A Stout Supply of Beer

RAF Margil, 1948

In February 1948, a notice appeared in the Iraq Times announcing an auction at RAF Station Margil of “surplus NAAFI stores”. Next to it a notice advertised an auction at another base in the country, RAF Habbaniya.

Offerings included tens of thousands of empty beer bottles as well as office equipment and beds and other furnishings. The empties at Habbaniya amounted to some 200,000 bottles, at Margil, about 60,000.

RAF Margil, aka RAF Basra, in August 1948 advertised for auction beer itself, a seemingly large quantity. Once again large amounts of empty bottles were being sold, and other supplies.

A further auction at Margil the next year advertised a large amount of kitchen equipment, furnishings, and other items associated with canteen and base operations.

RAF Margil was just outside Basra, the port city in Iraq. It was not the main RAF base in Iraq. That was RAF Habbaniya, west of Baghdad on the Euphrates. RAF Shaibasome 12 miles from Basra, was next in size.

RAF Basra had a small airstrip and, from our study, operated as a maintenance and aircraft assembly unit during the Second World War. According to a listing of RAF stations, it ended operation in 1946.

It seems, though, some presence did continue after, see e.g. this news report, 1956.

In this period Iraq was a monarchy ruled by a Regent, as Faisal II had yet to attain majority.

On January 15, 1948 Britain and Iraq signed a new treaty that would transfer the existing air bases to Iraq. The treaty permitted Britain to re-assert defence rights including control of aerodromes, in certain instances. Due to popular protests, by the end of January the treaty was a dead letter.

(This Britannica discussion offers good background including how the air bases came to be, the monarchy, etc.).

It appears by 1948 Britain was downsizing its military presence regardless whether air bases would be immediately transferred.

They were finally turned over in the mid-Fifties when the 25-year term of an earlier, 1930 treaty expired. Despite this, British commercial presence continued in Baghdad and Basra into the 1960s and 1970s including an expatriate community.

The Beer, the NAAFIs

The August 1948 notice stated 2000 cartons (cases) of “Guinness stout” would be sold, each containing 24 pint bottles.

This seems rather high for a relatively small facility. Maybe some of the beer was originally meant, given the nearby Basra port, for transhipment elsewhere. Maybe too inventory built up by the end of WW II was now surplus.

The Guinness was almost certainly the strong Foreign Extra Stout, about 7.5% abv. See this 1954 ad in the Iraq Times picturing a bottle of “FES”. Continuity would suggest the NAAFI sold the same brand earlier.

48,000 pint bottles at that strength represented almost 100,000 standard units of drink. That’s about 300 drinks per day annualized if all had been intended originally for RAF Margil.

I don’t know how many personnel were stationed there, at what periods. Other drinks would have been available as well. It’s hard therefore to say what 2000 cases meant for supply management. Still, taking all with all, it seems a lot of beer!

It is probable The Iraq Brewery Co., newly established in the late 1940s as I discussed recently, bought the empties or some of them.  As to the full ones, I’d think liquor merchants, hotels, and clubs bought them, but details are elusive.

In a recent documentary on the air bases produced in part by a RAF Habbaniya veterans group, the three stations are shown on a map. Life is discussed in particular at Habbaniya. A recurring feature of the interviews is the extreme heat unaccustomed Britons were met with in those pre-air conditioning days.

I think that explains in part what what seems like a high beer consumption. The other part is the traditional beer-drinking culture of HM Forces, which I discussed earlier.

At 1:28 a plan of Habbaniya is shown that depicts a substantial facility. One can see the NAAFI canteen in the lower part of the plan. Margil was much smaller but evidently had a NAAFI canteen as well.

Stout in Early Modern Iraq

Guinness was certainly available in Iraq before WW II. Numerous ads can be found for it in the 1920s Baghdad English press. One example from 1922, in the Baghdad Times, lists Guinness with six or seven other beers. The others are all lagers and mostly or all German, but Asahi from Japan is also represented.

Asahi is today a potent force in the international beer business, and we see here an early example of its prowess.

(And these were by no means the only imported beers in Iraq at that time. There were at least a dozen others. I may return to this later).

Finally, as we saw above, Guinness was promoted in Iraq in the 1950s, quite outside a British Forces context that is.

While I’ve stressed how lager became the default international style well before World War II, Guinness is an outstanding example of success in the top-fermented category. I think being a very dark drink of unique palate helped it on that path.

Just as Heineken became pre-eminent internationally in lager (IMO), so did Guinness, for stout.

Of course it had competitors – even in Iraq in 1948. This ad in Baghdad that year touted stout from Holland and Belgium, a Two Lions brand is mentioned. I am not sure who made that, maybe one of our learned readers can tell us.

And, as I showed in recent posts, The Iraq Brewery Co. introduced its Diana Stout in about 1950. That would have taken part of the market from Guinness, but not all clearly, as the 1954 ad picturing Guinness “FES” shows.

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout Today

For a depiction of the current label and a bit of history (there is a lot more), see this page of Guinness’ website.