Nearly 100 years ago, in July 1911, William Donnelly and his wife were blessed with a fourth child. He was their only son, named William Henry Donnelly, later known simply as Billy. Billy's father came from a relatively poor Irish background in Manchester, in the northwest of England. He had educated himself and set out, like many before him, to make a new life in the Americas. He emigrated to Peru, where Billy was born. The boy's mother died in December 1914 but his father stayed on, building up an international shipping company later inherited by his son-in-law.
Billy grew up in Peru, the United States and England. By 1941, two years into the Second World War, he was a member of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve, eventually becoming a sergeant. In February 1943, Billy was serving as a navigator with RAF Middle East Command, working with a Ferry Control Unit delivering planes to operational units, and was a member of the crew ferrying a Wellington bomber from England to Gwadar on the coast of Pakistan.
According to RAF records: "On 13 February 1943, Wellington HX748 landed at the Staging Post, RAF Sharjah. The aircraft was refuelled and inspected. At 0900hrs (local time) on 14 February 1943, the aircraft took off and, after circling the aerodrome to gain height, set course over the mountains at 6,500ft. Approximately 30 minutes later, when over the sea, the pilot noticed a small trickle of oil on the reduction gear casing of the port engine. This, coupled with a visibility of only two miles, made him decide to return to Sharjah. After about seven minutes of the return journey, the port propeller flew off the engine. The pilot immediately cut the switches of this engine and, losing height, was forced to land on a rocky strip of coast, with the result that the aircraft was badly damaged and the navigator killed."
Billy Donnelly was buried by his companions close to the crash site. Later, however, according to the RAF Historical Branch: "Despite extensive searches it was not possible to locate the grave, and subsequently Sgt Donnelly is commemorated (as one of the "missing") in panel 270 of the Alamein Memorial [the British war memorial at Al Alamein in Egypt]." Several years ago, trawling through old archives to study the impact of the Second World War on the UAE, a colleague and I ran across brief references to the crash and determined that it had taken place close to Dhadnah, on the coast of Fujairah. Among the few snippets of information, it was said that "local Arabs are reported to have been friendly and reasonably helpful" and that the local sheikh, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, "arrived at Dhadnah and arranged for a guard to be placed on the machine until the salvage of all valuable equipment had been completed". It was added that "the Sheikh will be suitably rewarded for his assistance" (although no evidence has been traced that any reward was ever paid!)
It appeared that Billy Donnelly might have been the only British serviceman to die on active operations in the UAE during the Second World War, although three US airmen died in a plane crash southeast of Dubai in July 1945, a month before the Japanese surrender brought hostilities to a close. The Dhadnah crash is a small footnote in the history of the country but one that nonetheless seemed worthy of placing on record. A couple of short notes subsequently appeared in Tribulus, a journal about UAE history and natural history, but attempts to obtain further information drew a blank.
Then, last summer, two things happened. First, a friend of mine, Brien Holmes, spent several weekends visiting Dhadnah to see if he could find anyone who knew about the crash. He was successful, eventually locating an elderly man who remembered the crash and where Billy Donnelly had been buried, though his grave had subsequently been washed away by a flood. Secondly, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Billy Donnelly's great-niece, who had found the Tribulus notes on the internet. Going through the papers of her great-aunt, who had just died, she had found a picture of Billy and a photograph of his grave, taken a few weeks after the crash, and had developed a keen desire to track down more information about Billy's death.
And from that, much else has transpired. Fujairah's Ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, who had displayed considerable interest in the story when he first learnt of the crash, has kindly extended an invitation to Billy's niece and great-niece to pay a visit to Fujairah next week and visit the site of the grave. A small programme of events is being prepared and Billy Donnelly's last resting place - or as near as it can be determined - will be formally recognised nearly 67 years after his death.
There is much still to learn about the history of the Emirates, even over the past few decades. We know so little, for example, about the country's military history or its aviation history, or even about the early years of the oil industry, which has to a large extent been responsible for the progress and development that we now enjoy. Yet in the memories of the country's older inhabitants, such as the villager who led my friend to the site of the Dhadnah crash (and who sadly died a few weeks ago), and in dusty, near-forgotten archives many thousands of kilometres away, there is much that can shed light on that past.
I hope next week's closure of what I have come to call "the Billy Donnelly story" will prompt others to delve deeper into the country's past. There is much yet to be discovered. Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage