Conspiracy theory

MI6 double agent, British Prime Ministers, an American President, Stalin, the Gestapo, a massacre of thousands of Poles, a shady investigation into an aeroplane crash, and classified documents still withheld from public release – all on my doorstep in Gibraltar. Assassination or accident? Read on. This is not an April 1 spoof.

I had no idea about any of this until today. But as a nosy history graduate, and a nosy journalist, I had to find out more.

Some weeks ago, I went geocaching and went round a number of military memorials and commemoration plaques, but I was unable to find one of the waypoints, although luckily found the nearby cache.

It was this memorial. How I missed it is beyond me as it is big enough. But it was raining at the time and I was getting wet so maybe the GPS was damp too.

This is a memorial to Prime Minister Wladslaw Sikorski, who led the Polish Government in Exile from 1939 to 1943 – when he was killed in a plane crash off Gibraltar.

Who, you ask? as did I. A bit of background first. He was born in 1881 in what was then Austria-Hungary, because Poland had been annexed even before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Sikorski was a distinguished soldier in the Polish military in the early 20th century and was supporting Polish independence.

However on the invasion of Poland in 1939 by Germany, he escaped to Paris, where he joined two other rebels who were leaders of the Polish Government in Exile. Must say I never learned any of this at school when we studied WWII.

Following the fall of France, the government in exile moved to London, where it remained – until 1990 (!). Since its inception in Paris the government was recognised by the Allied Powers, and had some considerable influence with them, and also at home in Poland due to the Polish underground movement and its military arm.

As Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Sikorski was active on the political front, fighting to retain Poland’s territory and newly regained independence, and from a military perspective, he was overseeing the numerous Polish forces that had fled the country to fight with the Allies. For example:

  • In the Battle of Britain, where the Polish 303 Fighter Squadron achieved the highest number of kills of any Allied squadron
  • After the pro-German Vichy government in France and the ensuing split of French forces, the Polish Army in the United Kingdom and the Middle East became the second largest Allied army after that of the United Kingdom

They would deserve some thanks for that yes? Well, no. What sort of thanks does Britain normally dish out? Because, when Germany invaded the USSR it seemed political perspectives shifted.

In spite of Sikorski’s influence with the Allied Powers, the emergence of Russia (who, like Germany, naturally wanted to grab as much of Poland as possible) as a major player, left the UK and the USA in a difficult position. Got to keep the Russian Bear sweet. It seemed Sikorski, although flexible about borders, did want to retain some of his country in a post-war territorial re-allocation. Nor was he happy about the Katyn massacre that the Allies chose to diplomatically ignore. (Anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 plus Polish people murdered by Russians).

And then luckily for the Allies, Sikorski was conveniently killed in an aeroplane crash. His plane went down 16 seconds after taking off from Gibraltar airport.

His pilot, who normally didn’t wear a life jacket, managed to struggle with taking off and not gain height and at the same time put on his Mae West. All in 16 seconds. The pilot was the only one to survive the crash. Out of the ten people killed, five bodies were never found.

The following is taken from wiki (!) – with a few tweaks – which I have used as the main source for this amazing story. There are other sources at the end of the post, which add different perspectives, should you become remotely fascinated in this as I did.

Controversy
In 1943 a British Court of Inquiry investigated the crash of Sikorski’s Liberator II serial AL 523, but was unable to determine the cause, finding only that it was an accident and the “aircraft became uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established”. A popular theory was insufficient technical maintenance leading to jamming aircraft controls.

Despite this finding, the political context of the event, coupled with a variety of curious circumstances, immediately gave rise to speculation that Sikorski’s death had been no accident, and may have been the direct result of a Soviet, British, or even Polish conspiracy.

Six weeks before the crash, while Sikorski had been at Gibraltar for the first time en route to his Middle East inspection of Polish forces, a Polish government office in London received a phone call stating that Sikorski had been killed in a crash at Gibraltar; the call had been discounted as a prank.

It is often mentioned that two of Sikorski’s previous planes had been subject to incidents. A forced landing at Montreal, Canada, (November 30, 1942) was suspected to have been caused by sabotage. Another incident took place a few months earlier, in March.
In Gibraltar there was uncertainty about who had in fact boarded the plane, about the cargo and, about the identity of the bodies recovered from the crash site. Some bodies, including that of Sikorski’s daughter, Zofia, were never recovered.

At about the same time as Sikorski’s plane had been left unguarded at the Gibraltar airfield, a Soviet plane had been parked next to it. It carried Soviet ambassador Maisky and a retinue of a dozen or so unidentified officers and soldiers. It had been bound for the Soviet Union, with a stop at a rarely used African airfield instead of the nearby, commonly used airport at Castel Benito, near Tripoli. [So, an interesting change of routine there?]

Witnesses reported that at Gibraltar the Soviets had stayed at the same place as Sikorski, the Governor’s palace; [sic - but what palace??!!] Maisky, however, in a 1966 interview said that he clearly remembered having stayed at the Gibraltar Fortress and not having been aware of Sikorski’s presence on the Rock.

Gibraltar’s British Governor, Noel Mason-Macfarlane, who, prior to appointment to Gibraltar served as Head of the British Military Mission in Moscow, reportedly withheld knowledge from Maisky about Sikorski’s presence in order to prevent any diplomatic incident.

In a declassified briefing paper dated January 24, 1969, Sir Robin Cooper, a former pilot employed in the Cabinet Office, wrote, after reviewing the wartime inquiry’s findings: “Security at Gibraltar was casual, and a number of opportunities for sabotage arose while the aircraft was there.”

Although Sir Robin doubted that sabotage had taken place, or that the pilot had crashed the aircraft deliberately, he went on to add: “The possibility of Sikorski’s murder by the British is excluded from this paper. The possibility of his murder by persons unknown cannot be so excluded.” The inquiry’s finding about the jammed airplane controls, he wrote, seemed plausible. “But it still leaves open the question of what—or who—jammed them. No one has ever provided a satisfactory answer.” [I mean, he was just going to incriminate his own people wasn't he?]

It is worth noting that the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service’s counterintelligence for the Iberian Peninsula from 1941 to 1944 was Kim Philby. [Remember who he was?] Before 1941, Philby had served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, an organization specializing in sabotage and diversion behind enemy lines.

Suspicions that Sikorski had been assassinated continued to surface throughout the war and afterward, reaching their height in 1968 with the London staging of a play, ‘Soldiers’, by the German writer Rolf Hochhuth. The play contained the sensational allegation that none other than Winston Churchill had been in on the plot.

In early 1969 the Prime Minister of the British Labour Government, Harold Wilson, who was familiar with the above evidence (much of which was then classified and unknown to the general public), asserted before the House of Commons: “There is no evidence at all that there is any need or reason to re-open the inquiry.” Nonetheless the conclusion in 1969 was that the 1943 investigation was politically toned down.

None of the allegations of conspiracy have ever been proved. On the other hand, by 2000, only a small portion of British intelligence documents relating to Sikorski’s death had been declassified. The reason why these documents continue to be classified and why British intelligence refuses to disclose the information and what it has to hide has not been answered.

With the few documents currently available, most historians agree that it cannot be determined whether Sikorski died in a real accident or was in fact assassinated, or by whom. Speculations range from conspiracies involving the Germans, Soviets, Western Allies, and even the Polish political opponents, and various combinations of these factions.

There have been claims that the arrest of Gen. Stefan Rowecki on June 30, 1943 is linked with the death of Gen. Sikorski and the arrest of the commander of NSZ (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne) colonel Ignacy Oziewicz who was arrested on June 9, 1943. The fact of the matter is that within a period of two months, the Polish Army lost three top commanders. Two of them were betrayed to the Gestapo and one died in a plane crash.

The crash of Sikorski’s Liberator is portrayed in the 1958 film The Silent Enemy, in which the team of Royal Navy divers charged with retrieving Sikorski’s briefcase from the wrecked aircraft is led by Lionel “Buster” Crabb, himself later to disappear in 1956 in mysterious circumstances while diving in the vicinity of a visiting Soviet warship.

Because of a new wave of conspiracy theories in Poland in the first decade of 21st century, suggesting that Sikorski allegedly had been poisoned before take-off, on November 25, 2008 Sikorski’s body was exhumed from Wawel’s cathedral in Kraków, in order to investigate the cause of his death.

Investigators concluded Sikorski’s injuries were consistent with a plane crash and that there was no evidence that he was poisoned, shot or strangled before he was killed by the crashing of the plane.

In 2003 the Polish parliament declared the 60th anniversary of his death to be the ‘Year of General Sikorski.’ The new memorial unveiled that year in Gibraltar commemorates his sudden death in 1943.

Some other sites that add more insight, if like me, you had no idea about any of this.

I’ll start with this one:

There was Edward Prchal, who had joined No 310 (Czech) Sqn RAF upon its formation and shot down several aircraft during the Battle of Britain – he later became a highly respected transport aircraft captain and was the pilot of the Liberator in which General Sikorski, then Polish Prime Minister, was killed at Gibraltar on 4 July 1943. Prchal, then a Flight Lieutenant with No 511 Sqn, was in later life much vilified by, largely, the technically illiterate in both literary and theatre circles, and it is pleasant to record that he eventually obtained heavy redress from those concerned in the early 1970′s.
Great site about Czech pilots in WWII


Aviation Safety Network (but the original source for this entry is wiki)

Two short and readable accounts
http://www.historynet.com/was-polands-wartime-leader-murdered.htm

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/2684368/Poland-to-probe-Gen.-Sikorski-murder.html

A more in-depth one from a history forum

http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=86615

Another in-depth and considered article from a Polish news source

http://www.storiainrete.com/1079/enigmi/was-general-sikorski-a-victim-of-the-katyn-massacre/

A view from the Polish Ambassador in America during WW2 of the ever-changing political perspective
http://www.derekcrowe.com/post.aspx?id=82

29 thoughts on “Conspiracy theory

  1. Blimey, you’ll be saying Prince Phillip murdered Princess Diana next! Seriously though a good post and an interesting read. I also agree with you about school history lessons, I realise now that they were superficial (could they be anything more in the time available?) and somewhat irrelevant (dates and such like) but the real point about them was to create an interest in and talent for research.

    • Laughing, that one is a bit too ‘pop’ for academic old me. And, nah, I don’t think he did it.

      I got totally fascinated with it. Here was a guy, who I had never heard of in my life, who was affecting WWII politics. Amazing. And then he dies?????

      Some of my school stuff wasn’t superficial – we did the ins and outs of Bosnia and Herzegovina so many times I still remember it now! But it was a lot about dates and stuff. Or so I thought. Maybe not. Not sure what the real point was apart from passing yet another exam. But still, have blog, can make up for all that :)

    • Since you mention Princess Diana …… No I don’t think anyone outwith the car was responsible for the accident, but I do wonder if there was a phone call between the French and the British about the undesirability of having a quadraplegic mother to the second in line to the throne surviving.

  2. My dad fought in WW II (Battle of the Bulge, Austria, Germany) He always said there were political maneuverings involving the Russians that were not know by the general public and were only beneficial to Russian interests.

    • Always admire North Americans and Australasians who got caught up in European (and other) wars through choice. Not their fight but they still chose to make it theirs.

      Interesting how desperate we all were to fight fascism and ally with communism and then the tables turned.

      Politics huh?

        • What a heart-rending experience for him. Dachau is the one concentration camp I have visited. But, clearly not the same way. It was, how to say, lifeless? Soulless?

          Some politicians maybe have their hearts in the right places. I’m not sure where though, or who they are, when it comes to war and power. At the end of the day, they relied on your dad to help tortured people and mine to drive ships.

  3. Phew, that was heavy, but extremely interesting reading.
    There are so many unanswered questions to many many conspiracies, but at the root of them all, it appears there is always some political gain for the powers that control us. What right have the elected few to withhold the truth from the masses.
    I have a very suspicious mind and any seeds that are sown get me so frustrated when there is a lack of closure to it.
    Sorry if that all sounds a bit disjointed, I’m not very good at writing down what I want to say

    • I know. But, I had to give the background – here’s a bloke (apparently decentish), fights for his country, gets decorated, moves into politics, and gets into worldwide ones, to his own detriment. Or something like that. And I had to add a few relevant WWII bits of info as well. I tried it out on the test Guinea Pig (always ever a thinking test not a physical one) and he thought it was interesting enough. Tried to get me to make it into another James Bond novel :D

      Why should we not be suspicious? Why should we believe silly stories about WMD when it is clear it is an oil/power based issue?

      I think it was very well written. You can write my blog posts if you want. They could be shorter :D

      But back to the post. This guy was beginning to be a nuisance. I read loads around it, and he was really standing up for his principles (who does that nowadays?) Yes, we agreed to support Poland, but they well paid back. No need to sell them short to the Russians ( we did, as did America ).

    • I don’t think there is anything wrong with them. I think it is a shame that conspiracy theories have a slightly crazy image. What’s wrong with questioning what you are told? Seems eminently sensible to me. In this case I’m not saying what is true or not. I’m presenting what are an interesting selection of facts, and saying that others have drawn conclusions from those.

      It would make a great tale, either as an original version, or using the story and shifting the locations and times. Don’t tempt me!!

  4. I had heard of him, I think only because the US had helicopters of a similar name. Fascinating stuff. We will never know what went on between Roosevelt Churchill and Stalin but Britain was in such a hard place it is not difficult to imagine all kinds of deals and counter deals going on. I am quite sure that after discussions of mutual aid and dealing with the enquiries of the journalists the three would retire to the library for port cigars and boundary re drawing, well away from prying eyes.
    Interesting about Kim Philby, just the mention of the name stirs a belief that there is ore here than meets the eye.
    A book sounds like a great idea, followed by a movie, but … who would play the hero?

    • Yeah I remember the helicopters too and did wonder if there was any connection.

      I guess Britain was in a hard place but Poland wasn’t doing too well either. Struck me as being rather ironic that UK got involved in the war because Poland was annexed by the Germans and then ends up selling it out to the Russians. Seemed a bit unfair to me. Like life I guess.

      The Philby connection was brilliant I thought, that’s what makes it a really good story. Full of shady intrigue. And whatever our personal views about the Cambridge set (there seem to be more of them every time I research it, never even heard of the fifth man until this weekend!), there is no doubt they were intelligent. Being able to carry out your own job well, – and – another one on the side that totally contravenes what you are doing without getting caught just amazes me. (I am a Len Deighton addict!)

      The hero would have to be at least a Northern European actor, and if not Polish, then British. This guy actually came from an aristocratic family, although IIRC they had fallen on hard times (that could be relative!). Impoverished aristocrats are the sort of things Brits do rather well. Ralph Fiennes perhaps? I thought he was older than he is (just looked him up – 49!!), so would probably be able to play both younger and older Sikorski? What do you reckon? Shall I start work on the novel and film script now? :D

      • The Irony wasn’t lost. You see, I just been on clouds and said I was drawn to your father, now you have said something here that reminds me of my mum, ‘Life isn’t fair’ was one of her many truism’s. Not that she is dead, she just doesn’t seem to say it anymore.
        Do you think it is to do with being of a certain generation that makes it so interesting, Philby I mean. I recall all the ructions and media hype, I think. The world then was much greyer, less black and white and we all knew governments could get away with more because there wasn’t so much scrutiny.
        Ralph Fiennes sounds good. Book and screenplay to be started instantly and an autographed copy in the post to the pen please.

        • Could be the age thing. Don’t know really. Spy stories are just so… well, fascinating and intriguing. Not sure if there are any decent authors writing good spy stuff about these days though. No Cold War but I’m sure that won’t stop MI6 being active. I don’t remember the stuff about Philby, but I do remember the Blunt thing. It seemed to be that the biggest problem was that he been given some queen’s medal (or whatever) for his work as an art historian and that suddenly became the most embarrassing issue of the whole scandal. Moreso than flogging secrets to the Russians!
          Got to identify Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Wilson, Philby, the Russian Ambassador etc etc for the screenplay/film :( This ain’t going to be cheap…
          You (and all my dearest blog readers) would be more than welcome to a book if I ever got that far.

  5. Pingback: Free passes for some… | roughseasinthemed

    • Me too. It sound like such a tiny and insubstantial incident, but, remembering that Britain went into WWII over Poland in the first place, and the endless fights over the territory between Germany, Austria/Hungary, Russia, it starts to make him a significant player – who needed to go?

  6. Very interesting. Did you know Philby’s father, Harry St John, was involved in Foreign Office business? (read spying for that) He was sent by Churchill to what subsequently became Saudi Arabia to ensure Ibn Saud stayed loyal to the UK and that the head of the House of Saud gained power in the region.
    The Sikorski in the helicopter business was Igor who was Russian.
    SMERSH was formed just before Wladslaw Sikorski met his untimely end – I wonder if those two facts are related?
    Finally, did you see recently that the US knew about the massacre of the Polish troops but covered it up? This points to a definite assassination of Sikorski, I think.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19552745

    • agre a deal (and carve up Europe and Africa accordingly)

      Thanks. I think this post holds the record for my longest post but I don’t think you can write conspiracy theory without giving background, context, and reasoning. If people don’t like it, they can always flick elsewhere. I was fascinated, but it is/was on my doorstep.

      I didn’t know about Philby’s dad, but no surprise there.

      Anyone who has read up on this (but I doubt there are many of us who aren’t Polish or WW2 experts) would be aware about the blinkers that were conveniently used by UK/USregarding Katyn. Most inconvenient to admit the nasty Nazis didn’t do it and our wonderful ally Russia did.

      Reminds me of the Len Deighton novel I read recently – XPD – about a meeting between Churchill and Hitler to carve up Europe and Africa. A good read.

      All I have done here is present as many facts about the matter as I could, and added the varying speculations that will never be proved. I’m sure you can work out what I think anyway.

      • :) I’ve read XPD – I’m in the middle of writing a thriller you’ll be interested in, based on real events in 1978 – it’s got spies, academics, health issues, punk music, drugs and family animosities…
        I’ve been reading about Gib this morning and will get back to you later…

  7. Good grief! What a devious world it is out there. It rings a few bells now I’ve come to read it, but I’m staggered at the effort you’ve put into following it up. When you get the bit between your teeth, you really get the bit between your teeth, don’t you. Thanks for the read. Gotta carry on with my post now. Happy New Year! Lots of fireworks?

    • I was just too puzzled when I saw the memorial and had to find out why on earth a polish prime minister died just off Gib. It seemed bizarre. As for the research, tbh the wiki summary was quite good, but a) I didn’t want to reprint just that and b) good historical practice (old habits die hard) is to research a number of different sources to ensure you have a balanced perspective for your work. I particularly wanted to find a polish source (in translation), and anything historical and contemporaneous points of view.

      And of course, the more I read, the more interested and hooked I became. As I said, I’d never heard of it at all. It probably only gets taught to anyone studying polish history during WWII.

      Thanks for reading. Will be over to yours to see what you are up to. Six word saturday? Fireworks here on NYE as usual and pretty spectacular over the sea. Fireworks in Spain too, so wherever we are, one of us will be inside with the dog!

  8. An amazing read, Kate. Thoroughly enjoyed the links as well. Good to see a bit of solid research. I think it’s a very sad state of affairs. I don’t doubt for one moment that Sikorski was assassinated and it was made to look like an accident.

    I know how the British Govs think in war. (it’s not rocket science) They needed Russia’s alliance at this time… it was crucial to strike the balance between the allied forces and the axis. so, sacrificing the pols to get it… not much different to letting innocent civs get massacred in Croatia. Bastards all. Then I think of how Americans always take the piss out of the pols. The Polish jokes are equivalent to our Irish jokes… I no longer find either of them funny.

    One has to contemplate the costs. Sure, war is nasty, sacrifices have to be made… I understand all that… but to be robbed of even the memory, to be omitted from general history for the greatness one stood for when all others were afraid to do so?(I say afraid, because fear of losing Russia as an ally would have been very real.) …That falls beyond my grasp.

    So Russia gets away with mass murders, just as the serbs did in Croatia. And the memory of those who stood up for what was right is squashed.

    • That’s a very thoughtful response Kev. Thanks for your kind comments too. It was fascinating to research and write, and while researching to find as many sources as possible to look for different perspectives. The only Polish people we have ever met have been hard-working, pleasant, polite etc. See no reason to take the piss out of them.

      Have to say the whole story stunk to me. Too many coincidences and unusual occurrences. An interesting piece of history – but who knows about it?

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