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The Miraculous Survival of Adnan Menderes: From a Near-Fatal Plane Crash to a Nation’s Embrace

Adnan Menderes, who served as the Prime Minister of Turkey for ten years, was involved in a plane crash during his trip to London in 1959 to sign an agreement related to the Cyprus issue. Fourteen people lost their lives in the accident, while Menderes survived with injuries. Upon his return to Turkey, Menderes was welcomed with grand ceremonies and sacrifices. After the coup on May 27, he would be executed.

London Trip and the Accident

The attempts of the Greeks to unite with Greece turned the Cyprus issue into an international problem with Turkey’s intervention to protect the rights of the Turks on the island. The Cyprus issue became one of the most important foreign policy issues of Turkey during the Menderes era, involving the United Nations.

The escalating Cyprus issue led to plans for the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus based on the representation of Turks and Greeks. With the approval of the Greeks, who realized that the island would be divided, the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus was accepted on February 11, 1959, in Zurich, with the participation of Turkish, Greek, and British foreign ministers.

Prime Minister Adnan Menderes set off by plane to London on February 17, 1959, to sign the London Agreement that would resolve the Cyprus issue. The four-engine Viscount Turbo Jet plane made a refueling stop in Rome and continued its journey.

The plane, carrying the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, the Minister of Press-Publishing and Tourism Server Somuncuoğlu, some MPs, bureaucrats, and journalists, took off from Esenboğa at 9:30 and departed from Rome at 13:02 to London.

Although the plane reached England without any issues, it encountered dense fog near London. The control tower instructed the plane to circle for a while. At the same time, five planes, including the one carrying the Prime Minister of Greece, Karamanlis, who was also coming to sign the London Agreement, were given the same instruction. Karamanlis’s plane landed at the airport without any problems.

However, Menderes’ plane, despite circling for about twenty minutes, was directed to Gatwick Airport in the south due to the intensifying fog but “missed its approach” several times before disappearing. It was later discovered that the plane had crashed in a wooded area near the village of Newdigate in Sussex, twelve kilometers from the airport.

Details of the Accident

The cause of the crash was significant. Out of the 24 people on board, fourteen died, but ten survived. The deceased included five crew members and nine passengers, including the captain pilot, the Minister of Press and Tourism Server Somuncuoğlu, the MP for Eskişehir Kemal Zeytinoğlu, a radio operator, and a stewardess.

After the crash, villagers rushed to help, cutting the belts and carrying out a few people. The impact caused the plane to overturn, leaving Menderes hanging in the wreckage, with his leg trapped in the split floor of the plane. He was rescued by MP Rıfat Kadızade, who was sitting opposite him.

After being extracted from the wreckage, Menderes was found by the Tony-Margaret Bailey couple who came to help at the crash site. Margaret Bailey, a former nurse, provided first aid before he was taken to The Clinic in London for treatment, along with the other injured.

After his treatment, Menderes visited the Bailey family before returning to Turkey and invited them to Turkey. Margaret Bailey would later convey their condolences to the Menderes family following his execution.

The crash scene was described as horrific by eyewitnesses, with the head of the fire brigade noting the scene as “very tragic.” The plane was broken into three parts, with the nose completely destroyed and the tail hanging from tree branches, which allowed those sitting at the back to survive. Prime Minister Menderes was among these survivors.

The crash was first announced by BBC Radio at 20:00, stating that Menderes survived the crash, but eleven people had died. Istanbul Radio also interrupted its normal broadcast to announce the crash to Turkey, but the information was very limited. Five days later, the bodies were brought to Ankara.

The Prime Minister of Greece, Karamanlis, also visited Menderes in the hospital. While Menderes was allowed to meet with visitors, journalists were not permitted to interview him to prevent further exhaustion. Menderes signed the London Agreement, which established the Republic of Cyprus, from his hospital bed, leading to the agreement being called the “Bedside Agreement.”

Speculations about the Cause of the Crash

Various speculations were made about the cause of the crash, with sabotage being a prominent theory, especially since the crash occurred at a critical stage of resolving the Cyprus issue.

Years later, research in British Archives by İnan revealed documents related to the crash. According to İnan’s findings, the documents were made available to researchers in 1991. The first mentioned cause of the crash was the reduced visibility due to fog, and the second was “pilot error.”

Both Turkish and British sides conducted detailed investigations into the crash, concluding that the plane was airworthy, regularly maintained, and within weight standards. The crew had valid licenses, and no mechanical failures were detected prior to the crash.

The reports suggested that the crash was not caused by technical faults or service errors but was likely due to poor weather conditions and the plane approaching the airport at a low altitude, indicating a possible “pilot error.”

Menderes’ Grand Welcome

The crash caused great sadness in Turkey, affecting both the political world and the public. Following the crash, official and private meetings in Ankara were canceled, planned weddings were not held, and entertainment venues paused their activities. A citizen named Kemal Özbucak proposed the establishment of a society to preserve the memories of those who died in the London plane crash.

The leader of the CHP, İsmet İnönü, sent a telegram to Menderes in the hospital, wishing him a speedy recovery. Three days later, a message from Menderes addressed to Turkey was broadcasted by the BBC.

Ten days after being discharged from the hospital, Menderes returned to Turkey on a British Airways flight. The entire country was eagerly awaiting the return of the Prime Minister, who had miraculously survived the crash.

February 27, 1959, was a historic day for Istanbul as thousands flocked to Yeşilköy Airport to welcome their “beloved Prime Minister.” The roads leading to the terminal, including the London Asphalt, were flooded with people.

The next day’s newspapers reported the number of people who came to welcome Menderes as half a million. The Democrat Party’s publication, Zafer, described the event as “Istanbul Embraces Menderes with Love in an Unprecedented Splendor.”

Among those who came to welcome him were ministers, MPs, governors of Istanbul and surrounding provinces, high-ranking commanders, and religious leaders from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish communities. Due to the crowd’s presence on the runway, the normal welcome program could not be conducted. Hundreds of sacrifices were made in Menderes’ honor, and he was moved to tears by the public’s affection.

Menderes first visited the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, where he had fifty sacrifices made. During this time, storytellers were selling tales of “those martyred in the plane crash and the surviving Menderes.”

The Prime Minister then traveled to Haydarpaşa Station by sea and took a train to Ankara. Upon his arrival in Ankara on the morning of February 28, he was greeted by a large crowd, including the leader of the opposition party, İnönü, who shook hands with him “warmly and sincerely.”

Menderes was also welcomed by “a sea of people” in the capital, even carried on their shoulders, narrowly avoiding being crushed. More sacrifices were made, including camels sent by the governor of Urfa.

Menderes’ survival was celebrated by the majority as an extraordinary joy, even considered a “miracle, divine providence,” partly due to his role in the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus through the London Agreement.

Samet Ağaoğlu attributed Menderes’ survival to “divine protection.” Menderes himself would later claim in party meetings that he was “loved by God.” Yalman described the welcome as if “received joyfully like a Messenger, a treatment not befitting a mortal.”

Perhaps the most extreme incident occurred during Menderes’ visit to Tarsus, where a villager wanted to sacrifice his son alongside two sheep for the Prime Minister, bearing a sign that read, “Dear Prime Minister, I want to sacrifice my son for you because you survived the plane crash in London.” However, the police immediately intervened and detained the man (Milliyet, January 10, 1960).

Some were uncomfortable with the attention given to Menderes. The CHP criticized the religious nature of the welcome as “exploitation of religion,” while relatives of those who died in the crash criticized the emphasis on such events instead of mourning. Hundreds of sacrifices were also criticized, with a preacher stating in a sermon that “sacrificing so much for a mortal was wasteful and deifying him.”

The incident also raised hopes for a softening of the tensions between the DP and CHP (Menderes-İnönü). Newspapers published articles on this topic, wishing for Menderes to become “a unifying national leader.”

Menderes was advised to go abroad for three months to rest. Dr. Mükerrem Sarol, who examined Menderes, responded to this suggestion by saying, “… These are plots. They either issue a fatwa or launch a raid to get rid of the sultan…”

The proposal made by a group within the DP to send Menderes away from the premiership, without the knowledge of President Celal Bayar, is unthinkable. Aydın Menderes stated that the proposal was made by a group including Bayar and Etem Menderes.

Menderes had miraculously survived the plane crash with minor injuries and returned to Turkey as “God’s beloved,” “a great hero,” and “the conqueror of Cyprus,” receiving a grand welcome and embraced by the public.

However, the expected softening of DP-CHP relations soon turned sour, and military factions within the army began laying the groundwork for a coup.

Perhaps the attention Menderes received after the crash and its aftermath led him to misjudge his situation, similarly to how he had dismissed the coup warning from Samet Kuşçu in 1957 and failed to foresee or prevent the May 27 Coup.

The Menderes welcomed by “half a million people” in Istanbul would eventually be sentenced to death by the Yassıada Court under the command of the coup plotters and executed by the military on September 17, 1961. He survived the crash in London but was sent to the gallows by his own soldiers.

Sources: İnan, S. (2020), “Adnan Menderes’ Plane Crash in British Documents,” Belgi, Issue 19, pp. 1884-1909; Irmak, Ö. (2009), Adnan Menderes’ Foreign Visits, Istanbul University AIT Institute Master’s Thesis, Istanbul; Yalman, A. E. (1997), What I Saw and Experienced in Recent History, Istanbul, Pera, Vol. 2; Eroğul, C. (1990), The Democrat Party and Its Ideology, Ankara, İmge; Menderes, A. (2012), My Father and I, Istanbul, Ufuk; Kaya, E. E., Avşar, Z. (2012), “An Unassessed Opportunity for Improvement in Power-Opposition Relations,” History Studies, Volume: 4 Issue: 4, pp. 219-244;

https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/menderese-yardim-eden-hemsire-54-yillik-sessizligini-bozdu-22639509 (February 13, 2024)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeJ-_ZcJBFE (February 13, 2024).

https://filmmirasim.ktb.gov.tr/tr/film/adnan-menderesin-londradan-dn

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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