The Strange Death of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1985)

The Strange Death of the Scarlet Pimpernel

by Ward Phillips

ln 1943, the actor Leslie Howard died in an aerial ambush over the Bay of Biscay. Was he just an innocent victim or were the Germans right in thinking he was an agent in real life as well as on the screen?

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

In 1943 the last thing one would have expected to see was an unarmed transport with British registration flying across the Bay of Biscay, stamping ground of the Kriegsmarine‘s U-boats and virtually a highway for Luftwaffe aircraft who threw a cover over their comrades below as the submarines transited from base to patrol area. Yet such was the case, and had been since 1940, when KLM crews who’d escaped from their country one jump ahead of the advancing Germans began a regular service between England and neutral Portugal.

Lisbon, at this time, was a melting pot in which Graham Greene or E. Phillips Oppenheim would have felt right at home, a farrago of the actual and apparent with agents–double, triple or so byzantinely convoluted that they didn’t know whose cause they really served–spies and counterspies, and the casually innocent who seemed most suspicious of all. Diplomats from every combatant nation mingled with those from supposed neutrals. French was heard more frequently than the native Portuguese, and the undercover community worked overtime, its clumsier members being fished out of the conveniently located Tagus River in varying conditions, none of which left them fit to correct their mistakes.
Into this whirlpool was dropped an individual whose cinematic career apparently fitted him to slip into local society perfectly. Leslie Howard, best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the overblown and definitely over-rated pseudo-epic Gone With the Wind, had gained his initial reputation through a series of motion pictures which appealed to
British Francophobia in a most delightful fashion. Playing the apparent effete Sir Percy Blakeney he’d confuted the frogs time and again in his alternate persona, that master of disguise and the pointed bon mot, the Scarlet Pimpernel. One hairbreadth escape after another, all the time helping aristocrats–far more palatable to the English than the sans culottes who persecuted them –to safety. Why, the man was born to be an undercover agent … at least, so thought the Nazis according to one school.
The battle for neutral nations’ sympathies was as fierce, if marginally more civilized, as that which raged in every hemisphere. German agents and informants pricked up their collective ears when Howard appeared in Iberia, traveling between Spanish and Portuguese cities giving talks on the British cinema and stage, and incidentally hosting performances of propaganda films which put the Allied cause in the best possible light. Coupled with his
apparent leaning towards espionage, or at least a fondness for such role-playing, Nazi paranoia could result in only one decision: Howard was a secret agent!
The Lisbon run had obviously had some value for the Germans, possibly providing a route for infiltrating agents or bringing information back out, for the planes used–DC-3s–were sitting ducks for any fighter determined to take them out. The fact that such attacks hadn’t been made–at least not until the spring of 1943, when within a matter of weeks the DC-3s were jumped twice –proved that this was the case, also that for some reason Berlin didn’t need this source of intelligence any longer. Luck had enabled the Gooney Birds’ Dutch crews to evade their pursuers, ducking into convenient clouds or (a bizarre concept) outmaneuvering overeager Ju 88C pilots.
Howard, apparently convinced that no one could seriously consider him as anything but what he was–an actor–made no attempt to conceal either his movements about the Iberian Peninsula nor his plans to return home to England where he was to complete post-production work on another film. One of his recent efforts was hardly calculated to endear him to the Germans: “Pimpernel Smith” concerned a character who, using a variety of disguises, snatched important people out of the jaws of the Nazis. While neither particularly original nor subtle–in fact, as blatant a plagiarism of his previous films as could be imagined–it was immensely popular in Blighty, and even worse, was hailed by the Portuguese as the best production of the year (one shudders to think of what it was being measured against!). On 1 June he and his business manager and constant companion, a gentleman of Churchillian girth and mien named Alfred Chenhalls–who even affected a bowler and cigar-arrived at Lisbon’s Portela Airport to catch the shuttle flight back to Whitchurch, near Bristol. They were to fly with a four-man crew and a dozen other passengers aboard KLM’s DC-3, registered G-AGBB; time of departure was 9:30 a.m. English time, and the flight would last something over five hours, this made bearable by comfortable reclining seats, traveling rugs (the DC-3 was neither pressurized nor particularly well heated), food and drink, and magazines–ironically enough, German magazines!
The passenger list was calculated to arouse Nazi suspicions even if the Scarlet Pimpernel and a Churchill look-alike hadn’t been making the trip. It’s extremely doubtful that they really believe the Prime Minister would book passage aboard a commercial airliner, but such has been the explanation put forward by some for what was about to happen. Riding with Howard and Chenhalls were a Reuter correspondent; a Shell-Mex official who the Nazis suspected of being an agent: a representative from the Colonial Office on his way back from a trip to Palestine; an Inspector of Consulates whose attaché case contained who knew what sort of documents? There were also three women and two children, but perhaps they were espionage agents too; after all, the children could be midgets.
There was a 14th person who planned to join the fight even though his name was not on the manifest. Rev. Arthur S. Holmes, vice-president of the English College in Lisbon, was going home for a vacation, and since there was an empty seat KLM’s agent had not hesitated to sell him a ticket. Early that morning, while picking up the last of his belongings at the college, he received a call from the airport. Mr. Howard had changed his plans and was now traveling with a party of four. Would the reverend object to being switched to a later flight that same day? Of course not, was the reply, but did the airline still want him at the airport?
KLM was still trying to get him onto the 9:30 flight, so told him to report to their office just in case. Upon arrival he was told that arrangements had been made to seat everyone, but just before the DC-3 was to take off a phone message arrived, saying that he was wanted immediately back at the college. Collecting his bags he clambered out; after all he could still catch that later plane. He couldn’t understand why anyone would have played such a pointless trick when, upon calling the school, he learned that they’d sent no such message. How very odd! He didn’t know it yet, but some unknown friend had just saved his life.
Right on time G-AGBB began its takeoff roll, the passengers pretending that there was nothing whatsoever to worry about, as airplane passengers always do. The engine note rose to deafening levels, the tail came up, then with only the slightest tremble the plane lifted off from Portela; the gear retracted smoothly, wings tilted as the silver transport came around to its heading along the coast of Portugal, and white knuckled fingers relaxed their paralyzed grip on armrests. As it dwindled against the cloud bank which lay along the northern horizon someone reached for a phone–to this day no one knows who; it could have been a clerk at Swissair, Deutsche Lufthansa, even an agent who’d worked his or her way into the ranks of KLM or BOAC but it did happen–and word was flashed to Luftwaffe fighter headquarters, then passed on to Kerlin Bastard (a name which must have caused the English no end of amusement due to its singular appropriateness), a Luftwaffe airfield near Bordeaux.
Kerlin Bastard was home to Kampfgeschwader 40, a bomber squadron which counted a number of Junkers 88C night fighters on its strength in addition to the usual Ju 88As. At ten, half an hour after the KLM plane had left Lisbon, eight of the fighters were sent off, ostensibly to search for, locate, and escort two U-boats making the hazardous crossing of the Bay of Biscay, protecting them from the increasingly frequent attacks of RAF Coastal Command aircraft. The timing of this, if it was a routine mission, is so curious that it stretches coincidence much farther than is reasonable.
The DC-3, or Dakota as it was known to the English, plowed through rain showers and heavy clouds, its radio operator sending off regular position reports until, at 11:30, it was ready to change course toward England. The eight Junkers, in two loose four-plane Schwarms, were far out over the Bay by now and had turned back towards the coast, weaving to cover the greatest amount of sky as they supposedly searched for the submarines. Both quarry and hunters popped out into a clear patch at the same time, and sighted each other at almost the same moment. Cornelius Van Brugge, the radio operator, got a message off as Quirinus Tepas, command pilot, tried to run for the clouds: “GKH (Withchurch’s call sign) from G-AGBB. An unidentified aircraft is following me.” His coded call for help went unheard in England, but it was picked up by Lisbon and deciphered, but it was the next report which made everyone who heard it sit up:
“GKH from G-AGBB. I am being attacked by enemy aircraft!”
Breaking up into two-plane Rottes the Junkers had taken their time setting the attack up. Now, one pair at a time, they dove in at the frantically twisting transport, cannon and machine guns clattering. By the time the last pair had completed their firing run and pulled up both of the DC-3’s engines were streaming fire and smoke, the fuselage was beginning to burn as well, and the plane was nosing down into an uncontrolled dive. Following the now blazing airliner the German pilots were sure they saw four parachutes pop clear of the cabin door, this being cited afterwards as evidence that the passengers weren’t the innocents the English claimed them to be. Wrapped in a plume of fire the transport slammed into the water, exploded, and vanished, leaving behind only floating debris and a blazing oil slick.
Royal Navy rescue craft had to wait for the Germans to leave the area before they could venture in search for survivors, but by the time they arrived no trace remained of the downed airliner. Great Britain naturally denied that Howard or any of the other passengers were agents, while KLM was just as adamant that parachutes had not been taken aboard. The attack was widely publicized as yet another example of Teutonic brutality, propagandists making the most of the tragedy, but after 42 years some questions still remain. Who made up the “party of four” Howard was supposedly traveling back to England with? Who knew beforehand that the plane was going to be attacked , and why did he–or she–single Rev. Holmes out to save? And, despite stout official disclaimers to the contrary, was the Scarlet Pimpernel doing battle against England’s enemies yet again?

(Air Classics, April 1985)