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.
In 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 London by Kenneth Tynan and the National Theatre Company. The plane crash, and Churchill's involvement, formed a central theme. 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) 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.
An 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 his landlord said he had suddenly vanished for good, "donea 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 later in the 1970s by turning up at my front door in Duke Street, opening his case to reveal a revolver and flashing a Mossad badge at me.
This hired gun, Carlos Thompson, duly published a book that contained a string of seemingly deliberately 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.
http://www.fpp.co.uk/History/Sikorski/P ... 15113.html