Bloody October Post #23: The Death of Leslie Howard
One of my favorite actors, the talented Leslie Howard is best-known for his role as the wishy-washy Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. However, many people do not know that he was also an extremely important British spy during World War II, and that this dangerous job cost him his life.
On June 1, 1943, Howard was flying from Bristol in the UK to Lisbon, Portugal. His plane was shot down by the German Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay. Howard was one of the seventeen fatalities of the crash, including the plane’s crew. According to German documents, Howard was shot down about 500 miles from France and 200 miles from Spain, and that the German pilots who shot him down were working beyond their normal patrol zone to specifically intercept and shoot down Howard’s plane. German pilots even took pictures of the crash wreckage floating in the ocean and sent them to Howard’s family. Searches for Howard’s plane and his body were repeatedly shot down by the German Luftwaffe, and subsequently, his body has never been found to this day.
There has long been a theory that Winston Churchill was on the flight with Howard. However, that is highly unlikely. What is more plausible is that Howard’s flight was somehow mistaken for Churchill’s. German spies in British airfields may have also confused Howard and his manager for Churchill and his bodyguard, for Howard was tall and thin like the bodyguard and his manager physically resembled Churchill. It has also been said that Churchill would often know beforehand if his life was in danger, and acting on premonition, he changed his flight to the day after Howard’s at the last minute. The times for the flights and the flight paths were also very similar and probably mixed up the German Luftwaffe.
However, exhaustive research concluded that the Luftwaffe was most certainly after Howard. There were accounts that indicate the attack was a deliberate one against Howard and that the Germans were well aware of Churchill’s whereabouts. They were growing suspicious of Howard’s “entertainer goodwill” tours and figured out that they were nothing but a cover-up for his intelligence gathering activities. Howard quickly shot up to the top of the German “Most Wanted” list, and that the order to kill Howard was issued directly from Joseph Goebbels, hoping to demoralize Britain by killing off one of its most patriotic figures. He was also ridiculed in one of Howard’s films and maybe took it personally. Goebbels considered Howard a dangerous British propagandist. It has also been claimed that when he was shot down, Howard was on a secret mission to dissuade Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from joining the Axis Powers.
Whatever the reason, Howard died bravely as a hero in the line of duty.