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Death in Exile: Why the WWII Polish Prime Minister in Exile Was Laid to Rest in Newark on Trent

4 July 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Jay Wilkinson

77 years ago this month, at the height of World War Two, Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Nottingham to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of Władysław Sikorski who was being laid to rest in Newark-on-Trent. The Polish Prime Minister in exile had died in mysterious circumstances twelve days previously, with his airplane crashing just sixteen seconds after take off in Gibraltar, killing all on board but the pilot. But what were the circumstances that led up to one of the key figures in WWII being buried in Nottingham? We look at the events and conspiracies that continue to surround the death of Władysław Sikorski…

“To Polska stracona!” were the only words an inconsolable Polish airman could utter as he witnessed the death of one of his country’s greatest leaders. Quietly sobbing, he repeated the phrase again and again: “This is the end of Poland. This is the end of Poland.” Taking off from Gibraltar at 11.07pm on 4 July 1943, the B-24 Liberator II plane carrying General Władysław Sikorski had plunged into the sea sixteen seconds after takeoff, killing eleven of the twelve passengers on board. Sikorski, Poland’s Prime Minister in exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, died alongside his Army’s Chief of General Staff, Tadeusz Klimecki, and his daughter, Zofia. But no sooner had his death been announced that conspiracy theories began to circulate. The political context of the crash, alongside a series of unexplainable circumstances, immediately gave rise to speculation that Sikorski’s death had been no accident at all, but possibly a direct result of a Soviet, Polish, German or even British conspiracy. 

Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 lit a torch paper that engulfed Europe in the flames of bloody conflict for six long years. Standing by their guarantee of Poland’s border, Britain and France were left with no choice but to declare war on Hitler’s Germany and, as Poland fell to Nazi control less than a month later, the Polish hierarchy and armed forces were forced to flee their country. For many, it would be the last time they would ever see home. 

With thousands of Poles escaping the country, Poland remained an integral part of the war. The soldiers, airmen, sailors and volunteers became known as Sikorski’s tourists – named after Władysław Sikorski, who had been named as the very first Prime Minister of the newly formed Government of the Republic of Poland in exile. Based first in Paris and then London, they continued to exert considerable influence in Poland during the war through the structures of the Polish Underground State. 

During these difficult years, Sikorski came to personify the relentless hope and dreams of a better future for millions of Poles whose lives had been devastated by war. The saying, “Gdy słoneczko wyżej, to Sikorski bliżej” – “When the sun is higher, Sikorski is nearer” came to represent the importance of a man who worked tirelessly to bring the factions of his fractured Government together. Despite struggling to exert influence over France and Britain, who had refused to acknowledge the role of the Soviet Union as aggressors in their invasion of Poland in September 1939, Sikorski and his exiles made their voices heard with an unmatched bravery in conflict. During the Battle of Britain alone, the Polish 303 Fighter Squadron achieved the highest number of kills out of any Allied squadron. 

But the key to Sikorski’s fate lay further east: after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Prime Minister in exile had opened negotiations with the Soviet ambassador to London in order to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. Despite being met with severe criticism from within his own Government, Sikorski saw renewed policy with Stalin as essential in preserving the future of his country. Following promising early talks, the proposed treaty fell through after the Soviet Union’s success at the Battles of Moscow and Stalingrad left them largely unopposed as a military force in the east, and Stalin’s intentions to claim large chunks of Poland for the Soviet Union became clear. 

The political context of the crash, alongside a series of unexplainable circumstances, immediately gave rise to speculation that Sikorski’s death had been no accident at all

But another problem remained key for Sikorski: after his country fell, thousands of Polish officers went missing, and still remained unaccounted for. The fragile relations between the Soviet Union and Sikorski’s exiled Government reached breaking point when, in 1943, the Germans announced via the Katyn Commission the discovery of the bodies of 20,000 Polish officers who had been murdered by the Soviets and buried in mass graves in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. The Soviets dismissed it as German propaganda, created to drive a wedge between Poland, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Sikorski, refusing to believe the Soviet explanation, immediately requested an investigation by the International Red Cross in April 1943. But less than two months later, Sikorski was dead. 

But what was behind the mysterious plane crash? A German conspiracy, executed to create further divide between their enemies? A Soviet plan to cover up growing attention surrounding the Katyn massacre? Or even a British plot designed to remove the man who potentially stood in the way of peace between Britain and the Soviet Union?

An initial investigation by a British Court of Enquiry convened soon after the crash, but was unable to determine the cause, finding only that the accident had been the result of a “jamming of elevator controls”. The Polish Government, who remained seemingly convinced of a conspiracy, quickly refuted this finding. Too many elements remained unexplained.

At the same time that Sikorski’s plane was left unguarded at the Gibraltar airfield, a Soviet plane carrying ambassador Ivan Maisky was parked nearby, giving the Soviets an officially confirmed presence at the sight of the accident. Furthermore, the head of British counter-intelligence for MI6 in Gibraltar, Kim Philby, was later named as a Soviet double-agent. Before 1941, Philby had served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, an organisation specializing in sabotage and diversion behind enemy lines.  

Moreover, the fact that several bodies, including that of Sikorski’s daughter Zofia, were never recovered, led some to speculate that the passengers had been murdered before the flight even took off, with Zofia being abducted by the Soviet Union. She was later reported to have been seen in a Soviet gulag by a member of the Elite Polish commandos in 1945.

Much of the speculation was levelled at pilot Eduard Prchal, the crash’s sole survivor. Like many pilots at the time, Prchal superstitiously refused to wear his lifejacket, but was inexplicably found wearing it after the crash, a decision that probably saved his life. During the inquiry he denied this, and later blamed his lie on the effects of amnesia. But later investigations proved that the plane was likely under control of the pilot until the moment it hit the water. 

Other theories lay the blame at the German Abwehr intelligence service that sought to divide their enemies further, or even the Poles themselves, some of whom had shown animosity toward Sikorski for “colluding” with Stalin. 

More outrageous conspiracies have taken shape over the years, including the 1968 play Soldiers, An Obituary for Geneva penned by controversial German writer Rolf Hochhuth. Based on the ‘research’ of Holocaust-denier David Irving, the story presented the allegation that Winston Churchill himself had been flying the plane, and Sikorski and his fellow passengers had been hacked to death by axe-wielding British commandos. 

While these more extreme allegations can be dismissed (Eduard Prchal successfully sued Hochhuth for libel following the play’s debut), the more meek explanations, such as the crash was simply the result of an errant half-empty mailbag jamming between the plane’s stabilizer, leave too much unexplained. 

Like many events of World War Two, the death of Władysław Sikorski will likely forever remain a mystery. His death was a near-fatal blow for the exiled Polish Government during the war, and no man came close to exerting the influence, both internally and externally, as he. It remains to be seen how different the destiny of his homeland would have been had he not died, as Poland would remain under Soviet influence until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only then, in 1993, was the body of Władysław Sikorski finally able to be repatriated to Warsaw from the brick-lined grave at the Polish War Cemetery in Newark-on-Trent where it had lain since 1943. It was during that same decade that Russia finally accepted responsibility for the murder of 20,000 Polish officers during the Katyn Masscare. 

Władysław Sikorski was exhumed once more in 2008, with further investigators still desperate to know the truth behind the death of a man who represented Polish hope during World War II. It proved inconclusive and, as of 2012, the investigation continues. 

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