NEARLY ten years ago I was fortunate to review for the Witness Susan Williams’ brilliant book based on her research into the death of United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in the crash of flight SE-BDY, a Douglas DC6 named Albertina, near Ndola on 18 September 1961. Hammarskjöld was due to meet Moise Tshombe, titular head of the breakaway Katanga.

The review drew a response from a Pietermaritzburg resident, Robin Barnes, who had visited the crash site that afternoon with a reporter from the Northern News and taken photographs. These were particularly interesting as the police pictures vanished and are believed to be in private hands. Barnes’ photos are now safely in a Swedish archive. There was a second response, from Wren Mast-Ingle who on the night of the crash was travelling by motorbike between Ndola and Bancroft mine, where he worked. He heard the crash and went to investigate only to be ordered away from the site by a group of eight unidentified, uniformed white men in two jeeps. But he had been close enough to the wreckage to notice holes in the fuselage, which at this stage had not been burned. This was many hours before the plane was officially located after a poorly organised search. The first journalist on the scene was Marta Trefusis-Paynter who noted that the aircraft and bodies had been subjected to such intense heat that the latter looked like babies.

Since 2013 the UN has conducted a succession of inquiries to ascertain whether its inconclusive 1961 inquest should be reopened and these have just culminated in the Othman report, steered by a former chief justice of Tanzania. Reading between the diplomatic, legalistic and repetitive lines of the one-hundred page report an interesting picture of the making and shaping of history emerges. Contemporary inquiries by the UN and the Central African Federation were sketchy to say the least and led to the convenient verdict of pilot error, rebutted early on by the Swedes. The crash was relegated to cold case status suspiciously quickly: the remnants of the plane were destroyed as early as March 1962; autopsy reports are incomplete; and the photographic record is lacking.

For the next fifty years the crash was looked at by researchers and journalists who established a number of intriguing lines of enquiry that suggested a plot to kill Hammarskjöld. This possibility has now been accepted by the UN, but its ongoing inquiry needs probative evidence. Othman has identified four nations – the US, UK, South Africa and Russia – as the potential sources of unrevealed archival material. Governments have handed over documents of a political and diplomatic nature, but not that from intelligence, security and defence sources. Interviews with, and the memoirs of, individuals working for intelligence and security agencies indicate that unrevealed records should exist.

What comes to mind is George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy combing through Secret Intelligence Service (SIS,MI6 or Cambridge Circus) files looking for evidence of a Soviet agent (this is a fictionalised version of Kim Philby’s treason). It dawns on Smiley that what is crucially significant is not what is in the files; but what is absent from them. Governments have repeatedly been asked to hand over material relevant to Hammarskjöld’s death. What have they not produced? One obvious category is air traffic communication (ATC) intercepts.

One of the mysteries of the crash has been the absence of records from Ndola control tower. It was claimed that there was no voice recording and the officer on duty said he had destroyed his notes, although he acknowledged the significance of the flight. Over the years suspicions have grown that ATC that night was run from American aircraft with high-powered communication equipment on the tarmac at Ndola airport. They were certainly in contact with a subsequent UN flight. And the last message from Albertina reported sight of Ndola’s lights after which there was apparent silence, possibly caused by jamming. It has also been discovered that the CX52 cryptographic machines used by the UN were manufactured with a backdoor and were being read in real time by the US security services. Albertina’s machine was not returned to the UN for some while. ATC records may well be the key to the truth.

The UN investigation cannot draw the obvious conclusion: that American and British intelligence was spying on Hammarskjöld and feeding up-to-date information straight to the rebel Katanga regime in Elisabethville. There is no probatory evidence to prove this theory beyond reasonable doubt (as in a criminal case). But historians can put it forward with confidence because as in a civil case they simply have to weigh the balance of probabilities. They are free to discard the likelihood of coincidence and accident and embrace conspiracy if seems at all likely and consistent with context and background.

One such contextual factor is subsequent knowledge about the region in 1961. Katanga was better armed than thought at the time. Its air force (Avikat) was well-equipped with French, German and British planes (Fouga Magister, Dornier DO28 and De Havilland Dove) modified for aerial combat and bombing raids; and it had sufficient pilots. There was access to numerous landing strips in both Congos, Angola and Northern Rhodesia. The conflict was widespread and borders were highly porous.

Personnel crossed freely. This included a heavy mercenary presence (many French with OAS links) that was falling back on the southern Katanga border. Much of the (Rhodesian) federal army was on the same border backed by considerable airpower. The presence of the mercenary leader Mike Hoare in Ndola on the night of Hammarskjöld’s death might just have been coincidence; but he is named by the Othman investigation as a CIA asset, certainly part of Larry Devlin’s Congo operation since there is a photograph of them together. (Hoare maintained that Hammarskjöld’s death was deliberate, but said he had no part in it.)

There was a twelve-hour gap between the crash and its official acknowledgement during which many unknown people had access to the wreckage. The rumour of jeeps present at the site rather than Land Rovers lends credence to the presence of Katangese operatives. And it appears that a British MI6 officer, Neil Ritchie, took papers from the crash. The departing colonial power also removed most traces of Hammarskjöld from the Lusaka archives.

The South African connection remains opaque. No documents have been handed over to the UN in recent years and no one is any the wiser about the mysterious cases of the South African Institute of Maritime Research (a name Hoare might well have chosen for a front organisation) or the sabotage implied by Operation Celeste. Nor has the South African government delivered information about the movements of persons of interest around September 1961. Whether this is a matter of lack of capacity or obstruction is unknown, but the post-apartheid government has been curiously reluctant to address many historical issues. This seems to be one of them.

And it emphasises the point that so much of what has become known about this case, and other historical puzzles, has been put together by or through individual researchers and journalists with significant aid from published memoirs. These have led to demands made of governments to reveal their records. Reluctance to do so can be as telling  as their availability for historians if not lawyers. But this is a process with an expiry label: those who were on-the-spot witnesses in 1961 are now either dead or in advanced old age.

  • The photographs were taken by Robin Barnes at the crash site on the afternoon of 18 September 1961.