FUJAIRAH // In a windswept wadi, a memorial stone was unveiled yesterday for a British airman who died when his plane crash-landed on the emirate's rocky coast almost 70 years ago. Sgt William Donnelly, a navigator, died shortly after the Wellington bomber was forced to make an emergency landing in Sayh Dhadnah on February 14, 1943, because a propeller flew off the plane's engine. He was 31.
He was buried by his fellow crewmen near the crash site. The memorial stone, donated by Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed, Ruler of Fujairah, marks Sgt Donnelly's final resting place. He is the only British or Commonwealth serviceman known to have died in what is now the UAE during active service in the Second World War. "He, and the crash in which he died, are part of our history in which Britain has played such a major role," Sheikh Hamad said. "It is right that I and the people of Fujairah, and of the broader United Arab Emirates, should acknowledge his part."
The exact location of the crash site was never recorded and remained a mystery until a group of local historians, led by Peter Hellyer, began to investigate five years ago. Sgt Donnelly's niece, June Botten, who flew in from Britain with her daughter, said she was "eternally grateful" to Fujairah's ruler for marking the gravesite and for the research that went into finding out what happened to her uncle.
"I was a child when the news came to my home of the death of my Uncle Billy," Mrs Botten said. "All we were told was that Uncle Billy had fallen out of a plane, and that's all we knew until recent times." When Mrs Botten began researching her uncle's death after her mother died, she came across an article about the crash written by Mr Hellyer in an internet newsletter. She contacted him, and together they started piecing together details.
They knew Sgt Donnelly had served with an RAF unit that delivered planes to operating bases during the war, and was aboard the bomber as it flew from England to Pakistan. After refuelling and taking off from a base in Sharjah, according to military archives, the pilot noticed an oil leak and tried to return to base but was forced to make a crash-landing on the coast. The plane was badly damaged, and Sgt Donnelly was killed.
Last summer, the Emirates Natural History Group, of which Mr Hellyer is a member, took up the case. They tracked down a rough location of the crash site and began searching for it, armed only with a photograph of Sgt Donnelly's grave taken shortly after he was buried. "We realised after three or four trips that it was going to take forever to find it, because we had very little information to go on. We had to talk to some locals," said Brien Holmes, the head of the history group's Al Ain chapter. "We ended up down on the waterfront and there were a group of guys sitting around talking and playing cards. I approached them and we started chatting and they all knew the story of the plane crash."
Indeed, the day the hulking bomber crashed had become a local legend. "It was a story that had been handed down from generation to generation," Mr Holmes said. Mohammed Homoud al Suraidi, who witnessed the crash as a 12-year-old, was mending fishing nets when the plane swooped in. "It was coming in from the sea and hit the date palms," he said. "I ran after the plane with the other children. It bounced along the ground but when it came to a stop there was a huge cloud of dust and we ran away because we were scared."
The group from the historical society was led to the site by Ahmed Rashid, a fisherman. Although he was not yet born at the time, he said his father had taken a machine gun from the wreckage. British records backed up his story. They mentioned "quiet pilfering" of articles from the plane before the then-ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, arrived by donkey. He placed a guard by the wreckage and ordered the return of the items.
Abdulla Rashid, another resident who remembers the crash, confirmed the site where the bomber landed. However, the grave was washed away in a flood years before. "After all the years that have passed, years spent wondering about what really happened to Billy, we feel relieved and glad to know the truth," Mrs Botten said. Edward Oakden, the British ambassador to the UAE, and Hassan al Yamahy, the general director of the Fujairah Municipality, were at the unveiling of the memorial. Detachments from the British RAF and the Emiri Guard were also present.
"It's a touching story of real human interest," Mr Oakden said. "Sgt William Donnelly gave his life during the Second World War, and it's only right that servicemen who perish should be remembered." The municipality and the Fujairah Tourism and Archaeology Authority will maintain the site, and a display on the crash and Sgt Donnelly will be installed in Fujairah Museum. Mr Holmes said research into the incident was not over. "This closes the chapter on the story of Sgt Donnelly, but there are parts of the picture that haven't been put to rest yet," he said.