A wireless station, runway, living quarters and aircraft hangars – what had once been a dusty airstrip had become a vital Allied command and logistics centre.
Wednesday marks 75 years since the Second World War ended. It was once thought that nothing much happened in the Trucial States – of which the UAE was once part – during the war.
But Sharjah’s role was central to it all.
British Royal Air Force aircraft operating from Sharjah confronted German submarines in the Sea of Oman and Arabian Gulf.
Off the coast of Fujairah lies the wreck of German U-boat 533, sunk by the RAF in 1943.
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.
Despite this, Bedouins still helped survivors of air accidents.
First opened in 1932 as a simple airstrip for Imperial Airways flights to the east, it became an RAF base during the conflict. It even hosted what is believed to the region's first cinema. By 1944, thousands of Allied military aircraft were flying over Sharjah every month, with many stopping so exhausted crews could stop and refuel, as part of a huge resupply effort.
“There was a perception that this region had very little involvement in the war,” said Athol Yates, a professor at Khalifa University, who has written widely on this period.
“What hasn’t been known is how Sharjah became important in late 1944 and 1945 as a logistics base and navigational point to allow large amounts of aircraft to move east to west and back.”
What was known as the “Arabian coast air route”, through Bahrain, Sharjah and Oman’s Masirah Island, became so important to the Allied resupply efforts in the east that the US wanted to build its own base there, alongside the British, to accommodate the aerial convoys of fighters, airlifters and personnel.
But even among the Allies, politics got in the way. London felt this could undermine its influence in the region and allow the US to claim commercial flying rights. So the RAF provided land and built the facilities in 1944 within its existing base, yet the difference between the two could not be starker.
“The British camps in the region tended to be basic and the US ones sophisticated as they had air conditioning,” Prof Yates said. “The British just couldn’t afford it. Americans also always got fresh food flown in while the British had to survive on tinned food.”
By October 1944, more than 160 US personnel were based in Sharjah. It was a vital point on the air route and used for refuelling, accommodation, maintenance, rescues and wireless operations. Even if planes did not land, a navigational beacon guided them safely on the path.
“You needed these points every couple of 100 kilometres,” Prof Yates said.
“It was a vital stepping stone. If the Germans controlled the area, it would have caused major problems as aircraft would have had to fly farther south.”
At its peak, thousands of aircraft travelled along the southern Arabian route resupplying lines in the east every month. It is not known precisely how many landed in Sharjah, but according to Prof Yates, a proportion would have. “Wars are not won by fighting force alone but by logistics.”
The resupply effort peaked in mid-1944 and by 1945, the threat receded and need for a logistical hub at Sharjah declined. But its brief presence there signalled the start of a US presence in the region.
When the British did leave in 1971, the old RAF base became Sharjah’s airport. By 1977, a new airport opened and the old guest house, hangar and control tower were converted into Al Mahatta Museum, which is dedicated to the region’s aviation history.
And if you step out on to the adjacent King Abdul Aziz Street, you are walking in the jet stream of history – for that was the original runway.