When Lawrence of Arabia crashed in Rome

I came across an interesting anecdote in a book, In the Cockpit – Flying the World’s Great Aircraft*, which gives a pilot’s view and experience of flying a range of over 50 amazing military aircraft from biplanes to jets.

The chapter on the 1st World War Handley Page 0/400 bomber focuses on the experiences of Carl Dixon, an American from Connecticut who had enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in Canada in 1917, and wound up, through a series of co-incidences and conivences, flying the huge twin-engined bomber with 58 Squadron in France.

Carl Dixon and a mechanic were conducting a pre-flight check of his Handley Page 0/400 at Provin, France on the morning of 3rd May 1919 when a small slender man stepped up to them and said “Hello, I’m Lawrence”.

 

“I almost fell over,” Dixon recalled. “Here was one of the most famous figures of the war – a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army – standing in front of us wearing a jacket with lieutenant’s pips, civilian slacks and sandals. He was the most unlikely-looking hero I ever saw.”

Lawrence had become disenchanted and frustrated with the way the Versailles Peace Conference was going – it was after all, the hard-nosed manifestation of the now famous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that carved up the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence, leaving the Arabs under Prince Faisal disappointed and short-changed. He decided to return to the Middle east and thumb a lift with 58 squadron who were being dispatched to Egypt with together 214 & 216 squadrons.

 

Feisal Party At Versailles
Prince Faisal’s entourage at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. (Photo: Public Domain)

For the first leg of the trip Captain Martindale, leader of B Flight, took command of Dixon’s aircraft and invited Colonel Lawrence to join him.

 

“We each had stowed our kit in the deep space in the fuselage where we used to bombs during the war”, Dixon said. “Lawrence fastened himself in amongst the luggage during take-off, but once we were in the air he came forward for a look around. While Captain Martindale and Lieutenant L’Holliers manned the controls, I sat in the forward gunner’s seat. Lawrence made his way forward past the pilot & co-pilot and came up alongside of me. I started to salute – I was still impressed by the fact he was a colonel, even though he didn’t act the part. He just smiled and looked over the side.”

 

The flight stopped at Pisa, Italy to refuel and then on to Centocelle, Rome. During the stopover in Pisa however, Colonel Lawrence changed aeroplanes and continued on in another Handley Page piloted by Lieutenants Prince and Spratt.

 

Coming into Centocelle, disaster struck.

 

“In France we used to lay out a big white ‘T’ to indicate wind direction. the horizontal bar being the head’, Carl Dixon remembered. In Italy however they did it just the opposite. Not realising this Spratt & Prince brought the aeroplane in from the wrong side, landing with the wind instead of into it. They came in too short and hit some trees on the edge of the field. The whole flight was watching from the air waiting for them to land. We could see the plane start to nose over as it snagged the trees. Up and over like a big wounded bird. It must have hit with an awful impact.”

 

“By the time we got on the ground there were a lot of Italian soldiers at the scene. Prince was already dead and Spratt died in an Italian hospital. Lawrence broke his collar-bone but it was a miracle that he survived the crash. He must have been in the fuselage section, cushioned by the baggage or knocked back the when the plane first hit the trees.”

That bit of Dixon’s account doesn’t quite make sense. Surely Lawrence would be knocked forward on impact!

Italian Air Force biplanes at Centocelle in 1923
Regia Aeronautica parade at Centocelle 4 Nov 1923 ( Photo: Public Domain)

And Dixon’s isn’t the only account. There is a variant on the tale. It was published in the Bournemouth Daily Echo on 21st May 1935 – the day of Lawrence’s funeral. It took the form of an obituary and was based on the words of a local retired RFC pilot, Captain T. Henderson, who had first worked with Lawrence during his first Arab campaign in 1916, flying aerial reconnaissance for mapping. Later, in 1919…

Captain Henderson was in command of the first squadron of Handley Page ‘planes to fly to Egypt and blaze the trail for the England – India route. At Buc aerodrome, Paris, he was asked to take a staff officer to Egypt.

 

He turned out to be Colonel Lawrence. At Marseilles, Captain Henderson’s machine had engine trouble and Colonel Lawrence was transferred to another machine.

 

On reaching Rome the pilot misjudged the aerodrome in the dark and crashed in a gravel pit. Both pilots were killed and Colonel Lawrence had a miraculous escape, getting away with a broken collar bone.

It doesn’t quite tally with Carl Dixon’s account. Did Lawrence switch planes twice on the way to Rome; at Marseille and Pisa? Who flew him first? And was it day or night when they came unstuck in Rome? 

I think I believe Carl Dixon’s more detailed account than I do the Bournemouth Echo’s report on what Capt Henderson said.

Back in 1919, Centocelle was a major airfield, which would go on to be a military air base for the Italian air force. These days it is a public park. Only a section of tarmac runway, and a few buildings, remain. But it was an important airfield. Not only did Lawrence pass through, but a decade or so later, so did Charles Lindbergh, and on 4 May 1938 it was where Mussolini & Hitler met.

Does anyone know of the history of Centocelle, and in particular, if there are any legacies from the Lawrence crash – perhaps a memorial to the dead British pilots?

Handley Page 0/400 bomber
Handley Page 0/400 bomber on 1st Jan 1916 (Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

 A fortnight after the crash, Lawrence continued on his journey on 29 May with his arm in plaster, flying again on a Handley Page 0/400 this time piloted by Capt Henderson. He arrived in Cairo on 28 June, after stopping in Taranto, Athens, and Crete en route.

The experience certainly didn’t seem to put him off flying.

Captain Henderson asked Lawrence what he was going to do now the war was over and thought he was joking when he was thinking of enlisting in the Air Force, but he enlisted twice (1922 & 1925) in the RAF under a false name!

* In the Cockpit – Flying the World’s Great Aircraft edited by Anthony Robinson, published by Orbis Publishing 1979. ISBN: 0-85613-388-4

Feature Photo: USAF (Public Domain)

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  1. What a great story. And the images are fascinating.

    Mary-Anne Evans / Reply

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