Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Return Flight


by Henry Lewi

cup of bica (Portuguese espresso – Robusta + Arabica Blend)

 The flight to Lisbon took off on time, there were no bomb craters to negotiate and Bristol had not suffered a night bombing for the last week. The twice weekly flight from Whitchurch to Lisbon was operated by BOAC, running a number of KLM owned Douglas DC-3’s.  The flight time with a maximum of 22 passengers was just over 5 hours and was always full.

 Colonel Charles Henderson of the Foreign Office, looked around, it was not his first flight and would certainly not be his last. Henderson was a member of the War Office Military Intelligence Directorate, dealing with German Intelligence, and the Colonel was flying out to Lisbon as a representative of the War Office to meet a member of the German High Command.  His briefcase carried a variety of documents that if they fell into the wrong hands would be of little consequence, what was more important was the single summary sheet stitched into the lining of his jacket.

As he looked around the Colonel noted that the passengers on the plane included mainly businessmen, a couple of uniformed British Army Officers, and three Free French Officers, who were presumably going to pick up the BOAC Flying Boat to Bathurst in The Gambia, West Africa to meet with Vichy Officers of the French West Africa Forces.

  It was November 1943, the war in Russia and the East had clearly turned in the Soviet’s favour following the surrender at Stalingrad, the huge German failure at Kursk, and the Russian entry into the Ukraine. The appearance of  US forces into Europe had permitted the invasion of North Africa, Sicily and Italy to take place.  US and British bombers were now carrying out constant daily raids over Germany. There was no doubt that German defeat was inevitable though how long that would take, was anybody’s guess.

  Neutral Lisbon had become a hotbed of intrigue and the centre for the exchange of intelligence and organisation of international business deals. Both Allies and Axis nations maintained full Embassy staff in addition to the numerous spies and agents that had gravitated to the city.

The man Henderson was going to meet was a high-ranking Staff Officer attached to Willhelm Keitel’s Staff in the German Armed Forces High Command.  In an effort to save the 4 million men of the German army in Russia from complete destruction, General Keitel the Head of the German Armed Forces had made a circuitous approach to the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires in late September 1943, seeking talks with the British Government regarding complete surrender of all Axis Forces to the Allies. Additionally, Keitel had offered to travel to Great Britain via Lisbon to negotiate the cessation of hostilities. Henderson was carrying the official reply from the British Government regarding further negotiations.

 His message duly delivered and with an overnight stay in Lisbon under his belt, Henderson was now returning to Bristol on BOAC flight 777 accompanied by a senior civilian member of the German Embassy in Lisbon.  

 Before he had taken off Henderson had witnessed the departure of the Deutsch Luft Hansa Junkers Ju 52 carrying the German Staff Officer returning to Berlin conveying the official British Governments response.  “Possibly, just possibly there could be an early end to this awful war,” thought Henderson.

 BOAC Flight 777 had departed Portela Airport in Lisbon on schedule some two hours following the departure of the German plane and take off was smooth. In addition to the crew of 4 the flight was full and carried a number of businessmen, army officers and civilians.  The DC -3 flew steadily Northwards crossing the northern Spanish coast into the Bay of Biscay when Henderson observed that their plane was being accompanied by a flight of six Luftwaffe Ju 88’s.

“I hope they’re simply an escort and not a threat”, said Henderson to his German colleague. “A curious maritime patrol I suspect; we have an agreement on allowing these flights to proceed unmolested,” replied the German diplomat, continuing, “I really hope we’re undisturbed, as this could be the one last chance of peace before the Eastern front turns into a greater killing field than it already is.”

But it was too late. The DC-3 shuddered from the cannon fire from the Luftwaffe fighters and began its final fatal dive into the grey seas of the Bay of Biscay.

 The  flight commander or Staffelfuhrer, a Colonel in Luftwaffe Kampfgeschwader 40, had received direct orders from Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering himself, to seek out and destroy BOAC flight 777 once it had left Spanish airspace and was out over the sea, with the words – “Surrender is not an option.”  






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