The Strange Death of Dag Hammarskjöld

Matthew Hughes on new evidence on the 1961 death of the UN Secretary-General.

Recently released – and hitherto unseen – private papers and tapes left to the Bodleian Library reveal a remarkable tale about the death in 1961 of the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld. The documents were bequeathed by the Australian diplomat George Ivan Smith, who worked for the UN in the Congo in the 1960s. In September 1961 Hammarskjöld’s four-engine DC-6 aeroplane took off from the capital of the former Belgian Congo, Leopoldville, bound for Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (then part of the British-run Central African Federation). The plane never arrived. Just after midnight local time on the September 17th-18th, it ploughed into trees in rough bushland several miles west of its destination.

The official explanation for the disaster was that the crash was the result of pilot error. But was Hammarskjöld’s death really  an accident? There was only one survivor: the American chief security officer and Korean War veteran, Sgt Harold Julian. Before he died in hospital five days later, Julian told Rhodesian police of sparks in the sky, an explosion and Hammarskjöld telling the pilot to ‘go back’.

Smith’s papers detail a plot to intercept and kidnap Hammarskjöld that went wrong. The operation was conducted by white mercenaries working out of Katanga province in south-east Congo. When the Congo achieved independence from Belgium in June 1960, mineral-rich Katanga, led by Moïse Tshombe, seized the opportunity to secede. Belgian-based mining interests keen to carry on profitable mineral extraction in Katanga provided financial support, while white mercenaries gave military backing. The United Nations was given the job of bringing Katanga back into the fold and this was the reason for Hammarskjöld’s flight to Ndola. The mercenaries were desperate to stop this mission to reintegrate Katanga into the Congo.

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