On 17 September 1961 a plane known as the Albertina took off from an airport in the northern Congo. Six hours later it was a molten mess out in the Rhodesian bush. Sixteen people died in the crash. One was Dag Hammarskjöld, head of the United Nations.
The Albertina went down as it was approaching Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) just after midnight local time. It was a clear night hazed with mist from a local cobalt refinery. The Albertina’s Captain, Swede Per Hallonquist, made a last radio communication with the control tower a few minutes before the crash.
The Death of Dag Hammarskjöld
“Your lights in sight, overhead Ndola, descending,” he said.
Ndola asked him to report when the Albertina reached 6,000 feet.
That was the last anyone heard from the plane.
We still don’t know why it crashed. In 2013 the United Nations announced yet another enquiry, hoping to shake loose any remaining bits of the puzzle. Supporters claimed the report, due in two years, would finally solve the mystery of Hammarskjöld’s death. No-one else felt like putting money on it.
The basic facts are undisputed. Hammarskjöld, a blond Swedish diplomat with eyes as calm as a frozen lake, was on his way to meet Moïse Tshombe, president of the new nation of Katanga.
Katanga had forcibly detached itself from the Congo in July 1960, only a few weeks after the Congo got its own independence from Belgium. Tshombe claimed that self-rule for his province (coincidentally or not, the richest bit of the Congo thanks to copper deposits) was the only way to escape the post-independence chaos engulfing the rest of the country. Critics pointed out that many powerful Belgians, including the wealthy Union Minière mining company, seemed to have considerable influence in the new nation. Was Katanga just colonialism under another name?
The United Nations came in to arbitrate. Things got violent. When Hammarskjöld set off on his trip to Rhodesia, UN soldiers were fighting Tshombe’s army of white mercenaries and ruthless tribesmen in the streets of the Katangese capital Elisabethville. And the UN was losing. The Swede wanted to talk peace.
Hammarskjöld’s death sparked conspiracy theories. Had Katanga tried to kill the UN chief? Tshombe told the press that a peace deal with Hammarskjöld was the best chance of securing a future for Katanga. It made no sense to kill the Swede. Not everyone believed him.
But where was the evidence? Theories, both pro and con, failed to stand up. A hijacking? Bullets found in two security guards on board turned out to be their own ammunition which had exploded in the heat. All bodies had been accounted for and the Albertina had no extra passengers. Pilot error? Possible but Hallonquist was an experienced pilot making a routine landing. Mechanical failure? All engines were running at the time of the crash and had been increasing power. The altimeters were correctly set. Rocket, bombing, interception? Despite the suspicions of many, the Albertina had not sustained any combat damage. The Katangese had only one operational plane, a Fouga training jet, jury-rigged with machine guns. It did not have the range to reach Ndola and return to base. Other pilots claimed it would have been impossible to intercept another aircraft in the dark African sky.
A Rhodesian government enquiry in 1961 decided the Albertina crashed because it was flying too low. A UN enquiry the same year agreed. Even a subsequent UN enquiry, decades later, failed to find evidence for a conspiracy. By that time Katanga was long gone, the secession having failed in 1963.
In July 2015 the UN’s latest enquiry released its findings. The press seized on tales of mystery airplanes in the sky, MI6 agents at Tshombe’s side, and tales of radio transmissions recording an aerial dogfight.
But the reality is that investigators still don’t know what happened to Dag Hammarskjöld. There is still no unequivocal proof. His death might have been an accident: a perfect storm of pilot error and mechanical failure and unforeseen weather conditions. Or perhaps it was something sinister, a conspiracy to decapitate the world’s largest peacekeeping organisation.
Maybe the truth will emerge one day. But if it does no-one will believe it. Narratives that confirm our prejudices are more fun than facts.
For more about Dag Hammarskjöld’s death and the Katanga secession see my book:
My other books are also available: