Revisiting Dag Hammarskjöld’s Mysterious Death

One man is known to have survived the infamous crash. Why was his testimony hidden?

Susan Williams

The arrival of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (second from right) in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) on September 13, 1961, just days before the crash. Harold Julien is at the far left, carrying a bag. Hammarskjöld is between the Prime Minister of the Congo, Cyrille Adoula, on his right; and on his left is Antoine Gizenga, Adoula’s deputy. Reprinted under fair use. Courtesy the author

Shortly after midnight on September 17–18, 1961, a DC-6 aircraft flying from Leopoldville (Kinshasa), the cap­ital of the newly independent Congo, plunged into dense forest in central Africa. The crash occurred about nine miles from the town of Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, then a British colonial territory (now Zambia). It was a moonlit night with a slight haze and no cloud, and the weather was fine.

The plane was carrying Dag Hammarskjöld, the second United Nations secretary-general. Hammarskjöld had arranged to meet at Ndola with Moïse Tshombe, the leader of the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga. A little more than a year earlier, the Congo had become independent from Belgium, but Tshombe, with the support of the Belgian government and mining interests, had almost immediately orchestrated Katanga’s secession. His forces, which were dependent upon white mercenaries from Europe and South Africa, had been fighting with U.N. peacekeeping troops, and Hammarskjöld was hoping to negotiate a cease-fire.

News of the crash and of Hammarskjöld’s death was celebrated by some white settlers in central and southern Africa, who saw him as a supporter of African decolonization and of majority rule. But it was met with horror across the world. The blue and white flag of the U.N. flew at half-mast at its headquarters in New York, and the flags of the ninety-nine member states were lowered.

And, as strange details swiftly emerged about the crash, suspi­cions about the cause grew. “Whether this was due to accident or some kind of sabotage, I do not know,” observed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. Former U.S. president Harry S. Truman is reported to have said to the press: “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said, ‘When they killed him.’”

Julien may have said more about the last moments of the crash than we have yet heard.

In the decades that followed, the crash has remained a mys­tery. In 2011, I published a book called Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, which presented the case for a new inquiry into the crash. That led to the establishment of a commission of distinguished jurists known as the Hammarskjöld Commission: Sir Stephen Sedley of the UK, who served as chair; Ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden; Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa; and Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen of The Netherlands. There is “persuasive evidence,” stated the commission’s report in 2013, “that the aircraft was sub­jected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola.” The commission recommended that the U.N. re-open an earlier investigation into what had happened to Hammarskjöld’s plane.

That recommendation was taken up. In December 2014, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a fresh investiga­tion into Hammarskjöld’s death. The U.N. Secretary General then appointed the Honourable Mohamed Chande Othman, the former

Chief Justice of Tanzania, to lead the inquiry, which is ongoing. Over the course of this inquiry, Justice Othman has paid new atten­tion to evidence that was dismissed in earlier decades and discov­ered new information. In his last three reports he has written that “it appears plausible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash.”

there were sixteen people on board Hammarskjöld’s plane. But only one person survived long enough to be found alive: Harold M. Julien, an American who was in his mid-thirties. He was suffer­ing from burns over roughly half his body, a partial fracture of the skull, and a dislocated right ankle.

Julien was the acting chief security officer of the United Nations Operation in the Congo (known as ONUC). He and a dedicated team of aides and security personnel had flown to Northern Rhodesia with Hammarskjöld. A newsreel shows the team waiting together on the tarmac of Leopoldville’s airport to board the air­craft, which was called the Albertina after a hit song by Papa Wendo, the star of Congolese rumba.

As the Albertina neared Ndola airport between ten and fifteen minutes after midnight on September 18, it obtained clearance to land. But the plane never made it to the runway. Extraordinarily, the British High Commissioner to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Lord Alport, who was at the airport heading a group of British officials preparing for Hammarskjöld’s arrival, announced that the secretary-general must have decided “to go elsewhere.” Shortly after 3:00 a.m., the air traffic controller closed down the runway and put out the lights in the tower. Apparently there was no tape recording of communications in the control tower that night.

Even odder, as this essay will reveal, there was a mysterious hia­tus between the times when the wreckage was first discovered and the official response. Despite reports of the sighting of the crash site in the morning, no help of any sort was sent to the site until 3:10 p.m. local time, which colonial officials recorded as the time the wreckage was discovered. This was about fifteen hours after the crash.

When police officers and ambulance men finally arrived, they saw that 75–80 percent of the fuselage of the plane had been burned and that most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Only Hammarskjöld’s body was not burned, and only Sergeant Julien was breathing.

“The smell of death was everywhere,” reported one of the first journalists on the scene. “Large mopani flies were beginning to set­tle on the bodies before they were covered by blankets and put into waiting trucks.”

Julien was conscious and able to speak, but in terrible pain from his burns and fractures, aggravated by acute sunburn and heat pros­tration. He was taken to the hospital in Ndola at 4:45 p.m. That eve­ning, Senior Inspector A.V. Allen of the Northern Rhodesian police asked him some questions:

Allen: The last we heard from you, you were over Ndola run­way. What happened?

Julien: It blew up.

Allen: Was this over the runway?

Julien: Yes.

Allen: What happened then?

Julien: There was great speed. Great speed.

Allen: What happened then?

Julien: Then there was the crash.

Allen: What happened then?

Julien: There were lots of little explosions all around.

Allen: How did you get out?

Julien: I pulled the emergency tab and I ran out.

Allen: What about the others?

Julien: They were just trapped.

studies of the crash
have tended to focus on the U.N. Secretary General. This was inevitable, given the significance of Hammarskjöld’s distinguished role and the high regard in which he was held by many. President John F. Kennedy said of Hammarskjöld following his death, “I realize now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.”

But as Hammarskjöld would have insisted, every person on the flight of the Albertina was serving the cause of peace and the U.N. Charter. And in the case of Harold Julien, there are many questions about the flight and the crash that have yet to be answered and compel particular attention.

“Harry” Julien, as he was known by most people, was good-looking: five foot ten inches tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. A former Marine who had served in Korea, he had a dignified bearing and was extremely fit—an enthusiastic athlete and a fine swimmer and diver. He was well liked by his U.N. colleagues.

Julien left the U.S. Marine Corps in 1952 and joined the U.N. Security Force. As someone with a French mother and an Italian father, he felt at ease in the international atmosphere of the U.N.

While working in New York, he met his future wife Maria, who had been born in Cuba and was also at the U.N. They had two young sons: Michael and Richard.

In 1958, Julien took on a year’s assignment in Jordan, and in July 1961, he joined the Congo mission. By then the family had moved to Florida.

It was at home in Miami that Mrs. Julien received the shocking news that her husband had been in an air crash and had been hos­pitalized. The U.N. arranged for her to fly to New York and then on to central Africa, leaving the children with family. The plans for the journey were made with great urgency but took several days to implement.

Meanwhile, Julien was visited every day in the hospital by the resident U.S. consul in Lusaka, the capital of Northern Rhodesia.

On Tuesday, September 19, the day after Julien had been taken to the hospital, he was “slightly better.” Though “still dangerously ill,” he was expected to survive. A day later, he was reported as “holding his own.”

Even so, there were many missed opportunities to care success­fully for him. It is odd that he was not airlifted to a better and more modern hospital in the region, such as the ones in Lusaka and Salisbury (now Harare).

Dr. Mark Lowenthal, a junior doctor who usually worked in the “African” hospital but had been brought to the “European” hospital in Ndola to assist in Julien’s care, could not understand why Julien was not flown to the United States. “Julien was a strong young man and, with the best that modern care of the time could offer, would have survived,” stated Lowenthal later. “I was inexperienced, four years out of medical school and not in charge of the case. A mature me would have unofficially told the Americans to send an aircraft to take him to the US quickly. The matter remains with me as a great regret.”

maria julien arrived in Ndola on Thursday, September 22, and was with Harry on the final day and night of his life. He was sedated and did not speak much. But she knew he was fully in his senses, because he asked about a chain that he had sent to her to be repaired—a chain to a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. They were both devout Catholics, and Maria had called a priest to her husband’s bedside.

But on the morning of the next day, her husband died—despite the expectation that he would survive. This was five days after the crash. The coroner’s summary report listed the cause as “Renal fail­ure due to extensive burns following aircraft accident.”

In the last hour of his life, according to a nurse who was present, Julien said to his wife: “Honey, take me home. We must get out of here quickly. You will take me home?” Mrs. Julien reassured him. Then he seemed to become very anxious. “Where’s the book?” he asked; after a pause, he called again for “the book”; and yet again, more agitated, “the book.” His wife said that she had it, and Julien then relaxed.

It is unclear what Julien meant by “the book.” Possibly it was a coding book for the CX-52 cipher machines used on Hammarskjöld’s mission. (Hammarskjöld and his team were not aware that these machines had been developed with cooperation from U.S. signals and intelligence agencies, which could decode with relative ease encrypted messages sent on them.)

That was not all Julien said. His son Richard told me that after his mother had returned to Miami, she told her sister that her hus­band had said that in the last minutes of the flight there had been three explosions on the plane.

Julien’s medical staff also later provided testimony about what they heard him say. Dr Lowenthal, for one, had tried to extract as much information about the crash as possible. When he asked Julien why the plane had not landed as expected, Julien replied that Hammarskjöld had changed his mind or had said “Turn back.” Julien then said that there had been an explosion and a crash, first in that order, then in the other.

According to one of his nurses, Julien stated, “I was the only one that got out, all the others were trapped.… We were on the runway when Mr. Hammarskjöld said go back, then there was an explosion.”

Another nurse heard him refer to “sparks, sparks in the sky.”

Julien’s statements—as well as his replies to Inspector Allen in that first interview after the crash—match many of the testimonies of people on the ground. Davidson Simango, a charcoal burner who was working at night in the forest where the Albertina crashed, said that at midnight he saw two airplanes flying closer together than was usual. The noise from the planes faded, but within a few minutes grew louder again. There was then a flash, after which the other plane went down, then a loud explosion. He later saw one plane flying back.

Dickson Buleni, also a charcoal burner, was sitting outside his home that night with his wife when they saw a large plane with a small plane flying above it. He saw a “fire” coming from the small plane to the roof of the big plane, when he heard the sound of an explosion. Then the big plane fell down and crashed.

Squadron Leader John Mussell, who was the officer in charge of the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF) detachment in Ndola on the night of the crash, reported that at approximately 9:15 a.m. on September 18, messages originating from police headquarters in Ndola “gave reports of flashes seen during the night.” Further reports included one by R. A. Phillips of the Vacuum Oil Company, who was on duty at the airfield at the time, and saw “the aircraft pass overhead going out Westwards and he watched the lights for approximately two minutes.” He then lost sight of the aircraft “and shortly afterwards he saw two flashes, one big and one small.”

the story of the crash of the Albertina is like a jigsaw with thou­sands of pieces. Some of them seem to fit together easily, such as the testimonies of Julien and of the witnesses who saw a flash in the sky. Other pieces are odd shapes that seem to have no place at all. Many are baffling. And some of the most important pieces appear to be missing. Recently, though, some of those pieces have turned up. This is so in the case of Harold Julien.

In 2019, new information emerged relating to Julien’s stay in the Ndola hospital, provided by the government of Zimbabwe to the current U.N. inquiry. This fresh information reveals that the Rhodesian authorities actively sought to prevent Julien’s statements about the flight and the crash from being made public. A senior Rhodesian intelligence official instructed Julien’s medical superin­tendent that “no one of his hospital staff must talk about this,” in relation to Julien’s statements that he had seen sparks in the sky. The superintendent and another doctor were warned about “the security angle” and asked “to make sure that none of their staff talked.”

Justice Othman views this new evidence as significant. In his view, “a general undervaluing of the evidence of Harold Julien…may have affected the exhaustiveness of the earlier inquiries’ con­sideration of the possible hypotheses.”

It also suggests that Julien may have said more about the last moments of the crash than we have yet heard.

the men who tried to keep Julien’s statements from becoming pub­lic were working for the government of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This white-ruled entity, which was made up of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi), had been created by Britain in 1953 despite widespread African opposition.

There were around eight million Black people living in the Federation in 1960, and roughly 310,000 whites (less than four percent of the overall population), who labeled themselves “Europeans” (regardless of where they were born). The official creed was one of partnership between the races. But Roy Welensky, the prime minister of the Federation at the time of the crash, described this partnership as “the same as exists between rider and horse”—the white settler being the rider and the Black person the horse.

(In 1960, the Federation had been included in a tour of Africa arranged by the U.S. State Department for Louis Armstrong, the world-famous trumpeter. While Armstrong was there, he was interviewed by local white journalists. One of them asked, “Well, Mr. Armstrong, how do you like Rhodesia?” Armstrong’s answer was biting: “Y’all sure know how to keep little Black children in bare feet!”)

The Albertina crashed in the forest next to an “African township” called Twapia. No so-called “Europeans” lived in Twapia, which had been built on the outskirts of Ndola in the early 1950s as a way of segregating Blacks from whites and keeping them out of the town when they were not working there for whites. Townships were built for Black people all over the Federation, who had to carry an identification pass at all times; a special pass was needed to go into the towns at night and for other purposes.

The historian Robert I. Rotberg has described the color bar in Northern Rhodesia: “Post offices retained separate entrances, hospitals separate services and plants, and the railways differen­tial facilities of all kinds.… Hotels, stores, and private establish­ments discriminated. An industrial color bar effectively prevented Africans from competing with whites for jobs. Even the federal civil service remained a white preserve.” Black people had to buy meat at the back door of a shop or from a hatch opposite the European counter. They had no meaningful representation or power in the Federal Assembly.

Whereas whites had access to adequate health care and educa­tion, services for Blacks were rudimentary or nonexistent.

By 1961, though, the Federation was teetering. A nationalist movement in Northern Rhodesia had orchestrated a civil disobedi­ence campaign against white supremacy called the “Cha Cha Cha.” (Its name came from the exuberant hit song “Indépendance cha cha,” which had been written by Joseph Kabasele in 1960 to cel­ebrate the forthcoming independence of the Congo from Belgian colonial rule.) Thousands of people insisted on being served in shops that were “whites-only,” and they burned the chitupa—the hated identity pass. The government cracked down severely; the prisons became so full that there were “as many as three prisoners to a blanket.” Among them had been the resistance leader Kenneth Kaunda, who in 1964 would become the first president of indepen­dent Zambia. “Our demand,” insisted Kaunda, “is home rule and secession from this fraudulent and abominable Federation now!”

Many of the whites in the Federation loathed the U.N. But for the majority population, it offered reason for hope. In his intro­duction to the U.N.’s Annual Report of 1960, Hammarskjöld described the new states of Africa and Asia as “powerful elements in the international community,” whose independent voice in the world polity was a factor to be reckoned with. The U.N. was to them their “main platform” and protector, he said, as they “feel themselves strong as members of the international family but are weak in isolation.”

That helps explain why a large group of people were waiting outside the airport on that night of September 17–18, 1961 to wel­come the secretary-general. Wanting to show their appreciation of Hammarskjöld’s work and his commitment to majority rule, they carried placards stating their opposition to the Federation and their support for a unified Congo. They had been shocked by the assas­sination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, on January 17, 1961. That tragedy had taken place eight months earlier in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), fewer than 125 miles from Ndola.

They were forced to stay outside the airport, since no Black people were allowed into the terminal—even though this was their country.

By contrast, any white from anywhere could enter the airport without restriction. It was a common occurrence for South African, British, Belgian, French, and other mercenaries to drink in the terminal bar. They were employed by multinational mining inter­ests and the Katangan government to fight against the U.N. in the Congo, on the other side of the Northern Rhodesian border.

Katanga was one of the richest areas of the world in terms of mineral resources, including uranium. The mining companies, supported covertly by the United States and other Western powers, were determined to maintain control of the region.

On the night of the crash of the Albertina, there were a number of mercenaries in Ndola. These men included the notorious mer­cenary Mike Hoare, whose work for the CIA in the Congo in the 1960s was recently established by a file released under the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

three inquiries into the cause of the crash were conducted in 1961–62: two under the auspices of the Rhodesian government and one by the U.N.

The Rhodesian inquiries were conducted under, and influenced by, the conditions and attitudes of British occupation and colonial rule. Nearly all the statements and testimonies of Black witnesses were dismissed or disqualified. In the photographs of the victims, the bodies are labeled according to their nationalities, with the exception of Sergeant Serge Barrau from Haiti; his body is simply labeled as “Coloured.”

Some Black witnesses, as we know, said they saw a second, smaller plane in the sky, which, they said, shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane. But their testimonies—even those of the charcoal burners living and working near the crash site—were rejected. “It was incredi­ble,” observed Timothy Jiranda Kankasa, who was the secretary of Twapia Township at the time and would become a government minister after independence, “that all the Black witnesses were sup­posed to be unreliable.”

The November 1961 report of the Rhodesian Civil Aviation Board of Investigation was unable to reach a firm conclusion. It regarded pilot error as one of several probable causes but also con­sidered other possibilities, including the “wilful act of some per­son or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees.” It regarded this as unlikely but was unable to rule it out, “taking into consideration the extent of the destruction of the aircraft and the lack of survivor’s evidence.”

The U.S. ambassador sent a cable to Washington that explicitly referred to the possibility that the plane was shot down.

The subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry reached a conclusion in 1962 which it presented as “more precise”: that pilot error was the cause of the crash, an explanation that over the years became the prevailing view. It did not make this claim because there was any positive evidence for it, but because all other possible causes had supposedly been eliminated.

As Sgt. Julien was the only person left to describe what had happened on the flight, his recollections should have been crucial to the investigations of the Rhodesian Commission. But the com­mission discounted Julien’s statements to the nurses, writing: “No attention need be paid to remarks, later in the week, about sparks in the sky. They either relate to the fire after the crash, or to a symp­tom of his then condition.” Even Julien’s comment about the plane having blown up, made to police inspector Allen, was not given serious attention.

The senior medical staff at the hospital dismissed Julien’s recol­lections of the crash as the ramblings of a sick man; his reference to “sparks in the sky” was attributed to uraemia. But Dr. Lowenthal took a different view. He stated that Julien’s recollections were spo­ken during a plasma transfusion and before an injection of pethidine, which means that Julien had not been sedated at the time. Lowenthal felt so strongly about the need to establish this truth that he partici­pated in the Rhodesian hearings as a volunteer witness; he insisted that when Julien spoke about the crash, he was “lucid and coherent.”

one might have expected the 1961–62 U.N. Commission of Inquiry to dig more deeply into other explanations for why the plane went down. But the commission, which issued its report in April 1962, had to rely on evidence already gathered by the Rhodesian author­ities, and its inquiry was to a large degree shaped by that process. It sought to circulate requests for information not just in English but in the local languages, but it was compelled to operate under the constraints of white minority rule and enforced segregation. It took witnesses more seriously than the Rhodesians had done, but not comprehensively, and it paid inadequate attention to Julien’s statements.

Still, the U.N. Commission reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack. It argued that while it could not exclude the possibility of pilot error, it had “found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash.”

Because the U.N. Commission reached an open verdict, the General Assembly adopted a resolution in October 1962 requesting that the secretary-general inform the General Assembly of any new evidence relating to the disaster that might come to light.

It was this resolution that—more than fifty years later—enabled the opening of the current inquiry led by Justice Othman. And what Othman’s inquiry has made clear is that there was a great deal of evidence that those original inquiries ignored or simply never uncovered. Most notably, the 1961–62 official inquiries con­cluded that the first sighting of the crash site was at 3:10 p.m. on September 18 by a RRAF pilot flying overhead; at around the same time, there was a report of a sighting by the two aforementioned charcoal burners. Following these reports, police vehicles and ambulances were immediately sent to the site.

But a mass of evidence has emerged that shows that many peo­ple knew that the plane had crashed—and where—long before it was officially located. Indeed, the crash site was reported to the Northern Rhodesian authorities between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. by Timothy Kankasa. Some charcoal burners had come across the burning plane in the morning and, in great concern, rushed to tell him. The men reported the crash to him, rather than to the police, because they mistrusted and feared the white authorities.

Kankasa hurried to the site of the crash and then contacted the police. He later remembered the policeman to whom he had made the report: a white man in charge of the Western Division in the Copperbelt, and someone with whom he, as Twapia secretary, had had dealings in the past. “There was no reason for him not to believe me,” pointed out Kankasa, “because whenever I had any problems, I telephoned him and the police came to my aid. Always.”

But nothing was done. According to Kankasa, “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.”

“I believed someone should have come,” he insisted. “We could not understand why they did not respond.”

Margaret Ngulube, a resident of Twapia, was twenty-three years old on the night of the crash. The memory stayed with her. “It was a terrible experience,” she told the Times of Zambia in 2005. “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.”

it’s also possible that the wreckage of the Albertina was seen from the sky shortly after dawn. This claim was made in 1994 by Colonel Don G. Gaylor, the USAF air attaché stationed in Pretoria, who was sent to Ndola on September 15 by the Pentagon. The reason Gaylor gave for this mission was “to meet Mr. Hammarskjöld and offer my assistance and transportation if he so desired.” Gaylor’s later mem­oir, From Barnstorming to Bush Pilot, published in 2010, described his functions as intelligence-gathering in sub-Saharan Africa.

Gaylor was one of three U.S. air attachés who are known to have flown to Ndola airport during the period of September 15–18. Commander Don L. Ely, the U.S. naval attaché for air in Pretoria, arrived on September 16. Colonel Benjamin Matlick, the U.S. air attaché in Leopoldville, arrived at Ndola airport on September 18 at approximately 12:15 p.m.

According to a letter Gaylor wrote to an official Swedish investi­gator in 1994 (a letter I was recently sent by Hans Kristian Simensen, a Norwegian researcher who, like me, is assisting Justice Othman on a voluntary basis), Gaylor was in the control tower at Ndola air­port on the night of September 17–18, waiting for Hammarskjöld’s aircraft. The letter states that after the plane failed to arrive, he and his crew prepared for takeoff at first light to look for a crash site. Gaylor wrote that he spotted the wreckage shortly after dawn and immediately contacted the “Ndola rescue frequency and gave them the map coordinates of the site.” His letter adds: “Then I circled the site for a considerable period to give the ground party a point of reference.” This account is consistent with Gaylor’s memoir.

To illustrate his 1994 letter, Gaylor included a photograph: “I am enclosing an aerial photo I took of the crash site. You will note my aircraft shadow as the hour was not long after dawn and the sun was still low on the horizon.” Dawn in Zambia in mid-September is just after 5:30 a.m.

It should be noted that there is a discrepancy between this claim by Gaylor and a report by Matlick to the U.S. Secretary of State on September 22, which states that Gaylor had wanted to search in the morning but was not allowed to do so by the Rhodesian civil authorities. Matlick adds that Gaylor flew the second aircraft to spot the crash site in the afternoon, following a sighting by a RRAF aircraft; this was echoed by Squadron Leader John Mussell in his testimony to the Rhodesian Board of Investigation.

Without further documentary evidence, we cannot resolve these conflicting pieces of evidence, or verify Gaylor’s claim that he found the crash site shortly after dawn. This makes it all the more important to obtain and study the report that Gaylor said he sent to the Pentagon: “My report to my superiors in the Pentagon was acknowledged with some accolades.”

So far as the discovery of the crash site is concerned, then, there are a number of different reports which give various times, many of them before 3:10 p.m. They range from Gaylor’s claim of shortly after dawn to Timothy Kankasa’s report to the police in the early morning. Together, they reinforce Matlick’s judgment that “communications and air search by Rhodesian authorities [were] unexcusably late in getting started.” He attributed this failure by the Rhodesian civil authorities “either to their negative attitude towards the U.N.…or to cover up their own inefficiency.”

If Harold Julien had been found earlier in the day, he would not have had to lie suffering under the blazing sun for so long, without any medical care or relief from pain, and his chances of survival could well have been greater. (It is also possible that, as the Swedish doctors who reviewed the autopsy reports in 1962 on behalf of the U.N. concluded, Hammarskjöld himself survived the crash, and might have lived longer if he’d been taken to a hospital sooner.)

one other aspect of Gaylor’s involvement is worth noting. After the Albertina failed to land, a team of Norwegian U.N. soldiers flew to Ndola to assist in the search. Their aircraft was parked near Gaylor’s DC-3. Because of white Rhodesians’ hostility to U.N. personnel, they were not allowed to enter the airport terminal. So Gaylor’s crew invited them on board to get some food. To the sur­prise of the U.N. soldiers, they discovered that the American plane was packed with highly sophisticated radio equipment.

We know from other testimony that the U.S. Embassy in Leopoldville was communicating with Ndola via a U.S. aircraft, which presumably was Gaylor’s DC-3. And that may explain an intriguing aspect of the story, namely that Edmund A. Gullion, the U.S. ambassador in the Congo, sent a cable to Washington on the morning of September 18 that explicitly referred to the possibility that the plane was shot down. “Hammarskjöld’s plane believed lost in vicinity Rhodesian border near Ndola,” the cable read. “There is possibility he was shot down by single pilot who has harassed U.N. operations and who has been identified by one usually reli­able source as van Riesseghel, Belgian, who accepted training lessons with so-called Katangan Air Force.” (The ambassador’s communique included an error—the name of the pilot in question was Jan van Risseghem.)

That hypothesis is bolstered by the experience of Commander Charles Southall, an American naval pilot who was working at the National Security Agency (NSA) listening station in Cyprus at the time of the crash. Shortly after midnight on September 18, he and some other officers found themselves clustered round a loud­speaker, listening to the recording. They heard the rushing noise of an aircraft engine and the commentary of the pilot: “I see a trans­port plane coming low. All the lights are on. I’m going down to make a run on it. Yes, it is the Transair DC-6. It’s the plane.”

The pilot’s voice was “cool and professional,” said Southall. Then they heard gun cannons firing—and the pilot saying, “I’ve hit it. There are flames! It’s going down. It’s crashing!”

At this point, Southall told me, the voice had some “excitement.” He had the impression that the pilot was “expecting the plane.” Southall suspected that the pilot was communicating with the CIA or with some other Katangan, Rhodesian, or British base that was cooperating with the CIA.

senior british officials also knew of the plane crash long before it was officially located.

In 2011, Lord Alport’s private secretary, Brian Unwin, wrote an article for the Guardian with an attention-getting headline: “It Is Wrong to Suggest That Dag Hammarskjöld Was Murdered.” In the article, Unwin states that he and Alport, both of whom were at Ndola airport that night and spent it in their parked aircraft, knew at dawn of the crash of a plane. The article adds that this was con­firmed as Hammarskjöld’s plane at noon, when Unwin and Alport arrived back at Salisbury airport.

Unwin later said that he had misremembered the chronology of events. But the times in his article mesh perfectly with a report to London by the British Ambassador to the Congo stating that the “wreckage” of Hammarskjöld’s aircraft “was discovered at mid-day on the 18th of September.”

The British consul in Elisabethville, who had come to Ndola, gave a similar account. In an unpublished memoir, he recorded that he had arranged a lunch for Tshombe and his advisors in Kitwe, a town nearly forty miles from Ndola. But before the lunch, he took a wireless set to Ndola post office to be repaired. This delay enabled him “to receive the definite news that Hammarskjöld’s plane had crashed before going to lunch.”

over the past few years of the inquiry Justice Othman has asked U.N. member states with potential information in their intelli­gence, security, and defense archives to appoint an independent and high-ranking official to identify and inform him of all rele­vant records. The majority of these states, including among others France, Portugal, Sweden, and Zimbabwe, have sought to cooper­ate in a serious manner.

But the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa have not disclosed any significant information to Justice Othman since 2017. He reported in 2022 that in the case of South Africa and the United Kingdom, “not a single document has been disclosed in that period. The US provided one document in 2018/19 and a further document in 2021, both of which were publicly available. Documentation responsive to my specific search requests has not, however, been received.”

The Zimbabwean government provided the Justice with evi­dence that Rhodesian intelligence officials were intercepting U.N. communications in Katanga. This matches information in the slim file that was made available to the Justice by the British government in 2017, in which there are several references to the interception of U.N. communications by the Rhodesian and British authorities.

Justice Othman has referred to the “possibility of the inter­ception of communications on the travel arrangements for the Secretary-General’s mission to Ndola.” Should it surface that such communications were intercepted, he observes, “it would have ren­dered futile the United Nations efforts to maintain the confidenti­ality of the journey.” Such interception of U.N. communications would have exposed the flight to the possibility of hostile action while en route.

Ambassador Gullion, as we have seen, raised the possibility that a Belgian pilot in the Katangan Air Force shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane. That air force had been supplied by the CIA with Fouga fighter aircraft, and the NSA and the CIA had the means to inter­cept the communications sent from the CX-52 machines used by Hammarskjöld’s team. So information about the flight path of the Albertina could have been transmitted by the CIA to Katangan forces.

The Rhodesian Commission’s theory of pilot error as the cause of the crash has been largely discounted.

At least one official working for the British intelligence service MI6 was at Ndola and the surrounding area for about six days around the time of the crash. This official, Neil Ritchie (who was operating under the official cover of Lord Alport’s First Secretary), was involved in a top-secret mission relating to Hammarskjöld’s visit and was in frequent communication with Alport.

Cyrille Adoula, the prime minister of the Congo at the time of the crash, believed that Hammarskjöld had been murdered and held “the great financial Powers of the West” responsible. “How ignoble is this assassination, not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers. Mr. Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.”

justice othman’s 2022 report was submitted by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to the president of the U.N. General Assembly with a personal statement of support: “It remains our shared responsibility to pursue, with renewed urgency, the full truth of what happened on that fateful night in 1961.… I consider this to be our solemn duty and I will do everything I can to support this endeavour.”

The Rhodesian Commission’s theory of pilot error as the cause of the crash has been largely discounted. This means that the official record produced under the auspices of British colonial rule—and with the support of other Western powers with economic interests in the region—is no longer credible. This is apparent in the growing support of U.N. member states for Justice Othman’s investigation. When Sweden presented a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly at the end of 2022 to continue the inquiry, 141 nations out of 193 co-sponsored the resolution—a record number on this matter.

The United States did not co-sponsor the 2022 Resolution, even though four American citizens—a quarter of the victims—died as a result of the crash. The United Kingdom also declined to do so.

The Zambian Bishop Dr. Trevor Musonda Mwamba has closely followed the investigation. For him, the tragedy is intensely per­sonal: He was ordained a priest in Ndola, served as a parish priest nearby, and holds Dag Hammarskjöld in deep admiration.

Bishop Mwamba believes it is imperative that the circumstances surrounding the crash of the Albertina are known and understood. “It’s important for Zambia’s identity,” he insists, “to know its past in order to embrace its authentic self in the future.” For ultimately, he adds, “the truth does set a person free and a country too—ennobling both, making them better, to do good in the world.”

I am extremely grateful to Hans Kristian Simensen for his generosity in sharing the fruits of his research and copies of critical documents. For sharing their important memories and references, I thank Richard Julien, the Right Reverend Dr. Trevor Musonda Mwamba, Maurin Picard, Monique Rime, B. Rosato, and Mike Shine.

Susan Williams is a historian and Senior Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her books include Colour Bar, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Spies in the Congo, and White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Colonization of Africa.
Originally published:
December 11, 2023


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