Dag Hammarskjöld: assassination or accident?


In 1960 the Congo was in turmoil, facing instability, civil war and secession after its newly won independence.  It asked, not for the last time, for the help of the United Nations and UN troops were sent.

A year later, a Swedish aircraft on a peace mission carrying 16 people, one of them the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, circled over the rain forest of Central Africa.  As it came into land it crashed, killing all on board.

There has never been a satisfactory explanation of that plane crash, despite three inquiries. Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories and speculation are legion.

Now, more than 50 years later, a Commission of distinguished jurists, has re-opened the case and they have come up with some startling new leads.

The Hammarskjöld Commission is a voluntary body of four international jurists who were invited by an international Enabling Committee to report whether in their view the evidence now available would justify the United Nations in reopening its inquiry pursuant to General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962.

The Panel of jurists, who make up the Commission are:

You can download a copy of the Commission Report here.

Tess Woodcraft went along to Stephen Sedley’s chambers in central London to discuss the Commission’s findings. She began by asking him to describe the background to the events of that fateful night in 1961

SS:  Dag Hammarskjöld was the second Secretary General of the UN, a Swede, very highly regarded, who was on a mission at the time of his death, to try to stop the break away of the province of Katanga from the newly independent Congo from escalating into a full scale civil war.  he was flying on the night of 17th September 1961, a Sunday, from Leopoldville in the Congo to Ndola in what was then Northern Rhodesia (and is now Zambia)to meet with the president of the breakaway state of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, to try to negotiate a ceasefire between his forces, which included a large number of European mercenaries, and the UN forces that were trying to pacify Congo.

The geo-political situation was complicated – it always is – but essentially it was a world we’d no longer recognise.  The US and the Soviet Union both supported the efforts of the UN to support de-colonisation, in particularl in Africa, and it was the colonial powers (Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal) who were opposing this in one form or another.

Britain, however, had a very interesting and ambivalent role.  On one hand, it was the parent country of Northern Rhodesia, which was then the Federation of Rhodesia. But it was also a loyal member of the UN, and regarded itself as bound to try to support the efforts of the UN to bring peace to the Congo and reunite it as a political entity – not withstanding that the government of N. Rhodesia were bitterly opposed to everything the UN was doing.  That ambivalence shows up in places in our report.

Tess Woodcraft: The UN was very new at that point, Dag Hammarskjöld was only the second Secretary General.  Do you think there is any significance in that?

SS: Yes.  Secretary General was a relatively new role, which Dag Hammarskjöld had done an astonishing amount to forge into a world diplomatic job, and had succeeded in securing the respect of most of the world political community.  There was nothing in his terms of employment that said he had to fly to combat zones to sort things out – he did it because it seemed to him the best way to carry out his mandate.

TW: That’s interesting given the UN’s continuing role in in Congo even now.

So what was the remit of the Hammarskjöld Commission?

SS:  The idea for the Commission was sparked off by a book published on the 50th Anniversary of the crash in 2011 by London Universtiy scholar, Susan Williams, called Who Killed Hammarskjöld?  Susan Williams didn’t come to any conclusion about her own question but she assembled a remarkable amount of evidence that had emerged in the intervening 50 years, which pointed to one or other possible causes of the crash.

An English peer, Lord Lea of Crondal, who is interested in central African politics, assembled an enabling committee which had representatives from Sweden and other countries on it.  They invited me to chair a Commission of Inquiry, a commission of jurists.  I agreed to do this on 2 conditions, one was that we were not going to try to solve the big question of who killed Hammarskjöld, if anybody did, but simply to decide if there was now sufficient evidence to justify the UN re-opening its own Inquiry which had been instituted in 1961, and had concluded in 1962 without reaching any decision as to what was the cause of the crash.

The other condition was that I could only do it if I could get together a good team, and in that I was extraordinarily lucky.  I persuaded Mr Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, a very experienced judge; Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen, a former judge of the Netherlands, of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and now a member of the Netherlands Supreme Court; and Hans Corell, Sweden Ambassador, who had been head of the UN legal section – so a very well qualified team – to come and work with me on this.

We met almost daily by email, by Skype and on three occasions we assembled in London to discuss face to face, the proceedings and what we were going to report.

It worked very well. We gave ourselves a timeline of just over a year, we started work in July 2012, and we reported on the dot, as intended, in September 2013.

TW: What were you looking at?

SS: The material was very wide ranging.  It included primary, secondary and tertiary documentary souces.  It included live witnesses whom we were able to interview both in this country, In Britain and in Zambia.  It was evidence of varying quality as evidence always is but, at its best, it was evidence that commanded attention and careful thought.

TW:  What did you expect to achieve?  After all, it’s more than 50 years later, there have already been 3 formal investigations. What more was it possible to achieve?

SS: We didn’t set out with the idea that it was possible to achieve anything.  We just wanted to see if it was possible to achieve anything.  The three investigations had all taken place, two immediately after the crash, the third was the UN investigation that was wound up in 1962.  In the course of 196, a civil aviation inquiry took place immediately after the crash, and then there was a N. Rhodesian domestic inquiry.  We have mentioned in our report what were the limitations and shortcomings of all three of those Inquiries.

It didn’t follow that there would be anything new, but it turned out, and Susan Wilson’s book gave us a lot of clues to this – that there was an extraordinary amout of new evidence that had turned up in the intervening years.  Indeed, once we started work and let it be known that we were interested in hearing from witnesses, more and more came forward, now in their 70s and 80s, who were present at the time – in the forest, charcoal burners, people who were present as journalists in N. Rhodesia, diplomats (two very important surviving British diplomats gave us evidence) and so on.

TW: Why hadn’t those people been spoken to before?

SS:  It’s difficult to know. The remit of the other commissions wasn’t the same as ours.  In relation to the African witnesses, though some had been heard by the [UN] Commission, others were marginalised by a report submitted to the UN Commission by an investigator who obviously didn’t think highly of Africans as witnesses.  These were defects which we thought, even if not to cure, we could recognise.

TW: You say none of the earlier Inquiries measured up to the standards of a modern Inquiry into a fatal event – what what different about yours?

SS: The comparison was not between those Inquiries and ours, but between those Inquiries and what a fresh Inquiry might do.  In particular, the impact of article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights on the practice of jurisprudence in European states has been marked.  Art. 2 simply enshrines the right to life and the Court of Human Rights has made it clear that that doesn’t mean simply not killing people, but that the state has an obligation to hold a thorough going and sensitive Inquiry into the cause of the loss of life, particularly that which might involve the state itself.  For example, the families of the deceased have to be much more involved in the process than they used to be.

TW: There have been a number of ideas put forward about the casue of teh crash.  Perhaps you could take us through them.

SS:  Yes, we’ve spoken about the fatal crash without really looking at what happened.

What we know happened, is that the plane reached Ndola.  It was a plane carrying 16 people (if you count the crew as well), one of whom was Dag Hammarskjöld.  He had armed guards aboard, he had diplomatic back-up and a very experienced Swedish crew.

It had reached the Ndola airstrip towards midnight, overflew it, swung round to make the conventional landing, and on the last part of the loop descended inexplicably into the forest below, with a gradual loss of height (not a precipitate crash), hit the trees, cartwheeled and burst into flames(one conspiracy theory is that it was set alight once it had hit the ground.)

Everybody on board but one, died instantly including Hammarskjöld who was thrown clear and whose body was found some distance from the plane (another reason why there have been queries about how he died).  I said everybody but one – the senior American security guard, Harold Julien, was thrown (or jumped) clear and survived with very bad burns for six days.  He was not purportedly found until 3pm the following afternoon, one of the great causes of concern.  It seems incredible, literally incredible, that the Rhodesian authorities took 15 hours to find the plane when it was on the flight path, and not very far from the airport.

We have given reasons for doubting that the official story was true, but what follows from that is not easy to deduce.  It has been suggested that it shows they were complicit in the bringing about the crash, but we have not been able to find that that is so.  We don’t think the evidence amounts to more than incompetence and muddle.  We could be wrong, but that was as far as we felt it was necessary or right to go.

TW: But Rhodesia and S Africa at the time were intent on staying colonies, they weren’t neutral parties in this visit by Hammarskjöld, were they?

SS: No.  One of the many problems about this case is that if you start from motive, there was motive all over Africa and all over the world for killing Hammarskjöld! The Belgians hated him, the French hated him, the white minority regimes in Rhodesia hated him.  And the South Africans hated him, to the extent that one of our [commission] members remembers the jubilation in South Africa when the crash occurred.

TW: So, we have a plane crashing a few miles from the airport, and there are a number of theories as to the cause.  But the ones you focus on are:  that there could have been a bomb on board – sabotage – and the second one, that there may have been an arial attack on the plane.  Let’s look at those two theories.

SS: The sabotage theory is an obvious one. Anybody who asks themselves the question, could this have been a pure accident? would first of all want to look at whether it might have been provoked

There was plenty of opportunity to place a bomb on the aircraft when repairs were being done in Leopoldville before it left for Ndola.  But the dramatic piece of evidence emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in S Africa in the 1990s when, in a file concerning the murder of Chris Hani, the Secretary of the S African Communist Party, some pages turned up that had nothing to do with the murder of Hani. They appeared to be documents recording arranging sabotage of the plane by use of a bomb.  We’ve quoted verbatim in the report what those documents contain.  The problem is that  they could be false in either of two respects.  They could be forgeries (recently created, looking authentic but not so). They could, equally, be genuine in that they were produced in 1961, but be lying about what had happened and were claiming credit for bringing down the plane which was either a pure accident o somebody else’s work.  There is no way, even if we could get the originals, which  have now been lost (we only have photocopies) of deciding which of those is the case.

So while it is possible that the truth is that a bomb was placed on board, we don’t think there was anyway of pursuing that to find out if it was in fact the truth.

There are oddities about the bomb theory because if a bomb hgad been placed on board, you’d expect it to go off when the plane took off, when the under carriage was retracted.  If, as must have happened, it only went off as the plane came into land at Ndola, the question is, how was it triggered? We do not have evidence that it could have been done by remote radio control, btu the question is still why wait until that last moment?

It could also, conceivably, have failed to ignite when the plane took off and been accidentally ignited by arial gunfire.  And that is what brings us to the second theory.

Attack from the air.

Now that has various sources of support, most of which we have noted in the report.  The striking one comes from two different sources that seem to coincide.

One of those sources is Charles Southall, a former naval pilot and intelligence officer with the US National Security Agency (NSA), who remembers being called in by the communications watch officer at his station in Cyprus from which the NSA was listening to world wide radio traffic.  He was told – this is about 9pm – ‘get yourself out here tonight something interesting is going to happen’.  Sure enough, just after midnight, Southall remembers hearing played back to him a recording, which must have been made minutes before, of cockpit dialogue, which included the pilot saying, ‘I see a transport plane coming in low, all the lights are on, I’m going down to make a run on it.  Yes, it’s the Transair DC6, it’s the plane.’  Then, after the sound of cannon fire, ‘I’ve hit it, there are flames, it’s going down, it’s crashing.’

If that is a correct recollection, and Southall, who is bilingual in French and English can’t be sure whether it was in English or French that he heard it, it is very powerful evidence that the plane was attacked from the air.

TW: Is Southall one of your newly discovered witnesses?

SS: Yes, he was post-UN Inquiry in that he has only emerged in recent years.  He gave this evidence to Susan Wilson initially, but I interviewed him directly myself for the Commission and his interview with me is on record.

The other piece of evidence which doesn’t tie up item for item with Southall, but for which there are reasons to think are at least convincing is the evidence from 1967 by a man who identified himself by the name of Beukels, which may not have been his true name, to a UN diplomat.  What Beukels claimed was that he had been sent up in the Fouga Magister jet, one of the planes used by the Katanga airforce with instructions to wait at Ndola and force the DC6 to change course in order, said Beukels, to force Hammarskjöld to meet with people representing Belgium and other interests to try to reason with  him about what he was seeking to achieve. This account we have treated with great scepticism. Even if all else of Beukels evidence is true, this was an attempt to kidnap if not assassination.

Beukels gives a description of the attack on the DC6 which he says went wrong because he was trying to divert the plane, fired warning shots and accidentally hit it and forced it to crash.

That is not consistent with what Southall head, which sounds like a deliberate attack, although it is possible that what Southall heard was consistent with an accidental shooting down.

But there is enough evidence there, we think, to be worth following up. So how can you follow up?

Unlike the South African Maritime Research Institute evidence, which may simply be false, and there is no way of knowing, this radio traffic was clearly monitored by the NSA. Southall says it was, and we also know from at least one of our British diplomatic sources, and from memoires of CIA operatives, that there were two US planes on the tarmac at Ndola – almost certainly with radio monitoring equipment aboard, which we are pretty sure, listened to and recorded all radio traffic.  This was, after all, a very important occasion. The UN secretary general was flying on a UN mission into Ndola to try to bring peace to a part of the African continent that was capable of going up in flames and affecting the whole of sub Saharan Africa, so it was an important occasion.

The Commission accordingly applied to the NSA for disclosure of any recording or transcription of radio traffic intercepted or received by it on the night of 17-18 September 1961 and appearing to relate to one aircraft firing upon another or concerning the landing or approach at Ndola.  We asked for that simply for the one hour window of time between 11.30pm -12.30am, because we know that the plane crashed at about 0010hrs.  We know that because four watches on bodies had all stopped between 0010 and 0015hrs.

The NSA responded that two out of three documents ‘responsive’ to the Commission’s request appeared to be ‘exempt from disclosure by reason of top secret classification on national security grounds. So of these three documents – which they indicate exist –  two appear to be in the NSA’s hands (we don’t know in whose hands the third document is).  That they ‘respond to the request’, that is to say that they do have to do with one aircraft firing on another, or the landing approach of an aircraft at Ndola that night, is now clear.

So we have put in an appeal against the classification and that where we’ve now drawn stumps.  The Commission regards its work as over, and we’ve handed matters on to the UN. The appeal is pending with the NSA.

TW: US sources were chattering at the time.  You report Harry Truman saying, ‘they killed him’.  How do you explain that?

SS: We don’t  We  don’t know what the source of Truman’s briefing was…it appears to tie up with a much later article in Penthouse (which did some serious journalism then) and which emanated from the CIA, suggesting it was a KGB bomb, that had brought the plane down (or at least a bomb built to KGB design).  That may have been how Truman was briefed, or it might have been something quite different, we don’t know.  We are not sufficiently confident that we’ll ever find out or to consider it a worthwhile line of inquiry.  It would be interesting to know, but we think it ‘s the NSA records that contain what information there is. And the information may simply be that the plane lost height and came down in the forest.

TW: So you’re not reading anything into the fact that the document is not being released?

SS: No.

TW: So your remit was to find evidence that would justify reopening the UN Inquiry and you think this is the smoking gun?

SS: Yes.  If there is a smoking gun, it isn’t an American smoking gun, but it may be a smoking gun of which the American’s have knowledge that nobody else has.  That is why it is of interest.

As we understand it, security classification is standard and  normal on such an occasion, but that after 50 years classification requires to be freshly and separately justified.  We are now more than 50 years down the road, so it’s possible that the classification won’t stand.  Things have been declassified eg document  about Korea.  After 50 years the onus is on the classifiers to justify continuing classification.

TW: So what happens now?

SS: The enabling committee I mentioned at the start constituted itself into a trust to which we formally presented our report .  Then they presented it to the UN, though by then the UN had already taken an interest, had picked up our report form the web and set about analysing it and deciding what to do about it.

To that end, they have asked for all of our evidence and we have supplied them with the totality of the evidence we had.

As we understand it, though it’s out of our hands now, the Deputy Secretary General and his team will be advising the Secretary General as to what, if anything, to propose to the General Assembly, and if they take our suggestion, they will propose that the Inquiry, adjourned in 1962, should be reopened, not at large but for the strictly limited purpose of following up the NSA archives.  That may lead nowhere or somewhere, and the somewhere may be sufficient answer to the question of how the Secretary General came to die. Or it may bring up other lines of enquiry which would be worth pursuing.  We don’t know. What we do think is that there is no need to reopen the whole Inquiry.  What is useful in our view, is a focused and limited inquiry stage by stage to see where it leads.

TW: Have you learned anything new about inquiries?

SS: Yes, and I gave evidence to a parliamentary committee not long ago.

Inquiries tend to be formal, to be given power to take evidence on oath, to compel witnesses to come forward and to be generally rather like a court.

Our inquiry had none of those characteristics, it was a completely voluntary affair, Commissioners and trustees weren’t paid, we had a secretary who was invaluable to our work and that was the only salaried job.  We were helped by volunteers, our experts were all volunteers, we were enormously grateful to them for the time they gave.  But most of all we had no power to put witnesses on oath or threaten them with perjury charges.

The traditional lawyers view of this is that it makes an inquiry weak and ineffectual.  Our experience was the exact opposite.  People who would have been intimidated by the use of the oath and the suggestion of perjury were perfectly happy to come forward to do their best to tell us what they remembered.

I think it was a positive virtue that we had to work informally.

TW:  But after all this time, why did it matter to hold this inquiry?

SS:  It mattered because it always matters to know the truth about an historical event, and because justice and history are worthwhile subjects.  In fact, we’ve said something about this in the report, because we were constantly asked it in the course of our work.  What we wrote was this,

It is legitimate to ask whether an inquiry such as this, a full half-century after the events with which it is concerned, can achieve anything except possibly to feed speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding the crash. Our answer, and the reason why we have been willing to give our time and effort to the task, is first that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and secondly that the passage of time, far from obscuring facts, can sometimes bring them to light.

That’s my answer.  And we concluded the report like this,

It is thus possible that the last half-century, far from obscuring the facts, may have brought us somewhat closer to the truth about an event of global significance which deserves the attention both of history and of justice.



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