In Cedeira (Galicia, Spain) there is a monument which pays tribute to Leslie Howard, at A Capelada, near San Andrés de Teixido, the very spot where his plane crashed down on route back to the UK after two months in Spain and Portugal.
On the 1st June, 1943, after a short trip to Spain and Portugal, Leslie Howard took a civilian flight from the Lisboan airport of Portela to fly to the English aerodrome at Whitchurch. The actor and his friend, Alfred Chenhalls had changed the date of their return flight to the UK to enable them to attend the premiere of his film, “The First of the Few”. Chenhalls, who bore a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill, was a well-known accountant in London who managed the economic interests of various figures in the world of cinema and music, including those of Howard himself. Some days later, they very cautiously boarded a Douglas DC3 twin-engine called “Ibis”. The journey was very dangerous as they found themselves in the midst of an area of high activity of the German Luftwaffe fighter planes based in France. When the “Ibis”, which was marked as a civilian aircraft, reached the Bay of Biscay, it was approached and destroyed by a squadron of Junkers. The plane, in which Leslie Howard was travelling, accompanied by Kenneth Stonehouse and his wife, who also died, was crewed by Dutch airmen. Stonehouse, 33 years old and from South Africa, was the Reuters correspondent in Washington who was flying back to London. His disappearance was tragic news for his colleagues in Fleet Street. He had left London to go to Washington to work as Chief Editor of Reuters but in the last few days had returned to London in order to become a war correspondent for the same agency. The final passenger travelling in the plane was Wilfred Israel, a Jewish businessman born in London who arranged escape networks for refugees. Many people had blacklisted him with the Nazis and various analysts have suspected that Israel was the Junker’s target.
Israel House originated in 1815 when Nathan Israel set up a small second-hand shop in the Molkenmarkt in Berlin. This soon gained worldwide notoriety, not only for wholesale and retail, but also in the field of exports where it held an enviable position in Germany. In 1925, Kaufhaus N. Israel started its own business school whose qualifications were recognized by the State. The business was passed down from father to son until it reached the hands of Wilfred and Herbert.
The company was contracted to supply hospitals, hotels, theatres, military establishments and other public and private organizations. The company worked exclusively with its own capital and did not believe in either loans or mortgages.
On the 1st April, 1933 it was cut off and boycotted along with all other Jewish organizations. In 1938 the business was sold to Emil Köster AG and in 1939 the aryanizing of Israel House came to a head and the business re-opened under the name of Das Haus im Zentrum.
Before and during the Second World War, Wilfred was renowned activist and helped thousands of Jews escape from Nazi tyranny. On the 26th March, 1943 he left London for Lisbon where he spent two months looking into the Jewish situation in the Iberian Peninsula. During the Second World War, the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal sympathized with Nazi Germany but still refused to hand over its Jews to the Nazis. By the end of his stay, Wilfred Israel had found over 1,500 Jewish refugees living in Spain, for many of which he organized their permission to travel to Palestine. Before board the “Ibis” plane, he had presented a major proposition to the British Government to help Jewish refugees in Spain.
These deaths have always been shrouded in the mysteries of the fog of the Galician coast. In amongst the fog circulated many different surprising rumors, such as that of the German spies having mistaken Howard’s friend, Chenhalls, with Churchill, who at that time, according to some sources, would secretly fly in civilian airplanes to avoid detection.
Another explanation was that in 1943 Britain needed Howard for a special mission in the Iberian Peninsula. He had always been reluctant to make this visit. Perhaps his reticence was due to the fact that, in spite of Portugal’s neutrality and the non-aggression of the Spanish, the Germans dominated without any restraint in this area. In addition, Howard was a gloomy man who tended to let himself be led by his instincts and had commented on more than one occasion to his close friends and family that he didn’t have a “good feeling” about this trip. However, he was finally won over on the insistence of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. We will never know if the objective for the shooting-down of this plane by the Nazis was Churchill, in the body of Chenhalls, Leslie Howard for being a British secret agent, or Wilfred Israel for his contribution to the escape of refugees. Or perhaps it was all three.
Written by Jesús Castro
Translated by Rachael Harrison
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