My clock radio clicked on. The morning news bulletin announced that United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane was missing.
It was Sept. 18, 1961. I was 16.
Over the next hours, my mother and sisters and I learned that Mr. Hammarskjöld, accompanied by Dad and 14 others, had flown from Leopoldville, in the Congo, to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia); that the plane, a DC-6, had not landed at Ndola, its destination; that an unexplained 15 hours went by after the airliner passed over the Ndola airport and before its wreckage was found lying not far from the runway; that all on board save one were dead.
My father, Heinrich A. Wieschhoff, was one of Mr. Hammarskjöld’s political advisers. Their party was headed for talks with the head of the breakaway Congo province of Katanga in hopes of quieting the fighting that had broken out between UN peacekeeping troops and the largely mercenary-led forces backing Katanga’s secession. It was a dramatic moment in the history of this mineral-rich country — a year after it gained independence from Belgium and quickly became embroiled in a violent quagmire involving the interests of not only Belgium but also France, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States.
Days after the crash, we learned that the sole survivor had died. Now there was no one to shed light on what had occurred. My family’s experience was lived in one wrenching way or another by the families of the 15 other victims. The particulars were different; the pain was the same — and only worsened because no one could tell us why the plane had gone down.
From the outset, there were legitimate concerns about the possibility of foul play. Within months of the crash, three inquests were held in rapid succession. The report of a UN commission, relying to a large degree on groundwork done by the-then Rhodesian Federation, was inconclusive, as was a report by the federal civil aviation body. The report of a commission empaneled by the Federation arrived, by a curious turn of logic, at the convenient conclusion that the event was an accident.
At first we assumed the UN would be vigilant in looking for new clues and dogged in running them to ground, and for years that seemed to be the case. Dad’s UN associates fielded our questions about the results of the original investigations and new allegations of wrongdoing promptly and graciously.
Once those associates left the UN, however, I gradually began having doubts that anyone in a leadership position cared much, if at all. One exception was Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary-general under Ban Ki-moon, who was seemingly alone in advocating a serious look at the death of his idol and fellow Swede, Mr. Hammarskjöld.
The UN’s public posture toward Mr. Hammarskjöld drips with veneration — naturally. Yet when it comes to actually unraveling the circumstances of his death, a certain callousness prevails, despite high-sounding pronouncements to the contrary. In my experience, concern about the other 15 victims is even lower.
One byproduct of this indifference has been a coming together of nearly all the families of the deceased. Partly as a result, I have sensed that the UN is paying more attention to their interests, at least in its public comments. Privately, I still encounter telltale signs that the organization views the search for answers as a housekeeping matter.
For instance, when a group of the relatives sent the UN Secretariat a copy of a letter thanking the UN members sponsoring a recent resolution bearing on the crash, the response was a form letter from the public inquiries team stating that “the matter you raise is one of domestic jurisdiction, and does not fall within the competence of the United Nations.”
In 2011, the inquiry hit a turning point. Susan Williams, who had no prior connection to the crash, published “Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa.” A sobering probe of information that the three post-crash inquests did not have, or had but failed to consider properly, it presented the UN with a chance to dig deep.
Dr. Williams, a historian and senior research fellow at the University of London, did not identify a likely cause of the disaster, but she did present a number of startling claims, including that US intelligence services allegedly eavesdropped as an unidentified plane attacked Mr. Hammarskjöld’s during its landing approach.
The book sparked hope that the UN would finally give the crash its due. First, however, a group of private citizens established a pro bono commission of four jurists to evaluate her findings. In 2013, they determined that significant new evidence could justify reopening the UN’s original investigation.
The stage was set, at long last, to bring this unhappy affair to a definitive close. Unfortunately, instead of insisting that further exploration be unlinked from the agendas of individual member states, and Secretary-General Ban be given a free hand to deal with the crash as he saw fit, the office of the secretary-general solicited the views of certain members of the Security Council. Predictably, influential members signaled their lack of enthusiasm for a full-fledged re-opening of the investigation.
In other words, the UN ducked — in my view, avoiding discomfiting questions about the roles of Belgium, France, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Britain and the US in events related to the crash, and possibly about the UN’s own handling of its original investigation and subsequent new evidence as well.
What followed was five years (and counting) of a piecemeal, woefully ineffective process fashioned to give the impression of rigor. Through resolutions organized by Sweden, the General Assembly first relegated the crash to a “panel of experts” for yet another assessment of new information (2014), then to an “eminent person,” the former chief justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, for follow-up (2016).
The resolutions asked member states to search their archives for relevant material and to declassify sensitive records, namely intelligence and military files. But genuine cooperation from the key players has been slow and halting. Russia and the US, as of a recent date, failed to comply fully with the General Assembly’s resolutions, and South Africa and Britain appeared bent on frustrating the process altogether. To my knowledge, the UN has rarely generated information on its own, so that leaves Chief Justice Othman to rely heavily on private sources.
As far as I am aware, the Secretariat has not engaged at a high level with recalcitrant member states to get them to adhere to the General Assembly resolutions. It has done little to publicize the activities of the chief justice. It has been slow to fully declassify its own archives and still refuses to release some documents.
In their Dag Hammarskjöld Lectures, in Uppsala, Sweden (Mr. Hammarskjöld’s home base), Secretaries-General Ban and António Guterres each mentioned the search for the truth about the crash but at the tail end of their presentations, almost as an afterthought. Instead of taking a meaningful stand, they repeated the hollow refrain: the UN was doing all it could do to find answers and member states should comply with the call to declassify relevant records.
Equally revealingly is the fact that in 2017, Secretary-General Guterres’s office sought to end the Judge Othman probe. Thanks to Sweden’s insistence, the General Assembly renewed his appointment. Did the secretary-general tip his hand last year when, rather than appear in person before the General Assembly, he sent a subordinate to present Judge Othman’s interim report?
His findings were impressive, especially considering his meager support. For his current engagement of about 15 months, Judge Othman has only himself and an assistant, working part time and in different countries, on a budget so small that nearly a third will go toward translating his reports into the UN’s official languages.
The opportunity presented by Dr. Williams and the jurists’ commission still stands. And we may learn more from Judge Othman’s final report, due this summer. I worry, though, that unless that report or a new sense of purpose by the UN can pry the facts out of Britain, the US and other key states, what happened and why will once again fade unanswered into the past.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
I am trying to contact Hynrich W. Wieschhoff in relation to the 1961 air crash which caused the death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and others, including the father of Hynrich Wieschhoff.
A book published in 2020, ‘JFK vs Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia’, (p.151), recounts a meeting between President Kennedy and Dag Hammarskjold in the Waldorf Astoria Towers. This meeting on 28 April 1961 had a crucial link with the fatal crash later that year. As the author of the book, I’d like to further discuss this matter with Hynrich Wieschhoff.
Would you please bring this to his attention. Dr Greg Poulgrain
can i have an interview with you ? I’m a student from germany and i write my Bachelorthesis about your father Heinrich Wieschhoff and How his work for the reappraisal of Germany’s colonial history can be understood.
my email : email@example.com
mr hammarskjold was murderd thy gave the pilot paper work that did not show hills that plane to me was hit by gun fire you can see that this was a set up to take plane out and there is a cover up
I was at Elisabethville when on September 13th operation “Morthor” started. I was 16 and lived in the house of General Muke in the square d’Uvira in Elisabethville, the government city of the secessionist province Katanga. That day I wore immediately a Katangese uniform after we were informed about the horrible massacres (war crimes) committed by the Indian UN troops assisted by Irish and Swedish troops who didn’t dare to interfere and stop the killings of unarmed policemen, gendarmes and civilians. During a few days. During a few days, we defended or position at the square d’Uvira. On three or four occasions we saw one of our planes, the Fouga Magister KAT93, attacking UN position and almost killing the UN representative Conor Cruise O’Brien at his HQ at the Clair Manoir. The pilot was probably the Belgian Air Force pilot José Magain. In the morning of September 18th, 1961 there was suddenly a period of a few hours that the shooting on the Katangese side stopped. The reason was the spread of the rumors that the SG of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld was been killed near to Ndola. His plane, the DC6-B SE-BDY Albertina was shot down by an Avikat plane. This was probably done by the brand new Do28 that I had seen in Kipushi on September 4, 1961. This aircraft could be transformed very easily and quickly into a light bomber, carrying the 50lbs bombs which were made by us in our workplace in the quartier Industriel in the North of the town. It was also possible to place a browning mi .30 or even a mi .50 in the large door space of the Do28. But the easiest and most logic weapon used against the Albertina was probably a handhold FMFN .30 stabilized with a bungee. This system was already used by the French in Indochina and Algeria. Experts (see Susan Williams) had already demonstrated that one single tracer bullet in the wing tanks of a DC6 could have been fatal.
However, there was more! A good friend of mine, North Rhodesian police inspector David Robert Steel of the police station in Ndola had shown me some smog fatigues (Camouflage outfits) that were left behind by some mercenaries at the police station of Ndola. They were provided with civilian clothes… this implies complicity of (some) the Rhodesian police.
The reason for the presence of the mercenaries was to interfere and take Dag Hammarskjöld into custody in the case that the pilot of the Albertina would manage to land. Apparently, this was not necessary as we all know that the Albertina crashed and that in the end all 16 passengers and crew members died… The only thing that the ground interception troops (mercenaries) did, was to rush to the crash site to check out for eventual survivors… on a strange way, they missed the badly wounded bodyguard Julian.
Besides that, there is another strange thing … The camouflage outfits that I saw were not like the one I still have. A Belgian Denison Brush Stroke. All the Katanga gendarmes wor such a model… there were also some moon and balls and Jif Saw varients. The one I saw at the police station of Ndola looked more like the French models of Indochina or those of the OAS of Algerie…