Share This Article

Was Poland’s Wartime Leader Murdered?

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 Peninsula—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.”

Collector’s Heir Declared Rightful Owner of Posters Seized by the Gestapo

A German court has ruled that a collection of rare posters seized by the Gestapo—and currently held by the German Historical Museum in Berlin—belong to a retired American airline pilot, Peter Sachs, whose father was forced to give them up just before World War II.

The collection of more than 4,000 posters, which includes advertisements for movies and cabaret shows as well as political propaganda (and which features, as one of its crown jewels, a 1932 poster for the Marlene Dietrich film Die Blonde Venus), was taken by the Nazis in 1938 from Hans Sachs, a Jewish dentist and avid poster collector. Sachs was arrested and briefly sent to a concentration camp, but his wife was able to secure his release. The entire family, including their son, Peter, then fled to Boston.

More than 70 years later, Peter Sachs, 71, now an American citizen living in Sarasota, Florida, sued the museum to return the collection, estimated to be worth $5.9 million. This winter a German court agreed that the posters are the legal property of Sachs and that he has the right to obtain possession of them. The museum has appealed the ruling, however, and has not yet given up the posters, many of which it is keeping in storage.

Did the Nazis’ ‘Angel of Death’ Leave a Lasting Legacy in Brazil?

The horrifying medical experiments conducted on concentration camp victims by Josef Mengele, the chief doctor of Auschwitz from 1943 to 1945, may not have been his only legacy. A new book asserts the Nazi war criminal known as the “Angel of Death” may also be responsible for the unnaturally high number of Aryan-looking twins in a small Brazilian town he frequently visited after fleeing to South America after the war.

In the early 1960s, at the same time Mengele began to make regular visits to the Brazilian town of Cândido Godói, the number of twins there began to skyrocket, says Argentine historian Jorge Camarasa in Mengele: The Angel of Death in South America. Ever since, as many as one in five pregnancies in the predominantly German hamlet have resulted in twins—many of them with blond hair and blue eyes.

“I think Cândido Godói may have been Mengele’s laboratory, where he finally managed to fulfill his dreams of creating a master race of blond haired, blue eyed Aryans,” Camarasa told the London Daily Telegraph. “There is testimony that he attended women, followed their pregnancies, treated them with new types of drugs and preparations, that he talked of artificial insemination in human beings, and that…[he said] he was capable of getting cows to produce male twins.”

Some experts believe, though, that there is a scientific explanation for the phenomenon—one unrelated to Mengele. Ursula Matte, a researcher in the medical genetics unit at Porto Alegre Hospital in Brazil, told New Scientist magazine that she and her colleagues had been invited in 1994 to Linha São Pedro, a township owned by Cândido Godói, to investigate the twin birthrates. Matte said she found that 10 per cent of the town’s births from 1990 to 1994 were twins, compared to only 1.8 percent in the surrounding area—an admittedly high rate.

But after interviewing more than a dozen pairs of the twins and conducting blood tests, Matte says she believes the researchers have found an explanation. Not only does the town have a high recurrence of multiple births, she says, it also has a high level of inbreeding.

“Even though we could not find a definitive explanation for this higher incidence, the existence of other ‘twin towns’ around the world— most of them in remote isolated areas with high levels of inbreeding just as Linha São Pedro—shows that external influence is not needed for this to happen,” Matte says. Because the town’s families tend to have twins only every other generation, she believes this suggests a recessive genetic trait.

The high number of Aryan twins, meanwhile, probably has more to do with the town’s German ancestry than with any genetic manipulation on Mengele’s part. “I don’t think Mengele would have the knowledge, not to mention the means, to engender the rise in twin births in this community,” Matte says. “It’s noteworthy that twin births occurred there in almost every time period, even in the 1990s, so what kind of long-lasting manipulation could he have perpetrated?”

Mengele died in 1979, 16 years after the “twin town” boom began.

Alaska Territorial Guard Veterans Regain Pay—and Recognition

After the U.S. Army suspended retirement pay for veterans of a militia formed to guard the territory of Alaska during World War II, the secretary of the army backtracked in January, authorizing temporary funds to continue payments to 26 surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard.

The army secretary stepped in after a Department of Defense study concluded that the veterans, who served during the war—without pay—in a group of more than 6,500 militiamen, should never have been receiving retirement pay in the first place. The analysis found that the men’s five-year contracts in the Territorial Guard, where they served as scouts and helped build military airfields from 1942 to 1947, didn’t meet the military’s 20-year eligibility minimum for extended retirement pay benefits.

In 2000, Congress had passed a law that qualified guard time as active federal service, but when the Pentagon study threatened the payments, many Alaskans and veterans’ groups became outraged. Don Young, Alaska’s lone congressman, told reporters that Congress had intended to give the men benefits “for life, not until the DoD reinterpreted legislative language to suit their needs.” With the army secretary’s reversal, A S K W W I I temporary funds will allow the men to continue receiving small monthly payments until a legislative solution can be reached. “These emergency payments will give us some time to get the problem resolved while making sure these brave Alaskans get the retirement pay they so deserve,” said Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.

Jerry Beale, administrator of Alaska’s Office of Veterans Affairs, found a silver lining in the brief suspension of benefits. “As a result,” he says, “this certainly brought the service of the members of the ATG to the forefront and people are now aware of how the residents of rural Alaska were willing to defend our nation.”


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here