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Polish WWII leader to be exhumed in murder probe

by Jonathan Fowler*

Poland's World War II leader General Wladyslaw Sikorski was to be exhumed and autopsied yesterday in an unprecedented probe into rumours that his 1943 air-crash death was a result of foul play, possibly by Moscow.
Sikorski's embalmed corpse will be removed from a tomb in this southern city, and laid to rest again today.
"The aim is to verify the different versions of his death," forensic scientist Malgorzata Klys of Krakow's Jagiellonian University said.
"We want to try to determine if he died in an accident or was assassinated," said Klys, who will lead tests as prosecutors look on.
Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which investigates crimes from the World War II Nazi German occupation and the post-war communist era, launched the probe in September.
Available documents, and the tense wartime context, lend an element of credibility to the theory that Sikorski's assassination was ordered by the Soviets, the institute said.
Earlier this month, the institute's director Janusz Kurtyka said the aim was to end 65 years of speculation.
Some historians question that, however.
"Exhumation is unlikely to reveal any new answers, or to put an end to the conspiracy theories," said Richard Butterwick of London University.
Even Sikorski's great-niece Ewa Wojtasik, who has given DNA samples to compare with his remains, has doubts.
"If we discover that he was murdered it will tell us a lot, but it still won't tell us who did it. I think the case will end up being dropped," she said.
Sikorski, often compared to France's wartime General Charles de Gaulle, led a London-based Polish government-in-exile set up after Nazi German and Soviet invasion of 1939.
He died aged 62 on July 4, 1943 when a British Royal Air Force plane plunged into the sea seconds after take-off from Gibraltar, a territory governed by London.
A Czech pilot, the sole survivor of 17 people aboard, testified his controls had jammed.
The Britain-bound aircraft had already flown without a hitch from the Middle East, where Sikorski had inspected Polish troops.
At an RAF inquiry days later, a forensics officer said the victims' bodies "showed head injuries and multiple injuries" suggesting they had died in the crash.
The inquiry ruled that the plane became "uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established," public records show.
Conspiracy theories were fuelled by the presence of a Soviet diplomatic aircraft in Gibraltar on July 4, two previous mysterious incidents involving planes carrying Sikorski, and the fact that many wartime British archives remain classified.
"The general was killed," said Warsaw University historian Pawel Wieczorkiewicz.
"The order was given in Moscow," he alleged, adding that Britain turned a blind eye.
After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Poland had found itself on the same side as Moscow.
But Sikorski refused to let Moscow off the hook over the 1940 "Katyn" massacre of 22,000 Poles captured by the Soviets in 1939.
The Nazis uncovered the Poles' bodies in 1943. Moscow blamed Germany for the massacre — sticking to that until 1990 — but Sikorski demanded a Red Cross probe.
Moscow broke ties with his government and pressed Britain and the United States to back a Polish communist administration, which the Soviets installed in 1944 as they rolled back the Nazis.
Some historians, however, reject the idea that Sikorski was a thorn in the allied camp. In 1941, for example, he negotiated the Soviet release of hundreds of thousands of Polish POWs into Poland's exile army, and was not generally seen as a hardliner.
"I don't think there is any convincing evidence that what happened at Gibraltar was anything other than an accident," said Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University in the United States.
"People like conspiracy theories. But these things happened during the war. Accidents do happen. It's difficult for people to accept," he said.
Sikorski's death robbed the government-in-exile of authority, making it easier for London and Washington in November 1943 to recognise the Soviet seizure of pre-war Polish territory.
Sikorski was buried in Britain. Even dead, he was a pariah in communist-era Poland, and his body was only moved to Krakow's Wawel Castle crypt in 1993, four years after the regime collapsed.