Published in The Mail on Sunday on 28 May 2023.
It is one of the great enduring mysteries of the Second World War. Why was Flight 777A, a civilian aircraft, shot down by German pilots on its way from Portugal to Britain, with the death of all those on board?
On the morning of the fateful flight, June 1, 1943, while Europe was in the depths of the deadliest war it had ever known, civilian aircraft were considered off- limits to attack. There existed a convention, widely adhered to by both the Allies and the Axis powers, to respect the neutrality of civilian planes from countries not involved in the hostilities.
Portugal and Spain – both ruled by nationalist dictators who wanted to avoid the conflict – had kept out of the fighting, but as was common 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. Agents would find ways of viewing passenger lists and scanning for names of interest to their paymasters. Could there have been a high-profile target on board – one that the Nazis couldn’t risk landing safely in Britain?
Days before the 80th anniversary of the tragedy over the Bay of Biscay, which claimed the lives of 13 passengers and four Dutch crew, I have re-investigated the incident with the help of a relative of one of those who perished.
Ivan Sharp, named after the grandfather he never met, has spent more than 30 years making inquiries into the tragedy and he offers an intriguing insight into what may have happened.
The plane was a Douglas DC-3, an American propeller airliner, which had been chartered to 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 rumour had it that secret agents, and even escaped prisoners of war, used this same route to get to and from mainland Europe.
The aircraft, named Ibis, had been due to take off at 7.30am, but there was a five-minute delay as a passenger had to pick up a package from customs.
Whitchurch airfield maintained contact with the plane until 10.54am. About 200 miles north-west of the Spanish coast, the pilot messaged that they were being followed and then that it was under attack. Shortly afterwards, Ibis crashed into the sea with no survivors.
The following day, BOAC put out a brief statement: ‘We regret to announce that a civil aircraft on passage between Lisbon and the UK is overdue and presumed lost. The last message received from the aircraft stated that it was being attacked by an enemy aircraft. The aircraft carried 13 passengers and a crew of four. Next-of-kin have been informed.’
It later emerged that the aircraft 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 take-off to retrieve his parcel – was actor Leslie Howard. The son of a Hungarian Jew, recently turned 50 and a true movie idol, he had made a name for himself playing quintessentially British gentlemen. He had starred in hit pre-war films such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind.
His background had made him fiercely anti-Nazi, and after the outbreak of war, Howard bought himself out of his Hollywood contract so he could return to Britain to play a role in the war effort. Two years earlier, when Howard met Winston Churchill, he shared his strong views.
Not only was Howard asked to make propaganda for the Ministry of Information during the war, he also starred in feature films designed to boost morale at home, notably in ‘Pimpernel’ Smith, as the 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 undertaken a lecture tour to Spain and Portugal at a time when his wartime work was proving increasingly irritating to Dr Josef Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party.
The tour also coincided with German attempts to persuade Spanish dictator General Franco to enter the war on the side of the Axis Powers. Hitler was especially keen for Spanish forces to attack the British base at Gibraltar and deprive Allied navies of access to the Mediterranean.
Was Howard’s ‘lecture tour’ a smokescreen for a more secretive role in trying to get Franco and the Spanish to resist Germany’s diplomatic overtures? Or was Howard even using it as a cover for his role as a real-life James Bond?
It is highly likely that pro-German agents would have got hold of a passenger list which revealed that Howard was on the flight. News of his death was published in the Times on June 4. But was Howard really the target of the mighty Luftwaffe?
Another intriguing discovery involves Father A.S. Holmes, who had been seated on the aircraft at Lisbon airport but left to take an urgent phone call. Was it good fortune or something sinister that made him miss the flight? The mystery caller was never identified. So when the flight took off there were only 13, not the intended 14, on board – including three women and two children.
One of the 13 was Ivan Sharp, aged just 41. 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 British Airways ‘Passenger Superintendent’, it reads: ‘Have to inform you with deepest regret that Mr I.H. Sharpe [sic] was believed travelling in an aeroplane lost near England yesterday. Not yet known if any survivors. Will keep you informed.’
Over the years, the amateur sleuth has retraced the flight path taken by 777A and obtained copies of the flight log and the passenger list. Sharp is convinced that his grandfather’s wartime role might have made him a target, or even the target, for the Germans.
‘My grandfather was tasked with going to Portugal to buy wolfram – better known as tungsten – that was being used in the manufacture of armaments. He was often competing with German buyers for the rare metal that was found in Portugal and Spain, paying for the goods in uncut diamonds that he had brought with him from Britain.
‘[He] was widely known as “the wolfram man” but his work was highly secretive and even his closest family did not know exactly what he was doing,’ said Sharp.
However, there were other passengers on board who may have been targets. One of them was Wilfred Israel, a senior member of an Anglo-German Jewish family who was known to have rescued Jews from the Holocaust and who had links to the British Government.
Another was Tyrrell Shervington, a director of the Shell-Mex oil company. Far more crucially, as the Germans may have discovered, he was an intelligence operative – codenamed agent ‘H.100’ – in the Iberian force run by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, the unit formed in 1940 to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. Yet remarkably, the true quarry of the Nazis might have been a humble taxman. Seated next to Howard was his tax adviser Alfred Chenhalls. The financier was not a man of whom the Germans would usually have taken note. Except that – tubby (15st 9lb according to the flight log), balding and smoking cigars – Chenhalls bore more than a passing resemblance to Churchill.
And the Prime Minister had indeed flown to North Africa in late May. Perhaps he was now making his way back to Britain.
Did German agents in Lisbon tip off the Nazis that they believed the British Prime Minister was a passenger? Churchill eventually became aware of the theory and thought it may have been 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 the civilian flights between Portugal and the UK and insisted they had targeted Ibis by mistake, thinking it was a military aircraft. Some of those pilots, however, are believed to have carried out two unsuccessful attacks on Ibis in the previous year, and their accounts are dismissed by experts as attempts to avoid war crimes charges.
It has been more than a decade since Ivan Sharp Jnr arranged for plaques honouring the 17 dead to be unveiled in Portugal and Britain, close to the two airports.
‘I don’t believe that, 80 years on, we will ever know the answer to this wartime mystery,’ he says. He is inclined to believe that the attack was targeted. ‘It is possible that the German agents got a message out saying it would be worth targeting their aircraft because so many key “players” just happened to be on board at the same time.’
But even he admits that little can be known for certain.
The film critic Barry Norman once wrote that Leslie Howard had gone to a ‘violent, untimely death that is, and no doubt forever will be, shrouded in mystery’.
Eighty years after the tragedy, we are still wondering why the 17 souls of Flight 777A met their end.