In the late 1950s, the MNC (Mouvement National Congolais) party in the Congo, led by Patrice Lumumba, one of the founders of the Congolese National Movement, had gained many followers and achieved success. The party asserted that the Congolese must become self-determining, and in June 1960, an agreement on the country’s independence was reached. When the first free elections were held in May 1960, it became the largest party, and Lumumba was appointed prime minister. The transfer of power took place on June 30, 1960, in the capital, Leopoldville. However, during the ceremony, Belgian King Baudouin began with a speech glorifying colonization, claiming, among other things, that ”Congo’s independence is the result of the efforts made by the ingenious King Leopold II.” It is worth noting that during Leopold’s ”ingenious” rule in the Congo between 1885-1912, at least 10 million black people are estimated to have been killed. Baudouin advised the Congolese not to reform the colonial system too quickly. Lumumba responded:
”We will ensure that the wealth of this country benefits its children. We will go through all existing laws and enact new ones that will be noble and just.”
Katanga was rich in natural resources such as copper, diamonds, and uranium, and less than two weeks later, Moïse Tshombe, the powerful man of the mining companies in the area, declared the province of Katanga independent and requested military assistance from Belgium. On the same day, the Belgian government broke its friendship agreement with Congo and occupied Leopoldville with airborne troops. Lumumba asked the UN for help, but despite the presence of troops, unrest continued, prompting Lumumba to turn to the Soviet Union. U.S. President Eisenhower and his close advisers classified Lumumba as a dangerous Marxist, and U.S. security adviser Gordon Gray informed intelligence that the president expressed ”extremely strong feelings about the necessity for prompt action” to remove Lumumba. Some interpreted it as meaning he must be overthrown and driven out of the country; others interpreted it differently. CIA chief Allen Dulles ordered that Lumumba must go. (1)
Agent William Harvey’s assassination group ZR/RIFLE was called in, and he hired a couple of Corsican killers who informed that a Dr. Sidney Gottlieb had produced a poison that could be used on Lumumba; ”African Special.” The plan was to kidnap Lumumba and interrogate him with what was said to be a truth serum but was actually the poison. It produced the same symptoms as African fever, and it was planned to announce that Lumumba had died of fever. (2) However, Colonel Mobutu’s troops and the Belgian military acted first. With Western support, Mobutu seized power in a coup in September, and Lumumba was placed under house arrest. He managed to escape but was found by Mobutu’s troops and became a prisoner in Katanga, where Tshombe’s gendarmes, under the command of Belgian military, tortured and executed him in January 1961.
In February 1961, UN troops were mandated to use force to restore order in the Congo. Negotiations to resolve the crisis took place during the spring, reaching an agreement to reunite the Congo. However, Katanga refused to submit to central Congolese rule, prompting UN forces to have an expanded mandate to liberate the Congo from foreign mercenaries and military advisers. It was during these conflicts that UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s DC-6 plane crashed under mysterious circumstances shortly after midnight on September 18, 1961, as he was heading to a peace negotiation with Katanga rebel leader Tshombe in Ndola, in what was then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).
A British inquiry attributed the crash to pilot error, and a later UN investigation reached a similar conclusion. However, it has been revealed that investigators downplayed and even ignored testimonies from villagers near the crash site suggesting it was not an accident. In 2011, new evidence emerged in the case after The Guardian newspaper in the UK, along with Susan Williams, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, who had studied the case for four years and had access to previously classified material and testimonies, revealed that the truth about Hammarskjöld’s death had been obscured by the British colonial authorities in the Congo, and that Hammarskjöld’s plane had likely been shot down.
The UN’s military support for the Congolese government made Hammarskjöld hated by both white settlers in the region and Katanga supporters. According to Williams, the plane was probably shot down by mercenaries fighting for Katanga separatists and rebelling against the government with the support of Belgian mining interests. She found evidence suggesting that autopsy photos had been manipulated and examined classified documents from the then-Prime Minister of the British Central African Federation, Roy Welensky, discovering photographs of Hammarskjöld’s body, which, unlike the charred remains of the other victims, had no burn injuries but did have a head wound.
This is confirmed by Colonel Björn Egge, the former head of the UN’s military intelligence service in the Congo, who revealed that Hammarskjöld had a hole in his forehead that was not present in the autopsy photos used in the official investigation. Williams showed the pictures to pathologists who stated that someone had manipulated them. When Hammarskjöld was found, the ace of spades playing card was lodged inside his shirt collar. The ace of spades is also known as the ”death card,” and Norman Kenward, a photographer from the nearby Mufulira who took pictures of the victims shortly after the crash, could confirm that Hammarskjöld indeed had a playing card inside his collar. Two local miners testified that two Land Rovers had raced to the crash site shortly after the crash and then returned hours before the search party arrived. (3)
Williams also interviewed former intelligence officer Charles Southall, stationed at a listening post in Cyprus at the time of the crash. He revealed that he and his colleagues heard a cockpit recording from a plane near Ndola that night, where an unidentified pilot commented on an attack on another plane. According to Southall, the pilot had said:
”I see a transport plane coming low. All the lights are on. I’m going down to make a run on it. Yes, it’s Transair DC-6. That’s the plane!”
After that, the sound of gunfire was heard, and the pilot exclaimed:
”I hit it; it’s in flames. It’s coming down; it’s crashing!”
Documents from Bo Virving, a Swedish observer in the Rhodesian investigation, showed that both black and white witnesses had said they saw a second plane in the air just before the crash, something confirmed by miners in the area but ignored by investigators. Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker for SIDA in Africa who had taken an interest in the case and interviewed crucial witnesses, found unpublished telegrams from the days before Hammarskjöld’s death.
Björkdahl conducted an unofficial, independent investigation and concluded that Hammarskjöld’s plane was almost certainly shot down. Residents on the western outskirts of Ndola testified that Hammarskjöld’s plane had been shot down by a smaller aircraft and that the crash site had been cordoned off several hours before the wreckage was officially found. British and Rhodesian officials on the scene delayed the search for the plane, said Björklund, and British diplomats secretly supported the Katanga uprising and wanted to prevent the ceasefire. He found that just before his death, Hammarskjöld had approved a UN offensive against Katanga, codenamed Operation Morthor, against a rebellion supported by Western mining companies and mercenaries in the mineral-rich Katanga region. This had angered both the USA and the UK. Eighty-four-year-old Dickson Mbewe was a miner sitting outside his house in Chifubu west of Ndola the same night Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed. Mbewe said:
”We saw a plane flying over Chifubu… Suddenly, we saw another plane quickly approaching above the larger plane and opening fire, appearing as a bright light. The upper plane turned and went in another direction… the larger plane… went down and disappeared.”
Mbewe was never called to testify and was afraid to go to the police. Seventy-five-year-old Custon Chipoya also testified that he had seen a plane circling the area, causing him and others to react: ”… the third time, when it turned towards the airport, I saw a smaller plane approaching behind the larger one… Then it opened fire on the larger plane below and went in the opposite direction. The larger plane caught fire, and we thought it was war, so we ran away.” Safeli Mulenga, now 83 years old, was also there that night and recounted seeing the plane circle twice and then being hit by gunfire from somewhere above. The official report claims that there was no tape recorder in the control tower, even though its equipment was new. The air traffic control’s crash report was not filed until 33 hours later.
The sole survivor among the 15 passengers was Harold Julian, an American sergeant in Hammarskjöld’s security detail. According to the official report, he died from his injuries, but Mark Lowenthal, a doctor who helped treat him, said he could have been saved and wondered why the US authorities had not immediately sent someone to help one of their own who was dying of kidney failure. Julian was left in Ndola for five days. Before he died, Julian told the police that he had seen sparks in the sky and an explosion just before the crash. (4)
(1) H. W. Brands, ”The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War”, OUP USA; New Ed edition, 1994, (page 63)
(2) Joseph J. Trento, ”The Secret History of the CIA”, Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc; Reprint edition, 2004, (page 196)
(3) ”Dag Hammarskjöld: nephew calls for new inquiry into death of UN chief,” Julian Borger, guardian.co.uk, Friday, 16 September 2011.
(4) ”Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief’s plane was shot down,” Julian Borger and Georgina Smith, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday, 17 August 2011.
The Murder of Dag Hammarskjöld