British honour Emirati dhow captain for role in Second World War

Muhammad bin Lahej transported troops in his dhow during Operation Countenance

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Under the cover of darkness, with only the stars for guidance, Muhammad bin Lahej sailed through the inky black waters.

The young captain guided his dhow up the coast of Oman from Muscat, through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Arabian Gulf, dodging enemy submarines as he went.

It was a journey he had made countless times before. But instead of spices and goods in the cargo hold that August 24 night, were troops of the British army.

My father is one of the last heroes alive who volunteered
Hamed bin Lahej

Eighty years on, Britain honoured Emirati Mr Lahej, 95, for his daring exploits during the Second World War.

Because Mr Lahej was too frail to attend in person, the event at the office of the British Embassy in Dubai on Monday was attended by his sons, who recounted their father’s role in secretly moving troops as part of Operation Countenance – the 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

“Since the end of the Second World War, the story has been forgotten,” said Hamed bin Lahej. “My father is one of the last heroes alive who volunteered.”

Muhammad bin Lahej was a skilled dhow captain who knew the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf like the back of his hand. Ruel Pableo for The National

Operation Countenance took place two months after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Alarmed at perceived German influence in neutral Iran, Nazi threats to oilfields in the Caucasus, and seeking to maintain supply lines to the Soviets, Britain and the Soviet Union decided to invade the country that August. British forces then sought the help of local dhow captains in the region to help transport troops from Muscat to Iran.

British forces offered Mr bin Lahej naval support for the journey, but he refused because it could have attracted the attention of enemy submarines, which were active in the Gulf of Oman at the time.

“So he said ‘no – this is not the right way to move. We will move them in our way’.

“My father was used to travelling to Mombasa, Africa, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Yemen, India,” Hamed said. “He had sailed all across the region."

The troops were safely landed at Bandar Abbas on August 25. British units advanced from the south and the Russians from the north. Within a few weeks it was all over.

“He spoke to us about the people who were with him – all the different nationalities,” Hamed said. "He was proud, very proud of it. We are all very proud of it.”

The story of Mr bin Lahej’s extraordinary feat was in danger of being lost to history. But the Lahej’s wrote a letter to British diplomats in the UAE telling the story.

“He told us so many stories and this was one of the stories he told us," Hamed said. "You cannot find any dhow captains without stories," he said with a chuckle.

An Indian rifleman guards a pipeline after the operation. Getty Images

The story also adds to the more rounded picture that has emerged of wartime life in what is now modern-day UAE. Britain’s Royal Air Force had a base at Sharjah to counter submarine activity in the Gulf of Oman. Planes from the base in 1943 sunk German U-boat 533 off the coast of Fujairah, while an Italian submarine was sunk by the British in 1940.

The base at Sharjah also played a crucial role in the Allied resupply effort in the east in the latter stages of the war. British and Commonwealth servicemen perished in air crashes here. The war led to food shortages, bringing immense hardship to the local people when the pearl trade that sustained generations had already collapsed. But local people still helped when they could.

“Operation Countenance is not really the important part,” said UK Defence Attache Col Rob Connolly. “It is more about how this region was so involved in it.”

Col Connolly said it was important that this history is passed on to younger generations in the UAE. The two world wars "shaped the world we live in and this region. If we forget that, we forget who we are and where we have come from”.

Simon Penney, the British Consul General to Dubai and the Northern Emirates, said it was a privilege to be able to host the family and hear the story.

“This story would have been lost to time had they not shared this,” Mr Penney said. “Now it is captured in history.”

Operation Countenance - in pictures

Updated: November 07, 2021, 4:32 AM