RAF News

British military personnel in the United Arab Emirates remember WWII RAF Airman

Image shows RAF personnel stood next to a memorial for Sergeant Donnelly.
Sergeant William Donnelly was the navigator of a Wellington Bomber that crashed during a flight to India on 14th February 1943.

British military personnel currently deployed in the United Arab Emirates have gathered to commemorate a Royal Air Force airman who died and was buried in the United Arab Emirates during World War Two.

Sergeant William ‘Billy’ Donnelly was the navigator of a Wellington Bomber that crashed during a flight to India on 14th February 1943. He died from the injuries he suffered as a result of the crash and was buried near the crash site by the remainder of the crew who survived. He is the only British Serviceman to die during WWII that is buried in the UAE.

Image shows an old black and white photo of Sergeant Donnelly.
Sergeant Donnelly is the only British Serviceman to die during WWII that is buried in the United Arab Emirates.

The Wellington Mk 1C bomber, number HX 748, was being flown to India by the Aircraft Delivery Unit of Number 4 Ferry Control Unit, Middle East Command at the time of the crash. After a stop at the then RAF Sharjah Airbase, the crew took off for the next leg of their journey to India.

Approximately 30 minutes after take off while over the Gulf of Oman, the pilot, Sergeant G Chadwick, noticed a loss of oil pressure on the reduction gear casing of the port engine. This coupled with a visibility of only two miles prompted Sergeant Chadwick to turn back to Sharjah for repair.

Seven miles into the return journey, the port engine propeller broke off forcing the pilot, as he began losing height rapidly, to make a crash landing among the date palm groves of Sayh Dhadnah. The crash site is on a then remote coastal plain north of Fujairah and is located in modern day UAE. 

Image shows a black and white image of the original grave of Sergeant Connelly.
The original grave of Sergeant Donnelly.

In 2010, following research after the original grave of Sergeant Donnelly was lost, a new memorial was constructed and unveiled by his niece, June Botten, at a special ceremony. Since then, British military personnel serving in the UAE have travelled annually to work with the local authority to maintain the memorial and to hold a ceremony of remembrance for Sergeant Donnelly.

Image shows RAF personnel stood next to the memorial for Sergeant Donnelly.

This year, despite COVID-19, a small group of personnel were still able to visit the memorial led by Wing Commander Mark Brammer. The group also included the British Naval and Air Attaches from the British Embassy in UAE, Mr Peter Hellyer HH The Ruler of Fujairah Liaison, and other RAF personnel.

“After travelling to this remote spot to repair the memorial and lay our wreath where Sergeant Donnelly had passed, in the service of our nation so many years ago, we closed with the familiar words ‘We will remember them.’  During the long journey home, I heard the youngest member of our team remark ‘I now understand exactly what this means.’  I couldn’t agree more.”

Wing Commander Brammer

Background to the Memorial

Sergeant William Donnelly was born in 1911 in Peru but came from an Irish family. His family had moved to Peru to set up a freight company that still trades today under the family name. He was sent back to the UK to be educated before returning to Peru and the family business.

Donnelly was, however, in the UK when the war broke out and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1939. He was selected for aircrew and carried out most of his training in Southern Rhodesia.

Following his burial, the grave was later lost together with other local graves when they were washed away during a flood.

His Great Niece Lesley Botten, while researching her family tree, discovered her Great Uncle and the story but thought the crash happened in India. She managed to track down a picture of the grave, which had RAF Sharjah written on the back.

After contacting the RAF Museum at Hendon, together with her mother, June, they found some details of the crash. They then discovered an article written by Peter Hellyer and Laurence Garey who had written about the grave in Tribulus, the Journal of the Emirates Natural History Group.

After contacting Peter Hellyer, he in turn approached Sheikh Hamad, the ruler of Emirate of Fujairah the a part of the UAE with the story. As a result, Sheikh Hamad directed that the grave be found, with local researchers able to pinpoint the site through local villagers who remembered the crash. Despite the graves no longer being there, a permanent memorial was then built by order of Sheikh Hamad.

At the unveiling, June Botten, who by then was 84, travelled to take part in the ceremony said: “This work has answered the question I’d been living with for 70 years, 'what happened to Uncle Billy?'" She added: “We were the guests of His Highness Sheikh Hamad and experienced such welcome hospitality."

The memorial stone is in the shadow of the Hajar Mountains and is surrounded by date palms.

Image shows a ceremony at the memorial of Sergeant Donnelly.

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