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.

The trail begins on 12 January 1967, when Smith’s friend Claude de Kemoularia, a French businessman and diplomat, who had also been a personal assistant to Hammarskjöld, ran into an old acquaintance, Robert Ahier, at the Paris Opéra. Ahier was a journalist and now held a senior position with United Press International. In the course of their conversation, Ahier told Kemoularia that he had a tenuous lead on the fate of the Albertina. He had come across someone who had told him of a Belgian pilot with first-hand knowledge of the crash. Kemoularia pressed Ahier to arrange a meeting as soon as possible and on 21 January, Ahier’s contact, a Mr de Troye (sometimes transcribed by Smith as de Croix), duly phoned Kemoularia. An hour later, de Troye, accompanied by a young man, Mr Grant – or possibly Grent – arrived at Kemoularia’s office in Paris. De Troye, who spoke French with a markedly Belgian accent, told Kemoularia that he and Grant were ‘interviewing’ people who might be interested in working in Portuguese Angola and that they would themselves be leaving for Africa in a few days’ time. Kemoularia drew the reasonable conclusion that they were mercenaries. Desperate not to lose contact with people he was sure had taken part in the Congo wars a few years earlier, Kemoularia suggested that they visit him in Monaco, where he worked for Prince Rainier, before their departure from Marseille.

On 24 January, de Troye called from a hotel in Monaco to arrange a second meeting. Kemoularia was ill and received de Troye and Grant in his flat. One of the first things they told Kemoularia, according to Smith’s papers, was that ‘they had with them an African woman who had married a mercenary, presumably Belgian, and that he had been killed in the Congo. She was pregnant and living in Marseille. They were taking her to Brussels to ask the Congolese Ambassador to indemnify her for her husband’s death’ – he had died fighting for the Katanga rebellion. Kemoularia spent the afternoon taking notes. The two men had an unusual, and highly conspiratorial tale. ‘They told me,’ Kemoularia recalled to Smith,

that they had been ‘foreign volunteers’ in the Congo. They never used the word ‘mercenaries’ … They spoke to me of a Mr X. They would never give his name, but they told me that he was senior to the Commander of the Katangese Air Force and other elements. In fact he seemed to have the role of high command based around Kolwezi; they claim also Kamina, but … we understand that Kamina was under UN control at the time. This Mr X represented the high Katangese command and the so-called Katangese Army was in point of fact run entirely by these volunteers under the direction of Mr X.

Glossing the information that de Troye and Grant gave to Kemoularia, Smith tells us that Mr X appears to have headed a team of about ‘a dozen powerful people’, a ‘control group’, based in Kolwezi, representing the interests of European industrialists, soldiers and white settlers. High-level sources, presumably in the Governments of France and Belgium, fed Mr X information about the international negotiations on the secession. With more power and influence than Tshombe, Mr X was, in effect, the ruler of Katanga. His shadowy group of white mercenaries directed operations and took decisions without Tshombe’s agreement or knowledge. Alongside him was the better known Lieutenant-Colonel Lamoumine, a former Belgian Army major, who was nominally in charge of ‘military technical assistance’ in Katanga.

The prospect of direct talks between Hammarskjöld and Tshombe was, according to Smith, a matter of great anxiety for the control group. ‘The fear was,’ he says, ‘that Tshombe, left free to negotiate with the United Nations, would understand the principles on which it was operating, i.e. non-interference in the domestic affairs of the Congo, but under obligation to encourage actions to integrate the country by the Congolese at the behest of the Security Council … The decision was taken by the control group at Kolwezi to attempt to reach Hammarskjöld before he could get to talk with Tshombe at Ndola.’ If Tshombe came to terms with the UN, he goes on, ‘it would put in jeopardy the position of Europeans not only in the Congo, but also in the Rhodesias and in all parts of Africa … where white minorities still held immense power.’ The objective thus was to kidnap Hammarskjöld. And in the papers, Smith cites his own experience a few months after the crash, when he and Brian Urquhart of the UN were kidnapped – and roughed up – by mercenaries who ‘feared that the United Nations team was getting closer to, and desiring to have talks with Tshombe, with a view to peaceful integration of the province’. At their meeting with Kemoularia on 24 January, Grant and de Troye told him that on the day Hammarskjöld flew to Ndola, Mr X and Lamoumine’s people seemed extremely busy.

There cannot have been much in this mercenary saga to surprise Kemoularia. Financed by Belgian industrialists from the Union Minière, who were terrified of losing out in Katanga, Mr X, Lamoumine and their associates were a brutal and brutalised lot, deservedly known as ‘les affreux’ – an assortment of carpetbaggers, misfits and ideologues. Some of them were English-speaking, but the majority were French-speaking and had served in the Belgian or French Army. Some had fought in ‘dirty wars’ in Indochina and Algeria; others were French extremists from Algeria – ‘Ultras’ from the OAS – exiled to the Congo by de Gaulle in August 1960 as penance for their involvement in the attempted putsch against him. He gave them little choice: ‘Stay in France, be cashiered and put on trial or go to Katanga and defend the white man’s cause in Central Africa.’ They despised the UN’s objectives in the Congo and would take whatever action was required to achieve their goals. In October 1956, during the war in Algeria, French officers had hijacked an aeroplane in international airspace which was carrying Algerian nationalists, including Ahmed Ben Bella. There was also more than one attempt to assassinate de Gaulle. By late 1961 men such as these dominated the disparate elements that made up Tshombe’s small mercenary-led force.

In December 1961, three months after Hammarskjold’s death, they led a well-timed attack on UN forces in Katanga in an attempt to block reintegration, and succeeded in delaying the whole process. The kidnapping of Hammarskjöld follows this pattern of direct intervention. Had they detained the Secretary-General it is not at all clear that this would have furthered their cause. But in their anxiety, Smith’s notes suggest, lay the germ of a belief that they would be able to ‘put their point of view’ to Hammarskjöld – an anxiety compounded by the fact that only a few days earlier, UN forces had embarked on a new operation to find and expel mercenaries from the Congo. The ‘witnesses’ who spoke to Kemoularia said that the Europeans in Katanga ‘had their own plan for a solution of the problem and they were convinced that the situation could be settled harmoniously, so they wanted to present that plan to the Secretary-General’. Yet intimidation must have been the greater part of it, as it was with Smith and Urquhart. At the time, ‘les affreux’ would do anything to save a way of life in Africa that was fast disappearing. Those who had fought in Algeria also saw Katanga as a means to more ambitious ends, including a continued settler presence in the Maghreb. With links to hardliners in Algeria, the French mercenaries in Katanga felt that a victory over the UN would enable them to appeal to other extremists in Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Portuguese Africa and South Africa and to open a front against African independence.

About to depart for Angola, de Troye and Grant were very much in the mould of these ‘volunteers’ fighting for white supremacy. Before the meeting with Kemoularia came to a close, the two men confirmed that the pilot mentioned by Ahier had indeed been a key man in the kidnap plan and had ‘caused Hammarskjöld’s plane to crash’. It was agreed that when they went up to Brussels to negotiate on behalf of the widow in Marseille, they would contact the pilot – a Belgian by the name of Beukels – and ask him to come to Paris to see Kemoularia. With the meeting at an end, Kemoularia stood at the window of his apartment and watched the two men drive off in an Alfa Romeo.

On 26 January he returned to Paris, where he had a flat in Neuilly. Some time in the first two weeks of February, de Troye called by to say that he had been in contact with the pilot and would arrange for him to travel down from Brussels. Three days later de Troye came again, but there was still no sign of the elusive pilot. De Troye, however, seemed to be preparing Kemoularia for the meeting. He told him that the pilot was a troubled man whose involvement in Hammarskjöld’s death had taken its toll. He now worked for a construction company in Belgium but had lost weight and was drinking heavily. De Troye asked Kemoularia for money to meet the travel costs between Brussels and Paris and Kemoularia obliged. He had nonetheless begun to feel that de Troye was stringing him along.

Soon afterwards, however (the date Kemoularia gives is 13 February), de Troye appeared at the flat in Neuilly with the pilot. Kemoularia has little to say, as far as I can tell from my first examination of Smith’s papers, about Beukels’s manner and whether or not he was as distressed as de Troye made out. But he remarks on the anxiety of the two men. ‘It was only de Troye and the alleged pilot who came upstairs to my apartment … Grant, or some other person involved, stood guard down in the hallway of the apartment block. Obviously they wanted to be absolutely certain that there was not an arrangement to have the pilot put under arrest.’

There are discrepancies in the ordering of Smith’s papers and it is not clear whether the information that follows about the attempt to intercept Hammarskjöld’s DC-6 was provided only by Beukels – some of the general points may have been touched on by de Troye in earlier meetings with Kemoularia. But the notes give the impression that Mr X and Lamoumine had their own sources inside the UN and knew when Hammarskjöld left Leopoldville for Ndola. Beukels was instructed by the high command in Kolwezi to fly to Ndola, intercept Hammarskjöld’s plane and bring him to Katanga. The aim was not to bring down the DC-6 but to redirect it. Beukels flew one of two Fouga Magister trainer jets, equipped with long-range fuel tanks and a 7.62 mm machine-gun. Having reached his objective, Beukels beamed a strong light on the DC-6 and ordered the aeroplane to follow him to Kolwezi or Kamina – again it isn’t clear from the notes – under the threat of force. Beukels then fired warning rounds, which he claimed brought down the DC-6. That the objective was to kidnap and not kill Hammarskjöld is attested to by the fact that Beukels and the other pilot – who never engaged the DC-6 – were put before a kangaroo court on their return to Katanga, presided over by Mr X and Lamoumine. Indeed, Beukels feared he would be shot for his mistake.

How credible are the claims of Beukels and de Troye? Kemoularia had raised the issue of credibility with Ahier on the phone after his first meetings with Grant and de Troye. Ahier thought that the men might be looking to make money from the newspapers. But none of them tried to get anything more than the cost of their fares to the rendezvous. Kemoularia felt that Beukels wanted to unburden himself of his part in Hammarskjöld’s death. More important, as Smith took the trouble to find out in situ, is the fact that witnesses to the crash noted the presence of at least one other plane over Ndola on the night of 17 September, buzzing the larger DC-6.

Most of these witnesses were local residents, quickly dismissed by the Rhodesian authorities at the initial investigation and again at the extensive inquiry presented to the CAF Assembly in 1962. The Rhodesians argued that local blacks, ignorant about technical matters, mistook the tail-light on the DC-6 for a second, smaller plane. The inquiry emphasised that statements taken from the charcoal burners in the bush who saw the crash were inconsistent and that they made their depositions only after speaking to trade-union representatives. According to the Rhodesians, these blacks were ‘excited’, ‘not impressive’, ‘not reliable’ and were having a ‘beer drink’ when the DC-6 came down. Bo Virving, chief of air operations for the Swedish company that chartered the plane, attended the Rhodesian hearings and was shocked at the bullying and harassment of African witnesses. Many locals were afraid to give evidence, with good cause: Ledison Daka, Posyana Banda and Damson Moyo, the three charcoal burners who found the crash site, all got 18 months’ hard labour from the Ndola magistrate for looting bits and pieces from the wreckage. Coincidentally, the charcoal burners claimed to have seen two whites at the site soon after the DC-6 came down – they drove off after a cursory inspection.

Many of the locals were, in fact, excellent witnesses. T.J. Kankasa was the head of the Twapia Town Management Board and, after Independence in 1964, became Zambia’s ambassador to Zaire. He had also served an apprenticeship in the Royal Rhodesian Air Force and knew a lot about the sounds and silhouettes of modern aircraft. Kankasa saw the smaller plane beam lights onto the bigger one and immediately telephoned the police to report this. They promised to send an officer but none appeared and the police stonewalled when he called again. The complaints of Kankasa and others met with the reply that African nationalists, keen to cause trouble, had got at the witnesses.

Smith found further oddities when he spoke to local whites. A European District Commissioner living just ten miles from Ndola told him that the pilot flying over Ndola at the time of the crash was a man named Beukels. How he knew this is not recorded. Another European, a British naval officer, informed him that a heavy bullet or cannon shell had passed through the rear part of the mudguard on his car as he travelled in the vicinity of the crash in the late evening of 17 September – a fact which never emerged at the subsequent inquiries though he had alerted the police.

When he spoke to Kemoularia, Beukels insisted that the CAF authorities had helped him. He said that the airport control tower had kept the two Fougas fully informed of the progress of Hammarskjöld’s flight and directed the jets onto the DC-6 once they entered Northern Rhodesian airspace. Indeed, it was the willingness of Ndola to direct the Fougas that allowed them to take off at the last moment from Katanga: they didn’t have to waste time and fuel finding the DC-6.

In Northern Rhodesia, as in Katanga, dislike of the UN was running high. Before Belgium withdrew from the Congo, Welensky had mooted the idea of a political union between Katanga and the Central African Federation, a scheme only scuppered under pressure from London. As Bengt Rosio recalled, the whites at Ndola evinced a raw hatred of the UN and there was jubilation at the news of Hammarskjöld’s death. At the time of the UN’s first military operation against the Katanga rebellion a month before the crash, Welensky laid on a show of support for Katanga and jammed the roads around Ndola with Rhodesian troops and military vehicles. He also moved warplanes to Ndola and promised that he would retaliate against any UN air operations in Katanga, claiming that they would inevitably spill over into Northern Rhodesia.

The rapid closure of Ndola airport despite the fact that Hammarskjöld’s plane had passed over it, but then failed to land, reinforces Beukels’s claim that he was acting in collaboration with Ndola. A police officer who had seen a flash in the sky just after midnight went to the airport early in the morning of 18 September to report what he had seen. The airport manager, J.H. Williams, was not staying at the usual hotel in Ndola, but at a smaller establishment run by two former white mercenaries ejected from the Congo by the UN. When he was eventually woken and told of the incident he said he could do nothing until first light. In the event, the search didn’t begin until later that morning – after Welensky had given the order. By then Julian was the only survivor – and not for much longer. Smith told the Guardian in 1992 that he had questioned the duty officer in the control tower at the time of the crash, who told him: ‘You are right to inquire. It was not a normal flying accident.’

Before the crash, Northern Rhodesia had been a conduit for mercenaries, military equipment and general supplies going to and from Katanga. The US State Department warned that Kipushi airfield, which straddled the Katanga-Rhodesia border, was being used extensively by Katanga for logistical support, the movement of military personnel and, crucially, as a safe haven for rebel aircraft. (The State Department felt that, with Patrice Lumumba out of the way, an integrated Congo presented the best chance of thwarting Communism in Central Africa, although the CIA kept Washington’s options open.) At the same time, the UN accused Welensky of supplying Katanga with 40 mercenary-driven vehicles armed with machine-guns, and the CAF of assembling seven Fougas at Ndola airfield for use in Katanga. In recruiting offices in Bulawayo and Salisbury, more than two hundred English-speaking mercenaries had applied for service in Katanga.

In 1963, after protracted UN military operations had led to the defeat of the secession, a post-action report from the airbases at Kolwezi and Jadotville noted the presence of a variety of planes: Fougas, Doves, Vampires, Harvards, Piper Comanches, Mustangs and Dornier 28s. Among the mercenaries were trained pilots who were capable of flying at night with the Fougas, which had been smuggled out of France in 1961. Equipped with guns and bombs, these aircraft had the run of the Katangan skies until the arrival a few months later of UN Sabre jets supplied by Sweden and Ethiopia.

If Beukels is to be believed, and the evidence is compelling, Ndola and Katanga conspired to intercept and divert Hammarskjöld. The link afforded the two Fouga pilots by Ndola cut their flying time from Katanga and enabled them to mount their mission. The Americans had already remarked on the sharing of airbase facilities and the Swede, Bo Virving, recalled seeing a de Havilland Dove parked at Ndola just after the crash.

The real difficulty with Beukels’s testimony is his own assessment of what took place in the skies over Ndola in the minutes before the crash. It is unlikely that he hit the plane with his warning tracer shots, or even that the crew were aware of being fired on. Even with sustained fire, a Fouga flying at night at the limit of its range would have been hard pressed to bring down a DC-6. It seems more probable that the attempt to avoid the smaller aircraft distracted the Swedish crew turning to land over high ground. In any event, the intent and means to kidnap Hammarskjöld were present in September 1961 and, according to Ivan Smith and Claude de Kemoularia, there were witnesses who could have testified that this is precisely what was attempted.