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Who Killed Hammarskjöld?

News and Analysis

Who Killed Hammarskjöld?

On 18 September 1961, the second UN secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was killed in a mysterious plane crash in the Zambian town of Ndola. He was on a mission to resolve the crisis that convulsed Congo in the first months of its independence. Britain, Belgium, the USA, South Africa and the white Rhodesians were immediately suspected of murdering him.

The Swede, who became secretary general in 1953, had said only the year before that “the hardest thing of all – to die rightly – [is] an exam nobody is spared, and how many pass it?” Did Dag die rightly? In a sensational new investigative book out in London on 13 October,Susan Williams probes the controversy. Below is an extract from the book.

Between 10 and 15 minutes after midnight on Monday 18 September 1961, a DC-6B aircraft crashed near the airport of Ndola, a town in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), not far from the Congo border. The plane had flown from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and was taking Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary general, and his entourage, on a mission to try to bring peace to Congo. It was reported that only one of the 16 passengers was found alive – Harold Julien, chief of security, who died six days later. Questions were asked as strange details of the crash emerged. Given that Ndola air traffic control had seen the plane flying overhead and had granted the pilot permission to land, why did the airport manager close down the airport?

Why did Lord Alport, the British high commissioner in Salisbury (now Harare, the Zimbabwean capital), who was at the airport, insist that the secretary general must have decided “to go elsewhere”?

Why did it take until four hours after daybreak to start a search, even though local residents, policemen and soldiers reported seeing a great flash of light in the sky shortly after midnight?

Why was the missing aircraft not found for a full 15 hours, even though it was just eight miles away from the airport where it had been expected to land?

What about the second plane that had been seen to follow the secretary general’s aircraft? Why did the survivor refer to an explosion before the crash?

Why did Hammarskjöld have no burns, when the other victims were so badly charred? How did he escape the intense blaze, which destroyed 75 to 80 per cent of the fuselage?

Investigations Two days after the crash, the Rhodesian Federal Department of Civil Aviation set up an air accident investigation, as required by the international civil aviation authorities. The report concluded that the approach to the airport was normal and correct, except that it was about 1,700 feet lower than it should have been.

It stated that the evidence available did not allow for a “specific or definite cause” for the crash, because so much of the aircraft had been destroyed and there was so little information from the single survivor.

While it observed that pilot error was a possibility, it was unable to rule out the “wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees”.

This initial investigation was followed by two major public inquiries. The first was conducted by a Rhodesian commission, which produced its report in February 1962. It concluded that the crash was an accident, caused by pilot error.

The second major public inquiry was conducted by a UN commission. Unlike the Rhodesian inquiry, it delivered an open verdict on the cause of the crash when it produced its report in April 1962.

It argued that, as no special guard was provided for the plane prior to its departure from Leopoldville airport, an unauthorized approach to the aircraft for purposes of sabotage “cannot be excluded”: although the doors were said to have been locked when the plane was parked at Leopoldville, access was possible to the hydraulic compartment, the heating system, and the undercarriage.

The commission added that it “cannot exclude attack as a possible cause of the crash”. Concern was expressed at the delay in the search and rescue procedures, particularly since the plane crashed not far from an airfield on which 18 Rhodesian military aircraft, capable of carrying out an air search, were stationed.

Controversy over the cause of the crash continued. Thirty years later, international interest was revived by a letter written to the British newspaper, The Guardian, on 9 November 1992 by two former UN officials, George Ivan Smith and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

The heading of the letter made its contents clear – Hammarskjöld plane crash ‘no accident’.

In order to investigate Smith and O’Brien’s findings, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs authorised a further inquiry into the crash. The inquiry, which was a small-scale investigation, was conducted by Bengt Rosio, formerly the Swedish consul and head of mission in the Congo in the early 1960s and then a career diplomat in the Swedish Foreign Service.

Rosio produced a report in 1993, in which he concluded that the “least improbable” cause for the crash was CFIT – “Controlled Flight Into Terrain”. According to this theory, the pilot made an error in judgement regarding altitude, due to a sensory or optical illusion, which made him fly too low and crash into the trees. Rosio’s perception of the crash was not new, judging by a British official document from October 1961. This records that after a nine-day visit to Ndola, Rosio visited the first secretary at the British embassy in Leopoldville and said he was “personally satisfied that the crash was an accident and had been due to pilot’s error”.

He then listed the reasons why Swedish experts were critical of the Rhodesian investigation. Rosio’s purpose, reported the first secretary to the Foreign Office in London, “was I believe to help us and the Rhodesian authorities … and to give us the opportunity to avert subsequent criticism, particularly by the Afro-Asians”.

Serious concerns

Not one of these investigations has laid to rest the continuing suspicions about the crash of the plane that ended the lives of Secretary General Hammarskjöld and the other passengers and crew.

Conspiracy theories have proliferated – in the press, in books, and especially on the internet. But, in addition, serious legitimate concerns have failed to go away, even after nearly 50 years.

In 2005, Major General Bjorn Egge, a Norwegian who had been the UN’s head of military information in the Congo in 1961, with the rank of a colonel, suggested that Hammarskjöld had a round hole in his forehead that was possibly consistent with a bullet hole.

Now 87 years of age, Egge explained in a statement to the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, that straight after the crash in 1961, he had been sent to Ndola to collect the secretary general’s cipher machine and his briefcase, and had been allowed to see his dead body in the mortuary. The body seemed to have a hole in the forehead.

Egge said: “He was not burnt as were the other … casualties, but had a round hole in his forehead. On photos taken of the body, however, this hole has been removed. I have always asked myself why this was done. Similarly, the autopsy report has been removed from the case papers. Again, I ask why?” He added: “When I saw Hammarskjöld’s body at the hospital, two British doctors were present but not very willing to cooperate. However, I noticed the hole in Hammarskjöld’s forehead in particular.” Egge qualified his statement carefully in an interview with Aftenposten 10 days later. He said there was no tangible evidence that Hammarskjöld’s death was the result of a conscious act by a third party, but that circumstantial evidence pointed in this direction.

There have been ongoing suspicions, too, about the bullets found in the bodies of two of the security guards; the presence of these bullets was attributed by the Rhodesian inquiry report to the explosions of cartridge cases in the fire.

But at the time, the bullets led to considerable suspicion, expressed in particular by Major C. F. Westrell, a Swedish explosives expert. “From my experience,” said Westrell, “I can firmly state that ammunition for rifles, heavy machine-guns and pistols cannot, when heated by fire, eject bullets with sufficient force for the bullets to get into a human body.”

He based this statement on the results of some large-scale experiments to investigate the danger for firemen in approaching burning ammunition stores. His opinion was shared by Arne Svensson, chief of the technical department of the police in Stockholm, who said that if bullets were found in any of the victims of the air crash, they must have passed through the barrel of a weapon.

He also said that if a security guard had had an ammunition pouch placed close to his body and the ammunition was exploded by the heat of the fire, the walls of the pouch would have diminished the power of the explosion. In such circumstances, it is almost impossible for the bullets to go through clothes. These suspicions about the bullets have persisted.

Questions have also been asked about holes in the aircraft: whether or not they had been caused by bullets.

One of these holes was a perforation in the nose dome, with a fracture immediately below it; this was described by the Forensic Ballistics Department of the Northern Rhodesian Police as damage caused by impact, with the qualification that it was “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain with absolute accuracy the cause”.

A small hole was discovered in the cockpit window frame, approximately one centimetre in diameter. After examination by microscope, it was decided that the hole had “not been caused by a bullet, but most probably by an object with [a] jagged point”.

Some rumours relate specifically to the crash scene. According to the Northern News, the Northern Rhodesian daily newspaper, Hammarskjöld was found leaning against an ant-hill, in a seated position. This has been the consensus since 1961 and at the crash site near Ndola, now a memorial to Hammarskjöld, there are steps to the top of this ant-hill and a platform from which one can look out over the neighbourhood.

Another rumour is that the secretary general survived the crash and crawled away from the aircraft, using vegetation to propel himself forward.

Oxford treasure trove

It is important to sift through the many rumours and theories about what happened and to establish what is fact and what is myth, so far as possible. This is extremely difficult, given the passage of 50 years since the crash. Documentation has disappeared and key witnesses have passed away.

But this difficulty was greatly diminished by the discovery of crucial archive material in the library of Rhodes House, the centre of Commonwealth and African Studies at Oxford University.

This material belongs to the archive of Sir Roy Welensky, who was prime minister of the British territory of the Central African Federation, comprising Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now independent Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) between 1957 and 1963.

The Federation had a parliamentary system but the franchise was confined to the white minority. It was under Welensky’s premiership that the Rhodesian investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death took place.

Most of the relevant files have been kept secret, but the archi-vists at Rhodes House decided to give me access because such a long period of time had elapsed and also because the matter of my inquiry was a serious one.

These files contain documentation collected in the course of the very first investigation into the crash: a medical report on the victims, including a précis of the autopsies; x-rays of the bodies of the dead; photographs of the bodies of the dead; plans of the crash site; and the firearms report.

It is clear from the photographs, which are in black and white, that many of the crash victims are so charred as to be unrecognisable; Hammarskjöld’s body, on the other hand, has no burns at all. There are six photographs of the secretary general: three at the scene of the crash; three in the mortuary. In the first three, he has been moved from his place of death and is lying on a stretcher, surrounded by scrub vegetation. He is wearing a white shirt with elegant cuff-links; his drill trousers are pale, with a slim black belt.

His left hand appears to be holding some leaves and twigs and his right wrist is encircled by a metal identity bracelet. Apart from some bloody marks on his face and the fact that his tie is pulled loose to the side of his neck, he looks almost immaculate and extremely dignified. There is an object – which looks like a playing card – protruding from the ruffled tie (or possibly cravat) around Hammarskjöld’s neck. It must have been this card that led to rumours at the time that the Ace of Spades – the “death card” – had been left on his body.

It is not possible to identify the card as the Ace of Spades on the basis of the photograph, but a civilian photographer at the scene claimed years later to have seen it. “Yes, DH did have the

Ace of Spades in his shirt collar – no comment,” he recalled. “It was requested at that time not to mention this.”

It is unlikely that a journalist placed the card in Hammarskjöld’s neck, since police officers “ensured that the press touched nothing in the wreck”.

In the three photographs at the mortuary, Hammarskjöld is laid out on a slab, undressed. The medical report was produced by the Rhodesian pathologists, H. D. Ross and J. Hillsdon Smith, and by Squadron Leader P. J. Stevens, a British aviation pathologist at RAF Halston who was sent out from Britain.

It constitutes a “Summary and Conclusions, with Discussion”, rather than the formal reports of the autopsies that were concluded: in effect, therefore, it is a précis of the collected data. The full autopsies themselves are not available in the Welensky archive or in any other archive that I have investigated.

This summary report was given to the Medical Board of Sweden, which appointed two Swedish pathologists, Dr A. Frykholm and Dr N. Ringertz, to examine the findings.

All this documentation is of crucial importance for any examination of the circumstances surrounding Hammarskjöld’s death. However, I was aware that I did not have the skills necessary to examine and analyse this material. For help, I turned to three experts, all on the UK Register of Expert Witnesses.

Expert No. 1

My first expert is a consultant pathologist: Dr Robert Ian Vanhegan, FRC-Path, who has contributed to definitive textbooks and journals in his field and been a lecturer at the University of Oxford; he has 20 years’ experience of performing autopsies, including military and gunshot injuries.

For the purpose of the Hammarskjöld investigation, Dr Vanhegan examined the summary medical report. He noted, however, that this report “gives only a précis of each autopsy and does not include a copy of a full report”; it was possible, therefore, that important negative findings were not included. He also examined the photographs of the body of Hammarskjöld.

On the basis of the medical summary, he produced a report identifying the primary cause of death: multiple small areas of arterial bleeding within the secretary general’s brain and a collection of blood over the right cerebral hemisphere.

It concludes that the secretary general died at the time of (or very soon after) impact, with the cessation of his blood circulation, as shown by the fact that there was minimal blood in the vicinity of his spinal and leg fractures.

Substantial collections of blood would have built up had he lived. The extent of his cerebral injuries alone, as recorded in the medical report, suggests that if he had been alive for a short period of time after the crash, he would have been unconscious.

Having studied the photographs closely, Dr Vanhegan discounted the belief that Hammarskjöld was holding leaves: “What appears to be vegetation in association with the left hand clearly is beneath the outer surface of the fingers (ie, not held in the palm).”

This disqualifies the theory that the secretary general crawled out of the aeroplane with the help of leaves and twigs.

There are further reasons to reject the crawling theory: there are no stains left by crushed vegetation or earth on the front of his clothing, which is pale; and he had suffered a spinal cord transaction, which “would have left his lower limbs paralysed and made it unlikely that he would have been able to crawl”.

Moreover, it is unlikely that he would have lived long enough to crawl away from the point of impact or subsequent fire, which would have taken some time.

Dr Vanhegan made an interesting discovery. In one of the photographs at the scene, there is “a peculiar, almost circular, area of pallor associated with the right orbit” – that is, a whited-out area around the eye. This is seen again in one of the photographs at the mortuary: a peculiar circular area of sharply defined pallor associated with the right orbit, within which there appears to be an “abrasion” in the region of the mid-eyebrow.

Unable to explain these areas of pallor in the two affected photographs, Dr Vanhegan offers an intriguing hypothesis: “This could be a crude attempt photographically to “brush out” detail.

Presumably the extreme pallor has developed over the 50 years since the photographs were taken and then re-touched, if this is what happened. At the time, any such re-touching presumably achieved a natural effect, since there is no reference in any documentation to photographs with a marked contrast in colour around the right eye.

It is not possible to compare the images showing this pallor with any other image of the right side of his face, since the right side of the face is not shown in the other four photographs. The other two photographs at the scene were taken from Hammarskjöld’s left, with the effect of obscuring the right side of the face.

In the other two photographs at the mortuary, one shows the back of his head and, in the other, the right side of the face is concealed by the hand of the right arm, which is raised over his shoulder; this arm, which has rigor mortis, is not in the same position as the arm at the scene, where it is at some remove from his face.

The hypothesis that these two photographs were “doctored” would be consistent with Major General Egge’s concern that the secretary general had a round hole in his forehead, which had been removed in photographs taken of the body.

In a further statement to Aftenposten, Egge stated that a Norwegian historian, Dr Bodil Katarina Naevdal, obtained a photograph of the body and had it analysed by crime scene technicians; they established that Hammarskjöld’s forehead had been touched up in the photograph.

The theory of “doctoring” would also be consistent with the experience of Knut Hammarskjöld, the secretary general’s nephew, who flew to Ndola immediately after his uncle’s death in 1961.

The Northern Rhodesian police gave him a set of photographs of his uncle’s body in the mortuary, which showed him with a smooth forehead; but soon afterwards, a young policeman named David Appleton discreetly took him aside and gave him another set, in a manila envelope. Appleton quietly commented: “You may find these interesting.” In this set of photographs, injuries to the head were visible.

Expert No. 2

My second expert is Peter Franks, LLB, a highly respected firearms and ballistic consultant, who is also a qualified lawyer. Mr Franks has trained military and police units around the world and is qualified to comment on all aspects of firearms, ranging from the reconstruction of crime scenes to comments on gunshot injuries.

For the purpose of his evaluation, Mr Franks studied the ballistics and ammunition report written by R. H. Els for the Forensic Ballistics Department in the Northern Rhodesia Police, which looks at the firearms and 342 bullets found at the crash site and the photographs of the firearms and ammunition recovered.

Mr Franks also examined the x-rays of the bodies with bullets and cartridge fragments; the medical report where there is discussion of gunshot wounds; photographs of the deceased; and plans and photographs of the scene.

He was conscious, however, that he was reliant on material that was second-hand, none of which he was able to check out himself. If any of this information was inaccurate, it would affect his conclusions.

In the photographs of Hammarskjöld, he examined the visible injuries that might be construed as gunshot wounds and concluded that most of the wounds were produced by cuts of blunt trauma injury. The only visible injury which could be a bullet or projectile wound, is the one under the secretary general’s chin.

“The wound under the chin is upon close examination elongated (oval) and not round, and whilst that does not preclude it from being a bullet wound, I am not attracted to the idea that this was so.”

Mr Franks noted that a Smith & Wesson (M12 airweight) revolver was discovered close to Hammarskjöld, which confirms the rumour that there was a revolver near the secretary general.

It was strange, thought Mr Franks, that the revolver had been severely damaged by heat, yet Hammarskjöld himself was unaffected by the blaze. It was also strange that no weapon was found with Sergeant Harold Julien, chief of security.

On the matter of the bullets in some of the victims’ bodies, which are visible in x-rays, Mr Franks does not share Westrell’s view that explosions in the fire cannot cause bullets to penetrate the body.

Under normal conditions when cartridges are placed on or in a fire, he said, it is usually the cartridge case that will move at high velocity when the cartridge explodes; but there are circumstances when the cartridge case is restricted, so that the bullet will be propelled out of the case at some speed.

He is satisfied with the verdict of the Rhodesian police report that the penetration of bullets was the result of the explosions in the fire, since the bullets have no “stria” – that is, rifling marks showing that they went through the barrel of a gun.

But he had a number of concerns. One of these related to the injuries suffered by Serge Barrau, a bodyguard, who was severely burnt in the crash. The x-rays reveal that there were one or two cartridge percussion caps in the soft tissue of his right upper arm; a number of fragments of cartridge case in his abdomen; and a number of cartridge percussion caps in the soft tissue around the right hip.

Mr Franks was at a loss to find an explanation for these injuries, since neither firearms nor ammunition were discovered in his immediate vicinity. Yet all the firearms-related projectiles in his body were percussion caps or fragments of cartridge cases – and for these small items to have enough energy to enter his body, even over a small distance, they would have had to travel at high velocity.

This means that the weapons must have been nearby at the time the ammunition exploded, otherwise the objects would not have been able to penetrate the body.

Since Barrau was a bodyguard, commented Mr Franks, he would be expected to have had a firearm in close proximity – “indeed with spare ammunition – so a holster and spare rounds on his person.

This would make it possible for him to have the wounds/injuries he has.” But, he added, “there were no weapons or ammunition or cartridge cases or fragments.”

The only explanation he could offer was that maybe Barrau’s body was moved prior to the crash site being investigated by the Rhodesian police.

In the case of Per Persson, a Swedish soldier, the picture is again complicated, since the bullets recovered from his body were all 9mm – not 0.38, the ammunition used by the revolver he is likely to have worn in a shoulder holster. However, the bullets could have come from other weapons found close to the soldier, which used 9mm ammunition.

Mr Franks examined the plan of the wreckage and plotted the approximate location of firearms and ammunition. Generally, they were distributed throughout the length of the wreckage in an explicable manner, but with two puzzling exceptions.

One of these was that the two sub-machine guns at the site, with appropriate magazines and ammunition, were discovered near the two pilots – but at some distance from the two soldiers on the aircraft, Stig Hjelte and Per Persson. This was odd, since the submachine guns and ammunition would almost certainly have been issued to the two soldiers on board.

A Smith & Wesson 0.38 revolver also caused Mr Franks some concern. Looking at the photograph of the revolver, showing the cylinder swung out in an open position, he noticed that there was a firing pin indent in one of the cartridges. This meant that the weapon must have been discharged and a shot fired.

Franks rejected the possibility that it had been accidentally discharged since Smith & Wesson revolvers have an in-built safety feature and cannot be fired without the trigger being pulled. “Not even an air crash would cause such a discharge,” commented Mr Franks, who is an expert on the construction, components and safety mechanisms of Smith & Wesson (and also Colt).

The photograph of this weapon reveals, too, that at least one of the cartridge cases was removed from its original chamber and replaced after the gun was discharged. This is evident from an indent across the primer, caused by heat forcing the cartridge case back against the recoil shield of the weapon as it discharged.

The fact that this indent can no longer be matched to the shape of the recoil shield indicates its removal and replacement. The only possible explanation, concluded Mr Franks, was that it was removed and replaced “following initial inspection but prior to the photograph being taken”.

There is reason to suspect similar tampering before the photograph of an official police Colt 0.38 special was taken. The initial explosion appeared to have opened the weapon, exposing its cylinder, so that all the cartridges in the revolver appear to have exploded from heat. Yet Mr Franks could determine that one cartridge had been moved prior to being photographed and then replaced for the photograph.

In the case of another Smith & Wesson revolver, one of the cartridge chambers is empty and there is no evidence in the chamber that a cartridge was blown out in the crash or the fire.

Mr Franks was puzzled by this. He noted that it was common practice in the 1960s for bodyguards to leave empty the chamber under the hammer of a revolver, for safety purposes – but this was not necessary with this particular, very safe, revolver.

Mr Franks’ final query relates to the variety of ammunition. He noted that on the one hand, the bodyguards carried “up to-date, excellent weapons”. But some of the ammunition that was found spread across the crash site had been discontinued just prior to the Second World War, while other ammunition was from 1951 and 1956.

“I would have expected that such a high profile VIP, with a professional unit of bodyguards, would have the best equipment,” commented Mr Franks. “So why would they be carrying old stock 0.38 ammunition?”

Moreover, the ammunition was mixed: “It is normal for ammunition to be issued in a batch, so I would have expected all of them to have Winchester or Remington ammunition.”

It would be extremely strange, he reflected, “that the bodyguard team should use various manufacturers’ ammunition and even stranger that it is quite old. There is no real explanation for that. Nor is it very professional, because older ammunition becomes less reliable.”

On the specific issue of the holes in the aircraft, Mr Franks concluded that these were not caused by bullets. He added that the photographs are not clear, even when enlarged – but even so, at this stage he “would have to say no”. Finally, although it was outside his remit, Mr Franks dismissed the theory that Hammarskjöld was found leaning against an anthill.

He pointed out the spot of the wreckage plan showing where Hammarskjöld was found; but no ant-hill is indicated there, even though ant-hills are shown on the plan.

There are other indications that he could not have been leaning against an ant-hill: there is no blood on the front of his shirt, which there would have been if he was sitting up – in such a case, gravity would have caused the blood to run down his face on to the shirt. In fact, the photographs show that the blood from his facial wounds trickled down the sides of his face, towards his ears.

Mr Franks made a final point on this topic: that the secretary general’s right arm has rigor mortis and is lifted upwards; this would not have been possible if he was leaning against an anti-hill.

Expert No. 3

My third expert is Peter Sutherst, a forensic photographic expert with over 50 years of experience, who has supplied testimony in numerous police and [UK] Ministry of Defence inquiries.

Mr Sutherst was puzzled that there is no photograph of Hammarskjöld’s body in situ. “You would expect to find this,” he told me. An aircraft accident investigation ought to produce photographs to show where the bodies were found.

For an initial investigation, it is usual procedure for the bodies to be left in situ, so that there can be an examination of where the bodies are in relation to the aircraft. Then a chart is produced showing where the bodies are – “but they would need pictures to verify it. In the forensic service, you put a flag to show even where a bit of body is”.

In fact, there are photographs of all the bodies in situ in the relevant file – but not that of Hammarskjöld, which was photographed only on a stretcher at the crash site, nor that of his bodyguard, Bill Ranallo.

This is strange, commented Mr Sutherst, since the post mortem photographs were done professionally and all the photographs of the secretary general are of high quality.

The photographer was likely to have had a supply of additional film if needed and in the case of the crash scene, the photographs were evidently taken during daylight, so there would have been no need for a flash.

The lack of a photograph of Hammarskjöld’s body in situ is all the more odd given that a “wreckage plan” was produced to show where the bodies were found – all of them, including those of the secretary general and Ranallo.

Mr Sutherst also noted that there was no mention in the medical report of the leaves and twigs, or of the playing card tucked into the secretary general’s neck. These findings, he argued, would be expected in a post-mortem report; in any case, details are given of his appearance in other respects, such as his clothing.

Cover-up?

The careful observations made by my three expert witnesses dismiss some, though not all, of the myths, rumours and theories

surrounding the crash and Mr Hammarskjöld’s death. It is easy to understand the origin of the theory that Hammarskjöld crawled out of the aircraft, since the photographs of his body on the stretcher appear to show him holding leaves and twigs; but it is now clear that this was an impression accidentally created by the photograph.

But the experts’ observations also raise some new and unexpected questions. How did the belief develop that Hammarskjöld was found leaning against an ant-hill? Where was he actually found, before being placed on a stretcher? Why was no photograph taken of his body in situ, for the purpose of the investigation?

Mr Franks was struck by the anomalies in the presentation of the firearms and ammunition; he was concerned, too, that the secretary general’s body was close to the burnt aircraft, but not at all burnt itself; also that his briefcase and cipher machine were not even charred.

“I could speculate forever on this,” he commented in a note to his conclusions. “It does not feel right – it smells of either a coverup (for whatever reason) or just simple incompetence.”

Dr Vanhegan suggested the possibility that two of the photographs were airbrushed to conceal detail. “It is beyond reason,” he noted in a discussion of the findings in his report, “that exactly the same sort of artefact would appear on exactly the same feature on widely separated frames (of film); and, again, even less likely had cut film or plates been used as negatives.” If it is the case that the photographs were “doctored”, then it follows that an attempt was made to conceal some detail. But if so, what kind of detail?

There is no mention in the medical report of any injury in the right orbit of Mr Hammarskjöld’s face. But on the basis of the information provided by the medical report, the secretary general was killed by the impact of the crash – so why would there be any need to kill him? Was the evidence in the medical report altered too? Why was it decided not to include the full autopsies in the medical report? Who made these decisions?

Did any person or group of people, or any organisation or political party, have a reason to want Mr Hammarskjöld out of the way? What was the political background to the sudden death of the secretary general and the other passengers and crew on that moonlit night in the centre of Africa?

Eye-witness accounts

Officially, the wreckage of Hammarskjöld’s plane, nicknamed Albertina, was found at 15.15 local time on 18 September 1961. But in fact, it was sighted and reported in the morning, many hours earlier.

According to an interview given 18 years later by Timothy Jiranda Kankasa, the board secretary of Twapia Township in September 1961, he told the Northern Rhodesian authorities about the burning plane at least six hours earlier. (After Zambian independence in 1964, Kankasa became a minister in the new government and later ambassador to Congo.)

Kankasa explained in the interview that some charcoal burners had come across the burning plane in the morning and, in great concern, rushed over to tell him. He immediately went to the site of the crash and then returned to contact the police, between 09.00 and 09.30. The men had reported the crash to him, rather than to the police, because they mistrusted and feared the white authorities. In addition, before independence, Africans were not even permitted inside the Ndola airport perimeters.

According to Kankasa, in the interview conducted in Lusaka in October 1979 by Ettore Botta, a Swede working for Gunnar Mollestedt, who was producing a television documentary: “There were no police at all, no police, no one from the army, nobody at all until the afternoon. It was not until between two and three, when at last we heard the sound of the ambulances and other vehicles going there.”

Even when he told the police the exact crash site, he said, “they still insisted on going around the Mufulira roads to reach the site. In our opinion, it would have been easier to go by the Kanranchia site, Lotsobe, which is nearer.”

The fact that charcoal burners went to the scene of the crash in the morning was recently confirmed by Margaret Ngulube, a resident of Twapia who was living there in 1961, when she was 23. Speaking to the Times of Zambia in 2005, she recalled the night: “It was a terrible experience. I saw a ball of fire in the sky and later on heard a loud bang. When I saw the fire in the sky, I realized something was wrong. Most of us thought the plane was shot or faulty somehow.”

Twapia residents, she added, “were not allowed to rush to the scene by the then township secretary, Timothy Kankasa”, and it was not until morning that several people went to the scene of the crash. “We found bodies mutilated,” she told the Times of Zambia.

“Only Hammarskjöld’s body and that of his other counterpart was intact, but the rest were cut into pieces.”

On first reading Kankasa’s interview with Botta, I wondered why he did not include this information in his testimony to the Rhodesian inquiry in Ndola. Botta asked the same question, to which Kankasa replied that he had indeed included it.

“I am repeating exactly what I said in my testimony.” Kankasa  told Botta. “The evidence I gave was detailed and it is very surprising that most of what I said was not reflected in the report. We don’t know why.”

As it was, Kankasa’s testimony at Ndola’s high court was ridiculed by the South African lawyer, C. S. Margo, to the disgust of the many spectators who had come to listen to him.

Kankasa was surprised that a white farmer whose house was near the site was not called to testify, nor were his employees. “I didn’t see them come forward as witnesses,” he told Botta, “and their names do not appear in the report.” It was “incredible”, said Kankasa, “that all the black witnesses were supposed to be unreliable. And the white witnesses – those who gave evidence, if they gave evidence in favour of the fact that there was nothing fishy, that it was pure accident – were reliable.

But some of the people who gave evidence were nowhere near the site of the crash. I sincerely believe that I and the charcoal burners were the reliable witnesses.”

Some of the whites who gave evidence, he added, did not state the facts accurately and he suspected that “big interests” were involved. “Perhaps that’s the reason,” Kankasa concluded, “why the evidence we have was not accepted. Or that the little that was accepted, which was put into the report, was distorted. Not presented as it had been given.”

Kankasa is a reliable witness: he had a good working relationship with the local police and was respected by everyone as a politician, union leader, and a family man. He was also held in high esteem for his role in the freedom struggle against British colonialism and settler rule. In 2004, he was chosen as one of the heroes to be memorialised in a statue at Heroes’ Park in Lusaka. In 2006, Levy Mwanawasa, then president of Zambia, conferred a posthumous gold medal on him for his “immense contribution”. Kankasa died in 1982.

Botta also interviewed Dickson Buleni in Ndola in 1979. Buleni had given testimony to the Rhodesian and UN inquiries and he now repeated what he had seen on the night of the crash: that a small plane had “dropped something that looked like fire” on top of the big plane, which was then in flames in the sky, before it hit the ground. This account is consistent with the recollection of the official survivor, Harold Julien, that the plane blew up before it crashed. Buleni added that he was one of the people who went to the crash site the morning after, where he saw that the plane was still smouldering and that Hammarskjöld was not burnt.

The Rhodesian inquiry report stated that the three coal burners – D. Moyo, L. Daka and P. Banda – were sleeping in the bush about 2.5 miles away from the crash site. At midnight local time, Moyo heard a sound as of a gun and later saw something burning. He said that Daka woke him up.

Daka said that at about 01.00, he was woken up by a noise as of something exploding. He then saw a lot of fire. He said that he also saw something coming down and breaking the trees. He awakened Moyo. Banda was also awakened by Daka who said: “Wake up, listen, and hear what has exploded.” He then heard sounds as of a gun going off many times and saw a fire through the trees. At dawn next day, they discovered the crash.

In August 2009, nearly 50 years since the death of Secretary General Hammarskjöld, I went to speak to Kankasa’s wife, Mama Chibesa Kankasa. After her contribution to the struggle for independence as a young woman, she took a prominent role in the social and economic development of Zambia, especially for women and children. She was minister for women’s affairs between 1969 and 1988.

She herself was at Ndola airport on the evening of 17 September 1961 as part of a massive group, carrying placards with messages welcoming the secretary general. At the time she was 25 and had been married for nine years, with children and a home to look after, but she found time to participate in the liberation struggle.

She and some thousands of people came to the airport with placards declaring their opposition to the Central African Federation and to the [Congolese rebel leader] Moise Tshombe, and their support for a unified Congo.

They did this “so that the secretary general could know”, as well as showing their appreciation of his work for the world and his commitment to majority rule.

Mama Kankasa said she herself saw a ball of fire in the sky on the night of the crash, as well as two small planes flying away. Her husband had just escorted a friend on part of his way home and as he returned to their house, he cried out to her to come outside, then pointed up to the sky. He told her what had happened and they knew then, she said, that Dag had been killed.

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Written by New African Magazine

For over 45 years New African provides unparalleled insights and analysis on African politics and economics, via an African perspective, always. With in-depth monthly reports, New African brings Africa closer to the world and is ideal for those looking to gain a better understanding of the most important issues affecting Africa.

  • CIA agent Frank Carlucci had one his operatives loosen static line to altimeter so the pilot thought he was higher than he really was. Other altimeters were found to contain containment.

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