N/461

Howard & Churchill

The mystery remains to this day as to the motive for the shooting down of Flight 777 carrying the British actor and director, Leslie Howard on June 1st, 1943. The ferocity of the attack on Sunderland N/461 on June 2nd whilst over the search area also raises questions considering the apparent almost suicidal determination of the Luftwaffe to shootdown N/461 inspite suffering heavy casulties. Winston Churchill arrived in Gibraltar on May 27th direct from Washington DC after attending the Trident Conference. German Intelligence monitored his arrival and thus a high state of alert began over Biscay, from around May 27th to June 5th. Churchill's new Private VIP aircraft, an Avro York called 'Ascalon' also arrived in Gibraltar from Britain on the 27th to meet the PM and fly him onto North Africa on it's maiden voyage. However it was not only Churchill who flew aboard 'Ascalon' in late May and early June of 1943. In the following letter Winston Churchill's own navigator, Air Commodore John Mitchell, describes the arrival of the PM's new aircraft in Gibraltar, the voyage to North Africa and a somewhat uneasy return flight to Britain.

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Letter from Churchill's navigator
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Letter from Churchill's navigator
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Churchill's presence in North Africa at around the same time Howard's aircraft was due to depart Lisbon raised the level of *intelligence activity in the region. Leslie Howard's accountant and travelling companion, Alfred Tregear Chenhalls, vaguely resembled Churchill and many stories have circulated that he was a Churchill 'double' deliberately placed on the ill fated KLM airliner. As Chenhalls and Howard had been close associates for several years, the 'deliberate double' theory can be safely discounted. Other popular Hollywood style myths even suggest that Howard had sacrificed himself in order to save the Prime Minister.

* "...Eden and I flew home together by Gibraltar. As my presence in North Africa had been fully
reported, the Germans were exceptionally vigilant..." ('The Hinge of Fate'- Winston Churchill)

Coastal Command had transported VIPs in the past and discussions with ex-461 Squadron members reveal rumours circulated around the Squadron concerning the possiblity of Winston Churchill being transported home on a Coastal Command aircraft. While this was probably no more than conjecture, 'disinformation' was a common technique used during wartime by both sides. Counter intelligence services were specifically setup for disseminating bogus information into the enemies intelligence networks.

The shooting down of Leslie Howard's Flight 777 on June 1st, and the attack Sunderland N/461 the following day, occured at almost exactly the same location over the Bay; within no more than a few minutes flying time between co-ordinates. Both aircraft were on a northward course when sighted and, according to Luftwaffe records, both were attacked by eight Junkers JU88's from the same longrange fighter group known as Gruppe V Kampfgeschwader 40 or V/KG40.

Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard

In the spring of 1943, V/KG40 consisted of three staffels; 13/KG40, 14/KG40 and 15/KG40. The predominate aircraft used were Junkers JU88 C6's fitted with machine guns and 20mm cannon. The C6 derivitiave was specifically adapted for longrange maritme operations. V/KG40 operated it's staffels (squadrons) out of German occupied France. The primary role of V/KG40 was protection of Germany's u-boat fleet from allied air and sea attack. U-boats were at their most vunerable whilst within range of Coastal Command anti-submarine aircraft, primarily when crossing the Bay of Biscay between their bases in France and the merchant convoy shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. At this time the area patrolled by Coastal Command anti-submarine aircraft in this region of the Bay was known as 'Derange'. Derange was approximately 1000km's N-S, by 200kms E-W. On June 2nd, V/KG40 returned to the exact location where Flight 777 was shotdown just thirty hours prior in an area of some 200,000 square km's.

In the days following the aerial combat with Sunderland N/461 and the eight JU88's of V/KG40, the story of the battle was widely reported both in Britain, and overseas. On June 9th the BBC recorded a scripted account of the battle with four of the Sunderland's crewmembers. What is interesting about this recording is not what was included, but what was not.
The following is an excerpt from the original BBC script...

Mr Loch (BBC): "Could you give me a picture of the closing action? Who was the chap in the galley that was knocked out?"
Flt. Lt. Colin Walker (Captain): "Sergeant Miles - he was killed."
Loch: "Was that after the Leslie Howard plane disappeared?"
Walker: "The day after. We were almost exactly over the position when this happened; we had been told to lookout for the position."
Loch: "Would you say that they are now hunting every plane that turns up? Can it be that instructions had been given to look out for the dinghy of the British Airways machine that had been missed the day before?"
Walker: "Yes."

The above never appeared in the finished recording. Censors removed the reference to Leslie Howard and the recording was released without any mention of the British film stars name or the possible motive for the return of the Luftwaffe to the shootdown site the following day.

As suggested in the censored BBC script, V/KG40 may have returned to the Flight 777 shootdown site on June 2nd to look for survivors that had been missed the day before. If survivors had been located what would the Luftwaffe have done with them? They obviously could not have picked them up as was possible in a Sunderland flying boat, providing the weather conditions were favourable. Also suggested was the Luftwaffe's intent of intercepting every Allied aircraft that turned up over the search area. But was it the British Prime Minister's aircraft the Luftwaffe were really on the lookout for? Allied intercepted German Intelligence reports show the German's were indeed interested in Churchill's movements. Did the Luftwaffe believe the PM may indeed fly back to Britain aboard a civil airliner on the Lisbon route like Leslie Howard had attempted to do the day before? Rumours had been circulating since early May that Churchill would pass through Lisbon on his return to Britain from North Africa. These rumours were most likely disinformation circulated by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in an attempt to confuse the German's as to the timing and route of Churchill's return home. It can be seen from KLM records the co-ordinates 46 degrees North by 9 degrees West, was a point that the KLM Lisbon - Bristol flights regularly crossed. However Sunderlands often transported VIP's and N/461 was flying on the Lisbon - Bristol route in a northerly direction when it was sighted by 13/KG40. So did the Luftwaffe have what it believed may have been credible intelligence pertaining to Churchill, or was it simply a case of shooting at anything crossing the Bay as a matter of course as intimated by Churchill's own navigator Air Commodore John Mitchell?

NOTE: Oberleutenant Albrecht Bellstedt of 14/KG40 staffel is recorded as shooting down Flight 777, whilst less detailed records indicate 13/KG40 was the staffel involved in the combat with Sunderland N/461 on June 2nd. So far only the names of three of 13/KG40's airmen have come to light out of a total contingent of twenty four aircrew and eight aircraft.
*The battle between 13/KG40 and Sunderland N/461 is listed as a V/KG40 combat victory with one of the three known aircrew, Lt. Friedrich Maeder, claiming to have shotdown the Sunderland.
*Source 'Bloody Biscay' by Chris Goss (Crecy Books 1997)

'Get' Mr Churchill
NOTE: The reference to Sunderland N/461 being 'under repair' was most likely deliberate for the 'benefit' of the attackers!

At the time the Luftwaffe's justification for the shooting down of Flight 777 changed as it was challenged, as did the possible motives; first suggesting it was a military aircraft with fighter escort, then the Churchill 'double' theory and finally, when the possibilty of a War Crimes hearing arose, it was put down to an 'error of judgement'. Claims were made by the Luftwaffe that passengers were seen parachuting from the DC3 as it plummeted towards the ocean. This could be seen to give weight to the military aircraft excuse, however the Dakota was a civil airliner and carried no parachutes. An enquiry into the disaster resulted in recommendations that the Lisbon - Bristol flights be rescheduled to operate only at night and that appeared to then close the book on the destruction of a civil airliner operating out of a neutral country. However at the end of the war Howard's son, Ronald, received captured German documents stating Leslie Howard was a member of the Intelligence Service. An interview conducted with at least one of the German aircrew involved in the attack confirms the Luftwaffe had prior information of Flight 777's passenger list before it was shot down. Ian Colvin's book 'Flight 777' (1957) and Leslie's own son, Ronald Howard's, 'In Search of my Father' (1981) both provide theories which test the various claims made by the Luftwaffe over the destruction of the KLM airliner that had travelled the same route for nearly three years. Interestingly, Colvin and Howard both mention the battle between Sunderland N/461 and the eight JU88's during the search for the lost airliner.

In the aftermath, the British Government condemned the attack as a War Crime. The most widely accepted theory for the destruction of Flight 777 was that German Agents had seen a passenger resembling Winston Churchill board the airliner at Portela Airport on the morning of June 1st. However sometime later in his book 'The Hinge of Fate'- (World War II Vol IV) Churchill, whilst initially countenancing the mistaken identity theory himself, ultimately scoffed at the thought that German Agents could have been so stupid as to think he would fly home in broad daylight aboard an unescorted aircraft from spy infested Lisbon when he had the entire resources of Great Britain at his disposal.What the general public was not aware of was the correspondence that had occured between Howard and the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden just prior to Howard's departure to the Iberian Peninsula.

It was the British Council that requested Howard travel to Portugal on a lecture tour. However when the subject of including Spain in the tour was raised Howard became decidedly uncomfortable and informed the Council of his concerns, particularly in relation to the security aspects of the journey. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, intervened and after correspondence, Howard finally gave into Eden's requests and agreed to travel to Spain. After finalising his itinerary Howard departed Whitchurch Airfield, Bristol on April 28th for the start of his film lecture tour of the Iberian Penisula with business partner, Alfred Chenhalls.

Nine days earlier, on April 19th, the KLM Dakota 'Ibis' had departed Bristol on the Lisbon route. This DC3 was the same aircraft that was shotdown on June 1st. At 46N - 9W the airliner was attacked by a staffel of six Luftwaffe longrange fighters. It took all the skill of the Dutch pilot, Captain Dirk Parmentier, to evade the attacking aircraft and, after flying as low as fifty feet above the ocean, he brought the DC3 up into a steep climb narrowly escaping into cloud. Parmentier's official KLM incident report left no doubt about the deliberate nature of the attack.

Officially both Spain and Portugal remained neutral throughout the War. However this did not occur without both countries coming under often intense pressure from the Allied and Axis powers alike. An exremely important wartime resource was wolfram (tungsten). Wolfram enbled the manufacture of hardened steel used for both machine tools and armour piercing shells. The Iberian Pensisula was a rich source of wolfram and, being neutral, Portugal and Spain had supply contracts with both the Allies and Axis Governments. Spain was the primary source producing approximately 90% of all the Wolfram on the Iberian Peninsula. This led to almost continuous negotiations by both sides in efforts to increase their own supplies, at the expense of the other.

As early as November 1940 Hitler's 'Atlantic Directive No.18' included plans to enter through Spain in order to capture Gibraltar and the Iberian Peninsula in an operation known as as 'Operation Felix'. It was of paramount importance to the British Government that the Iberian Peninsula and Gibraltar did not fall under the Third Reich's control. However what was possibly even of greater importance to both Axis and Allied interests was the crucial and highly strategic location of the Portuguese controlled Azores Islands. Hitler's Operation Felix had also included plans for the seizure of the Azores which would have enabled his uboats to strike deep into the Atlantic, out of range of Allied aircraft attack. The British, for whom the Azores were also critical, had not seized the islands because of the fear that Germany would retaliate by invading Portugal or the entire Iberian peninsula.

The Azores was a major topic of discussion at the Trident Conference (May 10th - 25th) from which Churchill had just returned. Both Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that it was critical for the Allies to seize the Azores themselves (Operation Lifebelt) unless the Portuguese government could be persuaded to grant the Allies the use of bases on the islands. Churchill and Roosevelt also agreed to give diplomacy a chance before embarking on the military course, however Antonio Salazar lived up to his reputation as a tough and often irrationally frustrating negotiator. While the British and U.S. military chiefs readied plans for forcibly seizing the Azores, British diplomats invoked the 600-year old Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.

On June 21st 1943, twenty days after Howard's death, Anthony Eden met the Portuguese ambassador in London. Eden reiterated the Allie's previous request to use facilities in the Azores. The British Foreign Secretary insisted on total secrecy in the negotiations and that to divulge information to Spain would be as good as giving it direct to the Germans. However the Portuguese Ambassador insisted on further discussion involving Spain, and arranged to join Eden in Madrid accompanied by British Military VIP's. On August 1, 1943 after many months of determined diplomacy, negotiations finally succeeded concluding in an agreement with Salazar and his aides that permitted British forces to land in the Azores. This agreement was to provide the British and, ultimately, the Americans with a vital base in the Atlantic to protect convoys and greatly reduced the area in which German U-boats could effectively operate. This was to be a further blow to the German's in the Atlantic theater and greatly assisted in the Allied preparations of 'Operation Overlord' and the D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944.

It can thus been seen that Leslie Howard's tour of the Iberian Peninsula coincided with the lead up to these negotiations. While there is nothing to suggest Howard himself had any direct involvement in the negotiations themselves, the possibilty of his Iberian tour forming a part of the Foreign Office's overall diplomatic strategy cannot be ignored.

The Iberian Peninsula, and espescially Gibraltar and Lisbon, were rife with spies and intelligence operatives from both sides. Airports provided valuable information as to the 'comings and goings' of those of 'special' interest. Staff at the booking offices and check-in counters could provide details of passengers travelling aboard flights and intelligence operatives would have regularly relied on that information. The passengers of KLM Flight 777 had to walk right by the Lufthansa office on their way to board the airliner. In Ronald Howard's book 'In Search of my Father' (1981) ex-British Ambassador to Argentina, Sir John Ward, expressed his surprise and dismay that his father, Leslie, had not been transported by more secure means considering the risk.

The true extent of the Allied wartime codebreaking operations, known as 'The Ultra Secret', did not became official public knowledge in 1974. By 1943 'Ultra' was decrypting Germany's Enigma encoded communications, almost at will, around the clock. It appears 'Ultra' may have also played a role in the fate of KLM Flight 777. In the book 'Flight 777' Ian Colvin covers a scenario in relation to a particular German radio communication intercepted by an allied listening station. The message was transmitted from Lisbon to Berlin on the evening of May 31st 1943, the night before KLM Flight 777 departed and after Howard & Chenhalls used their priority status to have passengers removed from the fully booked airliner, and confirm their seats on the flight shortly after 5PM that same evening. The contents of the intercepted message, once decoded, revealed the passenger list for a flight that was due to depart Lisbon the following morning bound for Britain. This would have undoubtably been an 'Ultra' decrypt. So what was the German's interest in this particular flight and why was the passenger list transmitted to Berlin? While it raises the spectre of intent, it does not catergorically prove the shooting down of Flight 777 was a premeditated act by the Luftwaffe but, never-the-less, it must cast a great deal of doubt on German claims that the destruction of the airliner was an accident. One could therefore assume that an allied interception of Luftwaffe plans to shootdown the KLM airliner would have reached the inner-sanctums of the British Government. As for the whether the flight be cancelled, or passengers removed, Colvin was informed that it was considered too much of risk that would raise German suspicion of allied codebreaking activities, possibly even compromising 'Ultra' itself. A descision was therefore made 'at the top' to let the airliner fly.

Howard was especially despised by Hitler's Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, and had been under close scrutiny by German Intelligence whilst on what was ostensibly his own propaganda mission to Spain and Portugal. His activities promoting the British cause, along with the anti-Nazi themes of his films, had placed him high on the Third Reich's list for 'special treatment' should he ever be captured. Many of Howard's radio broadcasts called on his adopted America to come to Britain's aid against the tyranny of the Third Reich. However it was not until December 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that the United States entered the War against Japan and Germany. In fact the Third Reich's own radio propagandist, William Joyce (aka) 'Lord Haw Haw', had decreed over the airwaves that when the Reich set foot on British soil, Howard would be executed. The announcement of the death of Leslie Howard quickly followed the destruction of Flight 777. Newspaper billboards in Portugal and Spain appeared with the news of Howard's demise. Josef Goebbels propagandist newspaper, 'Der Angriff' (The Attack), wasted no time in gleefully headlining the incident with... "Pimpernel Howard has made his last trip".

However, following the epic combat between Sunderland N/461 and the eight JU88's immediately over the search area on June 2nd, new headlines appeared in the British press,...

German Air Crime

There is no doubt that Leslie Howard was working on behalf of the British War Effort at the time of his death. His possible connections with British Intelligence have long been the subject of conjecture ever since and, as a result, have generated much speculation as being the motive for the destruction of KLM Flight 777 on June 1st 1943. Rumours have circulated concerning the existence of documents connected with the shooting down of the airliner being classified until 2025 have also arisen; although this has not been confirmed. Whether KLM Flight 777 was deliberately shotdown under orders from Berlin or not, cannot, after sixty years, be categorically proven. However in the light of what British Intelligence and the Foreign Office must have known about the threats against Howard from Berlin, the decision to transport him on a civil airliner, and the potential risk it posed the innocent passengers and crew could be considered questionable. So while there are those who suggest Howard sacrificed himself to protect the Prime Minister of England, it is more likely the British Government that may have inadvertantly sacrificed Leslie Howard, along with those aboard Flight 777, in the propaganda war that Howard himself was so much a part of.

Additional records relating to Howard's estate were originally classified until 1980 but have since been reclassified for a further seventy five years and remain closed until January 1st 2056.


© Copyright 2003 Rowan Matthews
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