General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Chief Commander of Poland and Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile was 62 years old when he died as a soldier on July 4, 1943. His visit in the Gibraltar fortress on the way from Cairo to London ended tragically in mysterious circumstances, unexplained to the present day.
di Jozef Kazimierz Kubit
Lieutenant Ludwik Lubienski, the Chief of the Polish Military Mission in Gibraltar, was an eyewitness of the events connected with General Sikorski’s death . According to Lubienski, on Sunday, July 4, 1943, about 7 a.m., Russian Ambassador Ivan Maisky flew to Gibraltar, and after a meeting with the British governor of the territory, Mason-MacFarlane, flew to Cairo, and then to Moscow to report on his diplomatic efforts.
A more detailed report on his journey is given by Maisky himself [8, p. 369-371]. According to his memories from 1965, his plane left England on July 3, around midnight, to land on Gibraltar on in the morning of July 4. At midday his Liberator took to the air and proceeded eastward to continue the journey. Usually, a plane flying from Gibraltar to Cairo had one landing stage at the aerodrome of Castel-Benito, near Tripoli, but that time it went a little farther. Maisky’s plane landed at a military airport in the desert around 6 p.m. on July 4, 1943.
According to Maisky, his plane was to leave around midnight and reach Cairo on July 6, at 7 a.m., but this seems to be not credible. The route from the military airport to Cairo would take around 31 hours, which is technically unreliable. His story seems to be suspicious. It is also possible that Maisky left Gibraltar not on Sunday, July 4, but Monday morning, July 5.
Even more improbable is Maisky’s explanation of the reason for the landing, not at Castel-Benito, but at the aerodrome in the Libyan Desert. According to Maisky, Sikorski’s plane departed on the morning of July 5 from Cairo and the ambassador himself had left Gibraltar by that time. This way he admits that he left Gibraltar not at noon on Sunday, but on the morning of Monday, July 5 [8, p. 371]. It was obvious why Maisky’s plane didn’t land at Castel-Benito. At that time Polish government didn’t have diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, and the British, afraid of further „misunderstandings”, decided to prevent Maisky from meeting Sikorski, and designated two different airports for them to land. So to hide the truth, Ivan Maisky had to say that General Sikorski wasn’t present in Gibraltar on July 4 as he was in Cairo until July 5. Unfortunately, that kind of miracle never happened. This is proof that Ambassador Maisky was shuffling.
According to Lieutenant Lubienski, during the night of July 3, courier Jan Gralewski came to Gibraltar from Warsaw “with many coded reports from the Commanding Officer of the Polish Underground Army”. General Sikorski was supposed to meet Gralewski right after 11 a.m. During the meeting Sikorski was to decide whether Gralewski would fly with him to London on that day. Then, at 1 p.m., General Sikorski inspected the Somerset Light Infantry. At 2:45 p.m., he met a group of 95 Polish soldiers evacuated from Spain, waiting to be transported to the United Kingdom. As Tadeusz Kisielewski recalls, the group contained at least 20 intelligence officers, who came from the Near East or Algeria . Then, according to Lieutenant Lubienski, after a short rest, General Sikorski, together with British Minister of War, Sir James Grigg, visited the Gibraltar fortress. Sikorski came back to his apartment and at 6 p.m. participated in a cocktail party organized to celebrate the 167th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the U.S.A. As Lubienski describes, General Sikorski’s plane took off at 11 p.m. When the plane was taking off, one of the mailbags that were on board slipped out, as it was probably close to the opened hatch . After it reached a certain height, the lieutenant noticed that the dwindling navigation lights of the Liberator had stopped climbing. Slowly they began to drop. The plane flew, on an even keel and apparently intact, into the sea at an angle of about 10 degrees. The engines stopped suddenly. The plane crashed into the water about 3/4 of a mile from the shore. Nobody except the pilot survived. According to Lieutenant Lubienski, the body of Zofia Lenniowska, the General’s daughter, was never found. This may imply that, in unknown circumstances, she managed to stay alive.
This is how General Sikorski’s friend Karol Popiel, Polish parliament deputy in 1922-1927, one of the most prominent Front Morges members and a member of General Sikorski’s government, describes the Gibraltar catastrophe in his book [10, p. 190]: “One thing is sure for me beyond any doubts: General Sikorski’s death wasn’t an accident. It was planned and it was supposed to happen on his way to the Near East. That plan wasn’t fulfilled, but it succeeded six weeks later.”
There are facts that prove that Lieutenant Lubienski’s description the events accompanying the death of General Sikorski was not truthful. After Lubienski died, his daughter Rula Le?ska, a well-known in England actress, said in one of her interviews: “I’ve got a feeling that my daddy was buried keeping a big secret in his heart“ [2, s.43]. Gralewski’s wife, Alicja Iwanska, in 1982 published his so-called letter-fragments . On July 4th, 1943, at 6 p.m., Gralewski wrote [3, s. 198]: “Well, this phase is ending and it ends unexpectedly impressively. Tonight I’m leaving Gibraltar. I’m afraid the older gentleman [Sikorski] will tell me off for my conversation in Madrid. But I’ll defend myself. Moreover, there are high hopes for a bright future… only a little bit… it’s close… I can hardly write, too many feelings, too many thoughts. Finally I‘ve reached that stage of intensity of life that it makes insight impossible. Maybe later, perhaps in the future – and it will be a hundred times more exciting – I’ll be able to describe what’s happening today.” Nothing indicates that the real Jan Gralewski met General Sikorski on that day. Gralewski would describe his meeting with Sikorski. It was somebody else. It is obvious that Lieutenant Lubienski, introducing somebody else to Sikorski, was aware of the mystification. In the book mentioned above, Alicja Iwanska recalls her conversation with Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, a professor and long time friend of her husband, who in his 1945 book “Remembering Past Philosophers, 1939-45” would write that: “Jan Gralewski died in the Gibraltar catastrophe together with General Sikorski”[3, s.6]. Iwanska disagreed, saying that: “(…) every death is a private death of an individual, and any attempt to bind Gralewski with Sikorski, either for sensational or prestigious reasons, would take his own death away from him.” Her statement leads to the conclusion that Jan Gralewski wasn’t killed in the plane crash, but died in a different way.
Czeslaw Szafran, in an article dedicated to controversies surrounding the Gibraltar catastrophe, noticed that among the reasons why it can’t be proven that General Sikorski’s death wasn’t accidental are the difficulties in identifying the way Jan Gralewski died [11, p. 245]. Eugeniusz Niebelski thinks that Gralewski’s body was found on the runway, but he doesn’t give the source of that information [9, p. 177].
The same was stated by Tadeusz Kisielewski. Alicja Iwanska in the autobiographical novel called “Niezdemobilizowani” (Not Demobilized), in which her husband bears the moniker Marek, wrote: “It was so-called luck, that Marek did not struggle a lot; as they say, death from a bullet is easy: a sharp pain and a brief moment of consciousness.” [4, p.85]
From the documents of Jan Gralewski’s file in the Polish Institute and Museum of General Sikorski , we learn that he came with Boleslaw Kozlowski to Gibraltar on June 23, 1943. These names are on the list of passengers of the British cruiser „Carnival” and a battleship from Villa Real to St. Antonio to Gibraltar. In remarks on that list it says Jan Gralewski left under the name of Jerzy Nowakowski, and Boleslaw Kozlowski left under the name of Wiktor Suchy. The same kind of list, from the same ships, but dated on July 23, 1943, contains the names of Wiktor Suchy and Jerzy Nowakowski. In remarks on that list it is stated that Wiktor Suchy left under the name of Boleslaw Kozlowski, and Jerzy Nowakowski left as Pawel Palkowski.
The passengers’ list from June 23, 1943, contains the name of Pantaleon Drzewicki, who left as Chaim Janowski, while the July 23 list has the name of Stanislaw Izdebski, who left as Pantaleon Drzewicki. Tadeusz Kisielewski, in his article, mentioned Stanislaw Izdebski as a supposed emissary of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), “who left Warsaw on March 28 and appeared in Gibraltar on June 24.” The author also brings up Józef Dunin-Borkowski as a supposed courier from Skarzysko-Kamienna. The list of passengers from June 23 also contains a lance corporal Wojciechowski, who left for Gibraltar under the name of Józef Dunin-Borkowski. The names of all people who came to Gibraltar and their pseudonyms were put on the list according to a certain plan. This plan made it possible for different persons who were not necessarily on the lists to use the same names. The appearance of the same names on the lists from June 23 and July 23 might have been caused by the investigation of General Sikorski’s death.
Jan Gralewski became a foreign courier on October 25, 1942, and started passing through to France [3, p. 168]. He went there for the first time in late November 1942 and came back before Christmas [5, p. 224]. His wife, Alicja Iwanska, was already working for an underground organization army (AK) “Lza-24”, taking care of couriers traveling to France [3, p. 169-170]. At the beginning of January 1943, Gralewski left on another courier’s journey. His wife’s task was to take care of the couriers getting ready for a journey and coming back from it. She didn’t help Gralewski as it was against the rules of conspiracy. Iwanska was also providing couriers’ families with money during the time they were on the mission.
By the end of January 1943, Gralewski came back from the assignment only to leave on February 8 under the pseudonym Pankracy for his last mission from Poland. The Polish Underground State sent him to establish the track to Spain for couriers. While Gralewski was away, Alicja Iwanska was taking care of Boleslaw, another foreign courier much older than her husband [5, p. 228]. That Boleslaw might have been Boleslaw Kozlowski. In a conversation with a Polish Home Army courier, Alicja Iwanska learned that Gralewski, after a failed attempt to get from Paris to Vichy, was redirected to get to Spain through the Pyrenees [3, p. 171]. On May 27, 1943, Jan Gralewski was taken to Miranda del Ebro, a Spanish concentration camp [3, p. 186]. He was hoping to be there for only 2 weeks, but he stayed in Miranda del Ebro until June 23 – the day he came to Gibraltar. As Alicja Iwanska states, most probably Gralewski left the camp thanks to the British [3, p. 171]. He wasn’t well-oriented in his plans as he wrote in a so-called letter-fragment to his wife dated June 30:”Tomorrow we’re going to be shipped to England”.
The tragic fate of Jan Gralewski is probably a key to solving the mystery of General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s death. Tadeusz Kisielewski, in the article titled “The mystery of the tragedy in Gibraltar,” mentions the rumor noted by Rev. Antoni Frugala in August 1943, about a secret order “telling every Polish officer to shoot Wiktor Suchy, Polish Armed Forces officer”. Unfortunately, the author didn’t reveal the source of this information.
1. Archiwum Instytutu Polskiego i Muzeum im. gen. Sikorski, Londyn, Archives Ref. No A.XII. 4/172.
2. Bzowska Katarzyna, Jedna noc w Gibraltarze, “Nowy Dziennik”, New York, July 4-6, 2003, p. 42-43.
3. Iwańska Alicja, Gralewski Jan, Wojenne Odcinki, Warszawa 1940 – 1943, Oficyna Poetów i Malarzy, London 1982.
4. Iwańska Alicja, Niezdemobilizowani, Poznań – Warszawa 1945-46, Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, London 1988.
5. Iwańska Alicja, Potyczki i Przymierza, Pamiętnik 1918 – 1985, Gebethner i Ska, Warszawa 1993.
6. Kisielewski Tadeusz A., Tajemnice tragedii w Gibraltarze, Cz. I. “Mówią Wieki” 2001, nr 12, s.23-28: Cz. II „Mówią Wieki” 2002, nr 1, p. 23-27.
7. Lubienski Ludwik, The last days of General Sikorski: an eyewitness account, in: Sword Keith (editor), Sikorski: Soldier and Statesman, A Collection of Essays, Orbis Books (London) Ltd., London 1990.
8. Maisky Ivan, Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador, The War: 1939-43, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1968.
9. Niebelski Eugeniusz, Dobrze zasłużony Ojczyźnie. W 120 rocznicę urodzin generała Władysława Sikorskiego, “Rocznik Mielecki” 2001, t. IV.
10. Popiel Karol, Genera? Sikorski w mojej pamięci, Odnowa, London 1978.
11. Szafran Czesław, Kontrowersje wokół katastrofy gibraltarskiej, w: Moszumański Zbigniew, Zuziak Janusz (red.), Generał Wladysław Sikorski, Szkice historyczne w 60. rocznicę śmierci, Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, Toru? 2004.
In the opinion of Czeslaw Szafran [4, p. 244], the most persistent supporter of the hypothesis that Russian secret agents were responsible for death of General Sikorski was Jan Nowak – Jezioranski. It is a fact that Ivan Maisky’s plane was standing next to the one Sikorski arrived in at the Gibraltar airport. In Jezioranski’s opinion, the results of the British investigation held in 1943 were not trustworthy. He was convinced that the British purposely concealed facts, which proved that general’s death might not be an accident. He also indicated that NKVD agents, infiltrating British secret service, had access to the Gibraltar airport. Jezioranski thought that Stalin was interested in the Polish prime minister’s demise, and that one of the British intelligencemen (serving Soviet secret service as well), the infamous Harold (Kim) Philby, who in 1943 was the chief of the British counterespionage for Iberian Peninsula, was responsible for general’s death.
According to Czeslaw Szafran: “There’s no evidence that it was Russian sabotage” [4, p. 225f]. He also reminds that Maisky, in his letter dated on December 27, 1966, to Rolf Hochhuth, the author of the play “The Soldiers” (1967), pledged on his honor that he had nothing to do with General Sikorski’s death [4, p. 225f]. The chief of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, hired to work for the CIA by the chief of the Switzerland chapter of that organization in Bern in 1948, said otherwise [3, p.256]..
Müller knew Harold (Kim) Philby before World War II and he renewed their contacts when Philby was sent to Washington as a British intelligence officer to cooperate with the FBI and CIA [3, p. 112-113]. In his journal, under the date of January 8, 1950, Heinrich Müller noted the conversation he had with Philby regarding what happened on Gibraltar on July 4, 1943.
Philby was in charge of security for the Gibraltar area at that time. In Philby’s opinion, Stalin wanted General Sikorski’s death [3, p. 114]. As the chief of the British counterespionage for the Iberian Peninsula, Philby could easily find out the date of Sikorski’s visit to Gibraltar on his way from the Near East to London. In his version of events, the Soviets arranged for Maisky, their ambassador to London, to fly back via Gibraltar, and to be there at the same time as General Sikorski.
Philby believed that Sikorski was dangerous for Stalin. He told the former chief of the Gestapo that Maisky’s passenger list included two professional assassins [3, p.115]. As Müller recalls, the British, except for Philby’s treasonable activities, had no direct connection with the murder of Sikorski.
According to Philby, Churchill had been “tipped off” that this would happen, but “he was so frightened about the possible rupture with Stalin over the death [of] Polish officers that he said nothing by way of warning.” Therefore the occasion for ambassador Maisky’s prophecy to be fulfilled had come. On March 31, 1941, in a conversation with the Czechoslovakian legate to the Soviet Union, Zdenek Fierlinger, Maisky stated that he “can guarantee that General Sikorski will never enter Warsaw again” [1, p. 297].
Also, Marek Kaminski finds it very possible that the most interested in putting Sikorski to death among the anti-Nazi coalition was Stalin [1, p. 295]. Stalin’s politics were always focused on the ultimate weakening of the legal Polish government. According to Kaminski, in the first half of February 1943, after the capitulation of the German General Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Paulus’ army, Stalin decided – after finding the most convenient moment – to break diplomatic relations with the Polish government [1, p. 274]. He didn’t have to wait long for that moment.
On April 13, 1943, a Berlin radio station aired an announcement about the German army discovering near Smolensk mass graves of murdered Polish officers. Gen. Smorawinski was found among the corpses. As the official Russian radio announcement aired on April 15 confirms, Soviet Russia was dismayed. On the same day, at 11 AM, a cabinet meeting was held in Prime Minister Sikorski’s office. It was decided that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would approach the Russian embassy to ask for an explanation, and the International Organization of the Red Cross would be asked by the Polish minister of defense to start an investigation of the matter. At noon the same day, Sikorski and minister Edward Raczynski met at 10 Downing Street with Churchill. Anxious that the news about the massacre might be true, Churchill noted that Bolsheviks could be cruel. He also warned: “There are things, although true, which should not be publicized without waiting for the right moment. It would be a mistake to reveal them all of a sudden” [2, p. 224]. Nonetheless, Gen. Sikorski warned that the Polish government would be forced to voice its opinion in the matter of the German revelations.
On April 17, 1943, the Polish government turned to the Red Cross, asking the organization to investigate the alleged Katyn massacre [5, p. 254]. The Germans did the same a day earlier. Not earlier than April 20, Soviet Russia was asked to explain what happened to the Polish officers. In that situation, the British, in an effort to cover up for the Soviet murderers, tried to convince the Polish government to be silent and withdraw their note to the Red Cross. Gen. Sikorski’s response to the British officials’ persuasion was: “Our politics is honesty to our allies. Russia has power on her side, we have justice. I would not recommend the British to side with brutal force and rape of justice. For these reasons, I refuse to withdraw the Polish démarche to the International Red Cross” [2, p. 229]. Meanwhile Stalin, taking advantage of the situation, in a letter to Churchill, accused the Polish government of cooperation with Hitler and pronounced breaking diplomatic relations with Poland. The letter was handed to Churchill on April 23 by ambassador Maisky, who took the occasion to share his imperialistic opinions with the British prime minister, mentioning the stupidity of a nation of 20 million that was provoking a 200-million-citizen empire. On the next day, Churchill wrote a long letter to Stalin defending Poles and asking him not to break diplomatic relations with the Polish government. But Stalin’s answer was negative. As it was noted by Jacek Tebinka, in other circumstances, the price for keeping diplomatic relations could have been a compromise in establishing Polish eastern border. At the beginning Stalin didn’t consider that the Katyn massacre would be ever discovered. But as soon as it was revealed, it was too late to repair Polish – Soviet relations [compare: 5, p. 255]. On April 25, 1943, Vyacheslav Molotov handed over to ambassador Tadeusz Romer a note regarding breaking the diplomatic relations between the Soviets and the Polish government.
On May 1, 1943, William Averell Harriman spoke with Gen. Sikorski. Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union at that time, was critical about the telegram addressed to the Red Cross referring to the Katyn massacre [6, p. 102]. He believed that sending the telegram, might have had a catastrophic impression in Moscow. Sikorski stated then that sending the telegram, when he was ill, was a mistake and he hoped to repair the situation. He also expressed his concerns about the Soviet expansion hurting the smaller nations of central Europe. Harriman shared his worries, but facing the upcoming election, he couldn’t support such ideas openly. In that time, before the Teheran conference, Harriman believed that when the Soviet Army took over Poland and her neighbors it would be too late for negotiations [6, p. 104]. William Averell Harriman considered Gen. Sikorski the only Polish statesman able to negotiate with Stalin [6, p. 102-103].
Any action against the Polish government-in-exile would be successful if the government had not dismissed German accusations right away. Soviet diplomacy skillfully played with the news of the massacre, trying to weaken Sikorski’s position in world politics. His physical removal was just a next step.
From 19 – 23 July 1943, a key conference regarding Poland’s eastern border was held in the Foreign Office. On July 23, Anthony Eden and other high officials decided to send to ambassadors of the United Kingdom in Moscow and Washington a set of documents regarding obligations of Great Britain to Poland in the matter of the Polish-Soviet border. The set contained documents presenting the Russian standpoint and explaining the position of the London officials in the conflict. The above-mentioned set of documents did not contain the secret protocol, which was added to the pact signed on August 25, 1939.
On July 26, 1943, Churchill met Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz. During the meeting, Churchill spoke about the need of rebuilding a strong and independent Poland. He believed that most probably the Red Army would liberate Poland. He also told the president he couldn’t guarantee anything regarding future Polish borders, stating: “I have never promised and I will never give my political support to any shape of the Polish eastern border” [5, p. 267]. The British ambassador to the Polish government, Owen O’Malley, who was also present during the conversation, noted the fact that Stalin’s expansion reached terrains ethnically not Russian. Two days later, on July 28, the Secretary of State of Great Britain in the Middle East, Richard Casey, in a conversation with the Soviet Admiral Charlamov, got to hear that: “Soviet Russia fights to regain the old borders of the Czar’s Empire” [5, p. 267]. Old Russian imperialism had many followers in Soviet Russia.
At that time, the Foreign Office believed that the root of evil of the conflict of Sikorski’s government with Russia was the problem of the Polish-Soviet border. On July 15, 1943, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. informed the Soviets about their need to meet Stalin. But Stalin avoided such a meeting for another month, finding excuses in being on the battlefield. Not earlier than August 11, the ambassadors of the U.K. and the U.S.A. in Moscow, Archibald Clark Kerr and Admiral William Standley, finally saw Stalin. Both ambassadors appealed to the Russian leader to agree to evacuate Polish citizens from Soviet Russia. The action was supposed to improve Polish-Russian relations. Standley declared then that the problem of European borders should be solved after the war in the form of a peace treaty. Stalin and Molotov listened to the ambassadors, but they did not give any commentaries.
To be continued…
1. Kaminski Marek Kazimierz, Edvard Beneš kontra gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, Wydawnictwo Neriton, Instytut Historii PAN, Warszawa 2005.
2. Kukiel Marian, General Sikorski, Zolnierz i Maz Stanu Polski Walczacej, Instytut Polski i Muzeum im. gen. Sikorskiego, Londyn 1970.
3. Heinrich Müller, Gregory Douglas, Müller Journals: 1948-1950 the Washington Years, Volume 1, Bender Publishing, San Jose, 1999.
4. Szafran Czeslaw, Kontrowersje wokol katastrofy gibraltarskiej, in: Moszumanski Zbigniew, Zuziak Janusz [Editors], General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Szkice historyczne w 60. rocznice smierci, Wyd. Adam Marszalek, Torun 2004.
5. Tebinka Jacek, Polityka brytyjska wobec problemu granicy polsko-radzieckiej 1939 – 1945, Wydawnictwo Neriton, Instytut Historii PAN, Warszawa 1998.
6. Wandycz Piotr, Harriman a Polska, „Zeszyty Historyczne” nr 79, s. 88-115, Paryz 1987.
By Józef Kazimierz Kubit
Translation: Kasia Miszta