In Cracow the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski has been removed from its monumental marble tomb in the cathedral, and taken for forensic examination. The Poles, from the President and the government down, hope that the remains of this great man may shed light on what happened on July 4 1943, when the general died in a plane crash just after taking off in Gibraltar. It is virtually certain that the crash was a genuine accident. The sole survivor was the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Edward Prchal, a Czech, who eventually emigrated to the United States. Until his dying day some years ago, he maintained that the crash occurred because his controls had jammed, probably through overloading or shifting mailbags.
But Sikorski’s death had a huge bearing on the course of the war, and the subsequent fate of Poland. Leader of the Polish government in exile, Sikorski was already indignant about Stalin’s evident ambition to take over Poland and make a communist satellite of it. That April, the Stalinist murder of the Polish elite at Katyn had been revealed unmistakeably. Had Stalin arranged the plane crash to smooth the way for the communists? It so happens that Kim Philby was head of the MI6 section with responsibility for Gibraltar. Was sabotage by Soviet agents feasible?
Conspiracy theories go much further. Sikorski was pressing Churchill to stand up to Stalin on the question of Polish independence, and as Yalta was to prove, this was something that could have been handled differently and better. Some Poles, and the Soviets, have accused Churchill of arranging the crash to be rid of someone who threatened the wartime alliance. In that case, really unthinkably, Churchill would have had to betray Sikorski with whom he got on well, and also to consent to the death of the liaison officer on the plane, Colonel Victor Cazalet, a well-known Conservative M.P. and a close personal friend of his.
Almost certainly, exhumation and DNA tests and scans will reveal nothing. However, the whole process does underline the power of the past, especially in a country like Poland, so badly treated for so long. And it was blisteringly symbolic – or should that be prophetic? – that the day before the exhumation Polish President Lech Kaczynski was travelling in a car in Georgia with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili when Russian troops close to them opened fire.