Jump to content

The Downing of BOAC Flight 777

Recommended Posts

The Downing of BOAC Flight 777 (Part 2 )






A JU88 C of the type that shot down BOAC Flight 777. Note that the artist has omitted the tail swastika symbol probably because the picture is box art for a model kit.


On 1st June 1943 the BOAC flight from Lisbon to Whitchurch was assigned to the DC3 Ibis and given the flight number 777-A. It was due to take off at 07:30 GMT but was delayed while passenger number nine, Leslie Howard got off to pick up a package he had left at customs. The flight departed at 07:35 GMT and Whitchurch received the departure radio message and continued to maintain radio contact until 10:54.


The ill-fated Ibis soon reached an altitude of 9,000 feet, setting a course for a landfall at Spain’s Cape Villano before flying out over the Bay of Biscay for the seven-hour flight to Bristol, England. Unknown to the passengers and crew of the Ibis, as they passed Cape Villano, a powerful German omnidirectional radio navigation beam locked on to the Dutch aircraft.


The flight was estimated to be 200 miles northwest of the Spanish coast when Whitchurch received a message from Flight 777’s radio operator van Brugge, that the Ibis was being followed and fired upon by enemy aircraft. The last position given was 46°30’N, 009°37’W and moments later the aircraft crashed and almost immediately sank in the Bay of Biscay. The next day, BOAC released the following statement:


The British Overseas Airways Corporation regrets to announce that a civil aircraft on passage between Lisbon and the United Kingdom is overdue and presumed lost. The last message received from the aircraft stated that it was being attacked by an enemy aircraft. The aircraft carried 13 passengers and a crew of four. Next-of-kin have been informed.


In their daily communique, broadcast from Berlin and recorded by The Associated Press, the Germans said: ‘Three enemy bombers and one transport were downed by German reconnaissance planes over the Atlantic’. Time magazine carried a brief story on 14 June, including details of the final radio broadcast from the Dutch pilot. “I am being followed by strange aircraft. Putting on best speed.… We are being attacked. Cannon shells and tracers are going through the fuselage. Wave-hopping and doing my best.” The news of Howard’s death was published in the same issue of The Times that falsely reported the death of Major William Martin, the red herring used for the ruse involved in Operation Mincemeat, a bizarre twist to the story.


According to a German account published in Bloody Biscay: The History of V Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40by Christopher H. Goss, there is one of the most detailed versions of the attack. The book states that BOAC Flight 777 was not intentionally targeted and was shot down when it was mistaken for an Allied military aircraft. The account is composed of the author’s analysis of events and interviews, conducted decades after the war ended, with some of the German pilots involved in the attack.


The account states that eight Junkers JU 88C-6 heavy fighters (Zerstörer) from the 14th Staffel of the Luftwaffe’s main maritime bomber wing, Kampfgeschwader 40, took off from Bordeaux at 10:00 hrs local time to find and escort two U-boats. These aircraft belonged to the long-range fighter group known as Gruppe V Kampfgeschwader 40. The names of four of the eight pilots are known: Staffelführer Oberleutnant (Oblt) Herbert Hintze, Leutnant Max Wittmer-Eigenbrot, Oblt Albrecht Bellstedt, and Oberfeldwebel (Ofw) Hans Rakow.


The pilots claim that before setting out they were unaware of the presence of the Lisbon to Whitchurch flights. Due to bad weather, the search for the U-boats was called off and the fighters continued a general armed patrol. At 12:45 hrs, BOAC Flight 777 was spotted in P/Q 24W/1785 heading north. Approximately five minutes later, the Ju 88s attacked. Hintze retold his account for Goss as follows:


“A ‘grey silhouette’ of a plane was spotted from 2,000–3,000 metres (6,600–9,800 ft) and no markings could be made out, but by the shape and construction of the plane it was obviously enemy.” Bellstedt radioed: “Indians at 11 o’clock, AA (code for enemy aircraft ahead slightly to the left), attack.” BOAC Flight 777 was attacked from above and below by the two Ju 88s assigned to a high position over the flight, and the port engine and wing caught fire. At this point flight leader Hintze, at the head of the remaining six Ju 88s, caught up to the DC-3 and recognised the aircraft as civilian, immediately calling off the attack, but the burning DC-3 was already severely damaged with the port engine out. Three parachutists exited the burning aircraft, but their chutes did not open as they were on fire. The aircraft then crashed into the ocean, where it floated briefly before sinking. There were no signs of survivors.


Hintze maintained that all the German pilots involved expressed regret for shooting down a civilian aircraft and were “rather angry” with their superiors for not informing them that there was a scheduled flight between Lisbon and Britain. Goss writes in his book that official German records back up Hintze’s account that Staffel 14/KG 40 was carrying out normal operations and that the day’s events occurred because the U-boats could not be found. He concludes that “there is nothing to prove that the German pilots were deliberately aiming to shoot down the unarmed DC-3.” This account of the German pilots and Goss’s conclusions are understandably challenged by some authorities.


A Short Sunderland flying boat of No 461 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), undertook a search of the area where the flight was lost on the 2nd June. The Sunderland was attacked by eight JU 88s and there followed a long, protracted and furious air battle. The Sunderland’s crew claimed to shot down three of their attackers with three more ‘probables,’ before limping back to Penzance and crash landing close to St Michael’s Mount. Shortly afterwards and somewhat belatedly, BOAC re-routed the Lisbon-Whitchurch route and only operated in the hours of darkness.


Theories for the attack All of the theories as to why BOAC Flight 777 was shot down contradict the claims that the German pilots attacked the Ibis in mistake. And quite rightly as it is totally disingenuous of the Germans to claim they would not target a civilian aircraft, given their attempts to shoot down BOAC Mosquitos on the Leuchars-Stockholm route and their shooting down of the two Swedish DC3s.


Attempted assassination of Churchill. The most popular theory is that German Intelligence wrongly believed that Churchill was on the flight. This version appeared in the press within days of the incident and Churchill himself supported this theory. At the end of May 1943 Churchill and the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had travelled to North Africa for a meeting with the American General Eisenhower. Churchill had used commercial airline flight previously and the Germans believed he was trying to sneak home on a BOAC flight.


Some theories believe that the SIS had spread these rumours to mask Churchill’s actual means of travel on a converted Liberator bomber. A German agent is said to have spotted a ‘thick set man smoking a cigar,’ boarding Flight 777 at Lisbon and this passenger was misidentified as Churchill. Another part of the theory is that in an intercepted Ultra message showed that the flight would be intercepted, but BOAC was not informed to protect the intelligence source.


Churchill accepted this theory in his memoirs, although he is extremely critical of the poor German intelligence that led to the disaster. He wrote, “The brutality of the Germans was only matched by the stupidity of their agents. It is difficult to understand how anyone could imagine that with all the resources of Great Britain at my disposal I should have booked a passage in an unarmed and unescorted plane from Lisbon and flown home in broad daylight.”




Leslie Howard in the film Pimpernel Smith


Leslie Howard: Actor and spy. Leslie Howard Steiner was born in Upper Norwood, London in 1893 to a British mother and Hungarian-Jewish father. His mother had been brought up a Christian, but had Jewish ancestry. Howard enlisted in 1914 and served as a subaltern in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry during First World War and was invalided out of the Army suffering from combat stress. Howard began his acting career on stage in 1916.


Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son concluded that the Germans shot down the DC3 with the sole aim of killing the actor. Howard had been travelling through Spain and Portugal, ostensibly lecturing on film, but also meeting with local propagandists and shoring up support for the Allied cause. The Germans in all probability suspected even more surreptitious activities since German agents were active throughout Spain and Portugal, which, like Switzerland, was a crossroads for persons from both sides of the conflict, but even more accessible to Allied citizens.


Leslie Howard’s activities on the Iberian Peninsula, would have attracted a great deal of German interest. A 2008 book by the Spanish writer José Rey Ximena, claims that Howard was on a mission for Churchill to dissuade the Spanish leader Franco from joining the Axis powers. But Ronald Howard was convinced that the order to shoot down BOAC Flight 777 came directly from Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi Propaganda Minister particularly loathed the film Pimpernel Smith and its depiction of the oafish brutality of National Socialism. Leslie Howard was also Jewish and regarded as a dangerous propagandist. Germany’s propaganda machine boasted at


Howard’s death and Joseph Goebbels’ newspaper Der Angriff (“The Attack”) ran the headline “Pimpernel Howard has made his last trip.”


Ronald Howard’s book In search of my Father, in particular, explores in great detail written German orders to the Staffel 14/KG 40 based in France, assigned to intercept the aircraft, as well as communiqués on the British side that verify intelligence reports of the time indicating a deliberate attack on Howard. These accounts also indicate that the Germans were aware of Churchill’s whereabouts at the time and were not so naïve as to believe he would be travelling alone on board an unescorted and unarmed civilian aircraft, which Churchill also acknowledged as improbable.


An excellent account of how the SIS recruit “agents” can be found in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider. Ian Fleming certainly wrote entertaining novels, but they bare no reality to how the SIS and MI5 operate using proxy agents to do their dirty work. “I hear that you’re travelling to _______ on business. I wonder if you could do a little job for us…” The beauty being that the security services can deny all knowledge when things go horribly wrong. What the former KGB called “Wet Jobs,” were usually carried out by members or former members of UK Special Forces for the British intelligence services, depending on the target. It has now become de rigueur to call on the services of the operatives and Reaper UAVs of No 39 Squadron RAF.


Howard was mistaken for RJ Mitchell. One of the least credible theories is that Leslie Howard was mistaken for the designer of the Spitfire, R. J. Mitchell, who Howard played in the film The First of the Few. The film was widely playing in Lisbon cinemas and it was the talk of the city that German agents mistook Howard for Mitchell. It was widely reported that R. J. Mitchell had died in 1937 and one would have thought that someone would have picked up on that.


The shooting down of BOAC Flight 777 made headlines around the world and there was widespread grief over the death of Leslie Howard, championed as Britain’s martyr. The British government categorised the downing of Flight 777 as a war crime, but as it was just another incident in the endless trail of horrors, public attention soon shifted, as it always does.


Ivan Sharp whose grandfather was killed and on Flight 777, arranged in 2009 for a memorial plaque for the crew and passengers to be dedicated at Lisbon airport. A similar plaque was unveiled at Whitchurch, near Bristol in 2010.


A documentary film Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave A Damn (2016), which includes commentary on the ill-fated flight, was narrated by Derek Partridge, who at the age of seven gave up his seat on BOAC Flight 777 for Leslie Howard and Alfred T. Chenhalls and later in life, became a television and screen actor.


Blown Periphery 


Nov. 11th 2018



  • Like 1
  • Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

'Illuminate' was not ( I don't think ) a term used in that era. . .but I could be wrong here,. . ( I often am ) 


Anyway, were the German 'Navigation Beams' not called 'Knickebein', or something like that ?,  if so, their Nav beams were only to direct pilots to a target area, they were Transmitters only and did not have the capability of  receiving 'Return' signals like Radar. . . Not only this,. . . large number of them were 'Jammed' or otherwise interfered with by the Brits when they were used over the UK Mainland. .


I think there is a techno mix up here . . .  But then, I didn't write the article,. . I just Borrowed it with the full permission of Mr. Blown Periphery.



Link to post
Share on other sites
'Illuminate' was not ( I don't think ) a term used in that era. . .but I could be wrong here,. . ( I often am ) 

Anyway, were the German 'Navigation Beams' not called 'Knickebein', or something like that ?,  if so, their Nav beams were only to direct pilots to a target area, they were Transmitters only and did not have the capability of  receiving 'Return' signals like Radar. . . Not only this,. . . large number of them were 'Jammed' or otherwise interfered with by the Brits when they were used over the UK Mainland. .


I think there is a techno mix up here . . .  But then, I didn't write the article,. . I just Borrowed it with the full permission of Mr. Blown Periphery.

Exactly my point.



Link to post
Share on other sites

NO,. . you are agreeing that  a radio Beam 'Locked ON' to the flight in question,. .. when this type of Navigation'Beam'  ( If that was actually used )was not capable of so doing. . .


The article suggests that Patrols of JU 88s were sent on regular sorties in that area. . . and that although there was 'Intelligence' that Trevor Howard and his aircraft might be travelling in that area,. .. there was no way that the Germans had any electronic means of locating it. They had NO Radar infrastructure on that coastline. . .  The Passenger aircraft was SEEN by a patrol, who expected it to use that route, as advised by Luftwaffe intelligence, and then it was shot down. . .



Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...