Poland, Gibraltar, and the Death of Władysław Sikorski

On July 4, 1943, at 23:07, a plane carrying Poland’s prime minister in exile Władysław Sikorski, his daughter, the Polish army’s chief of staff, and seven others, took off from Gibraltar. Sixteen seconds later, the aircraft plunged into the sea, killing all on board except the pilot.

Initial explanations for the crash were that the controls had jammed. Another suggestion was that poorly secured cargo had shifted during take-off, causing the plane to become unbalanced. Then there is the fact that, even today, the tiny airstrip at Gibraltar is one of the most difficult and dangerous for pilots to negotiate.

Yet what happened in the months leading up to the crash, and in the aftermath, have led to theories that this was no mere accident. It was Sikorski who first suggested that the massacre of Polish army officers at Katyń had been carried out not by Nazi Germans but – as was later proved – by Soviet troops, on Stalin’s orders.

Just weeks before the crash, the Soviet Union cut relations with the Polish government in exile, based in London. This left Poland isolated among the allies, with the UK and the USA still working closely with Stalin.

After the crash, the allies excluded Poland from talks that would determine its own sovereignty, first at Tehran, then at Yalta. It was the Yalta conference that handed Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence when the war ended.

So was Sikorski’s death really the assassination of a man who threatened to drive a wedge between the major allied powers?

The official answers are all no. The formal inquiry in London found that Sikorski’s plane had crashed by accident. Later examinations of the body found that Sikorski’s injuries were consistent with those that one might expect in a plane crash. No formal record of anything but ‘accident’ has ever been made.

And yet there is a strong sense of scepticism in Poland, about the death of Sikorski. The Institute of National Remembrance is still investigating the crash, seeking evidence that it may have been sabotage.

On Gibraltar itself, there is a memorial to Sikorski. It consists of a propeller, memorial stone, and an information board in Polish and English. Perhaps nodding to the events that followed Sikorski’s death, the information board notes that Poland was the only nation among the allies that was not free after the Second World War.

Picture: Courtesy Aleksandra Gajoch