RAF navigator William 'Billy' Donnelly was killed when his plane crash-landed shortly after taking off from Sharjah
Seventy-five years after fatal crash landing in Fujairah, British pilot is remembered by family and servicemen
On the night of February 14, 1943, an RAF Vickers Wellington bomber took off from the Royal Air Force base at Sharjah for part of what is modern-day Pakistan.
It flew east across the mountains but over the sea, the pilot experienced problems and decided to return.
Minutes later, the port propeller broke off and the plane crash-landed among date palm groves in Sayh Dhadnah, Fujairah.
Navigator William 'Billy' Donnelly died and was buried at the site. He was just 31.
The British airman’s grave was made of stones and aircraft parts. Three other crew and a passenger survived.
Seventy-five years on, Donnelly’s life and tragic death was marked on Wednesday at a memorial close to the site of the crash.
Local villagers who saw the plane come down, airmen and women of the RAF, the UK ambassador the UAE, Philip Parham, attended. Also present was historian Peter Hellyer, whose research brought to light the location of the crash and also helped to locate the grave.
“It’s very moving and very heart-warming,” Mr Parham told The National on Wednesday.
“It’s an illustration that those who make the ultimate sacrifice are never forgotten. Even here where it’s relatively remote and not part of a large Commonwealth graveyard, he is still remembered and that’s very important and very special.
“I would like to thank His Highness Sheikh Hamad Al Sharqi, the Ruler of Fujairah, for his support for today’s event. It’s also very special that members of the Fujairah community are here, including the man who remembers the aircraft crash.”
During the ceremony, the sun broke through the clouds as prayers were said, the Last Post sounded and wreaths of red poppies were laid.
Watching on was villager Mohamed Alsereidi, an eyewitness, who was just a boy when the plane came down 75 years ago.
He was preparing nets to go fishing when he saw the plane come in low and clearly in difficulty.
“It bounced up and down three times and then crashed in a cloud of dust,” he said through a translator.
“We found a local imam who tried to advise on how best to bury him and we tried to find the best location for the grave. The site was also guarded by the local community.”
Donnelly was born in 1911 in Peru and was a sergeant with the RAF volunteer reserve. His burial in a shallow wadi so far from home was a sad reality for many who gave their lives during the Second World War.
But an equally important part of the story is how the location of the grave was lost for decades.
Lesley Botten is Donnelly’s great niece and has been researching her family tree for decades.
It was originally thought the crash happened in India. But a photograph of the grave came into her possession with RAF Sharjah written on the back.
Along with her mother, June, they contacted RAF archives who found some details of the crash.
Lesley then came across an article written by Mr Hellyer and Laurence Garey who had written about it in Tribulus, the journal of the Emirates Natural History Group and she contacted Mr Hellyer.
He then informed Sheikh Hamad, who requested the grave be found. Local researchers were able to pinpoint the site through local villagers who remembered the crash.
Donnelly’s grave and others had been washed away in a flood but a permanent memorial was built in 2010 on the order of the Ruler.
June Botten is now 84 but came to the UAE in 2010 when the memorial was first unveiled.
She said this work has “answered the question I’d been living with for 70 years – what happened to Uncle Billy?”
"We were the guests of His Highness Sheikh Hamad and experienced such welcome hospitality," she said of the original 2010 trip.
“It feels amazing. Totally unexpected,” she said of the memorial. “And I feel huge gratitude to the organisers, including Peter [Hellyer].
"They have helped to bring Billy alive in a sense. I remember him as just a charming, gentle sort of person.
"My mother was absolutely devastated when she heard that her brother had died. She never spoke about him after that because it was too painful.
"He was the only son, and unmarried, although we learned later that he had been engaged to be married.”
The memorial stone is in the shadow of the Hajar Mountains and is surrounded by date palms.
It is close to the Al Aqah area and has been carefully maintained by Fujairah authorities. So far, Donnelly is the only known British and Commonwealth serviceman found to have died on active service in what is now the UAE during the Second World War.
Captain Jim Lowther is the British defence attache in the UAE and said Donnelly’s death underlines the breadth of activity that the Second World War encompassed.
“Although this was, perhaps, a small area of operations, there was a base in Sharjah and people’s lives were affected by everything that went on,” he said.
“As this country is going through a period where it’s suffering its own martyrs, and the UK has recent history where we are suffering losses, it’s a very shared experience. Of the tragedy that war brings, seventy-five years is a good moment to stop and reflect.”