The mystery of Maxwell's death

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The last words of Robert Maxwell were communicated at 4.45am on 5 November 1991 when he contacted the bridge of his luxury yacht to complain about the temperature of his cabin, demanding, in his customary gruff tone, that the crew turn up the air conditioning.

Twelve hours later, a Spanish fisherman spotted his naked body floating in the Atlantic Ocean - 15 miles from his boat.

In the days that followed his death, it emerged there was plenty to trouble Britain's flamboyant media baron.

For several months, his business empire was on the brink of collapse. Without authority, he used hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies' pension funds to finance his corporate debt, his frantic takeovers and his lavish lifestyle. Thousands of Maxwell employees were to lose their pensions.

But he had overcome much worse. In 1954, his publishing warehouse company Simpkin Marshall was declared insolvent and, in 1971, he was humiliated by a Board of Trade inquiry which declared him unfit to run a public company.

No one can be sure what was going through Maxwell's mind when he left his cabin and made his way to the rear of his £15m yacht. There was certainly nothing in his previous life that suggested he was the kind of man that would lose much sleep over a financial crisis. He started life with nothing, arriving in Britain as a 17-year-old Czech refugee fleeing the Nazi tyranny.

As Tom Bower, one of his biographers, points out in Maxwell: The Final Verdict, this was not new: "Anyone who had fought on the front line from the Normandy beaches to Germany, facing constant danger and death for months on end from the enemy's snipers and shells, was unlikely to suffer fear."

An inquest into his death failed to answer any of the key questions. The medical evidence was equivocal. Three pathologists who performed post-mortem examinations failed to agree about the circumstances of his death. One concluded he died of a heart attack, another said he suffered a heart attack and drowned while a third dismissed the heart condition as a cause of death saying Maxwell had fallen into the sea and drowned.

Such contradiction and inconsistency only served to trigger a flood of theories attempting to explain his possible state of mind and the circumstances of his demise.

One of the most lurid was that Maxwell was a key informer for Israeli intelligence and that Israel was concerned that he was about to go public.

Shortly before he died, a self-proclaimed former Mossad officer named Ari Ben-Menashe had approached a number of news organisations in Britain and the United States with the allegation that Maxwell was a long-time agent for the Israeli intelligence service.

Ben-Menashe also claimed that, in 1986, Maxwell tipped off the Israeli embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear scientist later jailed for 18 years in Israel, had given information about Israel's nuclear capability to The Sunday Times, then to the Daily Mirror. No news organisation would publish Ben-Menashe's story at first, because of Maxwell's famed litigiousness. But later an MP asked a question about the claims in the House of Commons, which meant that newspapers were able to report what had been said without fear of being sued for libel. Just days before he died Maxwell called the claims "ludicrous, a total invention".

The idea that Maxwell would have betrayed any secret links to Israel has, over time, been largely dismissed. And there was certainly no indication that he had fallen from favour in Israel. He was accorded the next-best thing to a state funeral, with Israel's President, Chaim Herzog, intoning over his corpse as it lay in the Hall of the Nation: "He scaled the heights. Kings and barons besieged his doorstep. He was a figure of almost mythological stature. An actor on the world stage, bestriding the globe, as Shakespeare says, like a colossus."

The undisputed facts on the night of his death are these:

Robert Maxwell was 68, in poor health, weighing 22 stone and with a weak heart and lungs. Shortly before dawn, he left his cabin and went to the rear of the boat. His door was bolted from the outside. He fell forward over a low rail and dangled over the water 10ft below. He clung on with his weaker left arm, tearing the muscles on that side of his body.

There is now another fact to bear in mind. Six months before he died the Metropolitan Police Force had begun an investigation into allegations that Maxwell was a war criminal.

If he had been prosecuted and found guilty Maxwell must have known that he would have been robbed of the one thing he truly valued - his freedom.

'I shot the mayor'

Robert Maxwell had had a good war. Shortly after his arrival in Britain in 1940, the young Czech refugee had enlisted as a private in the British Army. Five years later, he was a captain in the possession of a Military Cross who had led a platoon of soldiers into the very heart of Nazi Germany.

But in March 1945, he received the disturbing news that his mother and sister had been executed as "hostages" by the Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia. In a brief note to his future wife, Betty, in England, he wrote on receiving the news: "As you can well imagine, I am not taking any prisoners, and, whatever home my men occupy, before I leave I order it to be destroyed."

A month later, his platoon was involved in mopping up resistance from the German defenders. On 2 April, Maxwell ordered his men to fire mortars at a German village. He wrote to Betty: "A few minutes later, I saw them running out of the houses and we started firing at each other. I got two of them, and I ordered the mortars to shell the village for a few minutes."

It proved to be a very effective tactic that led to the surrender of the remaining Germans and inspired Maxwell to try it once more when he moved towards a nearby town.

"... so I sent one of the Germans to fetch the mayor of the town," he told his wife. "In half an hour's time, he turned up and I told him that he had to go to tell the Germans to surrender and hang the white flag otherwise the town will be destroyed. One hour later, he came back saying that the soldiers will surrender and the white flag was put up so we marched off, but as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew."

Joe Haines, his biographer, said that the letters demonstrated a " detestation of the Germans and a ruthlessness in fighting them".