TODAY 1943, a civilian flight (KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777) from Lisbon to Bristol, England was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by a German Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88, killing all seventeen aboard. One of the passengers was the beloved English actor, Leslie Howard, famous for portraying Ashley Wilkes in 1939's Gone With the Wind.
Whether the Germans particularly targeted Howard remains the subject of considerable debate. Throughout the war, Lisbon was the hotbed of spies and the Germans and British waged ongoing propaganda wars in neutral Portugal and Spain. Howard had been traveling through the two countries lecturing on film, but also meeting with propagandists to strengthen Allied support.
William Stephenson, head of British Security Coordination (linking MI6 to America and Canada), believed the Germans intentionally assassinated Howard to demoralize England. Howard's son, Ronald, later wrote that Joseph Goebbels ordered the attack since one of Howard's films had ridiculed the Nazi propaganda minister. Other accounts, including German sources, suggest that Howard was not singled out.
Whatever the case, England lost a great patriot, and America a great actor. A monument dedicated to the victims was erected in San Andres de Teixido, Spain, just south of the downing location.
En route to the monument, along the cliffs, is a sign explaining the incident.
Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of INTO THE LION'S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond (Berkley-Caliber/Penguin Random House) and the upcoming nonfiction thriller, CODE NAME LISE: The True Story of the Spy Who Became World War II's Most Highly Decorated Woman (Gallery/Simon & Schuster, January 15, 2019).