Sixty years on: the unanswered questions about the death of Dag Hammarskjöld 

Susan Williams 

Sixty years ago today, the world was shocked to learn of the sudden death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary General. In the middle of the night of 17-18th September 1961, a plane carrying Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew had plunged into thick forest near Ndola in the British colonial territory of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The UN team had been on a mission to seek to bring peace to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which had become independent from Belgian rule in 1960. Officially there was one survivor of the crash, but he died a few days later. All 16 passengers and crew – from Sweden, Ireland, the USA, Haiti and Canada – perished. 

Questions were asked as strange details of the crash swiftly emerged. Hammarskjöld had “fallen victim”, lamented Cyrille Adoula, the Prime Minister of the Congo, “to the shameless intrigues of the great financial Powers of the West” and had been murdered. “How ignoble is this assassination, not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers,” he said bitterly. “Mr Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.” 

Three inquiries into the cause of the crash were conducted in 1961-62:  two by the Rhodesian government and one by the UN. All were conducted under the conditions of British colonialism and white minority rule, which were little different from apartheid in South Africa.The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry identified pilot error as the cause, but without any actual evidence. This explanation of pilot error became widely accepted but has been strongly challenged in recent years by the emergence of fresh evidence and new analysis. 

The racism underpinning the inquiries of 1961-62 was noted by Timothy Jiranda Kankasa, who became a government minister after Zambia’s independence. In 1961, he was the board secretary of Twapia Township, which was adjacent to the crash site. It was “incredible,” objected Kankasa, “that all the black witnesses were supposed to be unreliable. And the white witnesses, those who gave evidence, if they gave evidence in favour of the fact that there was nothing fishy, that it was pure accident, were reliable.” Also rejected were the recollections of the single survivor of the crash, who spoke of “sparks in the sky” and said that the plane “blew up”. 

Timothy Kankasa testified that he saw a small aircraft closing in from behind and flying almost above Hammarskjöld’s plane, and that it was “beaming lights on the bigger plane.” Kankasa’s evidence was roundly rejected by the Rhodesian government attorney. “What you have told us about the two planes,” he told Kankasa, “is completely unacceptable … you made a mistake.” But Kankasa was a reliable witness: he had served in the Allied armed forces during the Second World War as a signalman and had seen aircraft flying in formation at night. 

Some charcoal burners from Twapia who were working in the forest on the night of the crash gave testimony that was similar to that of Kankasa. At about midnight, said Davidson Simango, he saw two aeroplanes flying closer together than was usual. The noise faded but after a few minutes it grew louder again, when he saw one aeroplane coming back—after which there was a flash, and the plane went down. Then there was a very loud explosion, followed by smaller ones. 

Dickson Buleni, another witness, was afraid to give evidence at first but was persuaded to do so by a Swedish trade union official working near Ndola. Buleni explained that he was sitting outside his home in the charcoal burners’ compound that night with his wife, when they were surprised to see a large plane with a small plane flying above it. He saw and heard a “fire” coming from the small plane to the roof of the big plane and then he heard the sound of an explosion. Then the big plane fell down and crashed. After circling once, he said, the small plane flew off in the direction of Kitwe to the west. There were a number of groups in the compound, added Buleni, and nearly everyone was shouting that a plane had come down. People were frightened and many ran into the bush. 

The charcoal burners D. Moyo, L. Daka and P. Banda gave witness statements in which they reported hearing an explosion in the middle of the night. Daka said “he then saw a lot of fire . . . he also saw something coming down and breaking the trees”. At dawn, they discovered the crash, as did many others – belying the official statement that the crash site was not discovered until 3.10 pm. Their testimonies were dismissed as unreliable by the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry and they were accused of stealing a cipher machine from the crash site, on highly questionable evidence. They were imprisoned for eighteen months with hard labour. 

Other witnesses, too, described strange happenings in the sky that night. But these witnesses were not confined to Zambia. In Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, 3,000 miles away, the events in Ndola’s airspace were brought to the attention of Charles M. Southall, a young US naval pilot working for the American National Security Agency (NSA), the cryptologic intelligence agency of the US government. 

Southall was stationed at the NSA listening station near Nicosia and was unexpectedly called into work on the night of 17-18th September 1961. He heard the recording of a pilot’s commentary as he shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane: “I see a transport plane coming in low, I’m going to go down and look at it”, and then he said ‘”Yes, it’s the transport”. Southall added, “Now whether he said ‘Yes it’s the Trans Air’, ‘DC6’, or it’s just, ‘Yes, it’s the plane’, I don’t remember, but he said ‘I’m going to make a run on it’.” 

Southall continued, “It’s quite chilling. You can hear the gun cannon firing and he said ‘Flames coming out of it, I’ve hit it! Great’, or ‘Good’ or something like that, ‘it’s crashed’. And that was the end of the recording. I remember the watch supervisors commenting that this recording was only 7 minutes old at the time.” 

Not only from Cyprus but from Ethiopia, too, nearly 2,000 miles north of Northern Rhodesia, some of the airwaves used in Ndola could be heard. In the middle of the night of 17–18th September, a few miles outside Addis Ababa, a Swedish flying instructor heard a conversation over short-wave radio between flight controllers, one of whom was at Ndola airport and expressed surprise that, as far as he could tell, one plane was being unexpectedly followed by another. 

In 2015 the UN Secretary General appointed the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, to lead a renewed UN investigation into the tragic deaths of Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew, who gave their lives in the cause of peace. The judge took seriously the testimony of the Zambian witnesses and other evidence that had been rejected by the inquiries of 1961-62, as well as a vast range of new information that had emerged over the years. “It appears plausible,” observed the judge in his report of 2017, “that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack … or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.” 

Judge Othman has sought assistance from UN member states to supply the documents he needs relating to this tragic episode. His most recent report in 2019 exposes the wholly inadequate and evasive responses by the UK, the US and South Africa and their failures to cooperate fully with the UN. The US sent the UN one single document; the UK sent nothing at all. The UK and the US stated that their previous searches had already been comprehensive and were complete; but, as the report shows, that is clearly not the case, particularly in relation to their security and intelligence agencies. 

 In the case of the UK, such obfuscation is not new. Ever since 1961, the UK government’s conduct in relation to the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane has aroused suspicion. And it is noteworthy that whereas the UK did not cooperate properly in preparation for the judge’s report of 2019, two former British colonies – Zambia and Zimbabwe – sought energetically to assist the UN in the search for relevant documentation. 

Judge Othman’s search for the truth is ongoing and he will produce a final report in 2022. His efforts are followed and deeply appreciated across the world and in Zambia itself. Hammarskjöld was from Sweden. But when he died on Zambian soil, explains the Rt Rev Dr Trevor Musonda Mwamba, a Zambian politician who is the former Bishop of Botswana, “his soul became a part of Zambia and Zambia a part of him. As Zambians we are therefore desirous to know the truth of why Dag Hammarskjöld was killed.” With Dag Hammarskjöld’s death, maintains the Bishop, “the world lost one of its greatest servants – a brilliant mind, a brave and compassionate spirit, a peacemaker, a mystic. He pointed us to strive diligently for a world in which people solve their problems by peaceful means and not by force.” 


Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa (Hurst,2011). The crash of Hammarskjold’s plane also features in her new book White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa (Hurst,2021). 

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa  by Susan Williams

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