The Strange Death of Leslie Howard (1957)
The Strange Death of Leslie Howard
Most people remember Leslie Howard as the star of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” an adventure movie of the Thirties. But most people do not know that Howard, in real life, played a far more dangerous–and eventually fatal–game
by Maurice B. Long
June 1, 1943, the sky over Lorient, the German air base on France’s Atlantic seaboard, was bright and blue–ideal weather for the crime to be committed.
At nine-forty-five a.m., Wing Leader Lieutenant Hans Bellstedt was hurriedly summoned to the operations room, a call he had been expecting.
“Orders from Berlin have just arrived,” Major Alfred Hemm snapped. “You are to search the entire Bay of Biscay area, from the French coast and 09 degrees west and south of Cape Villano, Spain. Your target is a DC3 named Ibis, operated by the Dutch line. You will shoot her down on sight, verstanden?”
Lieutenant Bellstedt was taken aback. “Shoot down a civilian plane, sir?”
The Dutch Line, he knew, was running passenger planes from Lisbon, Portugal, to London. As Portugal wa not a warring power, planes taking off from her territory could not, under international law, be attacked.
“Orders from Berlin are never to be questioned,” Major Hemm replied gruffly. “Get going.”
Lieutenant Bellstedt’s wolf pack of six Junkers 88 took the air. Each packed five cannon and three machine guns, formidable firepower matching anything Allied air forces could throw against it. But the only interference Lieutenant Bellstedt encountered out over the Atlantic was from clouds which, gray and drizzly, hovered 4,000 feet above the choppy water.
At twelve-forty-five a.m. Bellstedt spotted the Ibis, cruising peacefully on her usual route at 10,000 feet, a silvery speck right in the sun. He made a wide loop and pounced. Bursts of machine-gun fire riddled the Ibis’ cockpit, then the gas tanks. Flames shot up. Bellstedt could see the rear door fly open. Crates, mailbags and pieces of baggage tumbled out. Three people jumped into the void. Then a fourth. His parachute unfurled, burst into flame and streaked like a blazing meteor into the clouds. A moment later, the Ibis shuddered and started her downward plunge, smoke tracing her path, until she disappeared in the cloud banks.
Bellstedt dived after the doomed craft. The picture he brought back to base was that of a plume of smoke rising over frothy water, with no sign of survivors.
Major Hemm, commander of the Lorient air base, gave Lieutenant Bellstedt a pat on the back.
The lieutenant had a question. “May I ask, Herr Major, why we had to shoot down a civilian plane flying under a neutral flag?”
“Intelligence orders,” Major Hemm said. “There was some actor aboard. Maybe Laurence Olivier. He’s in the Royal Air Force.”
Twelve years later, int his wartime memoirs, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a different version of why the Ibis was destroyed. It all had to do with Churchill’s habit of secretly leaving cold, wet London and setting up headquarters on a warship anchored off Sidi Bou Said, under the sunny Tunisian sky. Sometimes cabinet members visited Sidi Bou Said, and some of the most important decisions of the war were made there.
Those of us who for some time were stationed around Tunis always knew when the Prime Minister was there. The moment he arrived, two small destroyers immediately took up watch, ceaselessly patrolling beyond the bigger ship, a mile offshore. From a security point of view, all this may seem like a careless arrangement, and it was. German-Arab spies knew the signs and who was around.
In May, 1943, a few days before the Ibis disaster, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had visited Churchill. They planned to fly back to London together. Now this is how, according to the memoirs, the hand of fate and the quirks of coincidence embroiled Churchill in the mysterious mishap.
“As my presence in North Africa had been fully reported, the Germans were exceptionally vigilant, and this led to a tragedy which deeply distressed me.
“The regular commercial aircraft was about to start from the Lisbon airfields when a thick-set man smoking a cigar walked up and was thought to be a passenger on it.
“The German agents therefore signaled that I was on board… German warplanes were instantly ordered out and defenseless aircraft ruthlessly shot down. Thirteen civilian passengers perished…
“The brutality of the Germans was only matched by the stupidity of their agents. It is difficult to understand why anyone in their senses could imagine that, with all the resources of Great Britain at my disposal, I should have booked passage in a neutral plane from Lisbon and flown home in broad daylight. We, of course, made a wide loop out at night from Gibraltar into the ocean and arrived home without incident.”
But Winnie knows, or prefers to tell, only part of the story. The fact of the matter is, as recently uncovered documents seem to show, that he was not the man the German were after.
Almost from the start, and long before Churchill wrote the accusing lines, strange, British air-war records were carefully cleansed of any mention of it. Nor was there an investigation after the war.
Documents, recently found, dispel the fog and give the incident its due as one of the war’s most thrilling spy dramas. It’s got everything–glamor, mystery, a gypsy’s ominous warning, a world-famed hero and a sultry temptress with a romantic heart and an inviting bed.
To start at the beginning, the Germans shot down the Ibis because they were gunning for someone. Churchill says it was Churchill, but perhaps he is doing German agents and their certainly shrewd superiors an injustice. If not Churchill, who had the Germans been after?
It’s a good thing that the business records of the Dutch Line were recently found in twelve filing cabinets stored away in a damp shack on the fringe of Amsterdam Airport.
The mildewed papers tell how a handful of gallant Dutchmen with four beaten-up DC-3s at their disposal kept a daily air service going between London and Lisbon throughout the war. A passenger list for each flight, including the Ibis last ride, is on file. Copies of that list had also been uncovered when Allied investigators ransacked German intelligence files.
The number of passengers–at least one man saw an ill omen in this–was thirteen. The first ten were businessmen of assorted neutral nationalities, hardly worth bumping off. But it was different with the last tree, all Englishmen. They were:
Tyrell Shervington, a minor figure in British intelligence.
Alfred Chenhalls, an artists’ manager, a squat, bald, cigar-smoking cutup and a ringer for Churchill.
And finally, Leslie Howard, of London and Hollywood, matinée idol star of “Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Petrified Forest,” and the spy drama, “British Agent.” According to the German intelligence files, the great screen lover had been a secret agent in real life as well, sent to Spain on a vital intelligence mission.
That Howard was the probable target is shown by another captured German document. The order to get the Ibis was given only after it had become certain Howard would be on the plane.
The story of the world-famous movie star’s involvement in dangerous business goes back to 1939 when war first flared in Europe. At his house in West Los Angeles, Leslie Howard was anxiously waiting one afternoon for a phone call. He had asked his agent, Myron Selznick, to try to call off his contract. Al last Selznick telephoned the news. The studio executives appreciated that Leslie’s duty to his country should have priority. He was free to return to London.
On arrival, he found a grim, dismal city. Windows were hung with black curtains, buildings sandbagged, taxis crawled over wet, unlit streets, people were anxious. Being nearly fifty, too old to be a soldier, Howard dreamed of playing some mystery part in the war, perhaps the role of a real-life British agent. Instead, he was asked to make patriotic, morale-building motion pictures.
Then, in April 1943, he was summoned to a hush-hush office.
“We’d like you to go to Spain,” a top M.I.5 official told him. “The country, as you know, is a hotbed of German espionage. There are certain Spanish key figures, now siding with the Germans, we would like to win over.”
The official went on to explain how Spain kept helping Hitler. Spanish ships sailing the Atlantic tipped off German submarines to American convoys they encountered. German lookouts in Spanish villas a mile from Gibraltar watched through binoculars Allied ship and plane movements at that vital base. Spanish secret police fully cooperated with the sinister Gestapo and other German secret services in tracking down and quietly liquidating pro-Allied agents in Spain. Therefore, to win over some influential Spaniards and possibly some Germans would be worth any effort.
“We always like to use the best men available for the job,” the M.I.5 official said. “We feel you could make an important contribution.” He went on to explain that Howard’s trip to Spain would be dressed up as a personal appearance and lecture tour. “You’ll talk about Shakespeare, the theater and all that sort of stuff.”
Thrilled, Howard showed he had grasped the spirit of the thing. While few Spaniards, he pointed out, could afford to be caught dead in the company of a British or American diplomat, nobody would have to worry about associating with him, a well-known actor. He could mingle freely, create good feeling, candidly observe, and weave the webs of many plots. Nobody would want to suspect him.
“There’s just one thing you ought to know before you take the job,” warned M.I.5’s armchair spy. “And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks. If you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?”
To make the Spanish job look more like an actor’s tour, it was decided to send along Alfred Chenhalls, Leslie Howard’s manager and friend. Chenhalls looked a bit like Churchill, and you could always count on him to do his best to reinforce the impression. He dressed like Winnie, chewed fat cigars, drank brandy, whiskey and champagne like Winnie, and, bellowing into a liquor glass, could give a fair imitation of the grand old man’s voice.
At the beginning of May, 1943, the tall, lanky Howard and the fat, short Chenhalls arrived in Madrid. Like all VIPs they stopped at the Ritz Hotel, an immense, white bulwark buzzing with every type of underhand work.
While Howard breathed in the heady spring air of Madrid, the British Council, a sort of cultural information and propaganda service, set the stage for the highbrow lectures which were to drive a wedge into enemy lines.
Intelligence records show that the Germans never for a moment believed Howard had come just to give the Spaniards an education in Shakespeare. The Nazis saw to it that the Spanish papers stopped mentioning his name. But word-of-mouth publicity brought in steadily larger crowds.
One night Howard gave a lecture, “An Actor Looks at Hamlet,” right in the Ritz Hotel. When he finished, several dozen hot-eyed fans pursued him into the lobby.
As usual, two agents of the British intelligence service were on hand. Sitting in the lobby in two vast armchairs, they kept an eye on Howard and the people around him.
Suddenly the older of the agents gave a start. “Blimey, look who’s got hold of him now!”
The younger man raised his eyes from the newspaper he was pretending to read. What he saw was a remarkable woman, a beautifully turned-out sex job, slim, sinewy, her jet-black hair parted in the middle, a wide mouth with perfect teeth. Howard was listening to her with rapt attention–the star hooked by a fan.
“Who the hell is she?” the younger agent asked.
“Countess Lila Miranda,” Senior said. “She works for the Germans.”
“Why don’t you warn Mr. Howard?”
“Looks as if it’s already too late,” Senior grunted.
Gazing into her black eyes, the great screen lover was whispering to her, oblivious of the pushing autograph hunters. The countess’ searing charms had obviously devastated him.
“What’s the story on her?” Junior asked.
The older man, a veteran of Spain, was well versed in the hot-blooded lady’s record. She was Argentinian, the daughter of a small farmer. In the early Thirties at the age of eighteen, she had bolted her home to chase fun and fortune in the big, wide world. A Belgian diamond wholesaler passing through Buenos Aires whisked her to New York. He pressured her to go with him to Europe but she ran away to Hollywood. Due to stiff competition in the acting field, she never graduated from extra work. In the nick of time, toward 1938, the German-Spanish count, Gunther Miranda showed up in Hollywood. When the count returned to Berlin, the Argentine farmer’s daughter went with him and became his wife.
By then she was quite a smooth article. she had picked up several languages; she could play the skillful hostess, and she had an easy, possessive way with people.
The combination of talents she embodied was bound to attract the attention of the German intelligence service. The countess listened avidly to the nerve-tingling offers hard-faced gents from the Sicherheitsdienst made to her.
“Her first job was putting her books into Spanish diplomats in Berlin,” Senior continued. “When the war broke out she was naturally detailed to Spain. To make it look better, they sent that oaf of a husband along as well and gave him a job with the German Embassy. What makes her such an asset here is that she has a perfect command of the language, as well as English, which she picked up in Hollywood. Right now she is probably telling Howard she worked as an extra when he made ‘Gone With the Wind.'”
“Probably not. But she always tells the right lie at the right time.”
Lie or not, Howard seemed in the grip of the countess’ animal magnetism.
“What do you think she’s up to?” Junior asked.
“Get information out of him, win him over, cause a scandal–anything. It doesn’t help that he’s a married man. He ought to be sent back to London just as soon as possible.”
That night Leslie Howard took the countess to dinner, a gypsy night club, his charming hotel suite, and finally, home. Shadowing British agents noted that it was nearly four a.m. when he got back.
The same night, after having visited the town’s wetter spots and done a half dozen Churchill imitations, Chenhalls found a note under his door. He looked at it and tossed it on his dresser. What it said was just too silly.
Next morning he had a second look at the note. Only this time it made a cold shiver run down his back.
“Don’t let Leslie stay longer. He is in danger.”
Chenhalls took the note to the British Embassy. The reaction of the security officer was chilly, vague and at the same time disturbing.
“if anybody is in danger I would say it’s you, owing to your resemblance to Mr. Churchill,” he said, with a mirthless smile. “But if Mr. Howard thinks staying in Madrid might be risky it’s up to him to make the decision. You know, there’s nothing we can do to protect him. Or you, for that matter.”
Fully aware of how superstitious and impressionable Howard was, Chenhalls hesitated to bring up the matter of the note. But when he finally did, Howard just brushed off the warning as somebody’s idea of a joke. “Even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t. Not with all the work I have here.”
He looked at his watch. “I’ve got to run now, or I’ll be late for my appointment. Divine woman, this Countess Miranda I met last night. We’re going horseback riding.” And he was off.
And he was through. Intelligence service never permit nor forgive extracurricular romance between agents. You never know how far it will go, where self-deception ends and treason starts.
Just by the way of small talk, Howard could easily give away vital information about how people in London were bearing up under the blitz, what was the extent of the bomb damage, and if there was a favorable climate for a separate peace with the Nazis. And as Howard was one of his country’s most celebrated actors, he had many influential friends–generals, statesmen, industrialists–who presumably discussed highly confidential things in his presence. Therefore his carrying on with the countess was taken very seriously.
As far as M.I.5 went, his usefulness was over. The question now was what to do with him.
Chenhalls and other warned Howard that Countess Miranda was a Nazi agent. It did no good and only showed how serious his ease was.
“At any rate, she’s working for me now,” he once alibied.
He was certainly, definitely, no traitor by choice. But he was an actor, a showman, and a show off. He may have gone farther than he meant to, for instance, trying to impress Countess Miranda with his knowledge of confidential things.
German records on this are incomplete. Those that were found by the Allies after the war just mention that Howard had told the countess he was in Spain on a secret-service mission. British records dealing with the subject are still buried in one of the deepest underground vaults M.I.5 uses for storage, and they’ll probably stay there.
Leslie’s days in Madrid were numbered. To make his disgrace less obvious it was decided to go through with the next two parties planned for him.
The first one, a luncheon at the British Cork Club, was a small affair to which a few influential Spaniards had been invited. Howard breezed in at the last moment. He was harassed-looking and apologetic.
Just as the first course was being served, he jumped up and counted the guests. He turned pale.
“We’re thirteen at table!”
Chenhalls rushed out to rustle up an extra guest. This delayed the luncheon by forty minutes. Howard kept looking at his watch.
By the time the dessert came on, he excused himself. “I’m sorry but I have an important engagement,” he said, and left the party high and dry.
That afternoon the countess took him on a Cook’s tour of Toledo. Howard, who was shadowed every minute of the day, somehow managed to hake his shadowers–whether by intent or accident nobody could tell. He returned to the Ritz very late.
The security officials tightened the net of surveillance around him. Also they put Chenhalls and Walter Starkie, Madrid chief of the British propaganda services, on guard against further escapades.
Howard’s stay in Madrid was now almost at an end. One last reception–a swank after-dinner party at the British Institute–was on the schedule. Howard, who at first had been enthusiastic about the affair, seemed to be losing interest as the date approached. That’s how fascinating a woman the countess was.
“I have a lunch he will stand us up,” the triple-chinned Starkie, in charge of the proceedings, warned.
“Let’s invite him to dinner first,” Chenhalls suggested. “That way we’ll be sure of producing him in time.”
The party was meant to be one of the biggest social blowouts of the season. Among those invited were high-ranking Spaniards, international society and the ambassadors of a dozen countries, including Britain and the United States. Entertainment was to be provided by a famous group of gypsy flamenco dances and guitar players.
Thanks to Chenhalls’ strategy Howard was present on time. But the gypsies were not. Starkie, his triple chin wobbling with nervous excitement, rushed hither and yon, asking, “Have they come? Aren’t they coming now?”
At last he was slipped some confidential news. To wreck the Britishers’ party, Nazi agents had bribed the gypsies to stay away. Frantic, Starkie got into a car and chased from cabaret to cabaret hiring what gypsy artists he was able to get.
The party got started. Several hundred guests had come. Guitars throbbed in the background. Then the gypsy girls picked up the rhythm with their castanets and in a swirl of skirts went into a series of violent flamenco dances. Carried away, the audience clapped hands in rhythm and spurred the dancers on with shouts of ole! and anda!
A sudden chill nipped the fun. People stopped talking and stared. A glamorous creature had swept in, a red flower in her hair, draped in a Spanish lace shawl. She threaded her way toward the much-surrounded Leslie Howard.
As he fell into his arms flash bulbs went off.
Madrid’s most notorious German spy seemed fully at ease at the British party. She nodded to Spanish acquaintances, mingled, chatted and flirted all around. Starkie waddled up to her, gave her a cold-boiled stare and waddled off again. She never as much as flicked a glance at him.
During the evening, Starkie spotted a young gypsy girl flunkly staring into a half-empty wineglass.
“Why don’t you dance?” he asked.
“I don’t feel like. And I don’t need cards to tell his fortune!” She jabbed a long red-tipped finger in the direction of Leslie Howard, who was rumbaing with Countess Miranda, and cried shrilly, “I can only see his skull!”
Starkie could have strangled her.
“I see death in his face,” the gypsy went on shrieking. “Soon worms will be crawling out of his eyes.”
“Shut up,” Starkie said between clenched teeth, “Or I’ll throw you out.”
He had more than a suspicion that this was a put-up job. Having been around Spain for years, he was aware that gypsies laugh at superstitions; nobody knows better than they that fortune telling is just a sordid fake, a trick to extract money. This amber-skinned, flashy-eyed doll knew she could always collect a nice little bonus at the German embassy for raising goose pimples on sensitive enemy hides.
Next morning a Spanish photographer collected his bonus when he delivered pictures of the jinxed party at the German ambassador. The bonus was fat, as the Germans were interested in documentary proof of who was having a good time at the British affair.
Among those pictured was Countess Miranda, affectionately hugging the glamor boy of the secret service, the elegant, world-weary Leslie Howard. Eyebrows must have gone up as the picture of the loving clinch passed around the embassy. There are limits how far even a trusted secret agent like Countess Miranda can let herself go. From that moment on the Germans no doubt looked at her as a dangerous nuisance, just as the British did on Howard.
Things were to come to a head rapidly on both sides of the battle lines. Under pressure from the proper officials, Howard agreed to leave for Lisbon, Portugal, on the following night for a personal appearance there.
Among those who came to see him off at the Madrid station was the countess. He neglected sniffed, stony-faced officials, but paid such enraptured attention to the doll that the train nearly pulled out without him. He made it without a second to spare by jumping on the running board. Standing on the platform, a lone, slim figure, the countess, limply waved a lipstick-smudged, tear-soaked handkerchief.
Howard didn’t sleep well on the rocky Spanish train that night, and neither did the countess in her soft marital bed. At three-twenty a.m. a ringing doorbell jarred her from fitful slumber. Outside the house stood three trench-coated figures. She knew they were from the Sicherheitsdienst, the German spy apparatus. Count Miranda, her husband, answered the door. The Nazis pushed him aside and made straight for the bedroom.
“You’re under arrest,” their leader told Countess Miranda. “Get out of bed.” When she hesitated he yanked her to her feet. She stood there trembling, dressed in a filmy nightgown. “Just put a coat on over that,” the Nazi said. “You won’t need more.” Then he turned to the count.
“Orders from Berlin–you will start divorce proceedings against your wife at once. She is a traitor to the German Reich.”
In other words, it was one thing to strip-tease and spy, but it was quite another to love and weep.
A moment later a black car whisked off the countess in her nightgown toward an unknown destiny. The count didn’t stick around for long. A few days later he ran off to Argentina. The countess was never seen or heard from again, nor do seized German records refer to her. Rumor has it that she was secretly executed–strangling was the usual way–in the dawn hours of that day.
Up in gloomy London, somebody was painstakingly counting Leslie Howard’s days in sun-baked Lisbon. A print of his latest picture was rushed to London so he could have his moment in the floodlights as soon as possible. George West, the bustling chief of British propaganda in Lisbon, made arrangements for the movie, “The First of the Few,” to be shown and for Howard to face the public at the preview within a week.
Now this was the very week Eden visited Churchill on his warship off the Tunisian coast. The Germans had decided to shoot down the plane flying them back to London. The plan had been hatched at the highest level. Hitler had suggested it to Field Marshal Keitel and the latter had entrusted its execution to General Lahousen, Chief of Sabotage.
British intelligence men didn’t get to know all the fine details at the time, but they had plenty of notice that something special was afoot. One of the straws in the wind, radio messages between Berlin and the German bases flanking Churchill’s presumable flying route were showing a sharp increase. And as the British had secretly broken the German code, they knew that those messages were alerting the air bases to stand by for a special job.
Meanwhile, the cigar-smoking funny man who looked like Churchill, and the actor who played Hamlet on and offstage, had themselves a pleasant time. As Lisbon was hot and sticky, they had moved fifteen miles south, to the flossy beach resort of Estoril. They basked in the sun and sampled the gay night life. Wherever Howard went, people made a fuss over him. But there was this letter that never arrived.
He was forever asking the hotel porter, “When does the next mail get in from Madrid?” But when it did there was never anything for him.
Each time Chenhalls reminded him that they were soon leaving for London he became petulant. As long as there was no letter he obviously had no desire to leave.
An urgent telegram from the Denham Motion Picture Studios in England gave Chenhalls a chance to put the heat on Howard. The studios wanted to know if he could report for work at once. It was a picture Howard had been eager to make, “The Man Who Lost Himself”–a title which today strikes one as prophetic. Chenhalls wired back: “Returning in a day or two”–then started worrying his bald head as to how to break the news to the boss.
Deciding to make things final and explain later, Chenhalls called up the Dutch air line office. He said Howard and he had to return the next day; they were on official business and something had to be done to get them back, no matter how crowded the planes were.
“Sorry, but we’re booked for the entire week,” the girl at the booking office said.
“Mr. Howard must fly back tomorrow if at all possible.”
Chenhalls kept insisting until finally the girl agreed to try the British Embassy in Lisbon which had the final say on passenger priorities. She didn’t sound very hopeful, inasmuch as it was already five p.m. But when she called back in twenty minutes she announced cheerfully that she had the reservations. Two passengers had been taken off, Howard and Chenhalls put on. Flight 777, next morning at nine-thirty June 1, 1943.
“Call for your tickets when you get to the airport,” she said. “I’m rushing a corrected passenger manifest out there right away.”
Bt the way things were in those days, a half-hour later a German spy at the Dutch airline transmitted a duplicate of the corrected passenger list to the German ambassador in Lisbon, Baron Hayningen Huene. When the Allied victory put the baron out of business, the duplicate was found among his files. A notation on it said the name of the passengers had been transmitted on the Embassy’s (clandestine) radio to Berlin at eight-thirteen that night. Mighty fast work. They were tuned in on the baron’s transmitter and they could read his secret code. During the night the British interpreters intercepted further messages which made it clear that the Germans intended to blast the Ibis out of the sky. Yet nothing was done to stop Flight 777.
Earlier that evening, Chenhalls had broken the news of the departure to Howard. There was a quick outburst of rage, then quick calm. He made no more protest against leaving next day. Stood up by Ophelia, Hamlet had resigned to ditch her.
In the morning at the airport, only minutes before the take-off, Howard remembered something: he hadn’t bought any nylons (impossible to get in London) for the girls at the studio. He dashed back to shop in the airport terminal. He also went to the airport post office. An air hostess, standing in line behind him, looked curiously over the famous star’s shoulder. The letter he was mailing was addressed to a Countess Miranda, Madrid, as she later told everybody.
Because of the nylons and the letter, departure of the Ibis had to be held up till Howard, his camel’s-hair coat flapping in the wind, came tearing out of the terminal building at nine-thirty-five, five minutes past departure time.
The moment he slumped into his seat, the plane started taxiing down the runway.
Exactly ten minutes later, at nine-forty-five, German Air Squadron 40, stationed at Lorient, received the expected orders to hunt for the Ibis. The very same orders, anticipated since the night before, were intercepted by British monitoring stations. There was still time to flash a warning to the Ibis and save her seventeen occupants, but no such merciful warning went out.
At twelve-forty-three p.m. German airforce Lieutenant Hans Bellstedt first sighted the Ibis buzzing along serenely high above the clouds. She was by then at the halfway mark between Lisbon and London. Lieutenant Bellstedt made a wide loop to come at the plane from the rear.
A few minutes later the control tower at Whitchurch, the Ibis’ English base, received two radio signals in quick succession, both from the Ibis.
“From AGBB to GKH… Unidentified aircraft follows me…”
“From AGBB to GKH… Being attacked by enemy aircraft…”
The Ibis’ radio had gone dead. Whitchurch kept calling but got no reply.
At twelve-fifty-eight, Lieutenant Bellstedt was able to radio the Lorient air base: “Mission executed.”
Along toward three in the afternoon, a half dozen GIs stationed near Whitchurch arrived at the airfield with cans of pineapple juice and a bottle of gin. Having heard that Leslie Howard was returning, they thought it would be nice to welcome him with a little celebration.
They waited until four, then five. At five-fifteen an airport official told them the Ibis had probably stayed grounded in Lisbon; there was no use waiting around. The GIs shuffled back to their jeep and drove off.
At six o’clock, a terse announcement came over the airport loudspeaker: the Ibis was presumed to be lost. During the night next of kin were notified of the disaster.
Why had the Ibis been shot down? During the entire war she and three other Dutch planes flew the route without the slightest interference from the Germans. Why had this particular plane been singled out?
Rumors began to fly. Next day, passengers arriving in London from Portugal told that the Ibis had been attacked because German agents had mistaken the clowning Chenhalls for Prime Minister Churchill. This bit of scuttlebutt sounded sensational enough to be spread around fast and repeated often enough to become the generally accepted truth. In the end it even found its way into Sir Winston Churchill’s memoirs. This high endorsement notwithstanding, the story is strictly of the cock-and-bull variety.
Chenhalls was fifteen years younger than Churchill. He was two inches taller. He was known to be Howard’s sidekick. His Churchill imitations were barroom stuff. Nobody, least of all an intelligence agent, would be fool enough to think Churchill was hanging around Madrid or Lisbon night traps for weeks, making speeches.
No, the true story of the Ibis is neither in the ancient rumors nor Churchill’s book.
But a particle of official truth leaked out the following year, 1944, when a British intelligence officer lectured on security at General MacArthur’s headquarters in New Guinea.
It is very important, the lecturer said, to intercept and decode the enemy’s broadcasts. But it is even more important not to let the enemy know that you are doing this.
To illustrate this, the lecturing Britisher brought up “the strange case of a Dutch plane carrying several British intelligence agents from Lisbon to London the year before.” Never mentioning the Ibis or Leslie Howard, the officer went on:
“Should the plane have been held up and the passengers saved? Definitely not. Stopping the plane would have given the Germans a clue that their messages were being overheard.”
In other words, British military intelligence had deliberately doomed the hapless plane, displaying a lack of spirit of mercy as well as imagination.
An effort could have been made to re-route the Ibis. (Churchill arrived safely, even though the Germans were gunning for the Boeing seaplane that brought him back.) It might have been possible to postpone departure by simulating engine trouble or substituting another plane. Any number of ruses could have been used but weren’t.
This leads to the challenging questions why Leslie Howard had to be sacrificed. Until five p.m. the day before neither he nor the airline knew he was travelling. It took the help of British embassy officials to take off passengers and make room. Yet, as documents show, the very same officials knew by then the Ibis was a German target.
A mystery man enters the picture briefly before the departure: passenger Tyrell Shervington, one of the dead. German records tab him as a British intelligence agent, and a high-ranking one. Shervington intended to fly to London on Tuesday, June first, two days before he must have heard that the Germans were planning to get one of the Dutch planes. He naturally didn’t want to be on it. So he phoned the air attaché at the Embassy:
“Are you sure, Jack, Tuesday will be all right?”
But Shervington’s worries didn’t die quickly. He phoned again Monday morning and Monday afternoon. Same answer. “It’s safe to fly.”
Shervington had made his last phone call at four p.m. At five, Chenhalls started agitating for reservations and got them. Shervington wasn’t told of the change–probably just a foul-up. So he had to go down, too.
Unless you believe the Churchill-Chenhalls story you will have to settle for Howard as the intended victim. Two mysterious, murky organizations, M.I.5 and Sicherheitsdienst, co-operated, as it were, in burying him at sea. But why should the Germans have wanted to kill a harmless actor? Why should the British have wanted their beloved star killed?
You can only guess the answer. The Germans feared him–they didn’t know what secrets Countess Miranda had told him in those romantic June nights. The British had reasons to damn him: he had sold out to a spy and nobody knew how much he had sold. The punishment in the unwritten legal code of the secret services is harsh for such straying from the straight and narrow. Almost always is death. So that’s the story.
Leslie Howard, the star, had become involved in a grade-B movie plot featuring a certain Countess Miranda. An armchair spy up in drizzly London rewrote the happy ending and handed in a grimmer script. Luftwaffe Wing 4D at Lorient, please start shooting…
(Argosy, April 1957)