leslie howard

Seventy-one years ago today, on June 1, 1943, a DC-3 traveling under the designation BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) flight 777 was shot down by eight German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors among the 17 passengers and crew aboard the plane. Easily the most famous of the victims was British actor Leslie Howard, most famous for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 blockbuster movie Gone With The Wind, though he also played opposite Ingrid Bergman in the 1939 romantic film Intermezzo. BOAC Flight 777 was unarmed and the attack by the Luftwaffe was an outrageous violation of the laws of warfare. This tragic incident has been the subject of rumor and speculation almost since the day it happened.

The story behind BOAC Flight 777 is pretty fascinating, and by definition I can only hit the highlights here. It may seem strange that, with Europe and much of the world engulfed by the Second World War, anyone would be foolish enough to still try to have regularly-scheduled airline flights around the continent, but this did happen. Three major countries in Europe–Spain, Portugal and Switzerland–were neutral in the conflict and Britain, though a belligerent, thought it important to maintain air links with them, and with the United States. Thus BOAC was born, a temporary wartime consortium of prewar airlines including British Airways and KLM. Still, not just anybody could travel on these flights, admittedly more dangerous than run-of-the-mill airline flights before the war. Only VIPs and people with special clearance from the British government could even get tickets. This fact plays heavily into theories as to why the Germans shot the plane down.

dc-3 two

Flight 777 was a DC-3, like this one, which happens to be painted in 1940s period colors used by Scandinavian Airlines.

The flight was going from Lisbon, Portugal to the BOAC’s temporary terminal at Whitchurch, England. Leslie Howard was extremely prominent in the British film industry, making and promoting pro-Allied films and propaganda. In fact that’s what he was doing in Portugal, having been invited there by the British government to promote a film (in which he did not appear) called The Lamp Still Burns. He was on his way back to England from this tour. Other passengers included Wilfrid B. Israel, son of a German department store magnate, who had spent most of the war trying to get Jews out of Germany. (Howard was also Jewish and had been active in pro-Jewish causes during the war). A few lucky passengers were turned away at the gate, including a young boy, Derek Partidge, who in his adult life went on to appear on the original Star Trek show and narrated a documentary about Leslie Howard’s life.

Flight 777 took off from Lisbon at 7:35 AM, five minutes late due to the tardy delivery of a package to Leslie Howard. A bit more than three hours later, over the Bay of Biscay, eight German Messerchmitt fighters appeared and began firing at the DC-3. The Dutch pilot radioed the ground that he was being followed by “strange aircraft” and then that cannon tracers and shells were ripping through the fuselage. His last words were, “Wave-hopping and doing my best.” One of the plane’s engines was severely damaged in the first salvo. One of the German pilots years later reported seeing three people try to bail out of the crippled aircraft, but they were on fire and had no chance of survival. The plane crashed into the water and sank. Its remains have never been located.

Why did the Nazis attack Flight 777? They were generally not in the habit of shooting at civilian airliners, although BOAC planes had been attacked on two prior occasions. The most famous theory is that German intelligence believed Winston Churchill was on board. Churchill spent the end of May 1943 in North Africa conferring with General Eisenhower. Rumors of a portly man in a hat with a cigar boarding Flight 777 might have been misinterpreted as a suspicion that Churchill was on board. Personally I find this extremely unlikely; Churchill would have been foolhardy to travel back to England on an unarmed civilian airliner with no military escort, and he says so bluntly in his memoirs. Plus, the German intelligence service simply wasn’t that inept.

wilfrid israel

Wilfrid Israel was a German-born Jew helped tens of thousands of Jews, many of them children, escape Germany during the Shoah (Holocaust). He died on Flight 777.

Another theory is that Leslie Howard was actually a spy, and that he was the Germans’ intended target. It’s historical fact that Howard was deeply involved with pro-Allied propaganda, and he did insult Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The question of whether Howard was really a spy, though, is less clear. He may have passed intelligence information to the governments of Spain and Portugal. Several books written about him state that he was the target of the attack and that the Germans thought he was a spy; not all endorse the conclusion that he actually was, so the Germans might have been mistaken.

These theories are exotic, but the truth is probably more prosaic. In the 1980s and 1990s several historians tried to track down the surviving German pilots of the fighter group that downed the aircraft. Several were still alive. To a man they insisted that they didn’t know about the BOAC flights and assumed, when they saw the aircraft, that it was a British warplane. Only after they’d already fired did they realize it was a civilian flight, and they were shocked that their superiors hadn’t warned them about the possibility of this happening. A book written by the son of one of the victims of Flight 777 concludes that the stories by these German pilots are genuine. Without having done extensive research into the case, my gut feeling is that this explanation is the correct one. If so, the downing of Flight 777 begins to look a lot more like the tragedy of KAL Flight 007 forty years later: a terrible and deadly mistake.

The portrait of Leslie Howard was painted during Howard’s lifetime by Reginald Grenville Eves. The picture of the DC-3 is by Wikimedia Commons user Towflight, used under GNU Free Documentation license.