How Lawrence of Arabia cheated death in fatal air crash

Handley Page Type O. Photo credit: Il Messaggero

ROME - The British Embassy in Italy commemorated the centenary of the death of two RAF pilots, who were tragically killed in an airplane crash at Rome’s Centocelle airport while transporting TE Lawrence from Europe to Cairo on May 17, 1919. The fatal crash is a little-known episode in the otherwise well-documented life of the mastermind behind Middle Eastern policy during the First World War who cheated death on the outskirts of Italy’s capital.

 British Ambassador to Italy Jill Morris and Ministry of Defence minister Tobias Ellwood were amongst those present at the ceremony which remembered the service of the two deceased pilots: Frederick Prince, 27-years-old at the time, and Sydney Spratt, a teenager at the time of the crash. The commemoration was held at Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, where the pilots are buried alongside John Keats and Percy Shelley.

 TE Lawrence, a former British army officer and diplomat, was renowned for his role the Middle East during the First World War, playing a crucial part in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and consequently being given the nickname Lawrence of Arabia.  

 Following an undergraduate in History at Jesus College, Oxford, Lawrence swiftly moved into a career as an archaeologist in Carchemish, an area of the Ottoman Empire that forms part of modern-day Syria.

 Once war broke out in 1914, Lawrence volunteered for the British Army and was stationed in the Middle East given his knowledge of the area. Originally working out of Egypt, he was soon sent to Arabia where he worked as a liaison officer between the British and the Arab forces vying for freedom from Ottoman rule led by Emir Faisal. Lawrence was crucial in the build-up to the fall of Damascus in 1918, the decisive moment of Arab liberation, and while not present at the city’s formal surrender, he worked tirelessly in its aftermath to ensure the establishment of a new government under Faisal.

 He returned to England shortly after, signing up to work for the Foreign Office and later penning his autobiographical account of his time as a soldier, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, his most prominent work.  

 However, both these commitments were so nearly cut short after Lawrence was caught in a plane crash in Rome, miraculously surviving the incident with a broken shoulder blade and two broken ribs.

 Lawrence had been travelling from the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles to Egypt, but wanting to avoid the danger of flying oversea more than was strictly necessary, his route had taken him to Marseille and then Pisa. The plane was then scheduled to fly onto Rome and then make its final pit stops on the way to Cairo, however it never landed in Italy’s capital in one piece. Of the 51 flights to have taken off from London to Cairo before Lawrence’s crash, only 26 had made it. His flight made it 27.

 There are plenty of theories as to why the plane crashed: the pilots were deceived by unfamiliar coding signals and misjudged the wind conditions, the weight of the plane made the landing on an unknown runway arduous, the fading light was to blame. The truth, though, is still unknown.

 What is known, however, is that the Handley Page Type O in which the diplomat was flying crashed into a tree and tumbled into an escarpment at the end of the runway, killing both pilots aboard. Lawrence, who was found hanging from the wreckage of the cockpit by mechanic Frederick Daw, was rushed to hospital and fortunate not to suffer the same fate as his British peers.

 While the event is often overlooked in T. E. Lawrence’s eventful life, the momentous occasion did not slip by Victor Emanuel III, Italy’s reigning monarch at the time, who refused to let the chance of meeting the man who led the revolt of circa 70,000 Arabs go begging. In fact, it was as Victor Emanuel III went to visit that Lawrence began drafting his magnum opus.

 Lawrence went on to fight to uphold the rights he had promised Faisal and his men and continue to serve for the British army. His work, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, that he began to write in Rome went on to inspire Peter O’Toole’s “Lawrence of Arabia”. The film won seven Oscars, yet the moment at Centocelle that almost took the story to the grave is not mentioned. Neither are the two pilots who tragically lost their lives on May 17, 1919.


T. E. Lawrence. Photo credit: Smithsonian Magazine
The centenary commemorations at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Photo credit: UK in Italy