Amongst the many stories and narratives about Indian Anti-aircraft (AA) Artillery during World War II, not many are as fascinating as the one about the lone section of Indian AA gunners deployed on an American oil refinery in the British protectorate of Bahrain. It all started in October 1940 when Italy decided to show off its air power by carrying out a raid on the oil refinery at Bahrain. It was an ambitious venture for the round trip was over 8,300 km. The aircraft selected were Savoia-Marchetti SM.82, a mid-wing monoplane trimotor aircraft that was used more as a transporter than as a bomber. With a welded-steel tube framework body, it was largely made of plywood and fabric- the fabric-covered plywood skin doped to be water-resistant.
Their wooden bodies notwithstanding, the S-82’s were sturdy and more importantly had a long range which was a prime requirement as they were to attempt to fly the Eastern Mediterranean, cross the mountains of Lebanon and make its way over the largely uncharted deserts of Syria and Arabia to reach the objective, bomb the refinery and on their way back cross the Arabian Peninsula and land in Eritrea before making their way back home. They were to evade the allied patrols enroute for all they had was a turret mounted machine gun.
On October 18,1940, four aircraft with their tanks topped off with more than 1,300 gallons of fuel took off from the Italian-occupied island of Rhodes in Greece, reaching Bahrain nine hours later, largely helped with strong tail winds. As was likely after travelling such long distance, three of the four aircraft made it to Bahrain but even they carried large enough a payload to cause a serious damage.
After months of tension and speculation, Bahrain seemed to have believed that no raid was ever going to come and all was well. The island that night was peaceful and brightly lit. Not only was the refinery complex lighted up, the runway lights of the airport were switched on.
As they aircraft neared their target, the bomb bays opened and nearly 200 bombs dropped. As they hit the ground, loud explosions rocked the island. The task completed, the aircraft turned and headed west towards Eritrea.
Meanwhile the fourth aircraft had reached Dharan, some 50 km west. Believing that he was over Bahrain, the pilot offloaded the bombs. A series of explosions followed.
Luckily, all the four planes manged to regroup on their way back and reached Eritrea safely. Unaware of the details of the damage caused, both the pilots and the Italian government believed that the raid had been a success and refinery had been destroyed. “Bahrain has been destroyed,” was the excited news headline in Italy the next morning.
Things however were different back in Bahrain. It was just pure luck that no one was hurt and no damage was done. Eighty-six craters in two lines running approximately north and south had been created by the bombs. Three bombs had failed to explode and they were dug out and destroyed.
The refinery may have been saved but the raid caused shock waves far and wide. Demands were made to beef up the defences at Bahrain and there was panic in India. People were out in the streets in Karachi demanding anti-aircraft guns to be deployed. A flurry of activity and protracted correspondence exchanged between War Office in London and General Headquarters in India followed, resulting in a decision that a heavy AA section will be deployed at Bahrain, from India.
As an immediate step, three anti-aircraft guns were reportedly installed after they had been landed by the Royal Navy but only one crew could be provided temporarily. Demands were raised for the three permanent crew but nine were available. Later it came to light that only two guns were available- a 12-pounder and a 3-inch gun. They were manned by Naval personnel and volunteers, “pending the arrival of the Indian A.A. detachment”. Seven anti-aircraft light machine gun positions had also been prepared in the refinery area and were manned by members of the Local Defence Volunteers.
Now the hunt began for “Indian AA Detachment”. And two 3.7” HAA guns for the naval guns that needed to be replaced. One source talks of ‘Indian AA Crew’ being provided by the 15th and 23rd H.A.A. Batteries, H.K.S.R.A., in the 5th Heavy Regiment, R.A. but as this was a Royal Artillery unit, the men were technically not ‘Indian crew’.
The mystery about the identity of Indian detachments that served in Bahrain was finally solved by the details provided in one of the many documents held by National Archives, Kew .
A seemingly routine file “India: Anti-Aircraft – Sites, Establishments and Requirements” for the period March 1942-October 1943 has an entry dated 10 August 1942 that mentions “2nd Indian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment is complete except for three sections ex BURMA & BAHREIN reforming at Karachi”. The three sections referred to were from the 8th H.A.A. Battery, I.A.: ‘B’ and ‘C’ Sections which had served in Burma; ‘A’ Section which is presumed to have served at Bahrein (and appears to have returned to Karachi on 24th July 1942). ‘D’ Section, 8th H.A.A. Battery, I.A. deployed to Calcutta and later Assam with the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A. That only one Indian HAA section was deployed at Bahrain is also corroborated by the fact that only two 3.7” HAA guns were allotted for defence of the refinery.
The section did not serve long at Bahrain and was relieved by AA detachments of Royal Artillery with the details of an Indian AA section having served in Bahrain forgotten and buried in dusty files in the archives since then.
More than the story of Indian AA gunners in Bahrain, this story brings to fore another aspect about military logs and documents. Between those dry, officialise entries of musters and roll calls, parade states and daily SITREP, there are many a story that is often hiding in plain sight but they need to be told and shared.If only someone took the care to look at each line and column carefully. And one can only guess what tale is revealed next as another document is read.