Murder in the sky 80 years ago, June 1, 1943
Leslie Howard killed by Nazis
One of the most famous movie stars of the 1930s was a passenger in a civilian airplane that was shot down by Nazi Germany off the coast of Spain in 1943. He perished along with 17 others. He was 50 years old.
Theories still abound on why the Germans targeted that plane, a DC-3 operated by BOAC/KLM. Did they believe rumors that the actor was a spy for British Intelligence? Did they mistake one of the passengers, a heavy-set man who puffed on a big cigar, for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and he was the target?
Leslie Howard was a star of stage and screen, and a huge box-office draw in movies that included the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, Berkeley Square, Of Human Bondage, The Petrified Forest, and Pygmalion. He was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for Berkeley Square and Pygmalion.
IN PORTUGAL FOR SPEAKING ENGAGEMENT
He had gone to neutral Portugal in June of 1943 ostensibly to give talks about his films but also to speak about the evils of Fascism. Before becoming an actor Howard had experienced the hell of war as a junior officer in World War I. He was mustered out of military service in 1916 with shell shock.
When his Portugal visit was over, Howard and 12 other passengers, including three women and three children, plus four crew members, boarded the plane, the Ibis, in Lisbon for the flight to Bristol, England.
Among the passengers was the actor’s business associate, a stocky man named Arthur Chenhall who looked like Winston Churchill and smoked large cigars. His presence gave rise to the theory that the Nazis thought the British Prime Minister was secretly aboard the plane and was the intended target.
WAS HOWARD A SECRET AGENT?
The actor’s death has been the subject of several books and documentaries, including the books, Flight 777 by Ian Colvin, published in 1957, and, in 1984, In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard by Ronald Howard.
A book by Spanish writer José Rey Ximena published in 2008 contends that Howard was on a top-secret mission for Churchill to talk Spanish dictator Franco out of joining the ‘Axis powers,’ an enemy coalition comprising Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.
A documentary, Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn was broadcast on British TV in 2017, and on Turner Classic Movies in 2018. A documentary, The Mystery of Flight 777, by film-maker Thomas Hamilton is in production.
Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest: