The Downing of BOAC Flight 777

Part One - 1st June 1943

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
DC 3 of British Overseas Airways Corporation at Gibraltar, backlit by searchlights

Prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, The Dutch Airline KLM operated a direct, over-water, twice-weekly DC-3 service from Amsterdam to Portugal, avoiding French, British and Spanish airspace to connect with the new Pan American flying boat service from the US to Lisbon. When Germany invaded in May 1940, KLM had several airliners en-route outside the Netherlands. Some managed to fly to Britain while others stranded east of Italy continued to link British and Dutch territories from Palestine to Indonesia and Australia.

The British government interned the Dutch aircraft at Shoreham Airport. After negotiations between the Air Ministry and the Dutch government-in-exile, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was contracted to use the KLM aircraft and crews to replace de Havilland Albatross aircraft on a scheduled service between Britain and Portugal, which BOAC had started in June 1940 from Heston Aerodrome. There were initial concerns regarding the use of Dutch crews, but these were overcome and the flights used BOAC flight numbers and passenger handling was by BOAC staff.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
KLM DC3 PH-ALI at Croydon Airport in 1936

The UK-Lisbon service was run up to four times per week and by the June of 1943, the KLM/BOAC service had flown over 500 flights and carried 4,000 passengers. Originally KLM in BOAC service had five DC3s and one DC2 airliner. One DC3 was lost in a landing incident at Heston and a second DC3 was destroyed at Whitchurch in November 1940 due to German bombing of the airfield. The remaining four aircraft were: DC-2 G-AGBH Edelvalk (ex-PH-ALE), DC-3 G-AGBD Buizerd (ex-PH-ARB), DC-3 G-AGBE Zilverreiger (ex-PH-ARZ) and DC-3 G-AGBB Ibis (ex-PH-ALI).

In 1939 as the looming war in Europe seemed more likely, KLM had painted its aircraft bright orange to mark them clearly as civilian aircraft. BOAC repainted the aircraft in camouflage dark green and earth upper surfaces and sky grey or bare aluminium undersides. All ex-KLM aircraft in BOAC service had red/white/blue civil aircraft markings but no Union Flag. They were later marked with their Dutch bird names under the cockpit windows. The interiors remained in KLM colours and markings.

Lisbon, a hotbed of intrigue

British and German (Lufthansa) civilian aircraft operated from the same facilities at Portela Airport at Lisbon. British, German, Soviet and American spies watched the air traffic and scrutinised the cargo and passenger manifests. The Lisbon-Whitchurch route was given special attention because the route frequently carried escaped POWs and Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agents. German spies were posted to the terminals to record who were boarding the aircraft. Harry Pusey was BOAC’s operations officer at Lisbon from 1943 – 1945 and he noted the area was like the film Casablanca, but twentyfold. Most American Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) operatives from Spain were handled out of Lisbon, because diplomatic staff in Madrid identified intelligence officers to the Spanish police.

At the beginning of the war the Axis powers respected the neutrality of Portugal and Sweden and refrained from attacking aircraft routed into and out of neutral countries. However the war in the Bay of Biscay and off Western France began to heat up, as Coastal Command fighter bombers targeted transiting U-boats. The Germans opened the Atlantic Command airfields at Merignac near Bordeaux and the large base at Lorient, to attack Allied shipping and counter the Coastal Command sorties. Clearly this increased the danger for BOAC aircraft operating on the Lisbon-Whitchurch route.

On 15th November 1942, G-AGBB Ibis was attacked by a single Messerschmitt BF 110 fighter. The DC3 was able to limp on to Lisbon, where the cannon shell and machine gun damage to the port wing, engine nacelle and fuselage was repaired. One can only conclude that air passengers were a hardier breed in the 1940s, but then again wasn’t everybody?

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Damage to G-AGBB, November 1942

The ill-fated Ibis DC3 seemed to be something of a fighter magnet because she was attacked again on 19th April 1943 at coordinates 46 North, 9 West by six BF 110s. The pilot Captain Koene Dirk Parmentier evaded the attacking fighters by dropping to fifty feet above the sea and then climbing steeply into the clouds. Ibis again sustained damage to her port aileron, shrapnel damage to the fuselage and a holed fuel tank. A new wing tip had to be flown to Lisbon to complete repairs to the aircraft. Despite these attacks, BOAC continued to operate the Lisbon-Whitchurch route. Although there were two other DC3s and a DC2 operating on the route, Ibis was attacked three times. On the third occasion she wasn’t so lucky.

Aircraft, crew and passengers

The DC3 Ibis was the first of its type to be supplied to the KLM Airline and was delivered on 21st September 1936. It carried the Netherland designation of PH-ALI and was named after the bird that was venerated in the ancient world. The aircraft arrived at Shoreham on the afternoon of the 9th May 1940 on a scheduled flight from Amsterdam. The following day Germany invaded the Netherlands and the crew were instructed to remain in Britain. The registration was changed to G-AGBB on 25th July 1940 and the aircraft was camouflaged in the standard RAF brown/green. Ibis was a tough old bird having already survived two attacks.

There were four Dutch crew on BOAC Flight 777. The First Pilot was Captain Quirinus Tepas OBE, Captain Dirk de Koning, who was the second pilot during the second attack on Ibis in April 1943, wireless operator Cornelis van Brugge and flight engineer Engbertus Rosevink.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
BOAC flight 777 passenger list

The passengers on Flight 777 would not have appeared out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. The passenger list included stage and film actor Leslie Howard, Alfred T. Chenhalls, Howard’s friend and accountant, British journalist Kenneth Stonehouse, a Washington D.C. correspondent of Reuters news agency and his wife Evelyn Peggy Margetts Stonehouse, Rotha Hutcheon and her daughters Petra (11) and Carolina (18 months), Tyrrell Mildmay Shervington, director of Shell-Mex and BP Oil Company in Lisbon, Ivan James Sharp, a senior official of the United Kingdom Commercial Corporation (UKCC), Wilfrid Israel, a prominent Anglo-German Jewish activist working to save Jews from the Holocaust and Gordon Thompson MacLean, an Inspector of British Consulates.

Flight 777 was full and several passengers had to be turned away. Three passengers disembarked before departure. Derek Partridge, the young son of a British diplomat, and his nanny Dora Rove were “bumped” to make room for Howard and Chenhalls, who had only confirmed their tickets at 17:00 the night before the flight and whose priority status allowed them to take precedence over other passengers. A Catholic priest also left the aircraft after boarding it, but his identity remains unknown. Anne Chichester-Constable, 7 year old daughter of WRNS Chief Officer Gladys Octavia Snow OBE was also booked on the flight which connected her return to England from New York. At the last minute, her guardians in Portugal decided that she was too tired and kept her in Portugal.

Actor Leslie Howard was the best-known of the 17 crew and passengers aboard BOAC Flight 777 and the most intense intrigue surrounded him. He was at the peak of his career and had won world fame after The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Gone with the Wind (1939). He was also prized by the British government for his anti-Nazi propaganda and films produced in support of the war effort, such as Pimpernel Smith (1941). He had been in Spain and Portugal on a lecture tour promoting The Lamp Still Burns, and the British Council had invited him on the tour. It was said he had some qualms about the trip, but British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden encouraged him to go.

Tyrrell Mildmay Shervington was director of Shell-Mex and BP Oil Company in Lisbon, but he was also agent H.100 of the Special Operations Executive’s Iberian operation. It has been suggested by some authors that Shervington was the actual target of the attack rather than Howard.

Another passenger was Wilfrid Israel, a member of an important Anglo-German Jewish family and a rescuer of Jews from the Holocaust and who had close connections to the British government. He was born in England to an Anglo-Jewish mother and German Jewish father, and he and his brother had run the Nathan Israel Department Store in Berlin until it was seized by the Nazis in 1938. As early as 1933, he was obtaining information about Nazi arrest lists and warning the intended victims.

Israel worked with consular officials in the British embassy to obtain visas, and he dismissed 700 of his firm’s Jewish staff with two years’ pay in 1936, telling them to save themselves by leaving Germany. After Kristallnacht, he was instrumental in setting up the Kindertransport which saved more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria. He remained in Berlin until 1939 when he left for Britain. He returned to Berlin once more before the outbreak of war to secure the departure of a last trainload of children. On 26 March 1943, he left Britain for Portugal and spent two months investigating the situation of Jews in Spain and Portugal and he proposed a plan to the British government to aid them.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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