The Tamsen Chronicles

Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld awaits the arrival of Congolese Premier Cyrille Adoula at the Premier’s residence in Leopoldville for a consultation on the Katanga problem. Seen here with him are Congolese vice-premier, Antonie Gizenga (centre), and M. Mohmoud Khiari, of Tunisia, Chief of UN Civilian Operations in the Congo (right). Image UN

A World Leader’s Last Wave and Legacy

One hot September day in Africa in the 1960s was the lucky day I and others happened to elude possible death quite by chance and circumstance during what turned out to be one of the world’s biggest political mysteries involving a peace mission to the then war-torn Congo.

Working at the time as a foreign correspondent and journalist, I had to travel on that memorable day to Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport in South Africa for a Press conference with a genial Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjold.

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time, he had made a quick and little announced visit to South Africa and had decided to meet a handful of media representatives as he apparently believed we news men and women needed a solid briefing on the U.N.’s activities on the African continent.

Addressing a gathering of about 10 journalists on the airport tarmac, Hammarskjold suggested to us that we did not fully understand the multiple U.N. backed plans for African Independence in the territories between North Africa and Cape Town.

After pointing to our writing sins of not apparently fully understanding the situation, as he believed, he unexpectedly invited a member of our Press scrum to volunteer and join him on his journey north to the Congo.

When no one took him up on this offer, he pointed at one of my colleagues and then myself, repeating his words more stridently for one of us to see the Congo situation at first hand and to understand what was seriously concerning him.

He explained that his Swedish contracted aircraft had a spare seat, and he would be happy to also discuss Africa’s de-Colonisation which had just been initiated by Britain’s former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, on his “Winds of Change Speech” tour down Africa.

Hammarsjkold obviously did not know that I had already made a couple of sorties into the Congo from Kenya over the period of rebellion there and had evidence of Cuban Communist fighters under the orders of the international terrorist, Che Guevera.

I also knew and had personal experience with the secret mercenary army which the anti-Communist Katanga Government had employed under Colonel “Mad Mike ” Hoare, a WW11 soldier with a distinguished career up to that point.

I thought for a split second about the Secretary-General’s generous offer before realising I had other major news and personal responsibilities at the time elsewhere in South Africa — a country which had already seen the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and the declaration of a national State of Emergency.

Realising that the offer was only a one-way ticket to the Congo, as the U.N. aircraft would later be flying directly back to New York, I said I could not unfortunately meet the Secretary-General’s invitation — and no more was said about it. My colleague had also indicated he could not go.

The Secretary-General then left the scene, saluting to us all as his aircraft taxied to take-off. That was the last the world saw Dag Hammarskjold alive, together with his retinue of 16 U.N. officers.

As a working foreign correspondent and journalist in Africa all those years ago, I had gone back to the Associated Newspapers’ offices at the Daily Mail in Johannesburg after bidding the Secretary-General goodbye with nine other Press colleagues.

I wrote my story on his short trip to South Africa and,

some time later, I heard a news flash that a U.N. aircraft had crashed into a deep forest in Zambia near the Congo border. All 16 passengers on board were reportedly killed on impact.

It was at that moment I realised how fortunate I and my Press conference colleagues were that day by not accepting the Secretary-General’s thoughtful offer of a ride to his destination.

I also then understood for the first time just how very vulnerable we humans are when making even the smallest decision in our lives, let alone the bigger ones.

Within the next couple of days, the world was abuzz with details of the air accident and how Dag Hammarskjold and his retinue had met their end.

We were told that the aircraft had crashed into the middle of a dense Zambian forest, the fuselage had split open, and the plane was engulfed by fire.

Officials who investigated the crash site believed that the Secretary-General had actually been thrown out of the fuselage on impact as his body was found on the ground with dry grass etched into his clothing and hands.

We all wondered just how one of the most prominent of politicians in the 1950s could have had met such a fate. We knew, for instance, that he had been previously invited to visit the Congo by the Republic’s then pro-Communist first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, and had also received pleas for the urgent dispatch of U.N. military assistance to the anti-Communist copper mining province of Katanga which had seceded from Lumumba’s new government.

At the time, the world was experiencing the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the West. Moscow was, in fact, hellbent on obtaining ownership of Africa’s copper, uranium, gold, diamond and other mineral assets by befriending and financially supporting certain new African independent governments, including Lumumba’s Congo Republic.

In attempting to defend himself against these Soviet dictates and threats, the President of the Congo’s runaway Katanga state, Moise Tshombe, had also organised a private buccaneer army of White mercenaries under the command of Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare, a former WW11 soldier of adventure and distinction.

Media outlets throughout the world continually debated whether the U.N. aircraft had suffered pilot error or had carried a Communist-made timebomb set to prevent the U.N. from assisting Katanga in any way. Even allegations against the United States’ C.I.A. and Britain’s Mi5 were thrown into the mix.

Many in-depth official investigations into the real reason for the Secretary-General’s deadly ‘accident’ failed to come to any conclusions, leaving many political commentators, politicians and national security men scratching their heads in bewilderment.

It was then with great shock that we heard former U.S. President Harry Truman, publicly drop a bombshell by announcing that the Secretary-General was “on the point of getting something done (in the Congo) when THEY killed him.”

When Truman was subsequently challenged as to whether he was sure of his statement, he slowly repeated the sentence with a sense of determination but stubbornly refused to elaborate on it, sighting serious diplomatic reasons.

This claim from on high put the cat among the pigeons as governments and diplomats in Africa and around the globe wanted to immediately know who “THEY” were.

The great mystery continued for weeks and then for years on whether the Secretary-General was accidentally killed in a genuine pilot error air crash, or had he somehow been shot and killed by one of his staff; by an unknown political highjacker on the plane or by some other invisible and unknown means? Even Katanga’s private small arms mercenary brigade came in for close scrutiny.

Speculation came to a head when a highly reputable Norwegian investigator, a Major-General Bjorn Egge, reported that, when he viewed Hammarsjkold’s dead body, he had found the late Secretary-General to be wearing a bullet wound on his forehead.

This, Egge revealed, had later been mysteriously airbrushed out by unknown forces in all official crash photographs, reports and documents.

Imagine everyone’s further amazement when an international ballistics expert, Major C.F. Westall, reported after his subsequent detailed enquiries that the U.N. aircraft and its passengers had not been the victims of handgun fire or of the small amounts of ammunition stored on board exploding as a result of the crash and resultant fire.

Instead, he indicated the use of foul play, adding that all official claims already made were “sheer nonsense.” Westall believed there had to be another vital answer to the intense mystery and intrigue surrounding the crash.

It was not until after the turn of the present Century that this murky story was further unexpectedly revived by a retired Belgian mercenary pilot who had some association in the Congo with the breakaway Katanga Government’s private army under “Mad Mike.”

This former tell-all daredevil pilot was Jan van Risseghen who claimed he had been advised of the U.N. peace mission aircraft’s intended arrival time and had decided to stop it from landing on Congo territory.

He said he had at his disposal a small fast aircraft equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry and, with great determination, had followed the unsuspecting U.N. mission and had shot Hammarsjkold’s aircraft out if the sky in what was basically an act of cold political murder.

When I researched these historic revelations a few years ago, I established that van Risseghen was closely associated with the Katanga Government and with the mercenary army protecting Katanga’s copper mines from Lumumba and his Communist ties with Russia.

Whether he was the culprit or not is still a matter to be finally revealed but there is a well- founded theory in diplomatic circles that Dag Hammarskjold’s untimely death as Secretary-General gave great impetus to the U.N. to further decolonise Africa in a hurry and to urge self-government there, including promising sovereignty for all the Indigenous people of the world.

Yamba resident and former foreign correspondent Oscar Tamsen whose work around the world from the early 1950s saw him in Colonial Africa for nearly two decades as a working journalist. Oscar’s years in the ‘Dark Continent,’ as it was then known, had him travelling from Cairo to Cape Town, meeting some of the world’s top newsmakers of the time as well as participating in a number of wars and rebellions.