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JUST after midnight on September 17, 1961, a Swedish-crewed Douglas DC-6B plane, travelling from Léopoldville and carrying Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), confirmed contact with a non-directional beacon near Ndola airport, Northern Rhodesia. Then the pilot reported sight of the airport lights but, allegedly, nothing further was heard and the plane failed to land. Inexplicably, the airport was closed down in the early hours on the nonchalant assumption, aired by Lord Alport, British High Commissioner to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, that Hammarskjöld’s plane had gone elsewhere. There was no tape recording of communication with the plane, just a report later written up by air traffic control.
The authorities were similarly slack the next day about the search for the now missing plane. Its smouldering wreck was finally reached in mid-afternoon even though it was on its correct flight path a few kilometres from the airport. Hammarskjöld’s was the only unburnt body and may, or may not, have had a bullet wound to the head subsequently erased from photographs. There is no picture of his body in situ, but a strange tale of a playing card placed on the corpse. Locals believed that the site had been visited well before the police arrived. There was just one survivor and before he died six days later, he spoke about the plane exploding in mid-air. Given the febrile atmosphere of Central Africa in the throes of decolonisation there is more than enough here for conspiracy theory.
Hammarskjöld was travelling to Ndola to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of the breakaway, resource-rich Katanga Province. His administration was heavily backed by Western interests and multinational mining companies. There was a similar move in South Kivu, but more significantly the independence of the Congo had been compromised by the murder of the left-wing prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Every major Cold War power was involved, plus the departing Belgians and a range of freebooting adventurers. In Katanga, UN troops, under the political direction of Conor Cruise O’Brien, were at war with local gendarmerie and mercenaries, and UN headquarters in Elisabethville was strafed the day Hammarskjöld died. He was determined to maintain the integrity of independent Congo, but his hopes of persuading Tshombe of a settlement were a major threat to a powerful range of interests, political and commercial, and he was loathed by the settler communities of southern Africa.
Susan Williams has produced a compelling account from a monumental amount of historical detective work and encounters with an extraordinary range of personalities, some of them extremely shady. She examines various theories that might explain the crash, justifiably rejecting the Federation inquiry’s verdict of pilot error as based on superficial and inept work. The Swedes were understandably irate: the crash was no accident. But, perhaps somewhat disappointingly, she arrives at the same open verdict conclusion reached by the United Nations inquiry of 1962. So what are the possibilities?
Over the years South African involvement has been suspected and just this week allegations have again hit the headlines. During the Truth Commission documents from a shadowy right-wing group, the improbably named South African Institute for Maritime Research, emerged to support this view. But there are enough doubts about the evidence to suspect forgery and a massive red herring. Williams also floats the idea of a bomb, planted at Léopoldville, but this is pure speculation, as is the theory of a failed hijack. What is beyond doubt is that charcoal burners near Ndola airport reported at least one other plane in the air and strange lights before the crash. An American listening post in Cyprus and a flying school in Ethiopia picked up wireless traffic indicating that a plane had been attacked.
Katangese military action is the most plausible explanation. And significantly, as well as the services of the usual mercenary riff-raff Tshombe had at his disposal as well as highly professional veterans of the Algerian OAS and a small, but potent, air force. Hammarskjöld’s plane had skirted Katanga and flown the length of Lake Tanganyika for this very reason, but the approach to Ndola was within easy range. Williams speculates that a modified Dove aircraft might have bombed the DC-6B from above or that it was hit by a Fouga fighter. Both suggest an intention to destroy Hammarskjöld’s mission and murder the man himself.
But there is another possibility, so far the most likely of all. This involves an attempt to divert Hammarskjöld to a Katanga airfield. Williams suggests that a warning shot to persuade Hammarskjöld’s pilot to change course might have unintentionally disabled his aircraft. Two pieces of evidence support this. Crash-site investigation indicated that two French-speaking passengers were in the cockpit, possibly negotiating with the Katangese. And such a plot would explain Alport’s dismissive response to the non-appearance of the plane at Ndola.
But if he did have such knowledge, widespread conspiracy is indicated. And it introduces the crucial question of who orchestrated the whole plot. There are many candidates inside and outside Africa, but Williams fails to answer the question asked by her title. The implication is someone in the Katanga administration or its irregular forces, but they would have needed powerful foreign backing. Over 50 years later there are no real clues — an extraordinarily successful cover-up.
Williams’s highly impressive and tenacious research has one major drawback. Quite correctly she draws attention to the racist nature of the countries still under colonial rule. But she seems compelled to repeat this ad nauseam as if driven by some demon of political correctness to prove her credentials. On the other hand, she neglects to sketch a picture of the times: the political and economic context of decolonisation at the height of the Cold War. These were unstable and dangerous years that produced bizarre events. Hammarskjöld’s murder followed the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and preceded nuclear brinkmanship over the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, then the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. For a short while Katanga was at the epicentre of major geopolitical turbulence. This book could have been far more evocative of a complex and fascinating era that has generally been neglected by historians.
Post-colonial Africa has been beset by air crashes with political consequences. Hammarskjöld apart, there was the 1986 death of Mozambican President Samora Machel, which has more than a passing similarity to the Ndola crash. And most catastrophic of all was the shooting down near Kigali in April 1994 of the plane carrying Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana, which led to a million deaths and a regional war. Tshombe was kidnapped in the air in June 1967 and held in Algeria.
Serious progress is now being made into determining precise responsibility for the Kigali crash. But Williams’s book leaves the reader with another major unanswered question. Given the international stature of the main casualty of the Ndola crash, why has it been relegated to something of an historical footnote? Why is this a cold case when there are so many loose ends and so few certainties? And might the trail eventually lead back to South Africa as has been rumoured for decades?
• Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa by Susan Williams is published by Jacana.
Below: Crash site of DC6B aircraft carrying United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, September 18, 1961. (Photographer: Robin Barnes)