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Sunday 28 April 2013

The Strange Death of General Sikorski

General Władysław Sikorski (pictured above and in the two pictures below) is one of the less well-remembered leaders of the Second World War. He was effectively the Polish equivalent of General de Gaulle – the military and political leader of his country, in exile in the UK, after it had fallen to the Germans. Both men were seen as charismatic and inspiring by their own people, and as forceful and intransigent by the other Allied leaders.

The war in Europe was won by a coalition of three powerful nations: the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom (together with other members of the British Commonwealth such as Canada and Australia). Yet after the War, Germany was divided not into three zones but into four. The fourth zone was French. Why on earth was that? Because the forceful and intransigent General de Gaulle suggested it.

General Sikorski never lived to make a similar suggestion vis-à-vis Poland. There's an article by me on the subject of his death in the latest issue of Fortean Times (FT 301 page 49). Normally when I read something by myself in FT I shake my head sadly and think “this magazine isn’t as good as it used to be”. But this is the first article of mine which I feel is really up to standard, and a decent piece of storytelling. So I won’t spoil it by repeating all the details here (a lot of people who read this blog are regular readers of the magazine anyway).

Suffice to say that Sikorski was killed in July 1943, when a plane he was travelling on crashed into the sea shortly after take-off from the British base on Gibraltar. There are several strange things about the incident – not least that it was described in a series of anonymous phone calls received in May 1943. The messages were accurate in every detail... except for the use of the past tense and not the future tense! You can read the full details in my FT article.

The plane crash appears to have been a bizarre accident, but that’s not a fact that will deter conspiracy theorists. At the time of his death, Sikorski was doing his best to cause a rift between the Soviet and British leaders, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill (who were close and mutually dependent allies at the time), by suggesting that the Soviets rather than the Nazis had been responsible for the Katyn massacre. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “cui bono” school of conspiracy theories (that’s the one that asks “who benefits?”, and takes the answer as definitive proof of the perpetrator’s identity). But for those who are, the conclusion is inescapable – General Sikorski was assassinated either by Joseph Stalin, or by Winston Churchill. Or maybe by both (we’re talking about a conspiracy, after all).

There is another bizarre episode in the story that I didn’t mention in the article, because it’s not relevant to the main theme (and it’s really rather gross). When Sikorski’s bloated remains were recovered from the sea, they were placed in a zinc-lined coffin which was laid in state, draped by a Polish flag, inside Gibraltar’s Roman Catholic cathedral (it’s worth remembering at this point that Gibraltar in July is a very hot place). Around midnight, a Polish officer discovered that the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the coffin had fled their posts, claiming the cathedral was haunted by ghosts. It was true that some very strange noises were emanating from the area of the coffin. The officer was just in time to see the whole thing explode like a bomb! No foul play here, though – just the natural processes of gaseous decomposition!

I became interested in the Sikorski story a couple of years ago, when I came across a collection of grotty old photographs my father took during the War. It was obvious the three reproduced here showed an individual of some importance, and a cousin identified him as General Sikorski. I took the pictures to the Sikorski Museum in London, where they identified the location as Scotland (although they weren’t sure exactly what event is depicted).

If you’re wondering what my father was doing photographing General Sikorski in Scotland – at the time (late 1942 or early 1943) he was a Second Lieutenant in the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which was originally based in Scotland. Prior to that, he was a Cadet Sergeant Major in the Anders Army. His identity card for the latter is date-stamped 7 December 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy”, according to President Roosevelt (although for a different reason).

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