Was Poland’s Wartime Leader Murdered?

By Justin Ewers
3/24/2009 • World War II News

MAY 2009 —The B-24 Liberator carrying the leader of Poland’s government-in-exile on July 4, 1943, had barely cleared the runway on the island of Gibraltar when disaster struck. Before the plane’s wheels could be fully retracted, it began losing altitude. Sixteen seconds after takeoff, it slammed into the sea. The Polish prime minister, Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, was killed, along with 15 others. Only the pilot survived.

A British inquiry conducted after the crash concluded it had been an accident. The aircraft’s controls had jammed, it said, and the plane’s pilot was absolved of any blame. The case of Sikorski, who had taken over the country’s government after the German invasion in 1939, was considered closed.

Questions about Sikorski’s death, though, have never completely disappeared. Immediately after the disaster, Poles especially suspected foul play—believing the Soviets, or even the British, may have had reasons to murder their prime minister. Three months before Sikorski was killed, Stalin, upset with Sikorski’s call for an investigation into the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers, had broken off diplomatic relations with the Polish government. The Soviets, the theory went, wanted the matter hushed up, and the British, eager to please an important ally, were aware Sikorski would never agree to give up parts of Poland to Stalin after the war, something the Allies had already begun negotiating.

Some even suspected that Sikorski and the other passengers had been attacked on the plane during takeoff, causing the crash.

It was only when Poland emerged from behind the iron curtain after the cold war, though, that any legitimate investigation could be conducted. In 1993, Sikorski’s remains were returned to Poland from a cemetery in England. And last fall, the Polish government, responding to growing calls to solve the mystery of Sikorski’s death, exhumed the general’s body and subjected it to a battery of forensic tests.

The results, which were announced in January, showed that Sikorski’s injuries were consistent with an airplane crash and that he had not, in fact, been stabbed, shot, poisoned, or strangled. “We can [now] rule out certain hypotheses that have turned up over the years,” said Ewa Koj, a prosecutor for Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, which had formally opened the case.

But many historians say investigators still can’t rule out others. “It’s still possible the plane was sabotaged,” says Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, academic dean of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Several postwar British investigations acknowledged as much, he points out. A 1969 British Cabinet Office review of the original inquiry’s findings found there was ample opportunity for someone to damage the plane’s controls. “Security at Gibraltar was casual,” the report said, “and a number of opportunities for sabotage arose while the aircraft was there.”

Some scholars don’t believe it’s a coincidence, either, that Soviet double agent Kim Philby was head of the British Secret Intelligence Service’s counterintelligence department for the Iberian Penin-sula—and Gibraltar—at the time of the crash. It’s entirely possible, they say, that the British government may not have ordered Sikorski to be killed, but that low-level operatives were involved.

Dariusz Baliszewski, a Polish historian who has been researching the crash for 15 years, believes the British are responsible, at some level, for Sikorski’s death. “The British were at least passive witnesses because nothing could take place at Gibraltar without them knowing,” he says.

Both the British and Russian governments have refused scholars access to the sections of their archives that might include documents on the affair, hampering outside investigations. “That, of course, only increases the paranoia,” says Chodakiewicz, who acknowledges that the British, at least, may be keeping their secret service files classified to protect the identities of wartime spies.

But, he says, “everything’s still possible.” Chodakiewicz, for one, is pushing the Polish government to pull up the wreckage of Sikorski’s plane from the ocean floor so the aircraft’s controls can be examined. Otherwise, he says, “it is always going to be a mystery.”

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