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.
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
Two short and readable accounts
A more in-depth one from a history forum
Another in-depth and considered article from a Polish news source
A view from the Polish Ambassador in America during WW2 of the ever-changing political perspective