Saturday, August 15, 2020

Gibraltar Air Crash 1943 – The Death of General Sikorski

At the southern tip of Spain lies a huge rock sticking out of a peninsular that for over 300 years has been territory of Great Britain. This town is called Gibraltar, more commonly nicknamed “The Rock” or simply “Gib,” it is like a small country with its own airport that has to stop the traffic going to and from the border with Spain in order for aircraft to land on the runway.

It is this runway that was the scene of a terrible disaster in 1943 that has been the topic of conspiracies ever since. This is largely due to the identity of one of the victims – General Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski. He was commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces as well as the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, running his countrymen from Paris, London and the USA.

In May 1943 Sikorski travelled to the Middle East to inspect Polish forces and the trip was a success, despite Polish-Russian relations breaking down after the discovery of the Katyn Wood massacre earlier that year. Despite the problems politically, he was otherwise still hopeful of a return to friendly terms with his neighbouring countries but this would come over time.

Returning from Cairo his plane landed at Gibraltar for a refuelling and as the evening of 4th July 1943 wore on, the aircraft was ready for the final leg of the journey back to London. On board the aircraft was his daughter (also his secretary), several Polish armed forces dignitaries, a Royal Navy Warrant telegraphist and a Conservative MP. There were a total of 12 people on board including pilot Flight Lieutenant Eduard Prchal and at 2307 hours the aircraft, a Consolidated Liberator II, was cleared for takeoff and sped down the runway.

What happened next has been attributed to the cargo shifting as well as the controls jamming, but somehow the aircraft lasted around 16 seconds before plunging into the sea off the end of the runway. Rescue workers pulled out only one survivor, the pilot. The other 11 people on board were dead.

Immediately conspiracies were rife. Was it a Russian plot to kill Sikorski? Or even a British plot? Even Polish plots have been considered. But the investigation showed otherwise despite every attempt at derailing the official stories.

The death of Sikorski sent the allied forces into mourning and his body was taken back to Britain where he was laid to rest in a Polish war cemetery in Newark-on-Trent. In 1993 his body was exhumed and flown back to Poland where he now lies in a tomb in Krakow’s Wawel Castle. But he would not lay rested for long.

In the end the conspiracy theories prompted an investigation to prove once and for all that he had died in the plane crash and hadn’t been assassinated. In 2009 he was once again exhumed and his body examined. The report stated that his injuries were consistent with that of somebody who had died in an air crash, putting any theories of him being shot in the head to rest once and for all.

Today a memorial plaque in Gibraltar’s Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned on the main street pays tribute to Sikorski and where his memorial service was held in the war. A larger memorial, originally next to the airport but now at Europa Point, displays an aircraft propeller and commemorates the air disaster that caused so much controversy. The repositioning adds the names of the others who died in the disaster instead of just Sikorski.

As a Bridlington resident I was interested to learn that one of those who died was a local resident,  Royal Navy Warrant Telegraphist Harry Pinder who was working at the shore base HMS Nile in Alexandria. He lived at 57 Hilderthorpe Road with his wife and at the time of his death was returning to Britain for his daughters wedding. His body was never found.

With the death of anybody famous– a VIP, politician, celebrity – it is always the other victims that are forgotten yet in a lot of ways these are the ones that tell some of the more fascinating stories.

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