A new musical, The Glenn Miller Story starring the ever-popular Tommy Steele, will be visiting The Marlowe Theatre next week. Celebrating the life of this legendary bandleader, the production is already proving to be one of the most popular shows in our new season.
With the show telling the story of Glenn Miller’s remarkable life, we take a look at one of the most enduring mysteries of the Second World War – the disappearance of the world’s most famous big band leader.
Glenn Miller was probably the biggest music star of his day. An immensely successful band leader and composer, he was responsible for hits like In The Mood, Chattanooga Choo Choo and Moonlight Serenade, and was the most popular recording artist in the world from 1939 to 1943. He died – it is presumed – in 1944, aged just 40, when the plane he was flying in disappeared over the English Channel, as he flew to entertain American troops in France.
At the time of his death, Miller was the leader of the United States Army Air Forces Band and held the rank of major. Understandably preoccupied, the American high command did not order an inquiry into the tragedy – they assumed that the plane had crashed due to bad weather.
But that explanation did not satisfy many of Miller’s fans. Wild rumours and theories began to circulate – that the high command had believed Miller to be a German agent, so had assassinated him, that he had been shot down by the Germans, and was now a prisoner, that he had made it to France and been killed in a brawl in a Paris brothel, and many other wilder conspiracy theories were put forward. The fact that the plane which was carrying Miller had apparently filed no flight plan only added to the speculation.
One of the theories came from Miller’s younger brother. Herb Miller claimed in 1983 that while his brother had taken off as recorded, the plane had in fact taken him to a military hospital, where he died a few hours later. Herb said he had made up the plane crash story, because he wanted his brother to have died a hero, not ‘in a lousy bed’. The other two men in the plane had been killed fighting the Germans. There is some evidence that Glenn Miller was ill in the months before he died – witnesses and his own letters mention rapid weight loss – military authorities have never given any credence to the younger Miller’s story.
Another, perhaps more likely explanation was suggested by a former RAF navigator during the 1980s. He was part of the crew of a Lancaster bomber returning from an abortive mission over Germany on the fateful night Miller disappeared. The crew jettisoned their unused bombs over the Channel before landing – the crew man says another member of the crew reported seeing a small plane – possibly the single-engined Norseman Miller was travelling in – crash into the sea after being hit by the shock wave from the explosion from the jettisoned bomb. The revelations led to an investigation by the RAF, but 40 years after the events, they drew no definite conclusion. The Lancaster and the Norseman might have crossed in flight – but they could easily have been miles apart.
It is testament to the enduring popularity of Glenn Miller’s music that an explanation for his disappearance is still being sought. In 2014, another theory was suggested by a researcher working at the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He claims that military documents suggest that the type of Norseman plane that Miller was flying in, had a problem with fuel lines freezing. The plane was likely to be flying low because of fuel visibility, meaning that if the lines froze, the pilot would have just 8 seconds before the plane hit the water. In other words, the true explanation for Miller’s death is probably exactly what the military said it was, back in the year of his death.
Whilst the mystery of his disappearance may never be solved, what is certain is that his music will live on and we look forward to celebrating it in The Glenn Miller Story.