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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Key to Solving Polish War Riddle

ReutersPutin returning Sikorski's early military dossier while on a visit to Warsaw last month.
WARSAW, Poland -- Accident or sabotage? The debate rages on in Poland decades after the death in a mysterious plane crash of World War II leader-in-exile General Wladyslaw Sikorski.

A provocative radio documentary, declassified British files and an intriguing gesture by President Vladimir Putin have revived interest in the one man who might have led Poland to freedom had he not died off Gibraltar on July 4, 1943.

Returning to England from a six-week tour inspecting Polish troops in the Middle East, Sikorski stopped over on the strategically important British colony at the tip of southern Spain before taking off in a Liberator bomber at 11 p.m. into a clear night sky.

His plane at first gained height normally but then went into a slow dive, its engines cutting out just before it slammed into the sea.

Of the 17 people on board only the Czech pilot, Edward Prchal, survived, testifying to a hurried inquiry that his controls had jammed. The investigation failed to establish the cause of the accident, but ruled out sabotage.

A second British investigation in 1969, the results of which have only recently been released publicly, questioned the original findings and concluded there might indeed have been foul play.

The inconclusive evidence left the field open to speculation on the fate of a soldier-statesman revered by Polish patriots but who had become a thorn in the side of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States as they battled Nazi Germany.

"For 20 years, I was of the opinion that the Gibraltar crash was very probably an accident. But from what I've learned recently, I'd put the 'very probably' down to 'likely,'" said Norman Davies, a professor of history at Oxford University.

"As the likelihood of a technical disaster drops, the probability of sabotage and assassination grows," added Davies, a leading authority on Poland.

Most suspicion has focused on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who had much to gain from eliminating a tiresome champion of postwar Polish independence. British collusion has been mooted, but never proved.

A recent BBC radio documentary examined both scenarios and made waves by citing sources who claimed Sikorski may even have been the victim of Polish factions hostile to his attempts to deal with Stalin.

Putin added fuel to the fire on a visit to Poland last month by returning Sikorski's military file -- seized by the Nazis after they invaded Poland in 1939 and later captured by the Red Army and shipped east.

The dossier itself, comprising Sikorski's birth certificate, his school certificate and records of his interwar military and political career -- he was prime minister in the early 1920s -- throws no light on the reasons for his death.

But Putin's offer to open Soviet archives to Polish historians raised hopes that the last untapped source -- the files of Stalin's feared secret service -- might solve the riddle of Sikorski's death.

"The meaning of President Putin's gesture is clear -- Russia is ready to sit at the table and talk," said Wladyslaw Stepniak, head of Poland's state archives.

In addition to seeking the return of Polish records still in Russia, Stepniak said "there are chances" that Polish historians could gain access to relevant Soviet intelligence files.

Russia's Federal Security Service declined, however, to say whether it had a Sikorski file in its archives.

Although the documentary evidence is lacking, history was clearly running against Sikorski when he died at the age of 62.

Back in 1941, after Hitler reneged on the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact to carve up Poland and attacked the Soviet Union, he proved his statesmanship by persuading Stalin to release Poles deported en masse to Siberian labor camps.

But, denied the chance to join the battle to regain their homeland, the deportees decamped to the Middle East in 1942.

Then, in April 1943, came the German discovery of thousands of bodies of Polish officers in mass graves in the Katyn forest, a find gleefully trumpeted by Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels.

Sikorski demanded a Red Cross inquiry. Stalin broke off ties. Moscow did not admit responsibility for the Katyn massacre for another five decades.

Historians note that by the time of Sikorski's death Stalin was already shifting his strategy to prepare a communist puppet government to take power in Poland and backing the creation of a partisan force answerable to Moscow to fight with the Red Army.

The weakened exiled government failed to stop Stalin, British leader Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt redrawing the map of Europe, letting the Soviet Union expand westward and giving Moscow a free hand in Poland.

"If Sikorski had lived, he would not have let Churchill and Roosevelt decide the Polish question behind closed doors and in effect sell out to Stalin," said Davies.

Poland did not shake off the communist yoke until 1989.

Sikorski's acumen as commander-in-chief of the Polish resistance -- forged as a field commander in the 1920 defense of Warsaw against the invading Bolsheviks -- was soon missed.

Non-communist partisans launched the disastrous 1944 Warsaw rising, which Soviet forces, camped nearby, did not -- or could not -- support. The Nazis crushed the 63-day rising at a cost of a quarter of a million lives.

In addition to the collapse of his relationship with Stalin, circumstantial evidence points to -- but falls short of proving -- a Soviet plot to assassinate Sikorski.

Was it mere coincidence that, beside Sikorski's plane, an identical Liberator, used by the Soviet ambassador to London Ivan Maisky, was parked on the Gibraltar airfield on the fateful day?

Fodder for conspiracy theorists, not serious historians, said Cambridge University's head of history, Christopher Andrew.

"I don't take seriously the idea that the Soviets could have been responsible for Sikorski's death," said Andrew, a leading historian of British and Soviet intelligence.

Others, like London-based Polish historian Jan Ciechanowski, a historian of the Warsaw rising, are less sure.

"I don't know if it was sabotage or an accident. But if it was sabotage, you can exclude the British, Germans and Poles. Who do you have left?" asked Ciechanowski.

Where historians do agree is that, to close the Sikorski case, Russia would have to open up the archive of Stalin's NKVD secret service -- something they doubt will happen soon despite Putin's cooperation offer.

"If Putin were to hand over Soviet archives on what the NKVD thought of the Gibraltar crash, that would have been a real gift, not only of historical but of political importance," Davies said.