By June 1, 1943, British actor Leslie Howard, 50, was one of the most famous actors in the world, one of the male leading stars of one the greatest box-office draw movies of all time, the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind.
Born of Hungarian immigrants as Leslie Stainer in London 1893, Howard had served in the First World, until he left military service after suffering shell shock. Becoming an actor as therapy on the advice of his doctor, Howard made his debut in 1917, earning Oscar Academy Award nominations for both the 1933 film Berkeley Sqaure and the movie Pygmalion in 1938, but it remains as the star-crossed Confederate lover Ashley Wilkes that he remains best known to this very day.
On the first of June 1943, Howard and 12 other passengers boarded the Dutch KLM airliner DC-3 plane named Ibis at Lisbon’s Portella airport at 9:35 AM for a routine flight to London, since Portugal remained a neutral power through all of the Second World War, then raging in its fourth year. Until spring of 1943, there had been a sort of gentlemen’s agreement between the capitals of Lisbon and London to continue the daily flight without hindrance.
The Apr. 19th before Howard’s flight, however, this very same plane---the Ibis ---had oddly and unexpectedly been attacked by a flight of from six to eight German Luftwaffe/Air Force deadly Junkers Ju-88 off Cape Corunna. The plane had even taken some hits before escaping to safety in a cloudbank, and then flying on to Portugal.
Airport officials were mystified, since both the British BOAC aerial service and the Royal Dutch Airline had flown entirely undisturbed despite the ongoing air war over the Mediterranean among several rival forces, and fully 5,000 passengers had taken off and landed safely. Thus---despite the freak attack of Apr. 19th---the daily flights between Portugal and the United Kingdom resumed.
Leslie Howard flew into Lisbon a week afterwards to present a series of lectures on his films and also on the role of Hamlet, and also to look after his own film distribution business affairs. He had an apprehensive feeling as he prepared to fly out of London, however, telling his wife Ruth that he had “A queer feeling about this whole trip, but---what the hell!---you know that I’m a fatalist anyway.
Howard felt that going to the Iberian Peninsula overall, as Portugal was right next door to the Falangist Spain of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who---although nominally a neutral as well---made no secret of his feelings of solidarity with both Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.
Did he have reason to feel unsafe? Maybe so. Having previously played the roles of Professor Henry Higgins---and Romeo to actress Norma Shearer’s Juliet---Leslie Howard was also known for his famed 1934 role in The Scarlet Pimpernel opposite Merle Oberon. Therein, he portrayed an English nobleman secretly helping condemned French aristocrats escape the blade of the guillotine and constantly thwarting his rival, a diabolical secret policeman of Revolutionary France.
To aid the Allied war effort and defeat the hated Nazis, actor Howard reprised this role in the wartime film Pimpernel Smith, which was updated to replace French Revolutionaries with the Nazis of the Third Reich. The actor played an archaeology professor traveling in Europe who rescues refugees from the German Gestapo/Secret Police.
According author Jerrold M. Packard in his excellent 1992 study---Neither Friend Nor Foe: The European Neutrals in World War II ---Howard’s death, “A minor tragedy of World War II< but forgotten today, flowed out of the river of espionage that was wartime Lisbon. When passing Germans in the lobby of the Ritz…the actor made gentlemanly efforts to conceal his own contempt. He wasn’t aware, of course, that among these Germans were agents reporting his movements back to Berlin.
“Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Gobbels had seen Howard’s 1941 film Pimpernel Smith …Gobbels decided to get the man who not only starred in this attack on the Reich, but who directed and produced it as well.”
Until June 1, 1943, the Germans had left the Lisbon-to-Free World flights alone, as many of their passengers were useful to the Axis war effort as well as that of their rival Allies, but that day’s Flight 2L272 to London was about to be proven the exception.
A nervous Leslie Hoard boarded the flight with Arthur Chenall, a heavy-set friend and business associate of the famous actor, and one who also enjoyed smoking large cigars. Other passengers included Reuters News Service reporter Kenneth Stonehouse; Wilfred Israel, a Jewish relief activist; mining engineer Ivan Sharp, who’d been negotiating
important tungsten imports for England; the Shell Oil Company’s Lisbon manager Tyrrel Shervington, and two other men, a trio of women, and two children.
Oddly, the only reason that both Howard and Chenall were able to find seats aboard was because the airline had “bumped” at the last minute two other would-be passengers: nanny Dora Rowe, and Derek Partridge, the young son of a Foreign Office official to make room for the famous actor and his aide.
Another who missed the fatal flight was Roman Catholic English College Vice President Father A.S. Holmes. Waiting in the terminal, Father Holmes had received a hasty message for him to call either the British Embassy or the Papal Nunicature right way. As the aircraft wouldn’t wait for him, the priest watched its takeoff from the terminal.
Afterwards---strangely---no one at the telephone switchboard could verify having received a call for him, and both the embassy and the papal office denied making any such request for him to contact them. His last-minute removal from the doomed aircraft thus remains a mystery, one of several.
Later---in the wake of what happed---it developed that there had been more odd occurrences before the flight. Passnger Shervington of Shell Oil had dreamed that he’d gone down with the plane when it was shot down, and newsman Stonehouse moaned to a fried before taking off that, “I’m not normally frightened, but somehow, I feel bad about this air trip. I wish that I could go to sleep here and wake up at some English airfield.”
Were these just the usual “fear of flying” jitters shared by many passengers before and since? Again, maybe not, as it later developed that Berlin not only perceived Howard as an outright wartime Allied propagandist, but also, perhaps, as more than that: as an intelligence agent. The Nazis also viewed Shervington as a fellow spy, and that Zionist activist Wilfried Israel as an avowed enemy of Third Reich.
Indeed, as the passengers boarded the flight, they were even watched by the crew f a nearby Lufthansa German civilian airliner.
The ill-fated Ibis took off, and soon reached an altitude of 9,000 feet, setting a course for a landfall at Spain’s Cape Villano before flying out over the Bay of Biscay for the seven-hour flight to Bristol in England. Unknown to the passengers and crew of the Ibis, as they passed Cape Villano, a powerful German omni-directional radio navigation beam locked on to the Dutch aircraft with its electronic beam.
Anther fact unknown to the doomed Ibis was that---as it had taken off from Lisbon that morning---eight German Junkers Ju-88 crews were also preparing to take off from their Luftwaffe base in German-occupied France at Kerlin-Bastard outside the port city of Bordeaux, for a patrol over the Bay of Biscay. Its exact orders were never made known, and it has been doubted that these deadly Ju-88 fighter-bombers were on either air-sea rescue or U-boat protection missions.
What is known, however, is the Ibis and the flight of eight Junkers was now flying on intersecting paths toward each other. Shortly before 1 PM that June 1, 1943, Dutch KLM Flight 2L272 received burst of cannon fire and machine gun bullets from the attacking
JU-88s. As during the previous Apr. 19th assault, the KLM DC-3 again tried unsuccessfully to reach the safety of the clouds, but instead headed for the sea below, burning in flames, and it crashed, with all aboard killed.
Both the British and Portuguese air authorities were shocked when it became known that an armed belligerent had apparently shot down an unarmed civilian airliner. So sure had they been that such an event would never happen---and that the attack of Apr. 19th had been but an accidental aberration---they had summarily refused to extend the air routes further out over the Atlantic Ocean as a defensive measure. Nor had they even changed the schedule to the hours of darkness, rather than the normal daylight flights.
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