Star of Gone with the Wind Spied on Ireland (2009)

Star of Gone with the Wind Spied on Ireland; Howard’s WWII Mission Is Still Marked Top Secret

Byline: Bill Bond

LESLIE HOWARD, star of Gone With The Wind, was a secret agent who worked against the Nazis and undertook a covert mission to Dublin during World War II.

The actor’s Irish mission in 1942 remains a secret to this day – taken by Howard to his watery grave when the plane flying him back to London from a vital meeting with Spain’s General Franco was shot down by the Luftwaffe. The 50-year-old actor, best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 Hollywood epic Gone With The Wind, was at the height of his career.

A book by Spanish author Jose Rey-Ximena, The Flight Of The Ibis, claimed that Howard’s mission was to meet Franco as part of the Allies’ efforts to keep Spain from entering the war on the side of the Nazis. Berlin ordered the attack on Howard’s return flight in revenge. But while researching his book Rey-Ximena discovered that another secret mission carried out by the intrepid actor involved a two week trip to Ireland in April, 1942 – 14 months before his death.

The author found little detail in the records other than the fact that Howard had twice visited President Hyde’s official residence in Dublin during his short visit.

‘Official documents relating to Leslie Howard’s wartime activities have still not been made available by the British Public Records Office. The Dublin mission seems to be one of them,’ the author told the Irish Mail on Sunday this week.

The MoS has established that the visits to Hyde’s palace followed a request from poet John Betjeman, who served as press attaché at the British embassy in Dublin and who was also working for MI5.

On the first visit to Aras an Uachtarain, Howard was welcome by Hyde’s secretary, Michael McDunphy, and he signed the visitors’ book. On the second occasion, he met the President.

In John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, published in 2002, Bevis Hillier quotes Dr Nicholas Mansergh, the father of current TD Martin Mansergh and a senior official in Britain’s Ministry of Information at the time, as saying: ‘After his visit, he wrote a very sensitive report on Irish feelings. We might well have asked Howard to go back but he was shot down nine or 10 months later…’ James Oglethorpe, an aviation historian who has researched Howard’s death, says: ‘He would have certainly filed a report, yet it has not been released into the public domain even after 63 years.’ ‘Certainly, the IRA, who flirted with the possibility of working with the Germans against the British, concluded that Howard was a spy when he showed up in Kerry. The Betjeman connection only reinforced their conclusions.

(The Mail on Sunday, May 24, 2009)