On September 18, 1961, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who initiated an international peacekeeping operation in the Congo and flew to a meeting with separatist leader Moise Tshombe, died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia. The causes and circumstances of that disaster have not yet been clarified.
A United Nations Douglas DC-6B, which was flying from the capital of the Congo, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), crashed to the ground 15 km from the airport and completely collapsed. All 16 people on board were killed. Sergeant Harold Julien, who originally survived the crash, died of his injuries five days later.
This tragedy was preceded by a number of political events in Africa, in which the largest countries of the world, including the United States and the Soviet Union, intervened. After the country gained independence on June 30, 1960, the crisis that was tearing apart the Congo was called the Congolese crisis, and it continued after the death of the UN Secretary General and ended only in 1965 with the coming to power of Mobutu. As a result of the clashes, over 100 thousand people were killed.
In the Congo, after gaining independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, contradictions immediately emerged between President Joseph Kasavubu, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumbaand regional leaders: a few days after the signing of the declaration of independence, Moiz Tshombe announced the possibility of self-determination of the southern province of Katanga, the same was done by Albert Kalondzhi, separating South Kasai, where the Luba people lived mainly. To fight the separatists, Patrice Lumumba turned first to the Western countries, and then to the USSR, thus opening another round of the Cold War between the great powers. In the course of the chaos and the struggle between the prime minister and the president, on whose side Defense Minister Mobutu sided, Lumumba was accused of hidden communism and that with the help of the USSR he was going to establish a military dictatorship, was arrested, put under house arrest, then fled. tried to create an alternative government and was finally killed under unclear circumstances on January 17, 1961.
Belgium, which supported the separatists in the Congo, was replaced by peacekeeping troops under the auspices of the UN, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold tried to demonstrate the potential of international cooperation and the capabilities of a multinational contingent to resolve the local crisis, but at the same time not provide direct assistance to any side of the conflict. The Soviet Union, then headed by Nikita Khrushchev, demanded the resignation of Hammarskjold after UN troops allowed the assassination of Lumumba. In this situation, Dag Hammarskjold tried to reconcile the opposing sides, and therefore went to a risky meeting with the separatists.
Before the flight, special security measures were taken: to confuse possible terrorists, another plane was sent ahead, flying along an alternative route. This second UN aircraft, the Douglas DC-4, took off from Leopoldville about an hour before Hammarskjold and landed safely in Ndola in the evening.
The most experienced pilot Carl Gustav von Rosen was a permanent pilot on the plane of the UN Secretary General, but that day he was sick and was replaced by another Swedish pilot. At 00:10 on September 18, the crew commander informed Ndola’s air traffic controller that he saw airport lights, then the connection was cut off. Witnesses saw an aircraft approaching landing, then a flash and, possibly, explosions, and after a while the wreckage of the airliner was found 15 km from the airport. Judging by the stopped clock found at the crash site, it happened at 00:13.
Subsequently, there were several official investigations of this plane crash and many unofficial ones; in recent years, many publications and testimonies on this topic have been published in the Guardian newspaper. The public was agitated by all sorts of suspicious moments and inconsistencies. So, according to the official version, the wreckage of the plane was found 16 hours after the tragedy, and local residents assured that long before that the area of ??the fall had already been cordoned off by the local military.
Bullet wounds were found in the bodies of Hammarskjold’s guards, but they could have been caused by ammunition that exploded in the fire. The body of the UN Secretary General himself was found at some distance with numerous injuries, including fractures of the spine, but this fact was explained by the fact that Hammarskjold did not use seat belts. The only survivor after the fall, Sergeant Harold Julien, was in serious condition and reported that an explosion occurred in the plane before the crash, but no evidence of this explosion was found and the sergeant’s words were considered dying delirium.
In a report from the commission investigating the incident, it was said that the plane crashed as a result of a crew error, due to incorrect readings of the altimeter flying the plane at too low an altitude, as a result, he touched the treetops. The aircraft had its landing gear extended, therefore, it was already preparing for landing.
In subsequent years, this event gave rise to a huge number of conspiracy theories. The CIA, the Soviet secret services, the Tshombe people, the Belgians, the British, the South African mercenaries, etc. were blamed for the death of Hammarskjold. Many versions were refuted as not withstanding any criticism.
During the autopsy of Hammarskjold’s body, no bullets were found in it, the stories of witnesses to the crime at the very first check turned out to be dubious and contrary to already firmly established facts.
Nevertheless, in recent years, many unpleasant details have been revealed about the activities of foreign special services in Africa at that time, about the hidden presence of military equipment, and the members of the UN General Assembly in December 2019 decided to continue investigating the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjold, calling on all states to provide information. shedding light on the circumstances of his plane crash.
The death of Dag Hammarskjold was a real shock for both politicians and the entire world community. He was truly a massive figure: the second-in-history UN Secretary General is considered the organizer of the first successful UN peacekeeping operations.
In 1956 in Egypt, the special UN peacekeeping force created by Hammarskjold helped to resolve the crisis that arose in connection with the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Hammarskjold managed to ensure the transfer of these troops and agree on their deployment in the conflict zone. This operation served as an example for all subsequent peacekeeping missions.
Hammarskjold’s role was also great in the release of fifteen American pilots who were captured during the war in North Korea.
The UN Secretary General held successful negotiations with the first head of the State Council of China, Zhou Enlai, despite the fact that the PRC at that time did not have diplomatic relations with the United States and was not even a member of the UN (its place was taken by Taiwan). These events objectively contributed to raising the prestige of the UN. At the end of his life, Hammarskjold dealt with the problems of Africa, since it was then that many countries of this continent first achieved their independence and rather complex processes of the formation of these states took place. Before his death, he managed to visit over twenty African countries and territories.
“His wisdom and humility, his impeccable honesty and single-minded dedication to duty have set such a high standard of conduct for all employees of the international community, especially for his successors, that it is very difficult to comply with it. And there is no better rule for the secretary general if he begins his search for a solution to each new problem by asking himself the question: what would Hammarskjold have done in this case? ” – said the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, an African-born and Ghanaian diplomat.
Hammarskjold is also known as a poet, journalist and essayist, a member of the Swedish Academy. Already posthumously, he became the winner of the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize.
After the disaster, Dag Hammarskjold’s body was taken to Sweden. The farewell ceremony was held at Uppsala Cathedral and was televised, and on September 29, Hammarskjold was buried in the old Uppsala cemetery in a family grave.