The Man Who Killed Hammarskjöld?

Matthew Hughes

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.

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