Mon
Apr 15 2013 12:00pm

The Murder of Lawrence of Arabia

He was a small man, only 5-foot-5, but he cast a shadow that stretched across the Arabian peninsula.  Dressed in the thobe and ghoutra of an Arab sheikh, he banded together the Arab tribes and led his Bedouin raiders across the desert that had never been crossed, the Nafud, to assault the landward side of Aqaba, a World War I Turkish stronghold. And, after that stunning achievement, with the aid of the British army, he took his ragtag Bedouin force and launched a guerilla campaign that cost the Turks precious manpower and equipment. 

His name was Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known now as “Lawrence of Arabia.” But was his death in May 1935 a tragic motorcycle accident or a carefully planned political assassination?

T.E. Lawrence was born in 1888, one of five boys born to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess to Chapman’s first family. Although the pair never married, Chapman, who adopted the name Lawrence, left his first wife and lived with Junner. Eventually the family settled in Oxford, where the younger Lawrence studied history and archaeology. 

By 1912, he had become an archaeologist, working in the Middle East with famed scholars Leonard Woolley and David George Hogarth. It was at this time that Lawrence learned Arabic and became enchanted by Arab culture. This also was when he had his first exposure to covert operations, for Woolley’s and Lawrence’s dig was used as cover for a military survey of the Negev Desert.

Lawrence had been commissioned through officer’s training in a program associated with Oxford. When World War I erupted in 1914, he was assigned to the Arab Bureau under his former professor, D.G. Hogarth. Eventually, he was attached to Sheikh Faisal, son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca. Faisal was an Arab nationalist, as was Lawrence. This partnership succeeded in making the Arab Revolt against the Turks, during World War I, a resounding success. And Lawrence of Arabia became world famous.

Disillusioned by the partitioning of Arabia after the war, Lawrence, by then a lieutenant colonel, retired to private life, writing two versions of the history of the Arab Revolt. But he became bored with retirement and, in 1923, enlisted in the Royal Air Force as a mechanic, under the name John Hume Ross. Later, in 1925, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. Dissatisfied with the tank corps, he attempted to return to the RAF several times, finally receiving permission to rejoin in 1926. His tenure in the RAF was plagued by accusations that he was involved in espionage, especially during a posting to India, but he remained in the service until 1935, about two months before his death near Bovington Camp in Dorset.

On May 13, 1935, Lawrence was out riding his motorcycle near Clouds Hill, his cottage close to Wareham. According to the official version of the story, he came to a dip in the road. As he rode up the rise, he found himself about to hit two boys on bicycles. Swerving, he lost control and was flipped over the handlebars of his motorcycle, sustaining a mortal head wound, but not without clipping one of the boys.

Lawrence died six days later: May 19, 1935. An inquest was held at Bovington Camp, and Lawrence was buried in a local graveyard.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Wrong.

Almost immediately, rumors cropped up of a mysterious black car that ran Lawrence off the road. And shadowy sources alleged that Lawrence was killed by MI-5 on the orders of Winston Churchill. Rumors are wonderful things.  They can be born out of thin air and take on lives of their own. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Lawrence.

Dorset historian Rodney Legg and Lawrence biographer Desmond Stewart both believed that Lawrence was assassinated. Four witnesses stated that they saw the mysterious black car: the two children who were involved in the incident;  a man in a delivery van;  and a soldier, one Private Catchpole, who happened to be in a nearby field. The children were kept incommunicado in a hospital and did not testify at the inquest, which was conducted, oddly enough, at Bovington Camp, and controlled by MI-5 rather than the local police. Catchpole did testify about the black car, but he, conveniently, killed himself shortly thereafter. The inquest was held in the morning; Lawrence was buried the same afternoon.

But why? Why would Lawrence be considered a threat?

The answer has to do with his political leanings. Around the time of his death,  Lawrence was aligning himself with Sir Oswald Moseley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. And when he sustained the injuries that led to his death, Lawrence had been on his way to see his good friend, Hawthornden Prize winner Henry Williamson, who was facilitating a meeting between Lawrence and Adolph Hitler.  Lawrence, like other veterans of World War I, abhorred the idea of yet another war in Europe, and, like Moseley and Williamson, saw dialogue with Hitler as a necessary first step to preventing it.

In 1935, Lawrence was still a national hero. Moseley advocated peace, but there was an active war lobby in England. It is thought that Lawrence was about to publicly embrace the peace movement. This would have been very embarrassing to the war lobby.

At this far a remove, it would be difficult to prove Lawrence’s fatal injuries were other than accidental, but the circumstantial evidence is considerable.  Forensic examination in this instance would provide little. It doesn’t take a political historian to realize that the recruitment of a national figure like Lawrence would have boosted Moseley’s movement. But only the release of information from MI-5 and the British government could potentially shed any light on the circumstances of the accident, and that is highly unlikely to happen. Like much of his life, the details of T.E. Lawrence’s death will remain in the shadows.

See these and other excellent photos at The Life of T.E. Lawrence tmblr.


When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.

See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.

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9 comments
Scott Adlerberg
1. ScottAdlerberg
Fascinating stuff. I've read a bit about Lawrence over the years but never knew about a Lawrence-Moseley connection. If Lawrence was indeed aligning with the British peace movement and a meeting between Hitler and Lawrence actually came to pass, it's interesting to speculate what Lawrence would have thought after that meeting. How long would he and Moseley have been on the same page? I wonder.
2. Neil Sjoberg
As a VSO teenager working and living in the Nairobi YMCA in 1967,I was fortunate to know Kenneth Mason.Ken was the manager of the Donovan Maule theatre in Nairobi and had served in the RAF with "Aircraftman Shaw" Shaw (AKA Lawrence) anxious to remain undiscovered ,sometimes arrived back at base late and was questioned on his mission.
"Where have you been Shaw,Why are you late?"
"I'Rather not say Sir"
I order you too"
"Ive been to dinner sir"
(Officers had Dinner Aircraftsmen had Tea"
"Oh dinner is Shaw ,dinner and with whom did you have dinner?"
"Rather not say sir"
"I order you to tell me!"
" Winston and Lady Churchill, The Archbishop of Canterbury and Air Cheif Marshall Trenchard"

Lawrence was put in the glasshouse for two weeks for insubordination.
3. Chris S.
Actually, Lawrence flatly refuted Mosley's efforts to recruit him into the Blackshirts, telling one of his supporters "Please don't make me any part of your club" and ridiculing their efforts in private. Williamson's the only real source for Lawrence-as-fascist and as an unapologetic fascist himself, had an agenda to push. I know of few Lawrence scholars who take Stewart or the conspiracy claims seriously.
4. John Jan Popovic
There is a pattern: kill the man and attend the funeral. It is considered MI XX tradition ...
5. Nyah
Laurence of Arabia is my great great great uncle on my mums New Zealand side
6. Valerie Wells
I live in Plymstock, Plymouth, near to Mount Batten where T.E. Shaw (aka T.E.Lawrence) was based in the RAF. When the MOD released land for redevelopment the main road leading to Mount Batten was named Shaw Road, with Shaw Way leading off it. I never cease to think about Shaw as I visit the area often. He was fascinating, adventurous and fearless. I have the utmost respect for him.
7. Alistair McColl
My Grandfather was Captain DS McColl 7878082 RAC / RTR and a career tank man for 9 years before the outbreak of WW2. He worked with TEL In Bovington in the thirties, and worked on Lawrence`s Brough Superior in the workshops on numerous occasions.
My Grandfather saw action in the 8th Army in El Alamein and was a courageous Scot and not one to brag. He never spoke of the horrors he experienced and how those around him fell.
I very clearly recall, however, his relating the stories and rumours that circulated the School of Gunnery in Bovington at the time. He spoke of Lawrence being a highly skilled motorcyclist who knew the roads of Dorset like the back of his hand. He also spoke of the shrouds of mystery and conjecture that surrounded the incident, and that the "black car" was widely witnessed by those on the ground at the time.
There was no doubt in my Grandfather`s mind that Lawrence was removed by those above.
8. n hodgson
I am male of 64 years old. Around 1960 there was a television programme about the death of Lawrence and although only eight I remember well the fasination of making my own opinion based on the programme of a hero daring and clever man riding a powerful motorcycle .You see a few days before I sneaked into the back yard of a terraced property and removed the rain cover of a black 350cc matchless I sat on a motorcycle for the first time. In 1971 I had bought a velocette and was now a pilot using every instinct to survive and race which gave me tremendous pleasure. I continued buying motorcycles and finished racing cars and bikes in ,2010. You could say I was an experienced motorcyclist.

I learnt to read the road long before bends ever arrived I looked for moss on trees to know which way north was to expect a greasy road surface. I knew when the sun would appear at each bend at anytime of the day. I would check the line of telegraph poles to read the bends ahead. I learnr how to stay alive.

But Lawrence covered over 100,000 miles on his first few broughs easily.He talked about it. He was an extra special person,he knew how to survive life and a motorcycle was an extension to his personality. I am expected to believe that knowing all this he made an error while riding a dip in the road a few yards from his home. Somebody is having a laugh at my expense. So what happened on that early television programme as I viewed the images through a big magnified glass hanging onto the screen of a small valve television.

The interviewer went through all the discrepences of the events .Two churches , the boys statements,the death of Catchpole etc., but it was the last ten minutes of the programme which brought home to me corruption and doubt of people which has continued to this day.

He interviewed three local neighbours who lived around Lawrences home. These people simple and straight forward and I believe honest said they heard Lawrence set of from his house they heard the motorcycle crash.They then said they heard the motorcycle start up again and come back to the house. It only stayed a few minutes and then went back to the scene. They all stated that it was not Lawrence driving the motorcycle. So you ask the question how could they possibly know that. Quite simple a motorcyclists opens the throttle and changes gear different to any other the timing of the throttle is like hand writing everyone is different. A v twin motorcycle is loud and revs different to any other engine.Harley have built a reputation on there noise everybody knows when one goes down the street you do not have to look.

So as a small boy I had my first taste of what every viewer realised that night. The chain of events does not fit in with the explanation given.

Was Lawrence dead or was he sneaked of to do some other covert work. We might find out one day.

Which brings me back to the present day. The death of David Kelly , do the authorities expect me to believe the body was found propped up against a tree in a copse.No laid down in a copse in a wood. No laid down in a corn field. And Robert Maxwell the sons came to the boat an hour too soon to pick up there fathers belongings.He hadnot even left the boat. The death of Jill Dando the jacket that had the speck of gunpower in was laid on the bench to be tested then examined the next day inadmissible evidence.Anybody could have planted that.So who what were the authoritise trying to cover up. I could go on .

So when I hear another story I just smile. How daft and gullable do you think I am. Donot blame me for my thoughts, but I will never forget that documentary ever.
9. Don Stolwijk
As far as I know Moseley is spelled wrongly here, it is spelled Mosley.
I did some research in Dorset years back and to my opinion Lawrence was on his way back from Bovington Camp to Clouds Hill after a phone call with Williamson to advise him about a book Williamson intended to write. Williamson became a BUF member in 1937.
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