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The Shootdown of Leslie Howard

The death of a "Gone with the Wind" star

In May 1943, the famous British actor, producer, and director Leslie Howard conducted a monthlong “entertainer goodwill” tour ostensibly promoting in Spain and Portugal a movie he had produced, The Lamp Still Burns. Upon completing the tour, Howard and his friend and business manager Alfred T. Chenhalls, now in Lisbon, Portugal, were anxious to return to England. Utilizing their VIP status, they were able to bump two passengers from the next outgoing flight.

At 7:35 a.m. on June 1, 1943, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Flight 777-A containing Howard, Chenhalls, and 11 other passengers took off from Portela Airport in Lisbon for Whitchurch Airport near Bristol, England. At 10:54 a.m., the airliner’s radio operator sent the message, “I am followed by unidentified aircraft … I am attacked by enemy aircraft.”

Initially Howard refused to go, citing security concerns. It took the intervention of Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to convince Howard to make what would turn out to be a fatal trip.

The following day, BOAC issued the following statement that was published in The Times: “The British Overseas Airways Corporation regrets to announce that a civil aircraft on passage between Lisbon and the United Kingdom is overdue and presumed lost. The last message received from the aircraft stated that it was being attacked by an enemy aircraft. The aircraft carried 13 passengers and crew of four. Next of kin have been informed.” Elsewhere in the issue of London’s most respected newspaper appeared an article reporting the death of Major William Martin – Operation Mincemeat’s “the Man Who Never Was.”

Leslie Howard Steiner debuted on the London stage in 1917. By 1930, the now-famous actor had moved to Hollywood. Though he appeared in a variety of major productions, receiving an Academy Award® nomination for his role as Peter Standish in Berkley Square (1933), he is most famous for his portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind that debuted on Dec. 15, 1939. Howard was the only major star from that movie not to attend its premier in Atlanta, Ga. He had good reason: the war.

BOAC Flight 777-A rendering

An unknown artist’s impression of G-AGBB, the registratoin number of British Overseas Airways Corporation Flight 177-A. The Douglas DC-3-194 aircraft went down with 17 aboard, including actor Leslie Howard, when it was attacked by German Junkers Ju 88s. Wikipedia image

Never entirely comfortable with Hollywood life, when war broke out, Howard, a Jew, decided to return to England and apply his fame and talent to a higher calling – helping his country fight the Axis. Howard starred, directed, and produced anti-German war films and radio broadcasts, and conducted lecture tours. His success enraged Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who called Howard “Britain’s most dangerous propagandist.”

What the public didn’t know, though the Nazis did, was that Howard also worked for British Intelligence. In fact, Howard’s tour to promote The Lamp Still Burns in neutral Spain and Portugal was a cover for his participation in the Foreign Office’s effort to keep Spain and Portugal neutral, guarantee the uninterrupted flow of the strategic metal wolfram (at the time the Iberian peninsula produced 90 percent of the world’s supply), and obtain military base rights to Portugal’s Azores Islands.

Initially Howard refused to go, citing security concerns. It took the intervention of Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to convince Howard to make what would turn out to be a fatal trip.

Coincidentally, Churchill’s return flight to England was also originally scheduled for June 1. And, because Chenhalls resembled the prime minister, it was widely speculated that the attack on Flight 777-A was an attempt to assassinate Churchill. Most experts now believe that Howard was the intended target, a point Howard’s son, Ronald, explains at length in his book In Search of My Father.

Both sides had elaborate intelligence networks on the Iberian Peninsula. Howard’s tour coincided with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s post-Trident Conference trip to North Africa, which received extensive coverage by the press. Coincidentally, Churchill’s return flight to England was also originally scheduled for June 1. And, because Chenhalls resembled the prime minister, it was widely speculated that the attack on Flight 777-A was an attempt to assassinate Churchill. Most experts now believe that Howard was the intended target, a point Howard’s son, Ronald, explains at length in his book In Search of My Father.

Regardless, what is not disputed is that the Germans knew Flight 777-A’s flight path. Not one or two, but eight Ju-88C, twin-engine long-range heavy “Zerstorers,” intercepted the civilian airliner at a location in the Bay of Biscay that was well outside the range of their normal search patrols.

Controversy immediately surrounded the attack. The Luftwaffe pilots involved gave accounts they later substantially changed. There were charges that British Intelligence through Ultra knew of the German plan to shoot down Flight 777-A, but withheld the information to protect Ultra’s secret. Some accounts go so far as to claim that Howard knew this information, but deliberately sacrificed himself. Additionally, rumors exist about important documents pertaining to the flight that are classified until 2025. More spectacularly, records relating to Howard’s estate (and that may or may not relate to the attack or Howard’s intelligence role) that were supposed to have been declassified in 1980 were reclassified and will remain closed until Jan. 1, 2056.

Ju-88C6

A Luftwaffe Ju-88C6, of the type that shot down the BOAC DC-3 carrying Leslie Howard and 16 other civilians. Bundesarchive photo

Recently, Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying – The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, reproduced a conversation between German POWs, recorded without their knowledge, that illuminated the controversy:

Heil (German POW): Were they armed?

Dock (Luftwaffe crew member): No.

Heil: Why did you shoot them down?

Dock: Whatever crossed our path was shot down. Once we shot down – there were all sorts of bigwigs in it: seventeen people, a crew of four and fourteen passengers; they came from London. There was a famous English film-star in it too; Howard. The English radio announced it in the evening. Those civil aircraft pilots know something about flying! We stood the aircraft on its head, with the fourteen passengers. They must all have hung on the ceiling! (Laughs) It flew at about 3200 meters. Such a silly dog, instead of flying straight ahead when he saw us, he started to take evasive action. Then we got him. Then we let him have it all right! He wanted to get away from us by putting on speed. Then he started to bank. Then first one of us was after him, and then another. All we had to do was to press the button, quietly and calmly. (Laughs.)

Heil: Did it crash?

Dock: Of course it did.

Heil: And did any of them get out?

Dock: No. They were all dead. Those fools don’t try to make a forced landing, even if they can see that it’s all up with them.

A documentary about the incident, Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn, is the work. Its narrator is Derek Partridge who, on June 1, 1943, was an eight-year-old son of a British diplomat, one of the two people bumped from Flight 777 (the other being his nanny) to make room for VIPs Leslie Howard and Alfred Chenhalls. A BBC news clip about the upcoming documentary and featuring Partridge recalling that day can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HRiDKqq1xw.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...