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Posted Friday, November 15, 2002

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Timeline and summary

David Irving explains:

I SUMMARISE below the principal contents of a Ministry of Defence file newly released (June 2002) into the Public Record Office in London. It is a file previously maintained by the Air Historical branch (AHB) of the Air Ministry, headed by Squadron Leader L A Jackets (whom I knew well), who was replaced by Mr Haslam and Mr Heskett. I was fortunate to be permitted extensive use of the AHB archives up to certain levels in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sikorski's plane on seabedIn January 1965 I had met Rolf Hochhuth, the German leftwing liberal playwright, at Hamburg and we became lifelong friends. He provided to me the tip that I should investigate the airplane crash of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled Polish prime minister, which killed him at a politically convenient moment for the British, at Gibraltar's RAF North Front airfield, on July 4, 1943. (Photo right: the B24 Liberator plane lying on the seabed).

A formal RAF Court of Inquiry established that the pilot, apparently the sole survivor (a Czech airman, Edward Prchal) was not to blame. The second pilot, Squadron Leader "Kipper" Herring, was missing; his body, like several others, was never found. A second Court of Inquiry, signed off by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, came to the same conclusion. Sabotage was ruled out, but no cause for the crash could be established. (Most of the documents summarised below are from the files of Sir John Slessor himself, who honestly admits in the 1970s that he had totally forgotten the Sikorski incident, as his primary role was hunting U-boats at the time.)

In 1967 Hochhuth's play Soldaten ("Soldiers") was staged in Toronto, and in 1968 in London by Kenneth Tynan at the West End's New Theatre. The plane crash, and Churchill's involvement, formed one of the two central themes. Harold Wilson as prime minister condemned the play as anti-British. Lord Chandos's file on the matter (he was a board member of National Theatre, which refused to stage the production) in the Churchill archives is still closed.

My book on the crash appeared soon after. It triggered days of sensation and speculation in the Conservative newspapers, and led to a tidal wave of hostility from what might be called the Establishment. The book itself, published by William Kimber Ltd., sold less than a thousand copies. Leaping on to the bandwagon with unerring skill, television presenter David Frost staged three Frost Programmes on the topic, one in 1967 with Randolph Churchill, son of the late prime minister, and two more on consecutive nights in December 1968 with myself, Tynan and -- as a surprise guest -- the pilot Prchal, flown in from California.

Perhaps unwilling to upset the Establishment, Frost (or his producers) had rejected my request that they invite Prchal to demonstrate donning a Mae West lifejacket while we timed him. Everybody who knew him had testified that he had never before worn one as it was to bulky for the B24 cockpit; when he was fished out of the sea, semi conscious, on the July 1943 occasion, he was found to be wearing one, although the plane had been in the air for less than seventeen seconds; among the private papers of the late Governor of Gibraltar I found his own highly suspicious account of the events of that night, which confirmed that the pilot had been strapped into a properly inflated lifejacket, but Prchal, questioned under oath, denied to the Court of Inquiry that he had worn one.

It was a story with many twists. The widow of the second pilot Herring (she had remarried and become Mrs Joyce Robinson) told me that she was sure that he had phoned her on the day after the crash -- she vividly recalled it, as she was in hospital having their first child -- and she had afterwards found that he had left his lucky flying suit at home. An eye witness reported in later months to me that they had seen somebody ("like a Michelin man") walking unsteadily along one wing of the sinking plane. Two men on board for part of the flight, who vanished, turned out to have been Secret Service agents.

Charles MasseyAn RAF officer with a very strange career, Charles William Bowes Massey, was stated by the King's secretary Sir Alan Lascelles, in a letter to Lord Chandos, to have been on the plane. On February 20, 1968 I rang his doorbell in South Kensington to interview him but the building's porter said he had suddenly vanished for good, "done a bunk," in September 1967, the time that the Sikorski controversy began to rage: his daughter, his favourite daughter, contacted me in August 1996 to say that she had never seen him again from that day to this -- but she had just learned that he had not died, as she had been told, but had been living under a new identity in Cheltenham, where he had died only the previous year, in June 1996. His executor described to her how at his humble funeral a staff car arrived from London flying the pennant of an Air Chief Marshal of the RAF. There are not many ACMs, and she tracked the man down; it was Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten, but he was evasive and refused to talk with her. Of course an innocent explanation is possible; not probable, but possible.

The actual event, the Gibraltar crash, is still shrouded in mystery. I have an open mind. But now, thirty years after the book was published, we catch more unintended glimpses of how, during the early 1970s, an uneasy British Establishment closed ranks in its determination to smash me -- unable to fathom how I had survived their first attempt, the libel action brought by Captain Jackie Broome over my book The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17. They even spread the story that I was funded from behind the Iron Curtain (for the record: I wasn't).

On February 19, 1968, before that action was heard, my publisher William Kimber told me in private of a conversation overheard in the Garrick Club, in which Lord Justice Winn, the former naval Intelligence officer Rodger Winn, brother of the famous homosexual columnist Godfrey Winn, had bragged loudly that they were going to smash me somehow. I noted the words in my diary that same day, that Kimber had told me, "Winn [had said that he] was going to ruin me. 'With Irving there can be no compromising'."

After the book Accident was published, the Churchill family hired lawyers, and funded an Argentinian actor, Carlos Thompson, to destroy my name. Winston Churchill jr. boasted of the fact in his otherwise excellent biography of his father Randolph. Thompson was married to Viennese Jewish film actress Lili Palmer, who later apologised to Rolf Hochhuth that her husband was not of sound mind and was always in and out of clinics, an imbalance which he demonstrated in October 1981 by turning up at my front door in Duke Street, opening his case to reveal a revolver and flashing a Mossad badge at me. He later shot himself (in 1990).

This hired gun, Carlos Thompson, duly published a book that contained a string of seemingly deliberate libels; it was called The Assassination of Winston Churchill. In 1969 my solicitors Rubinstein, Nash & Co issued a libel writ against the book's publisher and author, as the latter had no doubt intended. To the Churchill family's fury, the book trade panicked and withdrew it from sale.

After the momentary setback of the February 1970 defeat in the PQ.17 libel action (I wrote a private account called "Dismasted, but not Dismayed"), we went on to appeal, and every penny was required to fight that action. I had to shorten the front-line, and called off the libel suit against Thompson, so that battle was never fought. The real war was raging, as is apparent from the documents now released, behind the scenes.

Summary of the contents of PRO file AIR2/15113

The first item in the file (i.e., right at the back) is a photostatic copy of the handwritten version of the lengthy Court of Inquiry proceedings and attachments, including the map of the runway at Gibraltar. The next item is a typed copy of the same; superficially there appear to be no variations.


Algernon Llewellyn, a former wing commander who had commanded the Liberator Flight of No. 511 Squadron until May 1943, just before the crash, wrote to accident investigations expert Squadron Leader Roland Falk on January 8, 1969, that he was the chap who advised Irving to check with Falk about his theory that loose freight stowed in the nosewheel area had fouled the control lines. The same thing had happened to him some months earlier in the Middle East when he had had to flight-test a Liberator. 'I've forgotten exactly which controls were fouled but I was frightened enough to remember the incident today jolly clearly. … Irving is highly sensitive on the subject and has tried to dismiss the possibility when raised on British TV [handwritten in margin 21/21 Dec 1968, Frost] and, I hear, German TV [handwritten: Köln 3/1/69], where it is too technical for mudslinging programmes. Without trying to put words in your mouth, I think you might be able to kill stone dead this whole rotten thing which is causing damage, if you recorded your opinion, as the then chief test pilot, Boscombe Down, and expert witness to the Court, to, say, the Daily telegraph, the Times, or the Express.'

Falk replied writing from his home in the Channel Isles [Les Huriaux, St Ouen, Jersey] to Llewellyn on January 21, 1969. He was interested that Llewellyn had experienced fouling of the control mechanism in a B24. The court at Lyneham had investigated jamming of the controls by the nose wheel mechanism, and decided it was 'was extremely unlikely and could not be considered as a possible cause of the accident.' Falk said this was the only part of the Inquiry with which he disagreed. 'I have not written to the newspapers on this subject because I believe that this is just what Irving and his cronies desire in order to obtain more publicity for what they are doing.'

There appear to have been high-level discussions about the controversy at the same time, as Air Commodore J W Frost of DPS1(RAF) writes on January 24, 1969 to the private secretary to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the ministry, sending him the photostat copy of the Court of Inquiry (file CS20396), and adding: 'I shall be available on Monday should PUS wish to discuss the case with me before he attends Sir Burke Trend's meeting.' Trend was the much-feared Secretary to Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Cabinet.

Llewellyn typed a letter to Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, on January 24, 1969, inviting him to consider writing to The Times, 'something on general lines of the attached' to put a brake on the muck flying around. Explaining why he did not want to send the letter to the press himself, Llewellyn wrote: 'I have been cast in the not incorrect role of a leading debunker of Irving and as such am regarded as a biased, interested party.' Roland Falk had been in touch with him. revealing which camp he was part of, Llewellyn concluded, '[Carlos] Thompson's book will not be out until end March/early April [1969].'

Slessor did as bidden, and wrote a long letter to The Times. He wrote a pencil draft beginning, 'I hesitate to give added publicity to the utterly fantastic accusations by Messrs Hochuth [sic] and Irving to the effect that the crash in which Gen Sikorski died was due to deliberate sabotage by the British authorities on the orders of Sir Winston Churchill.' He argued that an unhappily large number of crashes remain unexplained. The one thing of which he was completely certain was that the sabotage idea 'is a vicious canard.' He offered as his own the possible explanation which had in fact been put to him by Llewellyn: the nose of the Liberator contained the mechanism for retraction of the nose wheel after take off, and also the freight compartment, and had fouled the control mechanisms. The letter was not published, seemingly because of the litigation pending.

On February 10, 1969 Llewellyn wrote to Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, thanking for sending him the response from Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, declining to publish the letter. 'Even so, around 31st January the Express published a pretty unhelpful letter from an anonymous AVM -- I assume Kingston-McChoughley -- which directly says he thinks the second pilot pulled the flaps up. [Slessor in red ink in margin: !The idiot.] Llewellyn says this is unlikely: the Polish observer at the Court of Inquiry would have blabbed about such a stupid mistake; Prchal in evidence said he actuated the undercarriage lever, so the second pilot, Herring, would not be involved; Herring was top quality, and would not have made such an elementary mistake.

Keeping him informed, Llewellyn wrote to Sir John on February 2, 1969, 'The legal chat at the moment seems to be that Hochhuth's and Irving's "masters" will pay anything to settle the different writs out of court while our judiciary seem to be solid in doing everything possible for the widest possible exposure in court. 'Prchal came to see me on 18th Dec here, immediately after he landed from California. I had not seen him for 25 years. Up to 1967 he was living a humble happy existence as No. 2 librarian in some small library … in Los Altos, near San Francisco. His dislike for Irving and his knowledge about the "revisionists" of history -- a thriving American industry -- decided him to fight back. He was much encouraged by the trouble decent people are backing him over the whole affair, and now the whole legal setup which lies behind the Churchill family dropped everything to help him.

'Some time when you are in London, you might be interested to hear the very long road which started from our meeting in the 'In and Out' [nickname of the RAF Club in Piccadilly] (1967). It is a good example of how England does work still when sufficiently roused -- thank God! Yours sincerely, Algernon Llewellyn.'


[Comment: Indeed. Bookrights having been sold to Germany, William Kimber who was Mr Irving's friend but not infrequently as publisher took strange liberties, like quietly inserting paragraphs in his authors' books expressing his own views, decided to do the same with the German edition, writing to the German publisher with material which he felt should be surreptitiously included, namely the Llewellyn Hypothesis. Without telling Mr Irving, Kimber approached Slessor for assistance.]

Sir John Slessor drafted a response to Kimber on May 26, 1969, putting a draft to Kimber for his letter to the German publisher. 'We do not know what changes Irving has made in his book for a German edition, but in our view the highest importance should be attached to one particular item,' -- namely the hypothesis of Llewellyn and Falk about a simple accident caused by the baggage in the nose wheel compartment.

William Kimber replied to Sir John Slessor on June 24, 1969, that he had now written to the publishers of the German version of the book, 'in which I embodied the main points that you kindly made in your recent letter to me.' 'I have not mentioned your name, but should David Irving discover that you are the person with whom I have discussed the matter, and tries to get in touch with you [pencil note: he has not] may I warn you that anything you might say to him over the telephone will almost certainly be tape recorded at his end. You might therefore prefer to restrict any communication with him, should he approach you, to the written word.'

[Very true. But the first that Mr Irving knew of the above was when he read this file in November 2002. The next item, a letter dated May 7, 1970, 5 pages, has been retained on Apr 11, 2002, under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act, i.e. it is still secret]

There follows a one page closely typed letter from Argentine film actor and writer Carlos Thompson to Slessor, May 17, 1970, from Villa Sarita-Rose, Campo-Mijas, Fuenjirola, Málaga:, Spain. A few weeks earlier WH Smiths had decided to ban distribution of his book The Assassination of Winston Churchill, fearing libel action. Hatchards and Harrods were unconcerned, as Irving was suing only him; 'Less likely is this now, after the delightful beating he took in the Jack Brooke case, which amongst other things, I am sure, must have brought home to him the news that British justice is alive and well.' Thompson had printed 5,000 copies and sold half, he claimed, but the gigantic legal expenses being incurred in defending Mr Irving's libel action made it essential now to sell the rest.

He wrote an even more rambling, extraordinary four-page typed letter, long, muddled, and vainglorious, to Slessor on July 20, 1970: They had, he said, now had to put the stocks of The Assassination of Winston Churchill in store.

'As for dear Irving and Co., the status quo is one of quietly waiting for him to make the next move. We have prepared our arsenal for the 'Discovery of Documents' festivities. It is he, now, who must play full out the hero and press on with the case. … I simply cannot wait to have the blackguard in that witness box, to tear him to pieces -- even if the kicks should prove expensive. The lad is still very young (34) amd has the resilience of those deprived of the gnawings of a conscience -- it will take many Jackie Broomes and many [Carlos] Thompsons to silence him. In the Broome case, for instance, he's only had to pay £10,000 himself (and that comes off his income tax); the rest is paid by his publishers. As you see, when a man gets himself well organized, crime does pay, up to a point -- repeat, if he lacks the chemicals that make up that delicious product called shame. I for one, who grew up in a world and next to a father who was literally obsessed with a sense of honour, quite simply mourn the fact that one is no more allowed to fights [sic] duels, because in my earstwhile [sic] country, the Argentine, in my youth and in the severe days of my ancestors, that was the only way to redeem one's honour -- one did not buy it back in Court, in the shape of damages and tax-deductible commodities, but with a hot pint of blood. If I said this to dear Irving, he would surely laugh himself to death… not a bad idea, perhaps, for a chap who is no more than a nuisance joke?'

He then fulminates on for a page about Kenneth Tynan, 'the worst egg of the lot, you are quite right.' 'Do remember, Sir John, that he too, as well as Irving, can be had for £1,000/-, if you remember one of the last chapters of my book (where I relate how David Frost told me in details of Ty's and Irv's efforts to stop the showing of the 2nd programme).

Thompson also mentions Carl-Theo Thorne, an evidently deranged German expatiriate who had written 'asinine' letters to Mrs Robinson, and to Graham Herring, son of the missing second pilot, and the fact that Herring's CO had taken exception to the 'article publishing by Irving where he claimed that the son of "Kipper Herring" was "still looking for him."'

Thompson admits however that the book had made a huge hole on his side, 'And so it is that our boat is sinking slowly, with all the papers in order.'


[The file reveals that on May 30, 1970 Thorne had begun litigation in a disjointed, but decidedly awkward way, issuing a writ against the publisher of Hochhuth's play, and serving sub-poenas which he had drafted himself on a host of personalities including Slessor, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Lord Portal, Sir Ronald Melville, the wartime Air Ministry Intelligence officer Fred Winterbotham, and the widow of the second pilot, Mrs Robinson. Mr Irving had no knowledge of this litigation].

Poor Mrs Robinson was already frantic at the possibility that her husband "Kipper" Herring might have survived all these years; she had sent a handwritten letter to the Ministry of Defence on March 19, 1971 to ask what she should do about the Thorne subpoena -- what it was all about.

'I don't even know this Dr Thorne, although he has written to me before. Kipp is not [underlined twice] still alive is he? I just don't know what to think. I have been in [illegible word] again, & really all this worry does upset me. … Prchal would have told me if Kipp had lived, I am quite sure. I do hear from him [Prchal] from time to time.'

G W Owens of the ministry made on March 25, 1971 a handwritten minute to Mr Heskett on Mrs Robinson etc., and added: 'As to the [Thorne] case itself, I do not believe it will ever reach a courtroom and it seems a very long shot to subpoena Mrs Robinson. … One of the intriguing features of the incident of course was the the body of Mrs Robinson's husband (S/L Herring) was never found.'

Mrs Herring evidently had her doubts, because the ministry's veterans affairs office were involved. V A Dawes of OA (RAF) wrote a minute on April 14, 1971, recalling that the widow had earlier contact with AR9(RAF) on the question of her former husband's death, but that aspect was cleared when they wrote her on Jan 16, 1969 confirming that for official purposes S/Ldr Herring was presumed to have died on July 4, 1943. They had sent her one further letter on Slessor's advice on March 7, 1969 'about the accident.'

Sir John Slessor apeared to have become obsessed with Mr Irving and his books. Unaware that he was not involved in and indeed unaware of the Thorne action, on May 1, 1971 Slessor wrote to Heskett at the Air Historical Branch, 'In my view Thorne is a vicious lunatic and Irving is just what that Lord of Appeal [Phillimore, LJ] so rightly described him.

If I had to bet I would say that neither of these clowns will in fact bring their cases to court unless (which seems to me not impossible) they are being paid from the other side of the Iron Curtain to throw the blackest possible light on the British in the late war. Irving's Dresden book and the PQ17 book lend some substance to that idea.'

In the same vein, Slessor wrote to Mr G W Owens at the ministry on May 6, 1971, 'Personally I feel some doubt whether in the event either Irving or Thorne will actually bring their cases to Court. How the devil can they afford it, particularly Irving after the pasting he got over the PQ17 convoy book. I have a nasty feeling that they are both being subsidized from behind the Iron Curtain. I have not read Irving's book, as did not realise it had already been published. Would you kindly let me have the name of the book and publisher.'

The next day, May 7, 1971 Slessor wrote again to Mr Owens: 'I think I told Mr Heskett (AHB) in a letter a week or so ago that Mrs Joyce Robinson ( Herring) is again being pestered by this chap Thorne. In the past, when I gathered Irving (that great historian) was at the back of it, through (I gather) a man called Gunnarson, I advised Mrs Robinson to send all his letters to Carlos Thompson's solicitors, Metson Cross. Then this bird Thorne bobbed up, in pursuit, I gather, of another hare, I adviser her to send his letters to the solicitors, for the defendants in this case, Rubinstein Nash …" He asked the Treasury Solicitor to represent her along with the rest.

On August 12, 1971 Slessor was allowed to come to the AHB and look at the Sikorski papers. (He had previously written in a note that he had forgotten all about the crash in the intervening years).

There are several missives from Thorne to Slessor on the file, mostly incoherent, including one hostile note dated December 25, 1971 advising the air force officer that he cannot duck out of the service of the sub poena.

Fred Winterbotham , the former Intelligence officer (later author of The Ultra Secret, 1974) wrote to Slessor on January 1, 1972, that he had unfortunately been properly served with the sub-poena. He adds, interestingly,

'Unfortunately I was on the Rock [i.e. Gibraltar] that [July 1943] night on my way back to London after finalising arrangements with Ramsay, Tedder and Alexander concerning supply of certain intelligence [evidently the ULTRA codebreaking Intelligence reports] for the HUSKY operation. Incidentally [P J] Grigg the Minister for War was also there, we were travelling back to London in [General Carl F] Spaatz's Liberator…. No doubt such characters as Irvine[sic], Hochhuth, Tynan etc will be there [in court], and I don't want any mud.'

He was evidently nervous about being asked about the ULTRAS, although it would have been wholly improper even to mention the word in correspondence.

Thorne's action against publisher Andre Deutsch was listed as Queens Bench, 1970, T No. 1319. Thorne claimed damages 'on the ground that they failed to pay him for certain information which he gave them about the Sikorski crash.' The subpoenas were all shortly set aside by the Court, Master Lubbock, on the application of the Treasury Solicitor (who traditionally represents serving officers in lawsuits) on the ground that the issue of the writ was aggressive and vexatious and an abuse of the process of the Court. Mrs Robinson was able to plead ill health and avoided testifying. The ministry was satisfied that the case would then inevitably be withdrawn for lack of witnesses, and it was eventually dismissed with costs. The Case was heard February 7, 1972.

There is one last item on this file indicating how governments can dispose of awkward problems; Inspector Chandler of Lincoln Police rang the ministry to say that he was preparing a comprehensive report for the Home Office -- in charge of immigration affairs -- on Dr Carl Theo Thorne's pestering of Mrs Joyce Robinson. 'Thorne was originally a German but was now stateless, and he might be recommended for deportation,' hinted the ministry's A Davis on June 21, 1972.


Accident book jacketon this website:

 Speculation in The Times, Jul 4, 2003 on who was behind the death of Sikorski | David Irving's reply
"Churchill's War", vol. ii: "Triumph in Adversity": Appendix on death of General Sikorski, the contents of a Harold Wilson file (pdf format)
David Irving: Radical's Diary, Nov 14, 2002
The PQ17 Libel Action, 1970
David Irving, Accident: The Death of General Sikorski
Private account dated July 18, 1945 by General Mason Macfarlane, Governor of Gibraltar, of the night Sikorski was killed
David Irving protests to the Air Ministry, April 1, 1969

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