Actor and producer, Leslie Howard, disappeared on 1st June 1943 when the now infamous KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Flight 777, he was travelling in from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol was attacked by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay, killing all seventeen on-board. The Germans are believed to have thought British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was on-board. Churchill was indeed in Algiers around that time and later wrote in his autobiography that a mistake was clearly made about his movements, which must have cost Howard his life. But, recent research suggests that Howard may have in fact been the target himself.
Howard had long been a thorn in the side of the Germans and had produced several propaganda films. It is thought that the true purpose of his trip to Portugal and Spain was to meet local propagandists and to bolster support for the Allies, while on a lecture tour organised by the British Council. News of his being on the flight was passed to Germans hours before it took-off.
At that time Howard’s career was at an all time high. He had starred in many leading British and American films, including the 1939 Hollywood blockbuster Gone with the Wind with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, the 1941 anti-Nazi thriller “Pimpernel” Smith with Mary Morris and the 1942 British propaganda film The First of the Few with David Niven and Rosamund John, which told the tragic story of Spitfire designer RJ Mitchell.
David Niven, a friend of Howard, said that he was “…not what he seemed. He had the kind of distraught air that would make people want to mother him. Actually, he was about as naïve as General Motors. Busy little brain, always going.”
The Times in London carried news of Howard’s disappearance in the same edition that they reported the apparent death of Major William Martin, the subject of the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was. The film starred Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame and told the story of Operation Mincemeat, an idea drawn up by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, to drop a dead body off the Spanish coast dressed as an officer and with a briefcase handcuffed to one writs that included false documents pointing to an Allied invasion of Greece rather than Sicily. The body’s identity was Major Martin and the announcement in The Times was a crucial part in the subterfuge plot.
Time magazine carried a story in its 14 June 1943 issue, which quoted the Dutch pilot’s last radio message as, “I am being followed by strange aircraft. Putting on best speed. …we are being attacked. Cannon shells and tracers are going through the fuselage. Wave-hopping and doing my best.”