The Man Who Killed Hammarskjöld?
In the afternoon of 17 September 1961 a four-engine DC-6 passenger plane SE-BDY Albertina took off from Leopoldville, the capital of the former Belgian Congo, bound for Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (then part of the British-run Central African Federation). On board was a Swedish flight crew, the Swedish UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, members of his staff and an armed security team: in total, 15 men and one woman. Hammarskjöld’s plane never made it to Ndola. Instead, just after midnight local time on 17/18 September, as it turned over high ground while making its approach, the DC-6 ploughed into trees in rough bushland several miles to the west of the airfield. By the next afternoon, when Rhodesian police finally discovered the shattered, melted wreckage resting on and around a vast termite mound in the bush, there was only one survivor: the American chief security officer and Korean War veteran, Sergeant Harold Julian. The remaining crew and passengers on the Albertina perished in the fireball that consumed the DC-6 when it hit the ground and broke apart, spilling thousands of litres of aviation fuel. Thrown clear of the fire, Hammarskjöld might have survived for a time after the crash. It was somewhat surprising that Julian, exposed to the tropical sun, was still alive. The police took him to Ndola hospital suffering from 50 per cent burns, a fractured, dislocated right ankle, skull injuries and uraemia. Before he died a few days later, Julian told Inspector Trevor Wright of the Rhodesian police of sparks in the sky, and an explosion. He also said that shortly before the plane hit the ground Hammarskjöld had demanded that they ‘go back’. Eager to prove that the crash was an accident rather than the result of a bomb or action by a hostile plane, the first Rhodesian inquiry into the disaster dismissed Julian’s confused ramblings, arguing that the symptoms of uraemia included spots and flashes of light before the eyes.
Since Hammarskjöld’s death, various theories have been put forward suggesting that pilot error was not the cause of the crash. Was there a hijacker onboard SE-BDY who disappeared when it crashed, as was claimed in Notre Guerre au Katanga (1963)? Or was Hammarskjöld’s plane attacked by a smaller one – a de Havilland Dove or a Fouga Magister jet trainer – that shot at or dropped a bomb on the bigger DC-6, as others have suggested, without much concrete evidence. There have even been allegations that ground fire brought the plane down over Ndola.
Despite the lack of hard evidence, suspicion about the crash has persisted. Hammarskjöld was due to have talks in Ndola with Moïse Tshombe, the leader of the secessionist province of Katanga in south-eastern Congo. The secession, which had followed the Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960, was prompted and supported by Belgium-based mining interests – above all, the powerful Union Minière du Haut Katanga – keen to continue mineral extraction in the province. They put up the financial backing for Tshombe, while Belgian settlers in Katanga, white mercenaries and former Belgian Army officers provided the military support. The UN was given the job of reintegrating Katanga and it was as part of this mission that Hammarskjöld set out for Ndola, where he hoped to persuade Tshombe and his mercenary army to accept a peaceful settlement that would dispense with the need for UN troops to take further military action against Katanga following an initial operation the previous month.
After three official inquiries, two by the Rhodesian authorities in the Central African Federation and one by the UN, no firm evidence of skulduggery emerged. In 1992, Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Australian diplomat George Ivan Smith, both of whom were working for the UN in the Congo in the early 1960s, wrote to the Guardian arguing that Hammarskjöld had been the victim of a kidnap that went wrong. The following year, in another letter to the Guardian, Bengt Rosio, the former Swedish Consul-General in Leopoldville, dismissed the idea but agreed that a number of questions about the plane crash remained unanswered. O’Brien reiterated his position in his memoirs, published three years ago, adding Roy Welensky, the Prime Minister of the CAF, to the list of those who had been involved. Smith, who had been the Secretary-General’s personal assistant, maintained a keen interest in the affair until his death in 1995.
I have had a preliminary look at his papers, which he left to the Bodleian. They contain a great deal of material about Hammarskjöld’s death, including letters and transcripts of tapes that he made on the subject – and, above all, accounts of meetings with former mercenaries in the Congo. Smith had said in the 1990s that these men’s statements formed the basis of his judgment about the crash. Though they provide no clear answers to the puzzle, there is some intriguing detail that seems to corroborate the theory that Hammarskjöld’s plane went down as a result of interference by hostile aircraft.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 23 No. 18 · 20 September 2001
Matthew Hughes’s reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld’s death at Ndola (LRB, 9 August) are highly debatable. I knew George Ivan Smith well, talked to him extensively and wrote two books on the subject of Hammarskjöld’s death in addition to the report I submitted in 1993 to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which had commissioned me to investigate rumours regarding the Ndola accident. I have also read Smith’s notes.
Claude de Kemoularia refers to people whose identity he never checked. These individuals claim that Hammarskjöld’s DC6 was followed by two Fouga planes operating out of Kolwezi in an attempt to kidnap him and bring him to Kamina. Only one Fouga existed: KAT 92 (factory number 295). KAT 91 had crashed and the UN had impounded KAT 93. KAT 92 was not equipped for night-flying and had no glare shield, which means that a pilot would have been blinded by his own firing. Its range was barely sufficient to reach Ndola from Kolwezi; Kamina was out of the question. The pilot of Hammarskjöld’s plane never sent a mayday and there were no bullet holes in the fuselage.
Hughes writes that there were mercenary pilots available. Of the 21 whose logs I have checked, only two were capable of flying a Fouga (in daylight). Neither was in Kolwezi on the night of the crash. There is no record of any Beukels – possibly ‘de Troye’ has borrowed the name from Beuken, who flew cargo for a Sabena subsidiary in the Congo at the time.
Hammarskjöld did not set out for Ndola to persuade Tshombe to accept a peaceful settlement to the Congo impasse, but to resolve an immediate crisis involving the UN troops in the country. It arose on 13 September, the day he arrived in Léopoldville (he had decided to undertake a fact-finding mission prior to the opening of the UN General Assembly on 19 September). At 3 a.m. on that day three of his senior staff in the Congo – Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mahmoud Khiary and K.S. Rajah – launched a military attack on Katanga in order to arrest Tshombe and four of his ministers. In clear contravention of the UN Charter, they used a warrant issued by the Congolese Government and brought to Elisabethville by Vladimir Fabry, legal adviser to Sture Linner, Hammarskjöld’s top representative in the Congo. Brigadier Rajah called the operation ‘Morthor’, Hindi for ‘twist and break’, but it failed dismally. People were killed and world opinion turned against the UN peacekeepers for opening fire on civilian targets. When the Congolese Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula hosted a welcoming banquet for Hammarskjöld on the evening of 13 September, it had to be curtailed so that he could meet with Riches, the British Ambassador in Léopoldville, who had been told by Whitehall that British logistical support would be withdrawn immediately and Britain’s veto exercised in the Security Council if the UN did not end hostilities. His message was confirmed by a British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Lord Lansdowne, who flew to Léopoldville the next day. Hammarskjöld agreed to fly to Ndola to negotiate a ceasefire with Tshombe and the details were decided shortly before 10 o’clock on 17 September. Lansdowne flew down to Ndola a little ahead of him. He travelled in a chartered DC6, OO-RIC, Hammarskjöld in the Force Commander’s DC6, SE-BDY, just repaired having been fired at over Elisabethville the night before.
The first suggestion that Hammarskjöld had been shot down came from Sture Linner’s personal assistant J. Poujoulat, and the press swallowed the bait. An assortment of theories was supplied by Transair, the Swedish charter company which operated SE-BDY. Having just started the first Swedish charter flights to Mallorca, Transair was embarrassed by the possibility that an error on the part of one of its captains had – as the Inquiry Commission later concluded – caused Hammarskjöld’s death. The Morthor scandal was quickly and conveniently forgotten as the media instead began searching for a non-existent assassin.
Hughes also mentions O’Brien’s theory about a hijacker on board. Mercenaries are not kamikazes: they kill for money and like the rest of us, they leave a corpse behind when they die, in an air crash or otherwise. The French mercenaries Trinquier and Faulques claimed the credit for a hijack in Notre Guerre au Katanga (1963), but then 120 Swedes have so far confessed that they murdered Olof Palme. Kemoularia never reported his conversation with de Troye and Co to the police. He later became French Ambassador to the United Nations, but never told the UN that he ‘knew’ who killed Hammarskjöld. According to a letter from Smith to me in 1993, the plan was that he and Kemoularia would sell the story to Paris Match and donate the proceeds to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.
I was present at the Airport in Ndola that evening of 17/18 September 1961 until well after the DC6 turned and was not seen again, and there were certainly no other aircraft in the air or even in the vicinity until daylight, when the search started. This was a time of intense political feeling within Northern Rhodesia, as we prepared for various changes leading ultimately to the break-up of the Central African Federation. Any evidence given by freedom fighters that put the Federal Authority in a bad light was valued not for its veracity but for the publicity it would achieve, whether it concerned fighter aircraft in the dark or strange white men in the forest.
As a pilot of many years’ experience, I remain puzzled as to why the captain of the DC6 chose to maintain radio silence after passing overhead, and to execute a visual rather than an instrument approach: the more usual nighttime procedure at an unfamiliar location, particularly with a VIP on board. Had he taken the latter option, he would have reported to Air Traffic Control that he had passed the non-directional beacon (at Ndola this is 2.5 miles from the end of the runway), turned and again reported to ATC that he was ‘beacon-inbound’, leaving the tower in no doubt of his position and landing time. As it was, the aircraft hit the trees more than nine miles from the airport, travelling at about a thousand feet lower than it should have been. There were those who wondered at the time if the very bright orange street lights confused the pilot, who assumed they were the runway lighting.
Vol. 23 No. 21 · 1 November 2001
Bengt Rösiö (Letters, 20 September) dismisses the evidence left by George Ivan Smith that Dag Hammarskjöld’s death may have resulted from an attempted hijack. He argued similarly in 1992 when the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs sent him to investigate the matter. According to Rösiö, the Fouga which was supposedly used for the hijacking was unsuitable and did not have sufficient range.
Ironically, the best source for the opposing view is Bengt Rösiö himself. He was stationed in the Congo as a diplomat in 1961, and was closely involved in the aftermath of the events. In June 1962 he told his superior in the Swedish Foreign Office that there were 42 aircraft under Tshombe’s control. ‘It cannot,’ he wrote, ‘be excluded that a possible attack by a renegade against the SE-BDY could have come from one of these.’ In May he had written to Hammarskjöld’s half-brother Knut, at the time Assistant General Secretary of EFTA in Geneva: ‘You can in no way exclude the possibility that the SE-BDY was forced down through surprising manoeuvres (not including firing) by a private plane operating from a small airfield in Katanga or Rhodesia.’
Admittedly, this was before the Swedish Government closed the case, accepting the verdicts of the two commissions, one from the British-run Central African Federation and one from the UN. The former came to a foregone conclusion: its chairman had made it clear before the proceedings started that he believed the only possible cause was pilot error. The UN commission left an open verdict. Neither commission made a real effort to move beyond the immediate technical details characteristic of a ‘normal’ air crash, into the obvious political circumstances that surrounded the disaster. Knut Hammarskjöld requested that all air movements within 1000 kilometres of Ndola on the night of the disaster be examined, but the Swedish Government didn’t pass the request on to the commissions.
In the end, the Swedish Government accepted the maximum penalty: not only the loss of Dag Hammarskjöld, but the attribution of responsibility for his death to a Swedish crew. Why? Parallels have been drawn with the behaviour of the Swedish Government when Raul Wallenberg disappeared in the USSR in 1945. The overriding aim was to avoid embarrassment, to avoid jeopardising friendly relations and Sweden’s neutral position. The ‘kidnapping track’ was not to be examined, not even in order to be disproved.
The two commissions left a number of problems unsolved. What was the reason for the activity, noticed by so many witnesses, along the route the DC-6 was expected to take? What explained the strange behaviour of the airport manager and the traffic controller who went to bed instead of starting search and rescue operations when the plane did not come in to land? And why did the British High Commissioner, Lord Alport, say that ‘the General Secretary has probably decided to go elsewhere’?
A telegram Alport sent to the Secretary of State on 21 September 1961, available in the Public Record Office but to my knowledge never published, includes the following: ‘My recollection is that after the last message from the aircraft to Ndola control a period elapsed, during which the aircraft appeared to be transmitting to some other station.’ What station – the hijacker? This recollection was apparently never forwarded to the commissions, either by Alport or by the Foreign Office.
Vol. 33 No. 24 · 15 December 2011
Fifty years after Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in September 1961, conspiracy theories are still being put forward about the plane crash in which he was killed. Ten years ago Matthew Hughes suggested in this paper that his plane had crashed as the result of a failed kidnap attempt by Belgian mercenaries (LRB, 9 August 2001). In her recently published book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, Susan Williams asserts that Hammarskjöld’s death was ‘almost certainly the result of a sinister intervention’. Like others who have suggested that the accident was the result of sabotage, she dismisses the findings of the Rhodesian investigation and the subsequent public inquiry into the crash. She argues that local people’s claims to have seen a second aircraft on the evening of the crash were ignored. However, neither Williams nor other conspiracy theorists have considered the technical findings of the investigation. My father, the late Bob Nelson, was one of the two UN observers who took part. A leading expert in air accident investigation, he was employed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and had been the head of its Aircraft Accident unit. He flew out to Rhodesia immediately after the crash to examine the site and the wreckage with a Canadian colleague from ICAO.
My father supported the findings of the Rhodesian investigation. In 1993, when Bengt Rösiö was commissioned by the Swedish government to investigate rumours surrounding the accident, my father wrote to him summarising his view that the Swedish aircraft had flown under control into trees ten miles from Ndola airport, where the pilot had been intending to land. At the time it should have been flying 1600 feet above the ground. It had its wheels and flaps down, ready for landing. If it had been shot down or there had been an explosion on board, the aircraft would have fallen vertically into the trees; in fact it flew into the trees at a shallow descending angle (5º). Sabotage was thus ruled out. My father agreed that the crash was the result of pilot error, which could have been caused by faulty instrument readings while making a night-time approach.
Despite this expert assessment the report of the official UN inquiry in 1962 was inconclusive. My father’s view was that this was due to political pressure, and the Swedish government’s reluctance at that time to consider the possibility that the Swedish crew was in any way responsible for the accident. Nonetheless, Rösiö, in his 1993 review, acknowledged that the evidence indicated the aircraft had made a controlled descent and that there was no evidence that it crashed as the result of outside interference.
Williams includes a number of photographs taken during the investigation of the crash. One shows the damage to the trees; Williams notes that this extended over a 150-yard stretch, without being aware that this pattern of damage indicates a controlled descent. Another picture is of four men at the scene of the crash. Williams identifies two of the men, dressed in boiler suits, as ‘Swedish experts’ and the other two men, dressed in shorts, as Rhodesians. She criticises the ‘relaxed attitude of the Rhodesian investigation’. However, my father is one of the men dressed in shorts, and on the back of his copy he has noted that the other three men in the photograph were Swedish government representatives. Her error in wrongly identifying the men in this photograph, and then linking their casual style of dress to a lack of rigour in the conduct of the investigation, does not inspire confidence in the rigour of her own research.
Vol. 34 No. 2 · 26 January 2012
In her response to my book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Suzy Nelson refers to the Rhodesian inquiries into the plane crash that killed the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in September 1961 (Letters, 15 December 2011). I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify the difference between the initial board of investigation, which was set up immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian Department of Civil Aviation; and the subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, which included public hearings. The first inquiry, in which Nelson’s father, the late T.R. Nelson, participated as technical adviser to J.P. Fournier, the accredited representative of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, concluded its report in January 1962; the second, in February 1962. It is understandable that over the 50 years since the crash, these two investigations have become conflated in people’s recollections.
Nelson claims that her father ‘supported the findings of the Rhodesian investigation’, according to which sabotage was ‘ruled out’. She adds: ‘My father agreed that the crash was the result of pilot error.’ But the board of investigation’s report was more qualified. It stated that they were unable ‘to determine a specific or definite cause’. It regarded pilot error as one of several probable causes, but also considered other possibilities, including the ‘wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees’. The board regarded this as unlikely but was unable to rule it out completely, ‘taking into consideration the extent of the destruction of the aircraft and the lack of survivor’s evidence’: between 75 and 80 per cent of the fuselage had been burned.
The subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry drew on the work of the board of investigation, but reached a conclusion which it claimed was ‘more precise’: it identified pilot error as the cause of the crash on the basis of an elimination of the other suggested causes. Mr Nelson was not a member of the commission, but gave evidence as an expert witness.
A third inquiry was set up by the UN and reported in March 1962. This reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack. While it could not exclude the possibility of pilot error, it ‘found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash’. It was Mr Nelson’s belief, according to Suzy Nelson, that the UN verdict was due to political pressure and to the Swedish government’s reluctance to blame the Swedish crew. However, she does not tell us what her father’s evidence was.
Nelson notes that in one of the photographs in my book, I wrongly identify two out of four men as Rhodesians. One of the men, she explains, was her father. On the back of his own copy of the photograph, she adds, he described the three others as Swedish government representatives. I have since learned that one of the men was almost certainly B. Virving, chief engineer of Transair Sweden, the company which owned the plane. The fact that Mr Nelson made such a mistake, though in the photograph himself, illustrates the difficulties involved in the identification of people and their roles in such photographs.
Susan Williams, in her book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, details the long list of national, political, economic and racial interests in the outcome of decolonisation in general and the struggle over Katanga in particular. The provincial government in Elisabethville, its Belgian advisers and its mercenaries, foreign investors in the mines of Katanga, white Rhodesia, the British and other governments all had a vital interest in the planned meeting between Hammarskjöld and Moïse Tshombe, the president of the province of Katanga.
A central figure in this pattern was the British high commissioner in the Rhodesian Federation, Lord ‘Cub’ Alport, who had been instructed by his government to receive and look after the two participants in the meeting. On the day Hammarskjöld was due to arrive, Alport kept saying that Hammarskjöld might not, after all, come to Ndola. When his plane had, in fact, arrived over Ndola but hadn’t landed, Alport let it be known that the secretary-general ‘had gone somewhere else’, then went to bed, thereby causing an extraordinary delay in the search for the crashed plane.
Alport’s part in the events emerged only when some of his reports were declassified in the 1990s. In a document dating from 1963, Alport refers to an anonymous ‘representative’ he sent from Rhodesia to Katanga during the upheavals there. This was Neil Ritchie, a diplomatic ‘first secretary’ in Salisbury, but in truth an MI6 agent. During the 48 hours before the events at Ndola, Ritchie was intensively engaged, together with the British consul in Elisabethville and representatives of the Union Minière, in preparing a meeting to stop ‘the UN offensive’ in Katanga. It is difficult not to see the activities surrounding Hammarskjöld’s arrival over Ndola as a continuation of Ritchie’s efforts in Katanga.