This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Christopher Merrett. It originally appeared on the website of South African newspaper The Witness on 14th March 2012.
SOMETIMES a newspaper article opens a Pandora’s Box. Within hours of publication of “The strange and ever more mystifying case of Dag Hammarskjold”(The Witness, February 2), city resident Robin Barnes was on the phone. At the time of the plane crash that killed the United Nations secretary-general, he worked for N orthern News in Ndola, accompanied a journalist to the site and took some excellent photographs, which he kindly donated to The Witness.
Their posting on the paper’s website drew the attention of Wren Mast-Ingle. On the night of September 17, 1961, he was on his motorbike travelling to Bancroft Mine (Kirilibombwe), his workplace. He heard the Douglas DC-6B (Albertina) come down and went to investigate. Simultaneously, six to eight men, he describes as paramilitary people, arrived in two Jeeps, “as if prewarned”. He was about 20 metres from the aircraft, and before he was ordered away, noted fist-sized holes from the wing to the fuselage, “as if it had been sprayed by bullets”, and the fact that the wreckage was unburned.
Susan Williams, author of the recently published Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, was also intrigued by Barnes’s photographs, and generously supplied The Witness with crucial documents and contacts. The accident investigation did not rule out foul play, but the federation inquiry blamed pilot error and the United Nations investigation that followed returned an open verdict. Strangely, a 1993 Swedish inquiry revived the theory of pilot error.
But witnesses, including villagers of Twapia beneath the airport flight path, believed another aircraft shot at Albertina — they saw flames and heard an explosion. This could have been the work of the sole Fouga fighter still flying, piloted by Jose Magain and possibly operating from an improvised landing strip. Conor Cruise O’Brien, political head of the United Nations operation in breakaway Katanga, was convinced that Albertina had crashed as a result of aerial attack. Williams’s book leaves little doubt that this was no accident. But exactly who did it, who engineered it, and who else was in the know? These are unresolved questions, over 50 years later. A source, whom Williams regards as impeccable, recalls that an American National Security Agency listening post in Nicosia was sufficiently well-informed to anticipate the attack and intercept wireless traffic, probably in French, from an attack aircraft.
The key to the truth must lie in the crash site, and what happened between loss of contact between Ndola air-traffic control (it was recorded only in writing) and Albertina and the official discovery of its wreckage. Adrian Begg, then a young assistant inspector of the Northern Rhodesia Police on security duty at Ndola airport, saw Albertina pass overhead, and then reported to the airport manager that colleague Marius van Wyk had spotted a flash in the sky to the west. He told The Witness that he sent out a patrol, but it found nothing. Police at Mufulira did the same that night.
Once their joint observations were mapped the next day, a spotter plane took 30 minutes to find the crash site, 15 kilometres west of Ndola, which the authorities reached 15 hours after the disaster. There were 18 Rhodesian airforce planes on the ground that could have been sent out at dawn. But as Begg explains: “Even when they sent up search planes … they were sent to a different area to where we told them about the flash of light.’ The behaviour of the authorities broke every rule in the aviation safety book. The plane was on a normal eastward approach, with its landing gear down. UN pilots were under strict instructions not to attempt visual landings, especially for the first time and at night. The lack of efficiency and urgency is inexplicable and seems to have been incited by British High Commissioner Lord Alport’s suggestion that Albertina had diverted. Clyde Sanger, The Guardian’s man on the spot, pointedly asks if there was a “British alliance with Welensky”, the federal prime minister.
The Rhodesian postmortem reports are clear that some of the bodies had gunshot wounds. Williams engaged expert witnesses to test various theories, including the explanation that the wounds were caused by loaded weapons and spare ammunition that had exploded in the intense heat. This cannot be discounted, but the bodyguards, the most likely victims, had no such wounds.
The post-mortem summary (the full autopsy report is nowhere to be found, and the in situ police photographs are believed to be in private hands) describes Hammarskjöld’s body as “complete, unburnt and clothed”. All the others were burnt, and some were incinerated so badly that they had shrunk to child size, according to Northern News journalist Marta Paynter, who wrote up a detailed account in 1965. Paynter saw Hammarskjold “half sitting” against an anthill, although expert opinion has discounted the idea that he crawled there out of the wreckage. There is also the possibility of a bullet hole in his forehead, later airbrushed out of autopsy photographs. These, however, clearly show a playing card attached to the corpse. His briefcase and cypher machine were recovered intact. The South African-born journalist Arthur Gavshon published a book in 1963 on Hammarskjöld’s last days, and points out that the fire was so intense, only 20% of the aircraft’s material remained. According to Paynter’s account in March 1962, five tons of wreckage was melted down, a suspiciously premature decision.
The presence of a paramilitary unit on the scene soon after the crash, and the extraordinary delay before the authorities reached the site, raise a number of possibilities. The Katanga-Northern Rhodesian border was nearby and Katanga was crawling with mercenaries, plus Rhodesian Light Infantry troops or Selous Scouts in gendarmerie uniforms, according to O’Brien. Gavshon adds that “Federal territory … was freely used by mercenaries”. The border was highly porous — Sanger told The Witness that journalists used back roads to cross it as the “main road was unsafe”. And Barnes points out that northern Rhodesia used Land Rovers with Jeeps employed in the Congo.
Were survivors of the crash shot, Hammarskjöld’s body removed to a safe distance and the wreckage torched by mercenaries? This is not impossible. The decolonisation stakes were high, and many individuals and organisations were full of hatred for the UN, several of whose personnel were assassination targets.
Last December, Dr K. G. Hammar, former archbishop in the Church of Sweden, visited Zambia and spoke to crash eyewitnesses whose testimony had been largely ignored. “Why,” he asks, “isn’t there greater interest to clarify once and for all what really took place outside Ndola on the night of September 17, 1961?” However events are interpreted, two facts are clear. The inquiries of the sixties left many unanswered questions, and since then new evidence has come to light. All the surviving adults who have experiences to relate are now at least in their seventies. A new international inquiry should be set up without delay. And there remains the intriguing possibility that if there was a conspiracy to terminate Hammarskjöld’s diplomatic efforts to end Katanga’s secession, South African interests were involved.
The Katanga-Northern Rhodesian border was nearby, and Katanga was crawling with mercenaries, plus Rhodesian Light Infantry troops or Selous Scouts in gendarmerie uniforms, according to O’Brien.