Eighty years ago, on June 1st, 1943, a civilian aircraft flying from Lisbon to Bristol crashed in the Bay of Biscay when under attack by German fighter planes, killing all 17 passengers and crew.
A minor tragedy against the backdrop of the second World War, BOAC Flight 777A might now be forgotten except that the victims included film star Leslie Howard, then – after a part in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind – at the height of his fame. Also among the passengers was Howard’s accountant: a fat man who smoked six-inch cigars and bore a striking similarity to Winston Churchill. Hence one of the more popular conspiracy theories that persist to this day.
There are many other possible explanations for why a commercial plane was attacked. But not the least plausible explanation is that Howard himself was targeted, either because of his anti-Nazi propaganda work, or because he was considered a spy, or both.
One of his defining film roles had been as the pseudo-eponymous hero of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), an English patriot who, under the guise of the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the revolution.
In Pimpernel Smith (1941), he produced, directed, and acted in an update of that story, this time playing a Cambridge archaeologist who outwits the Nazis to free the inmates of concentration camps.
The film inspired the real-life Swedish war hero Raoul Wallenberg to save thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary. But it also riled the Nazis sufficiently that after the 1943 crash, Joseph Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff (“The Attack”) sneered in a headline: “Pimpernel Howard has made his last trip.”
In Nazi eyes, however, Howard’s role may have extended beyond mere propaganda. Central to this theory is that his fatal trip to Lisbon, ostensibly for a series of film lectures, was a cover for contacts with Franco, aimed at keeping Spain out of a Fascist war alliance.
And the possibility that Howard did combine movie stardom with diplomacy or spying may be supported by a small Irish sub-plot from a year earlier. When he visited Dublin in April 1942, The Irish Times social column reported as follows: “Mr Leslie Howard called on the President (Dr Douglas Hyde) Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday afternoon. Eluding autograph-hunters, he spent yesterday morning in Dun Laoghaire and Killiney and, after calling on the President, had tea with Professor and Mrs Felix Hackett. He saw the Abbey Players in the evening.”
In fact, Howard’s short visit involved two trips to the Áras, arranged by the poet John Betjeman, then working as press attaché for the British embassy in Ireland while probably doubling as an intelligence agent.
In a 2002 book on Betjemen, Bevis Hillier quoted Dr Nicholas Mansergh, an official in wartime Britain’s Ministry of Information, as recalling that Howard had afterwards written “a very sensitive report on Irish feelings. We might have asked [him] to go back but he was shot nine or 10 months later.”
As for the possibility that Howard was merely a collateral casualty in an attack based on the mistaken identity of his cigar-loving accountant, Alfred Chenhalls, that was the subject of a reported conversation three years after the crash, at a dinner where Winston Churchill’s wife met Chenhalls’s widow.
“It was dreadful how you lost your husband,” said Mrs Churchill, to which the widow replied: “If one of our husbands had to go, England could best spare mine” .
Another widow, Howard’s, later claimed her husband had considered the journey to Lisbon ominous. She quoted him as saying he had “a queer feeling about this whole trip, but – what the hell – you know that I’m a fatalist anyway.”
He wasn’t alone. A fellow passenger, Reuters correspondent Kenneth Stonehouse, told a friend: “I’m not normally frightened, but somehow, I feel bad about this air trip.”
There were rational reasons to worry. The same plane had been attacked by the Germans only weeks earlier, suffering some damage before climbing to cloud cover and safety. But that incident had been dismissed as an aberration. Daily flights resumed, still presumed exempt from the war.
After Flight 777A went down, inevitably, stories emerged of narrow escapes. Howard and Chenhalls had been on board, for example, only because less important passengers had been “bumped” to make room. And then there was the case of the mysterious English priest.
Howard’s son Ronald, also an actor, would later become synonymous with the part of Sherlock Homes on TV. But there was a Holmes mystery on Flight 777A too, thanks to a priest of that surname who first boarded the doomed plane and then left it to take an urgent phone-call.
According to Ronald Howard’s 1981 book, In Search of My Father, the priest was asked to report immediately to the British embassy or papal nunciature. When he did, neither knew anything about a call to Fr Holmes. In the meantime, the plane had taken off without him.