In a little-known and long-forgotten sideshow to the Suez crisis of November 1956, the British government conducted secret aerial reconnaissance missions over Syria. These missions came amid Cold War fears that the British-French-Israeli attack against Egypt would ignite a direct East-West confrontation. The fears were heightened after it emerged that then-Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli had traveled to Moscow at the behest of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in order to win support for Egypt.
Although everyone knew it was unlikely that the Soviet leadership would risk going to war with the West over the Suez Canal, the British and French were still keen to verify reports from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus that over 100 Soviet MiG-17s were parked in the Syrian desert ready to join the battle, and that Russian arms shipments were seen moving through the port of Latakia.
The Syrians knew that the Royal Air Force was conducting sorties over its territory. They even knew the flight path, which took the airplanes over Latakia, Aleppo, Homs and then, 5 kilometers from Damascus, back over Lebanon toward Cyprus, at the time a British crown colony. But there was little they could do to intercept the Canberra bombers, part of the highly secret 192 squadron operating out of Akrotiri. They had to rely on spotters stationed at border posts and by the time Damascus knew anything about it, the aircraft had already gone.
But on Nov. 6, 1956, the Syrians got lucky. The frontier post at the eastern city of Al-Bukamal, on the Euphrates, telephoned to say that a Canberra was “operating at extreme range” from Cyprus on a mission to photograph airfields in Syria. Three Syrian Air Force British-built Gloster Meteors, one of which was flown by a certain Lieutenant Hafez Assad, were scrambled to intercept.
The cumbersome Canberra bomber – call sign Whisky Hotel 799 – had little chance in the brief and one-sided encounter led by Lieutenant Munir al-Garudy, who claimed credit for downing the airplane. Two of the Canberra’s three-man crew, Flight Lt. Bernard Hunter and another pilot, Flight Lt. Sam Small, ejected over the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. They landed in the Western Bekaa where they were set upon by a crowd of excited Lebanese who believed them to be Israelis, before they handed them over to the authorities.
The third airman, a navigator, Flying Officer Roy Urquhart-Pullen, who had been in the nose of the plane, was not so lucky. He died from injuries most likely sustained after he hit the tail when exiting the airplane with a parachute. His body lies in the Anglo-American cemetery located in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Tahouiteh (ironically, just off the highway leading to Damascus), under a faded and cracked white RAF headstone, in the shade of a carob tree.
I found out about Urquhart-Pullen’s grave in 1998 as features editor at The Daily Star. I was able to contact Urquhart-Pullen’s widow Ellen – by then Ellen Dwars and living in Holland with her Dutch husband of 46 years – through a British diplomat in Beirut, who told me she had visited her late husband’s grave just a year earlier. I also retrieved records of the incident, which were subject to the Official Secrets Act’s “30-year rule” and not released until 1987.
They made fascinating reading. According to a secret memo, on learning that one of their airplanes had gone down, the British were faced with two “principal problems ... recovering the aircrew and what to tell the public, and in particular, the Lebanese government.”
An internal memo from the Air Ministry suggested the following course of action: “If the two aircrew make no damaging admissions ... we should say that this was an unarmed aircraft on a training flight over the Mediterranean, which, on coming out of the cloud, discovered that it had lost its way and was, in fact, over Syria. It was immediately attacked by Syrian fighters and made at once for the nearest safe haven, which happened in this case to be the Lebanon.”
The next line is out of a Whitehall farce. “It is unlikely that anyone would believe such a story but it would at least deny the Lebanese any pretext for interning the two surviving members of the crew.”
In short, the whole episode was deeply embarrassing and needed to be swiftly brought to a close. After treatment and a debrief in a Beirut military hospital, in the presence of the air adviser to the British Embassy and Lt. Col. Abdel-Kader Chehab of the Lebanese Army, Hunter and Small were quietly repatriated to Cyprus.
Back in Akrotiri, the human side of the story was beginning to play out. The cost of the secrecy was being felt as Ellen Urquhart-Pullen received news of her husband’s death. “The squadron leader came by the next day and told me the plane was shot down and Roy had not survived the crash,” she later recalled on the telephone from Holland.
To add to her anguish, the sensitivity of the incident meant that her husband was given a quick and quiet burial in Beirut, which she was not allowed to attend (although she was able to choose the inscription on the headstone). “It was insinuated that [if I went] I would endanger other people’s lives and of course I accepted this. Bernard Hunter managed to attend, in spite of his injuries. He felt that someone should be there for Roy. They were good friends and had flown a lot together.”
To this day Ellen doesn’t know why she didn’t insist on his body being repatriated. “I was only 22 and tended to accept what I was told. I really should have spoken up, but everything was cloaked in such secrecy. It was like I was in a dream and there was so much to organize, like closing bank accounts and so on.”
Ellen Urquhart-Pullen went on to join the Foreign Office and in a strange twist of fate was posted to Beirut in the 1960s, where she met her current husband. Did she not want to visit her late husband’s grave during that time? “I asked, but was discouraged. Maybe it was still a bit sensitive.” However, in 1997, she visited Lebanon again: “I went alone. [The cemetery] was a lovely place but it felt strange, very strange.”
Does she still think about that day 57 years ago? “Yes, of course, and I still watch the annual Remembrance Day service on television. Roy and I were from Beckenham where our parents were volunteers with the St. Johns Ambulance. We met at a Christmas party when Roy was on leave. We’d only been married for 22 months but we were happy for that short time and we had a good life. I wish we’d had children but in a way it was better we didn’t because when Roy died it made things easier.”
From what we know, Garudy went on to command a mixed Syrian and Egyptian MiG squadron based on the Nile Delta following the creation of the United Arab Republic. Assad, who was disciplined for crash-landing his jet after the engagement, would become the president of Syria, until his death in 2000. Hunter died last year, having never fully recovered from his injuries.
The story of Roy Urquhart-Pullen and aircraft Whisky Hotel 799 is a forgotten footnote in what was one of Britain’s last imperial ventures in the Middle East. But every fatality shatters the world of at least one family whose lives are never the same again. In this case, however, Lebanon was where Urquhart-Pullen lost more than just his life: It was also where his widow found new love, and where his country, until recently, abandoned him. I say recently because after the last Remembrance Day ceremony on Nov. 9, a British Embassy delegation visited the Anglo-American cemetery to pay their respects.
The embassy has even promised to provide a new headstone with the same words chosen by his widow 57 years ago: “Mean, speak and do well. The Urquhart family motto. It meant a lot to him,” Ellen wrote in a recent email. She added, “I’ve just always regretted that Roy’s parents did not visit their son’s grave and I fear that not many people will visit it in the future, but at least maybe people might ask why an RAF officer lies alone in a Lebanese graveyard.”
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut. He is the author of the award-winning “Wines of Lebanon.” He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.