Britain's forgotten heroes remembered at Sharjah graveyard

The graves of 12 personnel who died on service in the 1960s and 1970s have been restored as poignant Remembrance Day event marks their lives

Maj Raymond Lewis and Trooper Roy Brierley died in an air crash in Abu Dhabi in 1963. Maj Lewis was in his 30s and Trooper Brierley only 20.

They were buried in the cemetery of the British Royal Air Force base in Sharjah along with other servicemen who passed away from illness or in accidents.

For years, the cemetery was a barren place of rock and concrete walls. But that has changed. A Remembrance Day ceremony on Thursday marked the formal restoration of the graveyard with 12 new tombstones built for the servicemen.

We still have family members come 50 years after they were buried to visit their graves
Fr Drew Schmotzer

Military personnel, clergy, diplomats and others gathered there to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives. It was a poignant moment for those present.

“I have been in the navy for 40 years,” said Cdr Mark Stuttard, British Royal Navy Liaison Officer in the Gulf. “I’ve lost friends. This is an opportunity for me and my team to reflect.”

Two minutes silence was observed, candles lit and hymns sung before wreaths of poppies were placed in front of each tomb. The names of the dead were called out and details of their lives described.

“We still have family members come 50 years after they were buried to visit their graves,” said Fr Drew Schmotzer, parish priest at St Martin's, the church that manages the graveyard. “There is a lot we can learn from each one of them.”

The RAF base was once a landing strip for Imperial Airways (the forerunner of British Airways). During the Second World War, it became RAF Sharjah. The RAF left in 1971 and over the years, the graveyard was effectively forgotten. But a former RAF officer, Frank Wright, visited in 2008 to lay a wreath at the grave of a colleague he served with in the 1960s. Mr Wright arrived in Dubai on the final voyage of the QE2 liner. He noticed how neglected it had become and after a campaign led by him, the graveyard was partially restored. Civilians are also buried there along with some ex-military.

But over the past five years, a more comprehensive and thoughtful renovation was undertaken involving St Martin’s, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the British Embassy and military.

“When I arrived six years ago, the cemetery was a bit bare,” said Fr Schmotzer. “We added plants and trees and tried to make it into a more beautiful place. But this has been a five-year process.”

This journey has culminated over the past month with the replacement of 12 of the tombstones because some had inaccurate details such as wrong battalion badges and dates of death. The stones were made in France and shipped to Sharjah, with British Army personnel from the 909 Expeditionary Air Wing carefully removing the originals and replacing them in a painstaking job over the past three weeks.

“There was concrete and chisels and jackhammers,” said Fr Schmotzer, looking at photographs of the restoration on the church wall. “They have done an incredible job.”

The British aviation legacy still lingers in the neighbourhood. The RAF base is gone but the original control tower and guesthouse are now part of Al Mahatta Museum, which is dedicated to the Gulf’s rich aviation history.

The graveyard, once part of the base and surrounded by open desert, is now surrounded by the city. It is a peaceful and fitting final resting site for the fallen: the graves are shaded by neem and palm trees, while the busy traffic-snarled Sharjah streets seem a world away.

“Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said Fr Schmotzer. “We have to keep the memory of them alive. It is our human responsibility.”

Updated: November 11th 2021, 2:53 PM