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Published:July 6th, 2008 17:00 EST
Mysteries of History: The Death that Changed the War

Mysteries of History: The Death that Changed the War

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio by Krzys Wasilewski; directed by Kristin Marzec

It was close to midnight but sweat still covered his general`s uniform. Damn heat, cursed Sikorski, rushing to a silver plane that would soon take him from Gibraltar back to London. He looked forward to a meeting with Winston Churchill who would surely welcome the news about the rising fighting spirit among 80,000 Polish soldiers stationed in Syria and ready to kick some German asses. "If only war could be fought by armies, not politicians, we would have already won," thought Sikorski, taking a last glimpse of the Gibraltar airport before entering the Liberator airplane. Less than half a minute after the take off, he was dead.

It was July 4, 1943, and General Wladyslaw Sikorski was returning from an inspection of Polish forces in the Middle East. Four years earlier, when the Germans - followed by the Russians - invaded Poland, he assumed the office of prime minister and commander-in-chief as the only figure capable of guiding the nation through the perilous time. Like most leaders whose countries were occupied, Sikorski operated from London, the sole European capital unmolested by the Nazi armies. Used to the life of an immigrant - he had spent the 1930s in Switzerland - Sikorski quickly befriended the British political elites, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

But neither Churchill`s assurances nor kind telegrams from President Roosevelt could convince the Polish premier that things were going well. When Sikorski was leaving Gibraltar, he was fully aware that if the Allies were to choose between Poland and the Soviet Union they would not think twice. Two months earlier, the retreating German forces discovered in Russian forests mass graves of Polish officers and intellectuals, who, the Soviets claimed, had been released after reestablishing diplomatic relations with Poland in 1941. The close examination of all of over 21,000 corpses proved, however, that the executioners had not been Germans, as Moscow insisted, but the Soviets. Pressured by his cabinet, Sikorski urged the Kremlin to explain this terrible crime yet all he received was total silence.

The coolness of the Liberator eased Sikorski`s troubled mind. His only child, Sophia, as well as chief of staff and close friend, Tadeusz Kliniecki, were already there, waiting to discuss the latest news from the front. "It`s good to see you here," Sikorski said to the Czech pilot, Edward Prchal, who had accompanied the premier on a number of flights. What surprised Sikorski this time was that Prchal was wearing a vest " a lifesaving garment but in the opinion of many pilots, including Prchal, it brought bad luck to the plane and crew. "I don`t remember putting it on," the Czech would tell his British rescuers when they approached the wreck a few hours after the crash. He was the sole survivor.

The report prepared by British investigators laid the blame on the carelessness of the airport servicemen. According to this version, one staffer passed out in the scorching heat and his colleagues let him rest under the Liberator`s shade, putting his bag on the plane`s wing. It was this small, forgotten bag that - read the report - clogged the wing`s steerage device which caused the Liberator to fall 11 seconds after takeoff. At that time the Gibraltar airport was the hub of European air traffic and chaos on the runway was neither unusual nor considered a great issue. Inconceivable as it appears, throughout the six years of World War II, a tragedy comparable to the one with Sikorski`s plane never repeated in the vicinity of this British outpost.

No sooner had the body of the Polish premier been transported to London did the first theories contradicting the British findings appear. As more time passed after Sikorski`s death, more pieces of information were available. It turned out that on the same day as Sikorski`s stop at Gibraltar, July 4, 1943, the Soviet delegation headed by Foreign Minister Ivan Maisky was also stationed there, with their plane parked next to the Liberator. A more telling fact, however, came to light long after the incident. Among the British intelligence agents operating in Gibraltar in 1943 was Kim Philby, at that time a 31-year-old rank-and-file officer. Two decades later, Philby - then Great Britain`s star spy - defected to the Soviet Union, sealing his over 20-year-long collaboration with the KGB.

Was then the Liberator`s crash a tragic accident or carefully prepared assassination? The supporters of the second explanation remind that the British had enough reasons to get rid of the Polish premier. Although close to Churchill and Eden, Sikorski with his stubborn defense of Polish pre-war borders became a formidable obstacle to any dialogue between London and Moscow. His insistence on solving the massacre of 21,000 Polish officers put another thorn into the bickering Allied coalition. A Yugoslav politician confided in his book that Stalin had ordered him to warn the Yugoslav president that "the British might try to undertake the same kind of operation against him as they had undertaken against Sikorski."

The most popular theory speaks of a bomb planted in the Liberator by British or Soviet agents. Of all the people on board, only Edward Prchal, the pilot, was to be informed about the assassination, thus his unusual carrying of a vest. Although he later claimed to put on the life jacket while already in the water, Noel Mason-Macfarlane, the governor of Gibraltar, wrote in his statement: "The fact remains that when [Prchal] was picked up out of the water, he was found to be not only wearing his [vest] but every tape and fastening had been properly put on and done up." During the four days that Prchal spent in a hospital no outside visitors were allowed to his room even though he regained consciousness hours after being rescued. The Czech`s involvement is additionally blurred by the fact that Sikorski had personally asked him to fly the plane although he could choose from among experienced Polish pilots.

Dariusz Baliszewski comes up with another scenario. This acclaimed Polish historian has spent over 15 years trying to solve the Sikorski case - years that, he says, made him draw a conclusion that Sikorski was murdered even before entering the Liberator. According to Baliszewski, the assassination was a Polish-British scheme. The British wanted Sikorski dead because Moscow refused to deal with him; the Poles thought the premier too weak a politician who would fail in safeguarding the nation`s future. In an interview given to a Catholic weekly, Baliszewski said that Sikorski and his entourage had been shot in their hotel rooms - probably by a Polish assassin - and the persons killed in the air crash had been British soldiers sacrificed by their government to cover up the crime. Sophia, Sikorski`s daughter, was to have been taken to Moscow and murdered in one of the notorious KGB prisons.

Whatever the cause, Sikorski`s death dashed all hopes for Poland`s victory in World War II. Still the fourth military force among the Allies, Poland was gradually marginalized by more powerful countries - Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and later, the United States. None of the subsequent prime ministers enjoyed such a position and acclaim as Sikorski`s and inner quarrels in the Polish political circles in London virtually paralyzed the job of his successors. When the Cold War ended, the remains of Sikorski were transported to Krakow where his coffin was laid next to Poland`s most notable kings and artists. As the British World War II archives are to be opened in 30 years, it is inconceivable that the mystery concerning Sikorski`s death will reach the light of day any time soon.

That`s all for this week`s edition of Mysteries of History. Next Sunday: When and why did Peking become Beijing?

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