On Remembrance Sunday, it is customary for the British and Australian ambassadors to Lebanon, along with other envoys and a dwindling number of Arab veterans with medals and frayed ribbons, to remember the dead of two world wars and subsequent conflicts at the Beirut Commonwealth War Cemetery.
It is the resting place of 1,147 allied service personnel. Most served with long disbanded units — the 37th Lancers (Baluch Horse), the Camel Transport Corps, the Egyptian Labour Corps, the London Regiment and the delightfully named 39th King George’s Own Central India Horse. They lie in precise rows, marked by uniform white headstones under manicured lawns.
A mile across town, in the less-salubrious Anglo-American cemetery, under a white RAF headstone in the shade of a carob tree, lies another of Britain’s “glorious dead”: Flying Officer Roy Urquhart-Pullen, an RAF navigator, who was killed in a one sided dogfight with the Syrian Air Force over the Anti-Lebanon mountains on 7 November 1956.
His war was Operation Musketeer, the Anglo-French plan to overthrow Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, after he nationalized the Suez Canal. Musketeer would be Britain’s last imperial hurrah; it heralded the decline of the nation’s status as a serious global player. In the wake of Britain’s shabby retreat from Afghanistan, the story of Roy Urquhart-Pullen serves to remind us that the “Glorious Dead” are often only really “Glorious” when it suits us.
The Syrians knew the RAF was conducting sorties
Urquhart-Pullen was part of a three-man crew of a Canberra Bomber (call sign Whisky Hotel 799) tasked to conduct secret aerial reconnaissance missions over Syria amid Cold War fears that the tripartite adventure would ignite a direct East-West confrontation. These fears were heightened after it emerged that Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli had travelled to Moscow at the behest of President Nasser, to win support for his Egyptian ally.
It was unlikely that the Soviet leadership would go to war over the Canal Zone, but the British and French were still keen to verify reports from the US embassy in Damascus that over 100 Soviet MiGs were parked in the Syrian desert ready to join the battle, and that Russian arms shipments were seen moving through the northern port of Latakia.
For their part, the Syrians knew the RAF was conducting sorties over its airspace. They even knew the flight path, which took the planes over Latakia, Aleppo, Homs and then, five kilometers from Damascus, back over Beirut towards Cyprus. 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 long gone.
But on November 7, they got lucky. The Syrian frontier post at the eastern city of Abu Kamal, on the Euphrates, telephoned to say that a Canberra PR7 was “operating at extreme range” from Cyprus on a mission to photograph airfields in Syria and Iraq.
Three Syrian Air Force, British-built Gloster Meteors Mk 8s were scrambled. The cumbersome Canberra had little chance in the brief and one-sided dogfight. Two of the Canberra’s three-man crew, Flight Lieutenant Bernard Hunter and another pilot, Flight Lieutenant Sam Small, ejected over the Anti-Lebanon mountains. They landed in the Western Bekaa Valley, today home to some of Lebanon’s finest vineyards, where they were immediately set upon by a crowd of excited, and at times violent, Lebanese. Believing them to be Israelis, they handed them over to the authorities. Urquhart-Pullen, who had been in the nose of the plane, was not so lucky. He died from injuries most likely sustained after hitting the tail when he exited the plane with a parachute.
According to internal memo, subject to the Official Secrets Act “30-year rule” and not released till 1987, the MOD mandarins in Whitehall were faced with “two principal problems… recovering the aircrew and what to tell the public, and in particular, the Lebanese government”.
The Air Ministry came back with 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 Lebanon.”
The next line could be right 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.”
Her husband required a quick and unfussy burial
In short, the whole episode was deeply embarrassing and needed swiftly tying off. After treatment and a debrief in Beirut Military Hospital in the presence of Wing Commander Blackmore air advisor to the British embassy in Beirut and Lt Col Abdel Kader Chehab of the Lebanese army (“most cordial” according to Blackmore’s report), Hunter and Small were quietly repatriated to Cyprus, apparently by boat.
Back in Akrotiri the news was broken to the newly-married Ellen Urquhart-Pullen. “The squadron leader came by the next day and told me the plane was shot down and Roy had not survived the crash,” she told me in 2013.
To add to her anguish, the sensitivity of the incident meant that her husband required a quick and unfussy burial in Beirut, which she was not allowed to attend. “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 someone should be there for Roy. They were good friends and had flown a lot together.”
To this day she 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 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 60s, where she met her second 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.” In 1997, she visited Lebanon once again. “I went alone. [The cemetery] was a lovely place but it felt strange, very strange.”
Did she still think about that day back in November 1956? “Yes, of course and I still watch the remembrance service on TV. 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 have had children but in a way it was better we didn’t because when Roy died it made things easier.”
The story of Whisky Hotel 799 is a footnote in the Suez debacle, but every fatality shatters the world of at least one family whose lives will never be the same. Lying alone, an awkward consequence of an embarrassing incident, Roy Urquhart-Pullen, was, until recently, abandoned by the country he served. I say recently because after Remembrance Day in 2013, a delegation from the British embassy stopped by the cemetery, just off the Damascus highway. They paid their respects both to him and half a dozen British servicemen killed in the long-forgotten Oriental Crisis of 1840, a European campaign to subdue another uppity Egyptian, the separatist leader Muhammad Ali Pasha, who wanted to break away from Ottoman rule.
The British embassy promised to provide a new headstone with the same words chosen by Ellen “‘Mean, speak and do well’. It’s the Urquhart family motto. It meant a lot to him,” Ellen later wrote in a letter, adding, “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 future, but at least maybe people might ask why an RAF officer lies alone in a Lebanese graveyard.”
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