The world still knows Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, the thoughtful, angst-ridden object of Scarlett O’Hara’s affections in the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. In many ways, Howard was Ashley Wilkes – a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, a patriot in support of his country in time of war during World War II. He had also played The Scarlett Pimpernel on screen (1934) and it is this latter role --acting as a rescuer of those terrorized by the French Revolution-- that parallels his other career as spy in defense of freedom: Leslie Howard was an agent of Allied efforts in neutral countries during the second war. Did these activities lead to his assassination by the Luftwaffe as he flew from Portugal to London on June 1 1943?
On June 1, Leslie Howard boarded a British Overseas Airways Corporation DC-3 (KLM/BOAC 777) in Lisbon, Portugal, bound for Whitchurch in the UK. Portugal and Spain were ostensibly neutral ground in the war, and Axis and Allied citizens and aircraft regularly operated there, engaged in a shadow war of intelligence. Eight Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-88 fighter-bombers attacked and downed the craft.
Leslie Howard, as a noted actor, regularly traveled and there have been persistent allegations that the Luftwaffe attacked the plane precisely because they believed that Winston Churchill was on board. Others, including German pilots, have alleged that the attack was precisely because Howard was on board, and that the pilots were misled by high command to believe that the civilian craft was actually a military transport (procedure under the rules of war would be to escort a civilian craft to the ground and inter the passengers and crew). It was the third time this DC-3 (tail number G-AGBB) had been attacked by the Luftwaffe.