised to help the war effort. 

After Italy entered the war, rumours of Italian submarines being spotted in the Red sea and beyond became widespread.In September 1940, the crew of an sunken Italian submarine was captured and spent a few days in Bahrain before being deported to a prison camp in the British Raj. 

The following month, Bahrain had its most direct experience of the war. On the night of the 19th of October, 1940 (in an astonishing feat of airmanship), Italian aircraft from the Dodecanese bombed Bahrain via attacking the oil refinery in Awali and also in Dhahran. A total of 84 bombs were dropped but remarkably, no one was injured and no damage was done.

However, this event caused a mass panic amongst the civilian population, now realizing that the war is going to hit home. The British managed to use this attack as an excuse to rally Muslims behind them, stating that the Italian aircraft violated Meccan airspace during its journey.

Interesting fact : Shaikh Mohammed (the ruler's brother), had embarked on a trip to the Mediterranean before hostilities occurred. His Italian ship was due to dock in Beirut but as war was declared, the ship went straight to Italy, bearing Shaikh Mohammed with it. Somehow, he had managed to find his way to Malta, an island that was bombed six times daily. It was not until July 1940 did Shaikh Mohammed finally return home.


The region destabilizes:

In April 1941, Rashid Ali al Gaylani, an anti-British politician, became the Prime Minister of Iraq. Britain couldn't afford to have an Axis sympathizer in the oil heartland of the region and proceeded to invading Iraq and installing a puppet in his place.

When Reza Shah was overthrown in 1941, this caused a backlash against Persians in Bahrain. British troops and officers arrived and plans were discussed to improve the air defences. The overall reaction to Reza Shah's collapse was positive with approveness from a wide variety of people ranging from the upper class to smugglers (who rejoiced the overthrow because Reza Shah had an iron fist on smuggling operations).
The Middle East, in 1930.

The entry of Japan into the war in December 1941 and the subsequent collapse of the British position in South East Asia caused great excitement in Bahrain, particularly as many of its people had colleagues and business associates in Singapore (highlighting the extent of Bahraini trade).

At the same time, the German General Staff worked on one of the most ambitious strategic plans of the entire war. They aimed to launch a great spring offensive to force the Soviet Union to surrender and then to move through Turkey into the Gulf and hence interlink with the Japanese who would've achieved naval superiority in the Indian ocean by then.  

Whether or not the British knew of this plan is not known but they certainly took precautions. On the 16th of April 1942, the British Government announced that :
Bahrain has now come within the zone of operations 
A new RAF station was built in Muharraq, an Air Raid Precautions committee was established, a dug-out was built at the Girls' School, incendiary bomb demonstrations were held and police practiced taking cover during air attacks. In the summer of 1942, reports emerged of unidentified naval destroyers were spotted off the coast of Kuwait and Qatar (likely to have been either the Japanese or confusion).
The RAF insignia for the Muharraq base


A conscription-like campaign was launched and had raised a force of 250 levies based in Muharraq. Many more men were recruited that Belgrave stated that

Muharraq had begun to look like a garrison town
By the spring of 1943, the tide of war had turned. The Germans, after the defeats at Stalingrad and El Alamein , no longer posed a threat to the Middle East.


The Japanese had lost their momentum after being checked by the US Navy. By this time, British soldiers were relocated to other fronts and the levies were disbanded.


Wartime Economy, Rations:

Bahrain was not immune from the rations of WWII. Bahrain had managed to keep the supply of food running since 1939 (25,000 bags of rice were bought from Calcutta alone!) and the shortages started to occur in 1941. An agricultural committee was established to help make more crops but results were not expected. In addition, that winter there was a shortage of vegetables and rice which had previously come in tins from India ; The Indian Government banned the export of anything using tins in order to save metal.
A souq in present-day Bahrain

Rations were officially launched in March 1942, under the vanguard of the Manama Baladiyah (Municipality). Eight centres were opened up to distribute sugar at controlled prices ; each adult received a ticket that entitled him to 4 pounds of sugar a month.

By May, the food situation became satisfactory although there was a severe shortage of bread. This was due to limited imports from India.

To compensate the inevitable increase in food prices, the Bahraini government introduced a War allowance for all those earning less than Rs 150 a month (the average wage was a rupee a day).

With a ration card, an adult was entitled to 12 pounds of rice, 4 pounds of wheat and flour as well as 4 pounds of sugar in a single month.

As a result of Iraq's anti-British sentiments and the Anglo-Iraqi war, imports from Iraq were banned. This was counter-productive as it lead to a shortage of dates. However, a deal between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain allowed 15,000 bags of dates to help solve the shortage problem.Food became scarce and the ration of sugar was cut to 2 pounds, rice to 8 pounds. Once the Anglo-Iraqi war concluded, Bahrain imported a massive 2,000 tonnes of dates within the first month!

In the villages, dates were distributed for free at each of the town squares, and a food centre was established at Souq al Khamis. Even so, signs of malnourishment was reported amongst the elderly and young.
Hyperinflation caused prices to fluctuate, causing prices of Dates (originally 4 rupees) to skyrocket to 30 rupees, the price of tea rose enormously as well, and many butchers (having a lack of imports) closed down.

Other Developments:

We must not have the impression that life in Bahrain revolved around the war, during this time. The death of Shaikh Hamad in February 1942 caused region-wide grief. Government income rose during this period from 3,717,000 rupees (in 1939) to 5,634,000 rupees (in 1946). A smallpox outbreak broke out in 1941, which resulted in a mass-vaccination campaign to be launched. 
Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (left) and Sir Charles Belgrave 

In 1940, there were 3 girls' schools with 450 students, by 1945, there were 5 girls' schools with 1,139 students. 

The Manama College was opened to give 13-14 year old boys three years' further education in English. Hostel accommodation was introduced for the first time.

In November 1940, Bahrain Radio Station went on the air, and in January 1941 , the first census was held showing a population of just under 90,000. In December 1941, the bridge between mainland Bahrain and Muharraq was opened. In May 1945 Bahrain played their first football match with Saudi Arabia.

After the war, the British Government thanked the Shaikh and his people for their service in the war. Free meals were distributed in Manama, Muharraq and Hidd throughout the month of May, 1945 in celebration. 

Based on the research of Robin Bidwell.

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  1. An engrossing article indeed. Great job! :) -Mariam

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