Robert Maxwell was being investigated for war crimes and was to be interviewed by police just before he mysteriously drowned 15 years ago.
Revelations that Maxwell, a captain in the British Army, knew he faced a possible life sentence for murdering an unarmed German civilian in 1945 lend support to the theory that he took his own life in 1991.
A Metropolitan Police file released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act shows that, weeks before he died, detectives had begun questioning members of Maxwell's platoon and were preparing a case for the Crown Prosecution Service.
Maxwell would have been told about the inquiry and knew that, if found guilty, he would be the first Briton to be prosecuted for war crimes. The War Crimes Act 1991 was enacted just six months before Maxwell's body was found floating in the Atlantic on 5 November after disappearing from his yacht, the Lady Ghislane.
No one has been able to explain how he came to die. But the police file shows that, by that time, officers had been able to establish the location in Germany where Maxwell was alleged to have killed an unarmed civilian. The shooting, which is said to have happened on 2 April 1945, was first disclosed by Maxwell's authorised biographer, Joe Haines, in 1988. Maxwell is quoted in the book describing how he tried to capture a German town by threatening the population with a mortar bombardment, a tactic that had proved successful on a nearby village hours earlier.
In a letter to his wife, published in the book, Maxwell recounts how he asked some Germans to fetch the mayor. He ordered the mayor to go back to town and tell the soldiers defending it to surrender or face destruction. One hour later the mayor returned, saying the soldiers had agreed to his demands. "But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us," Maxwell wrote. "Luckily, he missed, so I shot the mayor and withdrew."
The Met's file says: "The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden [30th October 1988]."
But the police could do nothing until Parliament had enacted the war crimes legislation which had been specifically designed to prosecute Nazi war criminals living in this country.
It was only when a member of the public made a complaint under the new legislation that an official investigation could begin. Two officers from the Met's historic war crimes unit began tracing members of his platoon but had been unable to find a witness to the alleged shooting of the mayor.
Maxwell is presumed to have fallen overboard from Lady Ghislane, which was cruising off the Canary Islands. The official verdict was accidental drowning, though many people, including members of his own family, believe he took his own life. It did not emerge until after his death that he had plundered the Mirror Group pensions' funds to bail out his ailing media empire.
Shortly after he was buried in Jerusalem, the police passed the conclusions of their investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service. The file obtained under the Freedom of Information Act says "it was determined that the case could be progressed no further, and it was closed in March 1992". The file also shows that although a lot of work had gone into the case the police had not been able to find a reliable witness to corroborate the account in Haines's biography. They had also raised concerns about having to rely on the quotes attributed to Maxwell in the book. But Maxwell would not have known this and he may have felt that the net was closing.
Maxwell was immensely proud of his war record. He fought his way across Europe from the Normandy beaches to Berlin, winning the Military Cross in January 1945. He had a hatred for Germans that stemmed from his earlier life, most of his family in Czechoslovakia having been killed by the Nazis. Later in life, he was reported to have said that the two things he hated most were Germans and taxes.
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