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Crash site of a Royal Air Force fighter on Jebel Akhdar, Oman

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by Laurence Garey

The weekend of 15-17 October 2003, Jerry and Linda Buzzell, and Josette and I visited Jebel Akhdar in Oman.

We had a very positive time, both on the Saiq Plateau itself, that sits at over 2000m on top of the jebel, and in our visits to Nizwa and its region, in the valley below the "Green Mountain" that is Jebel Akhdar. I think Jerry and/or I will write up our experiences more fully a little later, but I thought it worth writing a few words about one rather "different" aspect of our trip, involving some aviation archaeology, which is passion of mine.

I have known for a couple of years that there was supposed to be a remnant of the so-called Jebel Akhdar War of 1957-1958 in the form of a crashed RAF fighter-bomber, but its exact location remained a mystery to me. This war was conducted by the British Army and Air Force against "rebels" of the old, conservative, hostile central "Omanis" on behalf of the more liberal people of the coastal areas, still essentially separate as "Muscat". Do not blame me for any mis-interpretation of that aspect of history: that is not my concern today!

Suffice it to say that the RAF was used to bomb some of the "caves", perhaps harbouring "terrorists" (as we might say these days), using 4-engined Shackleton bombers flying from Khormaksar (Aden), and single-engine jet de Havilland Venoms, from both Aden and Sharjah. The main weapons were machine-guns, rockets and 1000 pound bombs. These proved rather ineffective (bombs and rockets do not do a lot a damage against sheer mountain sides), but there must have been nasty "collateral damage". Interestingly, during one of our treks, to the tiny village of Al Ain (!) near the top of the Saiq plateau, we came across a basin shaped piece of heavy steel casing with a tight screw-thread at one end, which I interpreted as being a piece of a 1000 pounder.

In 1957 or 1958 a Venom went missing after a raid of "rebel strongholds" near Saiq village, so we were looking for it that weekend. All the way up the 40km of track (that varies from good, through bad to very bad) from the valley we saw no sign of the Venom. At the hotel that has stood on the plateau since a couple of years ago, and where we stayed, I asked the manager. He said that, yes, he knew where the crashed plane was. In fact it was only about 3 km from the hotel. The fact that he called it a helicopter worried me! However, next day we found it, just by the roadside (there is, in fact, a much more modern wreck, of a Huey helicopter, at an army base a kilometer or so further on). Of our Venom, only the engine, the central parts of the wings (with the main wheels still retracted in them), and part of the fuselage remain. None of these parts carry the RAF serial number, so I could not find out the precise identity of the plane, but it was certainly a Venom, as was also attested by the well-preserved engine (a de Havilland Ghost).

There were lots of serial numbers of individual components, which I duly photographed, and I hope British Aerospace (the company that took over the former de Havillands) will help me in further identification. However, pencilled on the inside of a torn wing panel was the number "562". Now, RAF records tell us that a Venom of the British Forces in the Aden Protectorate, number WR562, crashed on 10 August 1957. I thought that this could be it! However, the penciled "562" seems not to prove that the Venom in question was WR562. That aircraft is reported to have crashed in Aden, not Oman. Sources suggest that our Venom crashed in late August 1958. There was one (serial WR503) belonging to 8 Squadron, RAF, that is reported to have crashed on Djebel Dahat on 8 July 1958. Could this, then, be it, I wondered? Could Dahat be a mis-spelling of Akhdar?

I have managed to obtain some more information from local and European sources, including from Les Kirkham, now at HCT but formerly in Oman, and who visited the crash site himself some years ago. He points out that Jebel Dahat is in Yemen, which figures as 8 Squadron was based at Khormaksar, Aden. However, there is yet another Venom (WR552) that went down on 30/8/1958! So the search for our Venom's identity continues. Les even has some old photographs, but they are not with him here! His old friends in the Oman Historical Association gave some interesting advice. Amongst other things, one story says that the pilot was strafing goats!

Alongside the wreck is a small stone cairn that I interpreted as the grave of the pilot, who was said to have been buried there. I have, indeed, had confirmation that the pilot, Owen Watkinson, was buried under a pile of rocks immediately after the crash by local people, and later re-interred in the rock ledge that is marked by the cairn to this day.

I am now trying through the RAF, the National Archives in London, the Ministry of Defence, and British Aerospace to get a little further with the research. I had very helpful replies from the National Archives, but I need to go to London to consult the documents. Closer to home is to get a copy of Colin Richardson's book: Masirah: Tales of a desert island which contains a report on the crash - the author was a Venom pilot himself.

So we are making progress.

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Remains of a bomb in the village of Al Ain, Saiq Plateau, Oman

Photo by Josette Garey

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The wreckage site, looking north.
Left centre is part of a wing, with the engine right of centre. To the left of the engine is (presumably) the pilot's grave
Photo by Laurence

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The grave

Photo by Laurence

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Looking south.

Photo by Laurence

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The Ghost engine,
showing the turbine (rear of engine) on the left and one combustion chamber. Behind the engine is a wing panel.
Photo by Laurence
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The Ghost.

Photo by Laurence
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A main wheel still in the wing.

Photo by Laurence
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A hand-written record on hardness testing on a wing component.
Photo by Laurence
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A crumpled (?nose) section, with a flower growing in it!

Photo by Laurence
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Electrical connectors at the wing root.

Photo by Laurence
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Hand-written parts numbers on the engine casing: ends with "DHE958" (i.e. de Havilland Engines?)

Photo by Laurence
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The enigmatic "562" on the wing skin. Maybe RAF serial WR562.

Photo by Laurence
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How the Ghost fits in
Swiss Air Force Museum
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In all its glory - still flying in Switzerland!

Photo by Markus Keller
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Venom of the Iraq Air Force in desert colours, much like ours
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A pair of Venoms of 8 Squadron flying low over the desert
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Ghost engine
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Ghost engine
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The ruined village of Wadi Bani Habib,
a "rebel stronghold" of the Jebel Akhdar War of 1957/1958. Seen from the village of Saiq, another "terrorist hotspot", as we might call it now. This is the region of "Beercan" and "Colin", the codenames used by the British Army (SAS) during the assault on the jebel (see the website given below). Could the ruins in the centre-right be the result of a bomb?
Photo by Laurence
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A "cave" at Wabi Bin Habib,
such as those mentioned in the history of the war. The RAF found it easy to knock down mud-brick houses, but the caves proved more difficult!
Photo by Laurence
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A detail of the ruins

Photo by Laurence
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Laurence at work at the Venom crash site.

Photo by Josette Garey
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The ruins of Tanuf,
another casualty of the Jebel Akhdar War.
Photo by Josette Garey
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Another view of the ruins of Tanuf.

Photo by Josette Garey

Other interesting links

Jebel Akhdar war:

Venom:

Ghost:


Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan