By Reg Reynolds
When Gone with the Wind was released in 1939 it was at the time the finest movie ever made. The acting, with Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel and de Havilland was superb, but the behind-the-scenes technologists and designers were also masters of their crafts providing, the lighting, the sound, the costumes, the sets and the wonderful colour film, far beyond anything ever seen before. Very few movies today, eighty years on, can compare in the quality of production. The producer of this masterpiece of film was Darryl O. Zanuck. It was directed by Victor Fleming and George Cukor from a screenplay by Sidney Howard and based on the novel of the same name written by Margaret Mitchell.
Gone with the Wind received 13 nominations for the 1940 Academy Awards and won 8 Oscars. The 22-year-old de Havilland was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to 47-year-old Hattie McDaniel the first African American to win an Oscar.
What has all this to do with Gibraltar, you might well ask? Well in the movie de Havilland had the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, wife of Ashley Wilkes, played by British actor Leslie Howard who was killed by the Germans when the plane he was a passenger in was shot down. The KLM passenger plane was attacked by a squadron of Junkers Ju 88 fighter bombers over the Bay of Biscay. All thirteen passengers and four crew perished. The plane was flying from Lisbon to Whitchurch, UK, but a few days earlier Howard had secretly visited Gibraltar.
The enemy, taking no chances, attacked the transport.
It was a bright warm morning, June 1st, 1943, when the Dutch KLM DC 3, operated by BOAC, took off from Lisbon Airport. Scheduled airline service between Britain and neutral Portugal had continued throughout World War II. The unarmed commercial airliners often saw German fighter planes but so long as they maintained their course and made no threatening moves, they travelled unmolested. There had been a couple of attacks by individual fighter planes but prior to this flight there had been no injuries or deaths. The plane was clearly marked, and the passenger list included a mother and her two daughters, one eleven and the other 18 months, some businessmen and entertainers and the actor Leslie Howard and his accountant Albert Chenhalls. The crew had made the same journey twice weekly for more than three years.
Why did the Germans do it? That was the question asked around Britain and America when the news of the tragedy was released four days after the attack. The official German explanation was that the Junkers squadron had been sent to protect two U-boats in the area, and although they were not under specific orders, it was their ‘duty to attack any Allied aircraft’. The real reason, however, was that Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels despised Leslie Howard, who had a patriotic BBC radio program where he often poked fun at Goebbels, Hitler and other members of the Nazi hierarchy. Another suspected reason for the attack was the presence of Howard’s friend and accountant Albert Chenhalls. The stocky Chenhalls had an uncanny resemblance to the Prime Minister, including a balding pate and a considerable paunch. He smoked the same cigars and wore a bowler hat.
When Howard boarded the flight at Lisbon he was returning from a promotional tour of Portugal and Spain. Gibraltar was not part of his government approved agenda, but we know he visited the Rock because U.S. Navy Captain Harry C. Butcher, Aide-de-Camp to General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote about seeing Howard and Chenhalls on the airport runway at Gibraltar in his book My Three Years with Eisenhower. He also commented on the subsequent attack on the Lisbon flight.
“This plane had carried, among other passengers, the actor, Leslie Howard, but the British learned through secret channels that the Germans had shot the plane down because they believed Prime Minister Churchill was aboard. Just before take-off from the airport, the enemy had received information to the effect that a heavy-set man, wearing a bowler hat and smoking a big black cigar, had boarded the plane. The enemy, taking no chances, attacked the transport.”
Coincidentally, at the time of the downing of the aircraft Churchill was scheduled to be flying home from a meeting with Eisenhower in North Africa. Churchill believed the theory that spies had mistaken Chenhalls for himself and wrote about the incident in his memoires:
“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.”
As it was, Churchill had delayed his departure for a few days. He did travel back to Britain via Gibraltar on the evening of June 4th, 1943 in a Consolidated B-24 transport arriving in Britain the next morning.
Howard was 50 years old and the first of the major stars of Gone with the Wind to die. All but de Havilland died relatively young. Hattie McDaniel was 59 when she succumbed to breast cancer on October 26th, 1952. Vivian Leigh, winner of Best Actress for her portrayal of Scarlet O’Hara, was 53 when she collapsed and died of tuberculosis complications on July 8th, 1967 and Clark Gable, winner of Best Actor for his Rhett Butler role, was 59 when he died of a heart attack on November 16th, 1960.
Olivia de Havilland won many awards in her illustrious career. She appeared on Broadway, on television and in 49 feature films. She was nominated for an Academy Award five times and won Best Actress twice for To Each His Own and The Heiress. She had lived in Paris since 1960.