Wladyslaw Sikorski

65 years after his death, the magazine „Der Spiegel“ headlines „Wie starb General Sikorski?“ – How did General Sikorski die?

The answer seems to be easy: on the 4th July 1943, a liberator of the Royal Air Force crashed into the sea almost immediately after its takeoff from Gibraltar airport. The crash happened after a stopover. Among its passengers were the Prime-minister of the Polish government-in-exile, General Władysław Sikorski, his daughter Zofia as well as Victor Cazalet, British liaison officer to the Polish forces. Sikorski was on his way back from Egypt and Iraq where he inspected the Polish forces. All eleven passengers died, the only survivor of the accident being Czech pilot flight lieutenant Eduard Prchal.

Sikorski was born on the 20th May 1881 in Tuszow Narodowy (today Poland; then Austria-Hungary) as a son of a farmer. His father died when Sikorski was still a child. He studied civil engineering in Cracow and L’viv (today Ukraine). After his studies he committed himself to underground politics. He fought in the First World War, in the Polish-Soviet War, and always for Polish independence.

The Second World War changed everything: After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the country was devided between Germany and Russia. Sikorski managed to flee to Paris. He united the Polish exile soldiers (most of them Air Force and Navy) to an improvised exile army under his command. He also became Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile. But after the German had taken Paris, he and his staff had to flee to London to reform the government there under their president Władysław Raczkiewicz. In London, he was received by King George VI., members of the Government and the chiefs of the services and even travelled to the United States to visit president Roosevelt on behalf of the Free Poles. His exile army fought side by side with their allies and under the British flag in the Battle of Britain, in France and in the Orient. 

So why did the question about his death come up 65 years later? Only a year before Sikorski’s death, in 1942, Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest son of King George V. had died in an air crash as well – neither suspicion nor conspiracy followed. In general,  travelling by plane was far from being not as safe as it is today.

But the Spiegel article refers to a current event: in 2008 Sikorski’s corpse had been exhumed. The Institute of National Remembrance in Poland (IPN) had expressed doubts about it being an accident and called for an exhumination responding to the many conspiracy theories which had emerged right after the death of the Polish general and carried on in the post-war period.

Some of these theories say, Sikorski’s politics had made him a problem for Churchills appeasement policy and approach towards the Soviet Union. Therefore, this theory says, the British government must have given the order to kill Sikorski. This story and the apparent problematic relation between Poland and the Soviet Union is mostly based on the massacre of Katyń:

In April 1943, the Nazi regime published the discovery and exhumination of thousands of Polish soldiers and officers in a forest near by Katyń. About 22.000 Polish had been executed by members of the Russian NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Goebbels tried to use this information (which was soon confirmed to be true) as part of German propaganda to weaken the alliance between the Great Britain, the Polish exile-government and the Soviet Union. Sikorski demanded an independent investigation of the massacre by a Committee of the International Red Cross. Stalin, on his part, tried to blame Germany for the massacre and denounced Sikorski as a Nazi collaborator, calling on Iwan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, to end relations to the Polish exile-government.

But was Sikorski really the patriotic trouble-maker towards diplomatic politics between the allies he was made out to be? Even in 1941, Sikorski and Stalin had secured their mutual support in the alliance. And it must have been clear to Sikorski that neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to jeopardize the alliance with Stalin. They had been aware of the Soviet importance in the War against Germany. And this already assumes Sikorski and Katyń even played such an important role in the diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

British newspapers like the Times1 described his death as a grievous loss to the Polish people and their allies. They also openly discuss the difficult relation between Sikorski and Stalin in consequence of the graves of Polish officers at Katyń earlier that year, „cunningly exploited by Goebbels“. But, due to the Times2, hopes of a rapprochement were beginning to raise with Roosevelt as mediator. That would certainly clear Stalin as well as Churchill. Additionally, the Times describes Sikorski as “a democrat by nature as well as by nurture, a statesman who never permitted emotion, however justifiably, to colour his own appraisal of events or to warp his judgement in matters of high policy, he played a conspicuously useful part in inter-allied diplomacy”3. According to their view, he even used his visit at the Middle East to explain “his policy of seeking and maintaining an honourable agreement with the Soviet Union”4The newspaper, however, makes no assumptions concerning a murder and its perpetrator, not even Hitler.

Perhaps the adherents of the murder theories exaggerate Sikorski’s and Poland’s political significance, because the inquiries for further investigations didn’t stop after his death. And there had been two investigations by the RAF including Polish officers in the commission, which found that the most likely cause of the accident was a mechanical blockade. The exhumination of 2008 could exclude that Sikorski had been poisoned, strangled or shot – not more. In fact, no investigation could clarify the situation to absolute certainty, as it is often the case with war time deaths. This is probably the reason why the conspiracy theories emerged in 1943, survived the post-war period (in 1967 the dramatist Rolf Hochhut wrote the play “Die Soldaten”, and had a fictional Churchill say: “I believe it would be best to have Sikorski killed” / “Ich glaube, es wäre besser, Sikorski umzubringen!”) and lasted until 2008. 

Perhaps, the Czech pilot Eduard Prchal was right in saying: “The Communists simply can not understand that a statesman can die of a natural death or lose his life in an accident.” He made the heavy Polish luggage responsible for the accident. 

referring to: Jan Puhl, Wie starb General Sikorski? In: Spiegel Online, 26.11.2008, http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/zweiter-weltkrieg-a-948032.html

  1. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “A Polish Patriot”.
  2. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “A Polish Patriot”.
  3. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “General Sikorski”.
  4. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “General Sikorski” .

Day of Prayer for France

After the November 2015 Paris attacks, the London Eye was illuminated in blue, white and red, the colours of the French flag, as a memorial to the attacks. The British People – as the most people throughout the world – showed their solidarity with France and the French People. The hashtag #prayforparis went viral.

It was the 15th of June, 1940, when the archbishop of Canterbury concluded the service at Canterbury Cathedral with the following words: “To stay upon God will be our greatest strength”. He was praying for French soldiers and the people of France.  In his sermon, he paid tribute to the heroic tenacity, determination and courage of the French armies. No building was illuminated and no hashtag went viral, but that Day of Prayer was held in churches of all denominations throughout Britain and the commonwealth to show loyalty and solidarity with “that sweet enemy”1 France. Why France? The day before, on June 14th, the Wehrmacht had marched into Paris and the Maginot line was about to collapse. Many French were already trying to leave the country, some managed to escape to Britain. The Day of Prayer was usually observed as a day of intercession for international and individual welfare, but on this occasion its special prayer was dedicated to France as an expression of solidarity and unity with the French Allies.

Following the London Times report from 17th of June there was a big congregation at Westminster Chapel.  The British King George VI. and his wife, Elizabeth, attended a service at Royal Chapel in Windsor Great Park. Haakon VII, the King of Norway, accompanied by his son was present at Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe. Queen Wilhelmina was at the Netherlands Reformed Church. At the Eglise Protestante Francaise representatives of Belgium, Russia and Italy were among the worshippers.

This Day of Prayer may be seen as a symbol of the beginning of British-French solidarity and efforts in Britain’s politics and society to welcome French refugees in their own country. Even the arrival of the notoriously difficult Charles de Gaulles only two days later was not going to change this.

  1. Tombs, Isabelle / Tombs, Robert (2006), That Sweet Enemy. The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present, London, William Heinemann.

Research assistant: Marten Steinbömer

I am a B.A. student at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and research assistant in the project „The London Moment“.

My subjects at university are history and philosophy. Since April 2015 I work in the research project „The London Moment“.

Currently I am writing my bachelor thesis about the French exile-community in London during the Second World War in the perception of the British newspapers.

The Inter Allied Services Cup

While the heads of the governments-in-exile met at the West End Hotels like the Dorchester, the Rubens or the Savoy to drink, eat and deliberating on current affairs, their Armies met at the pitches of Stamford Bridge, Selhurst Park or Upton Park.

The Football League First Division (predecessor of the Premier League) had been suspended in September 1939 due to the outbreak of the Second World War. The game operation paused until 1946. But England without Football? Between 1941 and 1944 the Inter Allied Services Cup was held four times. In its first final in 1941 the British Army and the Royal Air Force met. The British Army won 8-2.

On Wednesday, march 26, 1941 the London Times reported on the Belgian Army’s win of the Allies League. Of six matches, they won three, drew two and lost the other. The other teams, taking part in the Inter-Allied Armies Tournament were the Czech Army, who finished second, the Norwegians on third and the Dutch on the last place of the League.

At the same day another article announced the Inter-Allied Services Cup Competition, even sponsored by the British Football Association (FA). New teams entered or were about to enter the Cup: among them the Civil Defence organization, the British Army and the Royal Air Force.

In 1942 the London Police won against the British Army with 6-2. In 1943 again the British Army and the Royal Air Force were the finalists. They drew 2-2 and shared the Trophy. In the last final in 1944, the Royal Air Force could finally take revenge: they won with 3-0 versus the Army.

Although the British teams dominated the finals, there were some international teams consisting of the exile-armies. The most successful team was the Belgian Army (they took part in every year and in three times they even reached the semi-final).

Other teams were the Royal Netherlands Brigade (1941, 1943-44), the Polish Air Force (1941) and the Polish Land Forces (1942), the Czechoslovak Army (1942-43), the Norwegian Army (1942-44) and the Canadian Army (1942-44), even though they did not have a government-in-exile in London. Another team without a government-in-exile, but a national committee was that of the Fighting French (1943).

The temporary Capital of Europe was not only an international microcosm of political and diplomatic elites. It was also a microcosm of international football. Sometimes the matches were not only military or sporting occasions but also political. The heads of the governments-in-exile left their hotels, gentlemen-clubs and restaurants to meet at the football stadium. Among the spectators of the Allied Cup’s final round in 1943 were Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister, Admiral Émile Muselier of France or Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgium Foreign Minister.

The political collaboration, European cooperation and discussions about a post-war Europe between the governments-in-exile lead to a new international law and juridicial system (UNO); and only eleven years after the last final of the Inter Allied Services Cup sixteen European football clubs played in the European Champion Club’s Cub. In a dramatic final Real Madrid could beat Stade Reims with 4-3.

Blue Plaques

At least 20 years have passed since you died and you are a notable figure of the past? There is still a building in Greater London people might associate with you? Did this building survive in a form you would still recognize and it is visible from a public highway? Finally, there is not more than one Blue Plaque at the building’s front?

If you fulfill all these requirements, then apply for your own original Blue Plaque! Or, even better: hope there is someone who recognizes you and sends a detailed proposal to English Heritage. Being British is not mandatory.

Established in 1866 by the Society of Arts, and under the direction of the English Heritage since 1984, „the London’s Blue Plaques scheme (…) celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked“1. The first Blue Plaque one was installed in 1867 and commemorated the British poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square (destroyed in 1889).

Today, there are more than 900 official Blue Plaques in Greater London trying to link buildings and people as well as history and the present. Most, but not all of them are round and blue, because the scheme has been run by four different societies since 1866.

Even a fictitious person is mentioned on a Blue Plaque: The plaque at 221b Baker Street commemorates Sherlock Holmes. Although the adventures of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock take place in the Victorian London, Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffat move the plot in BBC’s series Sherlock into the present London. So he is also the only person on a Blue Plaque who could still be alive.

The majority of the Plaques have been suggested by the public: if the suggestion passes all criteria, a panel of experts discusses the nomination after „thorough historical research“.

Don’t worry if your nomination fails: you can submit the proposal again in ten years’ time.

At the blog’s main sidebar you can find pictures of some Blue Plaques commemorating British and European people who lived through the London Moment.

1) http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/about-blue-plaques/

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