A family story tied in to the Emirates' World War history

That a cousin of mine died here in the Second World War is not something I expected to stumble upon

United Arab Emirates- Fujairah - January 27, 2010:

NATIONAL: A memorial to Sergeant William Donnelly (cq-al), a member of Britain's Royal Air Force who was killed when his plane crashed in Sayh Dhadnah in the emirate of Fujairah during World War II, was dedicated by members of the British Consulate and family on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 in Fujairah . Amy Leang/The National *** Local Caption ***  amy_012710_memorial_07.jpg

As my friends and readers will know, my interests include the history of the UAE during the Second World War, and trying to promote ties between the Emirates and my other home, the British Channel Island of Jersey. Now, recent research undertaken by a local collaborator and Jersey Heritage, the island’s leading heritage body, has tied the two together.

Some details in terms of the history of the war show that the UAE was not isolated from this great conflict. Although the Emirates that today comprise the UAE were not formally involved in the Second World War, the conflict did not pass us by. German, Italian and Japanese submarines came into the Gulf of Oman, with planes and ships from Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy trying to track them down. One German and one Italian submarine were sunk, the former by a plane from 244 Squadron, based in Sharjah, and the latter by the Royal Navy. Several British, American and other allied personnel died in plane crashes.

One crash occurred at Dhadnah, on the east coast. A memorial now stands at the site to the British navigator who died, Peru-born Billy Donnelly.

As was recently reported, during “Operation Countenance”, the joint British-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, Mohammed Bin Lahej, a young dhow captain from Dubai, helped to ferry British troops to southern Iran.

My recent research has focused on a 244 Squadron Blenheim bomber lost at sea in September 1942 during an anti-submarine patrol. Of the three-man crew, one was British, one came from Australia and the third, Pilot Officer Anthony Pontius, appears in the military record as having come from the island of Jersey.

Billy Donnelly’s grave. Lesley Botten

Born in Manchuria, to an American father and a Jersey-born mother, he and his brother, along with their mother, returned to Jersey after his father died young. He was educated there, and then went to work abroad, before joining the RAF after the war broke out. Sent to the Gulf, he then became the only known person from Jersey who died here during the war.

It is an interesting story, a tiny piece of an emerging jigsaw of relations between Jersey and the Emirates that helps to add something historical to the better-known links between the two in financial services or the presence of the world-famous Jersey cow at Fujairah’s Rumailah Farms.

To my amazement, however, I found that it is more personal than that. Anthony Pontius’s mother had a sister who married my grandmother’s brother, making him a distant relative – not something I had expected to find in researching the history of the Emirates during the Second World War.

I wonder, though, what other little nuggets of family history are yet to be found that link the UAE population of today back to that now-receding conflict.

Mohammed Bin Lahej was not the only Emirati sailor who was involved in Operation Countenance, though possibly the only one who is still alive. Are there descendants of others with tales to tell? Members of other Emirati families with a maritime tradition may have stories of their fathers or grandfathers encountering German, Italian or Japanese submarines.

There are, surely, stories that are not yet forgotten about the severe deprivation that prevailed in the Emirates during much of the period of the War, not as a record of the conflict itself, but as evidence of the way in which it affected life here.

In the UAE today, we have many Iraqi expatriates. Are any related to, or descendants of, members of the RAF Levies, recruited in Iraq, who guarded the Sharjah air base?

Among our Indian and Pakistani residents, do any have connections to the men who sailed on dhows to and from the Indian sub-continent during the war? Are there stories to be told?

RAF portrait of Billy Donnelly . Lesley Botten

Are there any German residents here related to the single survivor and the other 52 crew members of the U-533 submarine that lies on the seabed off Fujairah?

The discovery that a cousin-by-marriage of mine died here in the Second World War has been made thanks to the presence of records in archives in London and Jersey and to the persistence of colleagues and friends who have helped me with research.

Much, though, of the history of the UAE during that period was never written down.

When over 10 years ago I attended the unveiling of the Dhadnah memorial to Billy Donnelly, among the villagers who came to watch was an old man. A boy at the time of the crash, he described to Donnelly’s relatives, who were attending the ceremony, how the plane had come in low from the sea, clipping the tops of the palm trees before crashing. He witnessed the grievously wounded Donnelly being carefully lifted out of the plane before he died.

What other personal tales of that conflict, from surviving eye-witnesses or from their children are yet to be recorded? In them lies the real impact of war upon that past generation, here and on families far away, like mine in Jersey.

They are part of the links that tie people together from all over the world.

Published: December 16th 2021, 9:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National