Young widow: Emma Winberg, third wife of ‘raffishly charming’ former soldier James Le Mesurier
To many who knew him, life had seldom seemed better for James Le Mesurier, the daring, charismatic former British Army captain who earned global acclaim for saving thousands of civilians from the horrors of the Syrian civil war.
Barely 18 months ago, he was married, for the third time, to Emma Winberg, a beautiful Swede, nine years his junior, who worked with him at Istanbul-based Mayday Rescue.
They had just spent thousands of pounds renovating a 19th- century Palladian villa overlooking the Sea of Marmara, on an idyllic island where people still get about by horse and cart.
Their splendid wooden house was rented from the daughter of a high-ranking Turkish politician, and a Nobel Prize-winner was among their well-connected and affluent neighbours. Fewer than 100 yards from their home was the now-ruined mansion where the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky took refuge, between 1929 and 1933. (He was later murdered in Mexico, by an agent of the Soviet state who struck him on the head with an ice-pick, a macabre irony given how events have unfolded.)
A couple of weeks ago, to Le Mesurier’s delight, his daughters by his second marriage, Cicely, aged nine, and Darcey, eight — who live with their Jordan-based mother, Sarah — came to stay.
Together they roamed the shoreline with his German Shepherd, Ballou, and played in the villa’s pine-clad gardens.
James Le Mesurier, 48, was a charismatic former British Army captain who earned global acclaim for saving thousands of civilians from the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Though friends describe him as a resilient and relentlessly upbeat character, he was suffering from stress and a few days ago began a course of anti-depressants
‘James seemed so happy to be with his girls,’ his live-in gardener and handyman told me tearfully this week.
Meanwhile, the future appeared bright for the noble cause to which Le Mesurier, 48, and Emma, 39, were passionately committed.
For last year, President Trump decided to restore U.S. state-funding for the White Helmets, the Syrian rescue volunteer force that Le Mesurier co-founded — and which, via Mayday, trained and equipped — boosting its coffers by some £5 million.
By his wife’s account, however, the former Royal Green Jackets officer was not as contented as he appeared.
The Istanbul window he fell from in the early hours of Monday. Passers-by reported hearing an argument in the building and at around 4am, Emma reportedly said that she and her husband took sleeping pills and retired to bed. About an hour and a half later she was woken by the doorbell. Gazing down from the apartment window, she saw her husband’s body silhouetted, face-down, up against the wall of a mosque
Though friends describe him as a resilient and relentlessly upbeat character, he was suffering from stress and a few days ago began a course of anti-depressants.
We don’t know the cause of his angst, but it can’t have been helped by constant accusations that he was a British intelligence agent, cynically using the White Helmets for his covert activities.
They were promulgated mainly by the murderous Assad regime and its Kremlin backers, whose horrific attacks on civilian targets in Syria were exposed to the world by the White Helmets.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs brands the brave rescuers, who are frequently killed and injured while pulling women and children from the rubble of bombed buildings, ‘vermin who should be eradicated’. It has posted at least 120 articles attacking the group and its detested co-founder.
According to Gul Fayzullaeva, the housekeeper at the couple’s villa who described Le Mesurier and Emma as ‘a close couple, very affectionate with one another’, last Saturday Le Mesurier had complained of feeling unwell. He attended a clinic on the island where he received a jab and medication for high blood pressure. However, on Sunday afternoon, wishing to be near a mainland hospital should his psychological condition worsen, the couple took the 90-minute ferry ride to the city.
They intended to stay for a while in the fourth-floor apartment above Mayday’s offices. Their trusted handyman, who asked not to be named, took them to the port in a buggy.
‘James hugged me goodbye and I waved them off at the quay,’ he says. ‘He might not have been well, but there was absolutely nothing to suggest he was planning to harm himself. That he would never come back.’
Emma Hedvig Christina Winberg (R), the widow of late former British army officer and co-founder of the ‘White Helmets’ volunteer organization in Syria James Le Mesurier, leaves the Gayrettepe police station in Istanbul on November 13
This week, debate has centred on whether Mr Mesurier jumped or was pushed from the building. Given his enmity with the Russians, who have turned state-sponsored overseas assassination into an art-form, this is unsurprising
Le Mesurier’s Last movements are sketchy, but his wife told the police that when he reached the office, above a café in a narrow passageway, he met Farouq Habib, Mayday’s programme director. Then, shortly before 10pm, he went out to buy cigarettes.
In the early hours of Monday, passers-by reported hearing an argument in the building. At about 4am, Emma reportedly said that she and her husband took sleeping pills and retired to bed.
About an hour and a half later she was woken by the doorbell.
Gazing down from the apartment window, she saw her husband’s body silhouetted, face-down, up against the wall of a mosque. It had been found by worshippers on their way to pre-dawn prayers.Oddly, given that he had supposedly been to bed, Le Mesurier was still wearing his white shirt, which had ridden up over his back, his trousers and silver wristwatch. It was by no means the only peculiarity surrounding his death.
This is the balcony at the Istanbul property where the founder of the White Helmets fell to his death on Monday morning
This week, debate has centred on whether he jumped or was pushed. Given his enmity with the Russians, who have turned state-sponsored overseas assassination into an art-form, this is unsurprising.
Underlying this conundrum is an equally compelling question. One that, if it can be answered, might prove to be the golden thread that unravels this perplexing mystery.
Who was the real James Le Mesurier? Was he, as his admirers insist, a quintessential English hero?
Housekeeper Gul Fayzullaeva (above) says James Le Mesurier was feeling ‘unwell’ and ‘stressed’ in the days before his sudden death
A man who, after following his Royal Marines colonel father into the military, became so disgusted by war’s horrors that he diverted his enormous zest and ingenuity into creating the White Helmets, surely the most effective conflict rescue force the world has seen?
Or could there be a scintilla of truth in the vicious slurs put about by Russia, Syria and China, that he worked for MI6? Whether or not he was murdered, his death is undoubtedly being exploited in the East-West propaganda war.
In an interview with Russian state media this week, Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad claimed ‘Western intelligence as a whole’ was behind Le Mesurier’s death. He added that the Turkish secret service might have been responsible for the killing.
Assad also linked the death with that of Prince Andrew’s billionaire friend Jeffrey Epstein, who had been ‘killed in prison because he knew important secrets about the U.S. and British regimes. (Housekeeper Gul Fayzullaeva — a Russian-speaking Uzbek national — dismisses such claims, saying none of the guests who visited Le Mesurier seemed suspicious.)
Whatever the truth, Le Mesurier had chosen to base himself in a city synonymous with espionage.
Standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a place where two diametrically opposing cultures and ideologies are separated only by the Bosphorus strait. It seethes with such danger and intrigue that it is known as the ‘City of Spies’.
Indeed Ian Fleming chose it as the setting for From Russia With Love, and scenes from three James Bond movies have been filmed here, including the thrilling motorbike chase through souks and over terracotta rooftops that forms the opening sequence of Skyfall.
Le Mesurier’s own fascination with Bond was revealed yesterday when it emerged that police found dozens of books about Fleming’s protagonist in his house.
Moreover, as Le Mesurier was not only compassionate and adventurous, but dashingly handsome and charming, and attracted a procession of beautiful women, more than one friend portrayed him as a sort of humanitarian 007.
Fittingly, Bond actor Daniel Craig is among the many celebrities who support the White Helmets.
Emma Hedvig Christina Winber, the wife of British army officer, is pictured climbing into a car leaving the Forensic Medicine Institute in Istanbul on November 13
There is something Bond-like about a poignant video posted on social media this week, in tribute to Le Mesurier, by one of his former colleagues at Mayday.
Filmed in the alley where his body was discovered, it shows Le Mesurier impulsively whisking a little girl into his arms and dancing with her, as her mother serenades them on the accordion. ‘James’s work could be highly stressful, but he could be shouting and upset about something in the office, then go outside to wind down and be very playful,’ says Lena Arkawi, now an advocate for Syria in Washington DC.
‘He was always so generous and kind with the street people around the office, and the video captures that. It’s shocking and terribly sad for me to think of him dancing with that little girl, and that’s exactly where his life ended.’
Like all the many friends and associates to whom I spoke, Ms Arkawi cannot bring herself to believe he took his life. ‘It makes no sense,’ she told me. ‘James just had so much going for him.’
Le Mesurier, whose mother is Swedish, was born in May 1971, in Singapore. He attended Canford School, in Dorset, where his early claim to fame was as a relative of Dad’s Army star John Le Mesurier.
His school-friend Matt Whishaw, now a wine merchant, remembers him as ‘ebullient’ and ‘confident’. He was also good-looking and possessed ‘raffish charm’. Even in his teens he was ‘a bit of a ladies’ man’. Le Mesurier was something of a prankster, too. He was admonished for smuggling a toy gun into a joint 18th birthday party, staged at a Royal Navy base.
A tribute paid to Mr Le Mesurier says ‘thank you for all that you did while you walked this earth, so happy to call you our friend’. The humanitarian was found to have a collection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series in his home, according to police
But he showed steely determination by completing the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, and began plotting his path to Sandhurst — via Queen’s University, Belfast — while still in the school’s Cadet Force.
He is pictured twirling a gypsy girl as part of a White Helmets video which painted him in a heroic light
On a tour of duty in Sarajevo, he adopted a puppy named Pilva, after a Bosnian river, and using it to endear himself to local girls. But he met his first wife, Frenchwoman Aurelie Merle, at a UN function.
He served with distinction in several trouble-spots before leaving the Army in 2000 to embark on a career that often tested his pragmatism and derring-do. He worked with Palestinian prisoners on the West Bank, helped the rescue effort after the 2004 Asian tsunami and worked as a security consultant in the Middle East, where he learned Arabic.
By now divorced from his first wife, he met and married Sarah Tosh, an international development communications specialist. It is unclear why the marriage ended, but a friend blames the pressure of his mission in Syria, and says they remained ‘amicable’.
Then, in Istanbul, he fell for statuesque Emma, British-born daughter of a Swedish former BP oil executive. They were wed on Buyukada, the island where they made a home, and their wedding celebrations lasted four days.
The ceremony was staged at the history-steeped Splendid Palace Hotel, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, saw his daughter marry.
On the night of a failed military coup, in July 2016, troops loyal to President Erdogan stormed the hotel and arrested academics atan international conference, holding them as supposed agents of the CIA. So, even on the outwardly tranquil outcrop Le Mesurier chose as his hideaway, there was no escaping Istanbul’s intrigue. Though his wife remains detained while the Turkish secret service investigates his death, she seems unlikely ever to live in their villa.
A bouquet of flowers is left at a door step in honour of the British military intelligence officer. While detractors accuse the Helmets military group of faking videos to show children and women being plucked from blitzed buildings, the short answer is none. From my inquiries, it seems everyone who dealt with him was utterly convinced he had one overriding purpose: to save lives and alleviate suffering
So what tangible evidence is there, if any, that Le Mesurier was using the White Helmets and Mayday to spy for the West and stoke anti-Russian and Syrian feeling?
Though detractors accuse the Helmets of faking videos to show children and women being plucked from blitzed buildings, the short answer is none. From my inquiries, it seems everyone who dealt with him was utterly convinced he had one overriding purpose: to save lives and alleviate suffering. Yet this hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists making capital from his death.
Prominent among them is Craig Murray, the UK’s eccentric former ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was forced to resign after speaking out against the Tashkent regime, and left his wife for an Uzbek belly-dancer.
Even as Le Mesurier’s body was being flown home, for a probable burial in Surrey or Hampshire, where his family live, Murray — supposedly with inside knowledge — callously blogged that the White Helmets ‘worked hand-in-glove’ with ‘jihadist headchoppers’.Astoundingly, he even suggested the West might have been complicit in his death. Why? Well, of course, Le Mesurier had ‘lost his usefulness’ to Western security services now that Turkey controls most of Northern Syria, and he had become ‘a liability’.
Mr Le Mesurier and his wife often stayed at the apartment in Istanbul while they were at the White Helmets headquarters where Ms Winberg was also a director of their foundation
‘Whether he was killed or took his own life from the resultant stress I have no information at present,’ Murray wrote, adding that he was seeking more information from his ‘excellent contacts’ in Turkey.
Mumbo-jumbo or otherwise, this sort of internet rumour-mongering is further muddying the already murky waters. As to whether Le Mesurier took his own life, I share the reservations of a Turkish pathology professor, who — after assessing his reported injuries, and the position of his body in relation to the window — asserted: ‘It doesn’t look like suicide.’
Inspecting the scene, the first thing that strikes you is how unlikely it all seems. The window from which he supposedly jumped is quite small, so it would have been quite a struggle for a man of 5ft 10in tall to clamber through it.
And as it is relatively low — only about 40ft above the passageway — death was surely not inevitable.
If Le Mesurier was intent on killing himself, there are many more suitable places visible from his apartment, including the 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge. With a 540ft drop to the Bosphorus, this is a notorious suicide spot.
Emma Hedvig Christina Winberg is pictured on the arm of an officer as she tries to avoid the press. It has been claimed that her husband worked for MI6 or whether his death has been exploited in the East-West propaganda war
He was well aware he and his staff were at risk, and took every possible security precaution, fixing double-locks to Mayday’s heavy iron door and reportedly fitting a second, inner door with fingerprint identification. Could a Kremlin hitman have gained entry?
Might Le Mesurier have left the building and been accosted in the deserted, dimly-lit alleyway? Then again, as a heavy smoker, might he have stepped onto the narrow strip of flat roof below the fourth-floor flat and slipped?
Whatever happened last Monday, among those who knew and revered him, there is universal consensus that he was no spook.
President Bashar al-Assad speaking during an interview with Russian TV in Damascus in a separate interview earlier this month. He claimed ‘Western intelligence as a whole’ was behind Le Mesurier’s death
Lena Arkani is not alone in fearing that the Turks might never uncover the facts. She believes the best hope lies in a British coroner’s inquest. ‘There are many questions,’ she says. ‘James was so strong and intelligent, and he had so much to look forward to . . . I’m baffled, shocked.’
Her doubts were echoed repeatedly to me in the City of Spies.
For the sake of the ‘humanitarian James Bond’, a deeply honourable man on a mission to save the innocent victims of an evil war, we must hope the truth emerges.
Additional reporting: NEIL SEARS