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 (Amazon link) edited by Anthony Robinson, published by Orbis Publishing 1979. ISBN: 0-85613-388-4

Feature Photo: USAF (Public Domain)



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  1. Hi, I have shared this post to Lawrence After Arabia. I also mentioned a link to Patricia Daly Lipe’s biography of her great uncle William A Hemmick which has a picture of Father(later Monsignor) Hemmick in desert garb. Francis Rodd accommodated Lawrence’s recovery following the crash – an interesting character with many diplomatic connections.

    Caroline Ferguson / Reply
  2. Two letters from T.E. Lawrence to Frederick J. Daw, dated 5 July 1919 and 4 April 1929, were auctioned at Christies, London, 5 April [1966 or 1967] in Lot 116a. But of course that doesn’t help in finding where they are now.

    Christopher Matheson / Reply
  3. Hello Neil, Bertie is my Uncle, however I don’t have contact with his family, but I think Frederick’s son Peter Daw does. I will ask him for contact details and maybe get in touch with his family. We have just returned from the Commemoration for the Pilots who were sadly killed in the crash involving T.E. Lawerence at the Cemetery in Rome. I would be very interested to find out where the letter is. Thanks for the information, Jane.

    Jane Pine / Reply
  4. Alistair, I am a member of a group of Alumni of an elementary school in Cape Town, South Africa, called Monterey. Brian, who posted above, is also a member of this group. Bert “Flight” Daw, who we believe was Frederick’s Nephew, was a teacher at that school who we all remember well! Some members of our group remember that Bert had in his possession a number of cuttings and memorabilia associated with T E Lawrence, including perhaps the letter that TE Lawrence wrote to Frederick Daw with a 5 or 10 pound payment. Could this be the letter that Jane Pine was trying to find?

    Neil Martin / Reply
  5. Jane Pine, fascinating story. DId Aircraftman FJ Daw have any relatives who were in Cape Town, South Africa in the 50s/60s/70s?

    Brian Wakeham / Reply
  6. Hi Alastair, I believe the letter was sold at an auction, possibly in London and my Grandmother thought it was sold to someone in South Africa. In addition I found a reference to a newspaper article in the Online Archive of California, referring to Frederick Daw saving Lawrence’s life but I haven’t managed to get access to it.

    Jane / Reply
  7. Hello Alastair and Jackie, I am the granddaughter of Aircraftman Frederick Daw who survived the flight and helped Lawrence out of the the aircraft after it had crashed. He received a letter of thanks and 10 pounds from Lawrence. They subsequently met up on a few occasions as Lawrence lived in Plymouth, Devon where my Grandfather also lived. My Grandmother unfortunately sold the thank you letter, but there are records of it and I have a photo copy. Also I’m not sure but I heard there is a memorial to the crash in Rome and would like to go there next year, 2019 as it will be the 100 year anniversary of the crash. Frederick was always disappointed that the press at the time didn’t recognise his involvement in saving Lawrence’s life, it was rather swept under the carpet. I would very much like to find out more.

    Jane Pine / Reply
    • Hello Jane, How interesting. I didn’t know about your grandfather. Who do you think your grandmother sold the ‘thank you’ letter to, and do we know where it is now? I’ll put some more feelers out and see if we can gather more information for you 🙂

      Alastair / Reply (in reply to Jane Pine)
  8. I am Flight Lieutenant Frederick Prince,s niece. I would be interested to research more about the circumstances of the tragedy.

    Jackie clews / Reply
    • Hello Jackie, I don’t have any more detailed information than the accounts above, but I might ask around on social media and see if there are any historians out there with more details.

      Alastair / Reply (in reply to Jackie clews)
    • Hello Jackie, I’m sorry for the loss of your Uncle Flight Lieutenant Frederick Prince in the 1919 plane crash. I just wanted to let you know myself and five other relatives of Aircraftman FJ Daw are travelling to Rome for the 100 year anniversary of the crash. I am in contact with the British Embassy in Rome who are considering a commemorative event. If you are interested and able to attend, I am very happy to pass on your or any other family members details.

      Jane Pine / Reply (in reply to Jackie clews)
      • That sounds interesting, Jane. You said before that there was, disappointingly, no memorial there.

        I’ve passed your email address on to Jackie in case she hasn’t seen your offer and so she can reach you directly. (Hope you don’t mind – but you were reaching out to her).

        If you manage to get the commemorative event organised, I’d love to post an image or two here. Keep us posted!

        Alastair / Reply (in reply to Jane Pine)
        • Thank you Alastair, I really hope Jackie gets in touch as the Embassy are keen to include other relatives. I will let you know what happens.

          Jane Pine / Reply (in reply to Alastair)
  9. What a great story. And the images are fascinating.

    Mary-Anne Evans / Reply

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