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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘A Most Dangerous Man’

By Tom Morrow

He is best-remembered as Scarlet O’Hara’s unrequited love, and the illusive Scarlet Pimpernel, but to Nazi Germany’s Joseph Goebbels he was “a most dangerous man.” Leslie Howard was like no other movie star.

Howard was an English-born stage and screen actor, director-producer, who starred in some of our best-known films: “Berkeley Square” (1933), “Of Human Bondage” (1934), “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934), “The Petrified Forest” (1936), “Pygmalion” (1938), “Intermezzo” (1939), “Gone With The Wind” (1939), “Pimpernel Smith” (1941), and “The First of the Few (1942).

What isn’t so well-known was his production of anti-Nazi propaganda films as well as his alleged involvement with British Intelligence, which probably led to his death.

He was born Leslie Howard Steiner in 1893, to a British Christian mother and a Hungarian Jewish father. During World War I, the family changed their name to “Stainer,” a less German-sounding moniker. During the War Howard served as a British Army officer, but suffered shell shock and was discharged in 1916.

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

His son, Ronald Howard (1918–1996), became an actor and was noted for portraying the title character in the 1954 BBC television series, “Sherlock Holmes.”

Widely known as a ladies’ man, Howard once described his amorous adventures thusly: “I didn’t chase women, but I couldn’t always be bothered to run away.”

Howard died in 1943 on a flight from Bristol, England to Lisbon, Portugal. According to German documents, the KLM/BOAC airliner was shot down near German-occupied Bordeaux, France. Reportedly, the German pilots were angry at their squadron commander for not informing the DC-3 was a civilian aircraft.

They said they could easily have escorted the DC-3 to Bordeaux. The pilots photographed the wreckage in the Bay of Biscay, and after the war the photographs were sent to the Howard’s family.

The back story version: the Germans believed Prime Minister Winston Churchill was on board. Later, Churchill expressed sorrow that mistake might have cost Howard his life. Churchill’s bodyguard later wrote Churchill, at times, seemed clairvoyant, and, acting on a premonition, changed his departure to the following day.

Speculation by historians also have centered on whether British code breakers had decrypted top-secret Enigma messages outlining the assassination plan, and Churchill may have wanted to protect the code-breaking operation so the Germans wouldn’t suspect their Enigma machines had been compromised.

His son, Ronald, investigated the German orders in great detail, as well as British communiqués verifying intelligence reports indicating a deliberate attack on his father’s plane. He speculated the Germans were aware of Churchill’s real whereabouts and were not so naive as to believe the PM would be traveling alone, unescorted on an unarmed civilian aircraft.

Ronald was convinced the order to shoot down the airliner came directly from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda. One of Leslie Howard’s films ridiculed the Nazi. Goebbels believed Howard to be “a most dangerous British propagandist.”

In novelist William Stevenson’s “A Man Called Intrepid,” he speculated the Germans knew of Howard’s mission and ordered the aircraft shot down. Stephenson further claimed Churchill knew of the German plan, but allowed it to proceed to protect the fact that the British had broken the German Enigma code.

CIA agent Joseph B. Smith recalled that, in 1957, he was briefed by the National Security Agency on Leslie Howard’s death. The NSA claimed Howard knew his aircraft was to be attacked by German fighters and sacrificed himself to protect the British code-breakers.

Whatever is true, Leslie Howard was one helluva patriot and actor.

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