There can be few events in contemporary African history as important as the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations Secretary-General. Hammarskjöld was working tirelessly to resolve a crisis in the Congo. He is generally recognised as perhaps the most effective Secretary General in UN history. Driven by a deep-seated humanitarian instinct, the man’s quest for justice and the integrity of newly independent African countries won him many admirers. But it also won him many enemies, especially amongst those clinging to white supremacy, and existing corporate interests – those that clearly saw their privilege and wealth endangered by Hammarskjöld’s support for Africa’s liberation. The mysterious air crash that took Hammarskjöld’s life, along with those of 15 fellow passengers flying from the Congo’s capital (Leopoldville, now Kinshasa) to the Northern Rhodesian (now Zambian) city of Ndola for a meeting with Moise Tshombe, leader of the Congo’s secessionist Katanga province, has attracted much speculation. Was it an accident? Was it assassination? At the time, the UN’s own inquiry was unable to reach a conclusion so the international body left the matter open, adjourning its proceedings until more evidence came to light. In an attempt to gather together such evidence, the Hammarskjöld Commission has issued a report to present to the UN. Last month (September), New African’s Stephen Williams attended the Hammarskjöld Commission report of the Commission’s Inquiry, released in The Hague, the Netherland’s capital. He summarises proceedings for BHM.
Just over 52 years ago, on the night of 17-18 September 1961, a Swedish aircraft, the Albertina, carrying 16 people, one of them the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, crashed into a forested area near Ndola in what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia. All those aboard the aircraft died, 15 at the scene of the crash and one later, succumbing to his injuries in hospital.
A civil aviation inquiry, held immediately after the event, was unable to ascribe a cause to the crash; a Rhodesian commission of inquiry in February 1962 attributed it to pilot error; and the UN’s own commission of inquiry in April 1962, like the civil aviation investigation, found itself unable to determine the cause of the crash but presciently adjourned the inquiry rather than close it.
The UN inquiry’s report was presented to the General Assembly in October 1962. The report requested the Secretary-General to inform the UN General Assembly of any new evidence relating to the disaster. Various conjectures and conspiracy theories concerning this incident have circulated in the intervening years. Was it an accident, as the Rhodesian inquiry concluded citing pilot error; or was it an assassination? If the latter, who could have been responsible and can anybody, 50 years after the event, be held accountable?
Many who have investigated the incident have pondered long and hard over these questions. Two years ago, we drew attention to Dr Susan Williams’ book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? And as part of our Black History Month issue, New African published a lengthy extract from this important work of painstaking investigation.
While Williams’ book offered no conclusive evidence of the murder of Hammarskjöld, most readers would have drawn the inference that crucial questions required answers as the balance of probabilities were that the Secretary-General’s death was no accident, at least not in the conventional sense.
One reader of Williams’ book was the eminent British trade unionist, Lord Lea of Crondall. Lea is a former assistant secretary-general of the UK Trades Union Congress and co-founder and vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa since 2002.
He told New African that he already had an interest in that period of Central Africa’s history and the life of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, as well as Hammarskjöld’s UN work. Lea had also served as an election monitor in the DR Congo in 2007.
In July 2012, Lea decided to organise the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust, made up of eight senior diplomats, church leaders, lawyers and academics, including Dr Susan Williams. Two Africans were among the eight trustees: H. E. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth secretary-general and Professor Naison Ngoma, director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia.
The Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust, in turn, invited Sir Stephen Sedley, a recently retired Lord Justice of Appeal for England and Wales, to chair a commission of jurists to inquire into the disaster. This commission included Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, as well as Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen of the Netherlands and Ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden. They agreed to serve with Sir Stephen as Commissioners.
The Commission’s agreed remit was, working completely independently of the Trust, to report on whether the evidence now available would justify the UN’s General Assembly in reopening the inquiry it had adjourned in 1962. (The Commission did not seek itself to determine the cause or causes of the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane).
The Commission released their report at The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands last month (September). The 50-page document is meticulously written and carefully concludes that, yes, there is sufficient new evidence for the Commission to recommend to the UN that the inquiry be reopened. The chair of the trustees, Lord Lea, confirmed that he would travel to New York this month (October) to present the report in person to the UN so that it may go forward to the General Assembly to make a decision on the matter.
While the Commission’s report is, to the layman at least, couched with reservations and studiously objective, reading between the lines there seems to be little doubt that the Commissioners believe there is a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence that the cause of the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane was the result of foul play. As noted earlier, since Hammarskjöld’s death, alternative explanations of the crash at Ndola have proliferated. In the Commission’s opinion two of the more prominent theories are, in its judgment, insubstantial.
The first is the altimeter theory. The plane’s three altimeters were found, after the crash, to be correctly calibrated after examination made by experts, putting paid to the theory that altimeter error (whether a technical fault or sabotage) caused the crash.
If it was an altimeter fault, the Commission states, the three altimeters would have had to be tampered with after the crash and the fire by one or more persons complicit in the conspiracy and with the necessary specialised knowledge, and it would have been almost impossible to make such adjustments on damaged instruments without it being evident to the experts who in due course examined them.
The second theory that the Commission discounts is the so-called “17th passenger theory” – that the crash was the result of a hijack attempt made by a 17th passenger, possibly to divert the plane to Katanga where the UN Secretary-General could be “persuaded” not to oppose the secession of Katanga by exerting the UN’s military force.
Even given that aviation security 50 years ago was less rigorous than it is in today’s post-9/11 world, it does seem unlikely that an infiltrator could have boarded Hammarskjöld’s private plane. Furthermore, the Commission notes, it seems unlikely that nobody would notice a stranger on board; that the hijacker would have waited until the plane was about to land at Ndola before attempting a hijack. As the Commission notes dryly: “While few things are impossible, we regard this scenario as involving far too many unrealistic assumptions to merit further examination.”
Was it sabotage?
Next, the Commission examined the various sabotage theories. Evidence has emerged from a South African source that suggests the plane’s steering gear was disabled by a bomb placed in the plane and detonated, by timer, radio command or fortuitously by gunfire, on the final approach to Ndola.
Extraordinarily, the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in July 1998, unearthed a dozen documents passed to that Commission by South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency relating to the assassination in 1993 of the leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani.
Amongst these Hani papers, a researcher found about a dozen documents relating not to Hani but to an operation codenamed “Celeste”. The documents, which bore the letterhead of the South African Institute for Maritime Research, seemed to say that a bomb planted on Hammarskjöld’s aircraft had failed to explode on take-off from Leopoldville (the colonial name for Kinshasa) but had been activated before landing at Ndola in northern Zambia.
But, regrettably, this smoking gun appears to be as mysterious as the circumstances of the papers’ discovery in a totally unrelated group of documents. “Little can be ascertained about the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR),” the report states, “and the Commission was unable to trace any scientific research published by it.”
A second sabotage allegation, quoting verbatim an alleged CIA report submitted to US President John F. Kennedy in 1962, was published in a men’s magazine in 1978. This was an allegation, first mentioned in the Washington Post on 3 June 1978, that the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, had placed a bomb on the aircraft because of Hammarskjöld’s resistance to the proposal that a “troika” of officials representing what were then known as the first, second and third worlds should take over peace negotiations.
“There is evidence collected by our technical field operatives that the explosive device aboard the aircraft was of standard KGB incendiary design,” the purported CIA report stated. But the Commission notes that there is no known evidence that supports this theory, nor the supposed CIA report, unless it is locked away in the US’s National Security Agency archives (a matter that this article will later return to). So, again, the Commission places little importance on this line of enquiry.
As Williams’ book makes clear, the Rhodesian inquiry discounted many of the eye-witness statements that were made at the time. There were a number of people that came forward to explain they had seen the plane crash and that there appeared to be two planes in the sky shortly before it did.
Why the Rhodesian authorities chose to ignore these witnesses is an open question. One suggestion is that African testimony was considered, because of prevalent racist attitudes, unreliable. Another suggestion is that African accounts might be coloured by nationalist sympathies and a desire to bring the administration into disrepute.
The first question raised by the aerial attack hypothesis, the Commission report highlights, is the most easily answered: How could it have been known that Ndola was the Albertina’s destination, when everything possible had been done by the plane’s pilot Captain Hallonquist, and by the UN, to conceal where the plane was heading?
“The answer is painfully simple,” the report reads. “Moise Tshombe and his advisers, mercenaries and their sponsors among them, had agreed that Ndola was to be the meeting place for peace talks with the UN, and the Rhodesian and British authorities had made elaborate arrangements to receive both parties there. Journalists were awaiting the DC6’s arrival at the airport.” As it was an open secret that Ndola was the Albertina’s destination, it is entirely feasible that another plane might have been able to intercept the Albertina.
Lights in the sky
The Commission heard eye-witness accounts that were not heard by any of the three initial inquiries. Many of the African witnesses thought in 1961 that they would not be believed by the Rhodesian authorities. Although now elderly, the witnesses were interviewed by two of the Commission’s members (the chair Sir Stephen Sedley and Justice Richard Goldstone) in the Zambian town of Bemba. Williams had only interviewed Mama Kankasa for her book Who killed Hammarskjöld, but the Commission members had found another six witnesses to the events of that fateful September night.
For example, John Ngongo had gone to the forest with his neighbour (who has since died) to burn charcoal. He described how they saw “something in the sky … coming down in a tilted position… Because of the sound you could tell it was a plane… It had already caught fire… Within the inside of the plane [we] could see some fire, but what I remember is that the fire was on the wings and the engines…”
At dawn, he and his neighbour went to find the plane wreck. They found Hammarskjöld’s body lying back against a termite mound. His hands were behind his head and there was something like blood on his face. They heard no calls for help and did not see Harold Julien, the one surviving passenger.
The Commission also talked to a husband and wife, Safeli and Emma Mulenga, who were outside their home watching for chicken thieves when Mrs Mulenga saw a plane circling. It went round twice, then on its third circuit she saw a “ball of fire coming on top of the plane”; she was not sure whether it came from outside or inside the plane. The plane came down at an angle.
Mr Mulenga’s testimony recounted that on the plane’s third circuit of the Ndola airfield there appeared to be “a flame … on top of the plane … like a ball of fire, just on the centre.”
Custon Chipoya, a charcoal burner, recounted that he and his colleagues were sleeping after setting up a charcoal kiln. At about midnight (he had previously placed the event at 9 or 10 p.m.) he was woken by a plane coming from the north-east and circling. On its third round “we heard some kind of a bang and then the fire … on top of the plane” and towards the front. Chipoya then saw a second, smaller plane following the first: “I saw that the fire came from the small plane …”
Margaret Ngulube, giving evidence to the Commission, remembered seeing two planes in the sky, the larger of them on fire “in the wings”, and that the plane then fell in “a ball of fire”.
These new witness accounts vary in certain ways, but all have one thing in common. They describe a burning plane coming down, and are largely consistent in describing the presence of a second, smaller aircraft.
“There is in the Commission’s view enough primary evidence that the plane was on fire when it crashed.” And, furthermore, the evidence supports the comments that the sole survivor of the crash, Harold Julien, made before he died, describing the plane being on fire.
These new witness statements make for new and compelling evidence that the Albertina was attacked in the air and this is what caused the plane to crash. But then questions arise as to who would wish Hammarskjöld harm. Who had both the motive and the means?
It is important to understand the political realities of those times that have been described as the “height of the Cold War”. The Congo was a hotspot of the proxy war taking place between the US and USSR in Africa. Essentially, the USSR generally supported the nationalist liberation movements seeking to rid Africa of colonialism, and Hammarskjöld was a committed champion of Africa’s liberation.
The US (and the West) had its own self-interests in mind with regard to the mineral wealth that the Congo possessed. With an abundance of uranium deposits, said to be the richest in the world, the Congo was considered a prime Cold War asset – uranium being the fuel of nuclear warheads – and there were deposits of cobalt, copper, gold and many other minerals.
As for the US, it would appear that President Kennedy supported the independence of the Congo, but the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) held an opposing view, a situation that is described in the Commissioner’s report as a “cleft in policy”.
Less than two weeks after independence from Belgian colonialism in June 1960 – on 11 July, the Congo’s Katanga province’s most powerful politician, Moise Tshombe, declared Katanga an independent state. There is much evidence that this move had the support of the Belgian military command and also suited the interests of the CIA, the British colonial administrations in the neighbouring Rhodesian Federation, and the South Africans.
The Commission’s report notes: “While the UK and Belgium, both members of the UN, had no formal alliance at state level, there were strong commercial links between them and with US and South African interests. Union Minière [the dominant mining company in the Congo] had close relations with the British company Tanganyika Concessions (known as Tanks): the chairman of Tanks, Charles Waterhouse, was also a director of Union Minière. Tanks had links with Anglo-American, the Rhodesian Selection Trust and the British South Africa Co.
“In addition to their shared concern that an independent African state might expropriate foreign commercial holdings, as Egypt had done in 1956, South Africa feared that its system of apartheid, which was in large part operative in Rhodesia, would succumb to a domino effect as national liberation moved southward.” Indeed, Justice Richard Goldstone is on record as remembering as a student in South Africa that news of Hammarskjöld’s death was greeted with celebration by apartheid supporters.
The British High Commissioner to the Rhodesian Federation, Lord Alport, “… was a strong supporter of the Federation’s [white] supremacist policies.”
So there is the appalling possibility that one or more of the external state powers, including the breakaway Katangan entity, had the motive to conspire to use air power to attack Hammarskjöld’s plane. Two types of planes held by a fledgling Katangan airforce might have made such an attack; Fouga Magisters and De Havilland Dove aircraft. Although the use of the Fouga Magisters had been discounted by earlier inquiries on account of their limited range, the Commission report states: “If stationed not at Kolwezi [in Katanga] but at Jadotville or Kipushi, or if able to refuel en route, a Fouga would have had no difficulty in reaching Ndola and returning.”
Furthermore, a CIA operative, David Doyle, who was in charge of the CIA’s Elisabethville base (now Lubumbasha, capital of Katanga) until April 1961, recorded in a memoir that in January 1961, he went to the airport at night to make a routine check and found there a US-registered KC97 commercial Stratocruiser. Its civilian crew was unloading three Fouga Magisters for delivery to Katanga “in direct violation” of the US’s stated policy of not arming the Katangan forces.
However, the Commissioner’s report says that “at least one expert commentator” thought that an adapted De Havilland Dove was the likely attacker. Katanga possessed such aircraft, adapted for warfare by cutting a hatch through which grenade bombs (of a type manufactured by Union Minière) could be dropped on a target below. Even a near-miss could bring down a plane. Could this form of attack explain why so many of the new witnesses describe lights in the sky (the Dove aircraft lighting up the Albertina for such an attack) and how the fire appeared to be on top of the plane? Another theory of an aerial attack was outlined in Susan Williams’ Who killed Hammarskjöld? book.
Based on the transcript of a tape recording, a Belgian mercenary pilot named Beukels claimed that he flew one of two Katangan Fouga at the behest of a group of European political and business interests and that they set out to intercept the Albertina and redirect it to Kolwezi. Beukels implies that his “clients” feared that Tshombe was about to capitulate or compromise on Katanga’s independence, and wanted to “persuade” Hammarskjöld of their case. When Hammarskjöld’s plane did not comply, Beukels says he fired what was intended to be a warning shot that might have hit the tail plane, causing the plane to crash.
The Commissioner’s report says: “Beukels was adamant that he had not known who was in the DC6 until he returned to base at Kolwezi, when he was heavily interrogated and feared for a time that he was going to be executed for shooting down the plane instead of diverting it.” It then goes on to clarify: “With all the reservations which attend multiple hearsay of this kind, it is impossible not to be struck by the correspondence between those aspects of Beukels’ reported narrative … and the [new] independent testimonies.”
But there is another aspect of Williams’ research that is truly intriguing. She tracked down a certain Charles Southall who, in September 1961, was serving with the US’s National Security Agency and stationed in Cyprus where there was an important “listening post” for US intelligence.
Called into the office one night, Southall recalls he was one of four or five officers clustered around a loudspeaker listening to a “cockpit narrative”. That narrative, he told Williams, was of a pilot saying: “I see a transport plane coming low. All lights are on. I’m going down to make a run on it. Yes! It’s the Transair DC6. It’s the plane … I’ve hit it. It’s going down. It’s crashing.”
In Southall’s opinion, the communication must have been transmitted to, or intercepted by, a CIA field command post on Very High Frequency and then retransmitted on to Cyprus for relay to Washington.
Who was the pilot talking to? Southall believes it was to the CIA or with some other Katangan, Rhodesian or British base co-operating with the CIA. He adds: “If the CIA didn’t order Hammarskjöld’s death, at least they paid for the bullet.” And that is just one of a number of good reasons why the Commission’s report has called for the release of documents, especially transcripts of radio signals intercepts, under the US Freedom of Information Act.
As the Commission report states: “If the suggested attack or threat in reality occurred, the live cockpit narrative, whether in the form attributed to the pilot Beukels or in the form of the recorded cockpit narrative recounted by Southall should in the ordinary course of events have been monitored, recorded (as indeed Southall testifies it had been), logged and archived by the US National Security Agency. It is likewise to be expected that any dialogue conducted by the Ndola control tower, and any messages or signals transmitted or received by the Albertina, were monitored and logged by the NSA.” And, in addition, a number of witnesses remember seeing US planes at Ndola and other airfields that they believed were monitoring radio messages.
So is it likely that the US will open up its records as the Commission has requested? Certainly, if the request was also through the UN, it would add great weight. But it must be recognised that now, as 50 years ago, particularly within the intelligence community, the UN is not universally loved.
Nevertheless, and significantly, the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he will closely study the findings of the report. In a press release Ban’s spokesperson said the UN is among those most concerned in arriving at the whole truth of the circumstances leading to Dag Hammarskjöld’s death. “The UN Secretariat will closely study the findings of the Commission’s report,” the spokesperson noted, adding their thanks to the Commission.