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  The possibility of Sikorski's murder by the British is excluded from this paper. The possibility of his murder by persons unknown cannot be so excluded. -- Sir Robin Cooper

London, Friday, July 4, 2003

 Sikorski, Kukiel, Clementine, Churchill, Raczynski

Sikorski (left) with General Kukiel, Clementine and Winton Churchill and the Polish ambassador Count Raczynski. (Guy Liddell's diary reveals that Kukiel was communicating with the German secret service.)

General Sikorski, the Polish wartime leader, died 60 years ago today. Our correspondent looks at new evidence about his mysterious death


ON JULY 4, 1943, 60 years ago today, a converted Liberator bomber from RAF Transport Command took off from Gibraltar for England. On board was General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister of Poland's London-based government in exile and Commander-in-Chief of her armed forces, returning from visiting Polish troops in the Middle East.

The aircraft climbed normally from the runway, levelled off to gather speed but then suddenly lost height and crashed into the harbour. The 62-year-old general died, along with 15 others. The sole survivor was the Czech-born pilot, Max Prchal, who was rescued by an RAF launch. The bodies of five passengers and crew, including Sikorski's daughter, were never found.

I first wrote about Sikorski ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of his death. One of the wilder theories about the crash was that Prchal had somehow been part of a plot to assassinate him.

Picture added by this website, from David Irving: Accident, The Death of General Sikorski. The crashed plane lies below the surface of the Mediterranean, July 1943





David Irving comments:

IT IS a sign of the times, I suppose (no pun intended), that the newspaper article does not mention that I published the first definitive book on the crash, Accident: The Death of General Sikorski, in 1967, and that it was in response to a letter from me demanding a reopening of the RAF inquiry that Harold Wilson made his statement to Parliament.
   The Times has drawn much of its detail from my book. Far from the newly released records lying "unnoticed for the past few years" I have consistently reviewed each file as it is released, and I wrote a special appendix about the new evidence and Prime Minister Wilson's fears, which I included in Churchill's War, vol.ii; I posted this appendix on my website on April 11, 2001 (and the whole volume a few days later).
   Ludwik Lubienski was of course one of the many characters whom I interviewed for the book.
   One little mystery remains: Piece 34614b in the Foreign Office central files is now titled simply: "Death of General Sikorski". When I first went to see it, in the late 1960s, it was closed, and its original title name had been pasted over in the catalogue ("sanitised") so it could not be read; I often wonder what it was originally called.

Accident book

Related files:

Summary of Public Record Office file AIR2/15113

Appendix III ("Sikorski's Death") to Churchill's War, vol.ii

I found and interviewed a key witness -- Ludwik Lubienski, who had been head of the Polish military mission in Gibraltar at the time of the crash. Now dead, he told me ten years ago how he had personally unfastened the inflated Mae West lifejacket worn by the pilot as he came ashore unconscious in the launch. He had gone to visit Prchal in hospital the next day. To his astonishment, the injured airman strongly denied that he had been wearing the jacket, which he insisted he always kept hanging on the back of his flying seat -- the account he gave to the RAF court of inquiry into the crash days later.

The inquiry found that the crash was caused by the aircraft's controls jamming after take-off for some unexplained reason. It also concluded that there was "no question of sabotage" and that Prchal was in no way to blame. But why was Prchal so insistent that, like his passengers, he had not been wearing his lifejacket? Was it because he knew the aircraft was going to crash?

Suspicions that Sikorski had been assassinated simmered throughout and after the war, and came to the boil in 1968 with the staging in London of a play by Rolf Hochhuth, a German writer. Soldiers contained the sensational allegation that none other than Winston Churchill had been part of the plot. Prchal, who died in 1984, was suing the playwright for libel and Harold Wilson's Labour Government was worried about becoming embroiled in the case and having to make available the inquiry report and other records.

Last week, with the 60th anniversary looming, I decided to check the files on the Sikorski affair at the Public Records Office to see if anything new had emerged in the past decade. Sure enough, I found a welter of Cabinet Office reports from the late Sixties, marked "Top Secret", that had been released under the 30-year rule but had lain unnoticed for the past few years.

The most remarkable revelation they contain is that, contrary to the original inquiry's findings and a statement Wilson made to the Commons early in 1969, there had been a serious lapse in security while Sikorski's aircraft was on the tarmac at Gibraltar, and ample scope for sabotage.

In a briefing paper to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, dated January 24, 1969, Sir Robin Cooper, a former pilot also working in the Cabinet Office, wrote after reviewing the wartime inquiry's findings: "Security at Gibraltar was casual, and a number of opportunities for sabotage arose while the aircraft was there."

Although Sir Robin doubted that sabotage had taken place, or that the pilot had crashed the aircraft deliberately, he goes on to add:

"The possibility of Sikorski's murder by the British is excluded from this paper. The possibility of his murder by persons unknown cannot be so excluded."

The inquiry's finding about the jammed controls, he wrote, seemed plausible. "But it still leaves open the question of what -- or who -- jammed them. No one has ever provided a satisfactory answer." According to another paper, there were other "curious aspects of the affair", on which the inquiry had thrown no light, "eg, that (the Soviet Ambassador, Ivan) Maisky's aircraft was drawn up beside Sikorski's Liberator in the period immediately before the accident."

MaiskyBy a remarkable coincidence, Maisky (right) had also arrived in Gibraltar on the morning of July 4, 1943, on his way to Moscow. His Liberator landed just after 7am -- the time at which, evidence shows, Sikorski's aircraft was left unguarded. Another pitfall for the Government was the fact that the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service's counter-intelligence department for the Iberian Peninsula section from 1941 to 1944 was Kim Philby, the Soviet double-agent who defected in 1963, and later claimed to have been a double-agent since the Forties. Before 1941, Philby served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive -- which specialised in sabotage behind enemy lines.

The briefing paper reveals a number of other curious details. One of the first Royal Navy divers to examine the wreckage was Lt Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb. Although Wilson was assured that there was nothing sinister in this, Crabb by 1969 was known as an ex-Navy diver who had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1956 while on a secret underwater mission beneath a Soviet cruiser in Portsmouth Harbour. A headless body in a diving suit was found weeks later, amid unconfirmed speculation that Crabb had defected, and his wife was unable to identify the corpse as that of her husband.

In the light of further background Wilson was given, much of which muddies the Sikorski waters, his statement to the Commons on February 11, 1969, now seems, at best, less than frank: "There is no evidence at all that there is any need or reason to re-open the inquiry." He added that the allegations about Churchill's involvement should be "dismissed and brushed aside with the contempt they deserve".


ALLEGATIONS that Britain killed Sikorski have bubbled up from time to time. The playwright Hochhuth told Der Spiegel magazine in October 1967 that he had partly based his play on a story in a book by the Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas. Stalin had told Djilas to tell his own President Tito to beware: "The British might try to undertake the same kind of operation against him as they had undertaken against Sikorski."

If not Churchill and the British -- and not a shred of evidence has ever emerged that he was behind the plot -- who had the strongest motive for doing away with Sikorski? Certainly the Russians regarded him as a serious troublemaker. By the spring of 1943, Sikorski had been raising the issue of postwar borders with the Soviet Union and had travelled to the USA to lobby support from President Roosevelt.

In April, he had lunched with Churchill in Downing Street, where he brought up the alleged massacre by the Russians of 10,000 Polish officers in the forests of Katyn, near Smolensk in the USSR. Churchill urged caution since the alliance between Stalin and the West was fragile.

Undeterred, Sikorski, without consulting the British Government, called publicly for the International Red Cross to investigate the massacres. A furious Stalin promptly broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government in exile. His anger was conveyed to Churchill at Chartwell in Kent [in fact at Chequers] by an agitated Maisky -- the man whose plane touched down a few weeks later alongside Sikorski's in Gibraltar.

The PRO papers show that Wilson was advised that, "two or three years ago", an unnamed KGB defector had alleged that Sikorski had been murdered by the agency's forerunner, the NKVD. This information was regarded as "extremely delicate"; Wilson was warned that "no mention of it should be made publicly".

In Volume IV of his memoirs of the Second World War, Churchill gives a detailed account of Sikorski and the Katyn controversy but, astonishingly, makes no mention of his death. By all accounts, Churchill had a good relationship with the Polish leader. Perhaps the glaring omission tells us nothing. But perhaps it could be a sign that Churchill knew in his heart that Sikorski's fate was sealed, and that he was powerless to intervene.

Sikorski Lying in state

Sikorski statue for London, May 1999
"Churchill's War", vol. ii: "Triumph in Adversity": Appendix on death of General Sikorski, the contents of a Harold Wilson file (pdf format)
Summary of Public Record Office file AIR2/15113
David Irving: Radical's Diary, Nov 14, 2002
David Irving, Accident: The Death of General Sikorski
Private account dated July 18, 1945 by General Mason Macfarlane, Governor of Gibraltar, of the night Sikorski was killed
David Irving protests to the Air Ministry, April 1, 1969
Authentic photos of the horrors of Katyn
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical
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