Britain remembers RAF man William Donnelly from 1943 crash in UAE

Tributes paid at memorial to Second World War soldier in Fujairah

Sgt William Donnelly was only 31 when the aircraft he was navigating came down on a remote coastal plain in Fujairah. The RAF Wellington bomber had taken off from Sharjah for modern-day Pakistan on February 14, 1943, but turned back around the east coast after engine trouble.

The port propeller then flew off and the aircraft crash-landed among date palms in the shadow of the Hajar Mountains close to the sea.

Bedouins came to their aid but Donnelly did not survive and was buried near the crash site in a rudimentary grave of stones and aircraft parts. Three other crew and one passenger survived.

He is known to be the only British and Commonwealth soldier who was buried in modern-day UAE during the Second World War.

William Donnelly was only 31 when he died. Photo: Lesley Botten

The site of the original grave in Sayh Dhadnah was washed away years ago in floods but a memorial was erected in his honour on 2010 on the order of Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah.

British military personnel from the air force, navy and army on Monday gathered at the memorial to pay tribute to the man 79 years after his death. For many there, the remote location of the memorial drove home the global nature of the conflict and why it is so important to remember.

“He is aircrew and the same as me,” said RAF Wg Cdr Paul Taylor. "I’ve experienced loss. And to me it is extra important to mark the fact someone died a long time before I joined up but also given I’ve lost friends as well. It is important to make sure he is not forgotten.”

At the memorial site on Monday, a wreath was laid, his story told and, as the sombre tones of The Last Post drifted out into the date groves, a light rain rolled in from the sea. The location of the memorial also highlights the great difficulty in navigating a plane around this tough terrain in an era before modern navigation technology.

The original grave of William Donnelly in Fujairah. A memorial has since been erected. Photo: Lesley Botten

“It was pretty hairy back then,” said Wg Cdr Taylor. “Navigation was very difficult … with the weather and mountains. You are battling against lots of things when you are flying around this part of the world.”

Donnelly was born in 1911 in Peru and came from an Irish family. His family had a freight business in Peru but he was in the UK when the war broke out and he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

The story of how the grave was found has been told on these pages before and the research was led by his great niece Lesley Botten, her mother June and with help from historian Peter Hellyer, whose research brought to light the location of the crash and also helped to locate the grave. It is also remembered by Emirati residents. June travelled to the UAE in 2010 for the unveiling.

“This work has answered the question I’d been living with for 70 years, 'what happened to Uncle Billy?' said June at the time. “We were the guests of His Highness Sheikh Hamad and experienced such welcome hospitality."

The story of the RAF airman’s grave also speaks to the rich history of the region during the war. It was once the belief that not much happened in modern-day UAE during the war but research by historians has overturned that.

RAF aircraft sank a German submarine that operated in the Gulf of Oman, while by 1943 allied aircraft refuelled in Sharjah as part of the resupply effort in the East. Thousands of people thronged the streets and danced until sunset when news of the allied victory in 1945 was heard in Dubai and Sharjah.

“It is interesting to come here, surrounded by the mountains, and hear the story of what happened,” said Cdr Mark Stuttard, British Royal Navy Liaison Officer in the Gulf.

“It is testament to the skill and experience of those on board and to the locals who looked after the survivors. And who still remember it.”

Updated: March 01, 2022, 7:03 AM
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