It is one of the great enduring mysteries of World War II. Why was Flight 777A, a civilian aircraft, shot down by German pilots on its way from Portugal to Britain, resulting in the death of all on board?
On the morning of the fateful flight, June 1, 1943, when Europe was in the depths of the deadliest war it had ever seen, civilian aircraft were considered off limits to attack. There was a convention, widely respected by both the Allies and the Axis powers, to respect the neutrality of civilian aircraft from countries not involved in hostilities.
Portugal and Spain – both ruled by nationalist dictators who wanted to avoid conflict – had stayed away from the fighting, but as was the case with all neutral countries on the continent, they had become a hotbed of espionage and intrigue. Both sides in the war employed spies in Lisbon. Officers would find ways to consult passenger lists and search for names of interest to their payers. Could there have been a high-profile target on board – a target the Nazis could not risk landing safely in Britain?
A few days before the 80th anniversary of the tragedy in the Bay of Biscay, which claimed the lives of 13 passengers and four Dutch crew members, I reviewed the incident with the help of a relative of one of those who perished.
Ivan Sharp, named after the grandfather he never met, spent more than 30 years investigating the tragedy and he offers intriguing insight into what may have happened.
Target: The DC-3 was attacked by eight German Junkers Ju 88s in 1943
The plane was a Douglas DC-3, an American propeller-driven airliner, which had been chartered from the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) by the Dutch airline KLM. It was part of a service that flew between Portela Airport in Lisbon and a small airfield at Whitchurch, near Bristol, delivering mail, newspapers and other goods.
But it was rumored that secret agents, and even escaped prisoners of war, used this same route to travel to and from the European continent.
The plane, named Ibis, was due to take off at 7:30 a.m., but there was a five-minute delay as a passenger had to collect a package from customs.
Whitchurch Aerodrome maintained contact with the aircraft until 10:54 a.m. About 200 miles northwest of the Spanish coast, the pilot reported being followed and then attacked. Shortly after, Ibis crashed into the sea with no survivors.
The following day, BOAC issued a brief statement: “We regret to announce that a civilian aircraft in transit between Lisbon and the UK is overdue and presumed lost. The last message received from the aircraft indicated that it was under attack by enemy aircraft. The aircraft was carrying 13 passengers and a crew of four. Next of kin have been notified.
It later emerged that the plane had been attacked by eight Junkers Ju 88s. But what had been their motive and who had given the order?
The most famous passenger on the flight that morning – and the person who delayed takeoff to collect his package – was actor Leslie Howard. Son of a Hungarian Jew, who has just turned 50 and a true idol of cinema, he had made a name for himself by playing typically British gentlemen. He had acted in successful pre-war films such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind.
His past had made him staunchly anti-Nazi, and after the outbreak of war Howard redeemed his contract in Hollywood so he could return to Britain to play a part in the war effort. Two years earlier, when Howard had met Winston Churchill, he shared his strong opinions.
LORD ASHCROFT: Why was Flight 777A, a civilian aircraft, shot down by German pilots on its way from Portugal to Britain, with the death of all on board?
LORD ASHCROFT: Did the German agents in Lisbon warn the Nazis that they thought the British Prime Minister was a passenger? Churchill finally became aware of the theory and thought it might be true
Not only was Howard asked to do propaganda for the Ministry of Information during the war, but he also starred in feature films designed to boost morale at home, including “Pimpernel” Smith, as eponymous character who saved Jewish refugees from the Nazis, and The First Of The Few, about the designer of the Spitfire.
In May 1943, Howard had embarked on a lecture tour of Spain and Portugal at a time when his war work was proving increasingly irritating to Dr. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s leading propagandist.
The tour also coincided with German attempts to persuade the Spanish dictator, General Franco, to go to war on the side of the Axis powers. Hitler was particularly keen for Spanish forces to attack the British base at Gibraltar and deprive the Allied navies of access to the Mediterranean.
Was Howard’s “lecturing tour” a smokescreen for a more covert role in trying to get Franco and the Spaniards to resist Germany’s diplomatic overtures? Or was Howard even using it as a cover for his role as the real-life James Bond?
It is highly likely that pro-German agents would have gotten their hands on a passenger list revealing that Howard was on the flight. News of his death appeared in The Times on June 4. But was Howard really the target of the powerful Luftwaffe?
Another intriguing discovery concerns Father AS Holmes, who was sitting on the plane at Lisbon airport but left to take an urgent phone call. Was it luck or something sinister that had caused him to miss the flight? The mystery caller was never identified. So when the flight took off, there were only 13 people on board, not the planned 14, including three women and two children.
One of the 13 was Ivan Sharp, just 41 years old. He is the grandfather and namesake of Ivan Sharp, now 54, a post office worker from Norfolk.
Sharp Jnr still has a copy of the telegram sent to his grandfather’s widow, Minnie, who had two young children at the time. From the ‘Passenger Superintendent’ of British Airways it reads: ‘I must inform you with the deepest regret that Mr. IH Sharpe [sic] We thought he was traveling in a lost plane near England yesterday. Not yet known if there are any survivors. I’ll keep you up-to-date.
LORD ASHCROFT: The most famous passenger on the flight that morning – and the person who delayed takeoff to collect his package – was actor Leslie Howard (pictured)
Over the years, the amateur sleuth traced the flight path taken by the 777A and obtained copies of the flight log and passenger list. Sharp is convinced that his grandfather’s wartime role could have made him a target, if not the target, for the Germans.
“My grandfather was instructed to go to Portugal to buy wolfram – better known as tungsten – which was used in the manufacture of armaments. He often competed with German buyers for the rare metal found in Portugal and Spain, paying for the goods in uncut diamonds he had brought with him from Britain.
‘[He] was widely known as the ‘wolfram man’ but his work was top secret and not even his closest family knew exactly what he was doing,” Sharp said.
However, there were other passengers on board who could have been targets. One of them was Wilfred Israel, a prominent member of an Anglo-German Jewish family that was known to have saved Jews from the Holocaust and had ties to the British government.
Another was Tyrrell Shervington, director of the Shell-Mex oil company. Much more importantly, as the Germans may have discovered, he was an intelligence officer – codenamed “H.100” – in the Iberian Force led by the British Special Operations Executive, the unit formed in 1940 to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance activities in occupied Europe. Yet, remarkably, the true prey of the Nazis might have been a lowly taxman. Seated next to Howard was his tax adviser Alfred Chenhalls. The financier was not a man the Germans would ordinarily have taken notice of. Except that – chubby (15th 9lbs according to the flight log), bald and smoking cigars – Chenhalls bore more than a passing resemblance to Churchill.
And the Prime Minister had indeed flown to North Africa at the end of May. Perhaps he was now returning to Britain.
Did German agents in Lisbon inform the Nazis that they believed the British Prime Minister was a passenger? Churchill eventually became aware of the theory and thought it might be true.
In the post-war years, at least four of the eight German pilots who attacked Ibis were interviewed. They claimed to be unaware of civilian flights between Portugal and the UK and insisted they had targeted Ibis by mistake, believing it to be a military aircraft. Some of these pilots, however, allegedly carried out two unsuccessful attacks on Ibis the previous year, and their accounts are dismissed by experts as attempts to avoid war crimes charges.
Leslie Howard has made a name for himself playing quintessentially British gentlemen (pictured by Pygmalion)
It has been more than a decade since Ivan Sharp Jnr organized the unveiling of plaques honoring the 17 dead in Portugal and Britain near the two airports.
“I don’t believe that, 80 years later, we will ever know the answer to this mystery of war,” he says. He is inclined to believe that the attack was targeted. “It is possible that the German agents sent a message that it was worth targeting their aircraft, as many key ‘actors’ were on board at the same time.”
But even he admits that little can be known for certain.
Film critic Barry Norman once wrote that Leslie Howard had met a “violent and untimely death which is, and doubtless forever will be, shrouded in mystery”.
Eighty years after the tragedy, we still wonder why the 17 souls of flight 777A died.
Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information visit lordashcroft.com. For more on his work on gallantry, see lordashcroftonbravery.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @LordAshcroft.