1961 Ndola United Nations DC-6 crash

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1961 Ndola United Nations DC-6 crash
A four-engined aircraft on the ground
A DC-6 similar to the accident aircraft
Date 18 September 1961
Summary Unconfirmed Controlled flight into terrain due to possible pilot error and pilot fatigue, though external attack remains plausible.[1]
Site 15 km (9.3 mi) W of Ndola Airport (NLA) Zambia
12°58′31″S 28°31′22″E / 12.97528°S 28.52278°E / -12.97528; 28.52278Coordinates: 12°58′31″S 28°31′22″E / 12.97528°S 28.52278°E / -12.97528; 28.52278
Aircraft type Douglas DC-6B
Operator Transair Sweden for the United Nations
Registration SE-BDY
Flight origin Elisabethville Airport Congo
Stopover Léopoldville-N'Djili Airport (FIH/FZAA), Congo
Destination Ndola Airport (NLA/FLND), Northern Rhodesia
Passengers 11
Crew 5
Fatalities 16 (15 initially)
Injuries 0 (1 initially)
Survivors 0 (1 initially)

The Ndola United Nations DC-6 crash occurred on 18 September 1961 in Northern Rhodesia. The crash resulted in the deaths of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, and 15 others. Hammarskjöld had been en route to cease-fire negotiations with Moise Tshombe during the Congo Crisis. The fatal crash set off a succession crisis at the United Nations,[2] as Hammarskjöld's death required the Security Council to vote on a successor.[3]


Flight path of Hammarskjöld's aircraft (pink line) and the decoy (black line), September 1961

In September 1961, during the Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld learned about fighting between "non-combatant" UN forces and Katangese troops of Moise Tshombe; on 18 September Hammarskjöld was en route to negotiate a cease-fire when the aircraft he was flying in crashed near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjöld and fifteen others perished in the crash.[citation needed]

Following the accident Sir Roy Welensky, Prime Minister of Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland sent pathologist Hugh Douglas Ross to Ndola. Together with a Royal Air Force pathologist, Dr Stevens, Ross performed postmortem examinations on all 16 victims of the crash. This total included one UN guard who survived the initial accident, but died five days later from severe burns and only regained consciousness once. According to Seconds from Disaster he was 36 years old. Ross and Stevens then traveled to England to complete the medical report based on their pathological examinations. Ross would go on to give medical evidence to the enquiries which followed. Ross' papers relating to the disaster are now held by the University of Dundee.[4][5]


Swedish DC-6, similar to the lost aircraft, 1960s

The aircraft involved in this accident was a Douglas DC-6B, c/n 43559/251, registered in Sweden as SE-BDY, first flown in 1952 and powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial piston engines.[citation needed]

UN special report[edit]

A special report issued by the United Nations following the crash stated that a bright flash in the sky was seen at approximately 1:00.[6] According to the UN special report, it was this information that resulted in the initiation of search and rescue operations. Initial indications that the crash might not have been an accident led to multiple official inquiries and persistent speculation that the Secretary-General was assassinated.[7]

Official inquiry[edit]

Dag Hammarskjöld, 1950s

Following the death of Hammarskjöld, there were three inquiries into the circumstances that led to the crash:[8] the Rhodesian Board of Investigation, the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, and the United Nations Commission of Investigation.

The Rhodesian Board of Investigation looked into the matter between 19 September 1961 and 2 November 1961[8] under the command of British Lt. Colonel M.C.B. Barber. The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry held hearings from 16–29 January 1962 without United Nations oversight. The subsequent United Nations Commission of Investigation held a series of hearings in 1962 and in part depended upon the testimony from the previous Rhodesian inquiries.[8] Five "eminent persons" were assigned by the new Secretary-General to the UN Commission. The members of the commission unanimously elected Nepalese diplomat Rishikesh Shaha to head an inquiry.[8]

The three official inquiries failed to determine conclusively the cause of the crash that led to the death of Hammarskjöld. The Rhodesian Board of Investigation sent 180 men to search a six-square-kilometer area of the last sector of the aircraft's flight-path, looking for evidence as to the cause of the crash. No evidence of a bomb, surface-to-air missile, or hijacking was found. The official report stated that two of the dead Swedish bodyguards had suffered multiple bullet wounds. Medical examination, performed by the initial Rhodesian Board of Investigation and reported in the UN official report, indicated that the wounds were superficial, and that the bullets showed no signs of rifling. They concluded that the bullets' cartridges had exploded in the fire in proximity to the bodyguards.[8] No other evidence of foul play was found in the wreckage of the aircraft.[9]

Previous accounts of a bright flash in the sky were dismissed as occurring too late in the evening to have caused the crash. The UN report speculated that these flashes may have been caused by secondary explosions after the crash. Sergeant Harold Julien, who initially survived the crash but died days later,[10] indicated that there was a series of explosions that preceded the crash.[8][11] The official inquiry found that the statements of witnesses who talked with Julien before he died in hospital five days after the crash[12] were inconsistent.

The report states that there were numerous delays that violated the established search and rescue procedures. There were three separate delays: the first delayed the initial alarm of a possible plane in trouble; the second delayed the "distress" alarm, which indicates that communications with surrounding airports indicate that a missing plane has not landed elsewhere; the third delayed the eventual search and rescue operation and the discovery of the plane wreckage, just miles away. The medical examiner's report was inconclusive; one report said that Hammarskjöld had died on impact; another stated that Hammarskjöld might have survived had rescue operations not been delayed.[8] The report also said that the chances of Sgt. Julien surviving the crash would have been "infinitely" better if the rescue operations had been hastened.[8]

On 16 March 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed members to an Independent Panel of Experts which will examine new information related to his death. The three member panel is led by Mohamed Chande Othman, the Chief Justice of Tanzania. The other two members are Kerryn Macaulay (Australia's representative to ICAO) and Henrik Larsen (a ballistics expert from the Danish National Police). The report was handed over to the Secretary General on 12 June 2015.[13]

Alternative theories[edit]

Despite the multiple official inquiries that failed to find evidence of assassination, some continue to believe that the death of Hammarskjöld was not an accident.[7]

At the time of Hammarskjöld's death, intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its allies were actively involved in the political situation in the Congo,[7] which culminated in Belgian and United States support for the secession of Katanga and the assassination of former prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Belgium and the United Kingdom had a vested interest in maintaining their control over much of the country's copper industry during the Congolese transition from colonialism to independence. Concerns about the nationalisation of the copper industry could have provided a financial incentive to remove either Lumumba or Hammarskjöld.[7]

The involvement of British officers in commanding the initial inquiries, which provided much of the information about the condition of the plane and the examination of the bodies, has led some to suggest a conflict of interest.[7][14] The official report dismissed a number of pieces of evidence that would have supported the view that Hammarskjöld was assassinated.[8] Some of these dismissals have been controversial, such as the conclusion that bullet wounds could have been caused by bullets exploding in a fire. Expert tests have questioned this conclusion, arguing that exploding bullets could not break the surface of the skin.[7][8] Major C. F. Westell, a ballistics authority, said, "I can certainly describe as sheer nonsense the statement that cartridges of machine guns or pistols detonated in a fire can penetrate a human body."[15] He based his statement on a large scale experiment that had been done to determine if military fire brigades would be in danger working near munitions depots. Other Swedish experts conducted and filmed tests showing that bullets heated to the point of explosion nonetheless did not achieve sufficient velocity to penetrate their box container.[15]

Sir Denis Wright, the then British ambassador to Ethiopia, in his annual report for 1961 establishes linkage of Hammarskjöld's death to British refusal to allow an Ethiopian military plane carrying troops destined to join the UN mission, landing at Entebbe and over-flying British-controlled Uganda to the Congo. Their refusal was only lifted after the death of the Secretary General. A Foreign Office official noting his comments on file, wrote affirming no "skeletons" in British cupboard and suggesting the Ambassador's comments should be removed from the final, official 'printed' version of the annual report.[16][better source needed]

On 19 August 1998, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), stated that recently uncovered letters had implicated the British MI5, the American CIA, and then South African intelligence services in the crash.[17] One TRC letter said that a bomb in the aircraft's wheel bay was set to detonate when the wheels came down for a landing. Tutu said that they were unable to investigate the truth of the letters or the allegations that South Africa or Western intelligence agencies played a role in the crash. The British Foreign Office suggested that they may have been created as Soviet misinformation or disinformation.[18]

On 29 July 2005, Norwegian Major General Bjørn Egge gave an interview to the newspaper Aftenposten on the events surrounding Hammarskjöld's death. According to General Egge, who had been the first UN officer to see the body, Hammarskjöld had a hole in his forehead, and this hole was subsequently airbrushed from photos taken of the body. It appeared to Egge that Hammarskjöld had been thrown from the plane, and grass and leaves in his hands might indicate that he survived the crash – and that he had tried to scramble away from the wreckage. Egge does not claim directly that the wound was a gunshot wound.[19]

In his speech to the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September 2009, Colonel Gaddafi called upon the Libyan president of UNGA, Ali Treki, to institute a UN investigation into the deaths of Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was overthrown in 1960 and murdered the following year, and of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961.[20]

According to a dozen witnesses interviewed by Swedish aid worker Göran Björkdahl in the 2000s (decade), Hammarskjöld's plane was shot down by another aircraft. Björkdahl also reviewed previously unavailable archive documents and internal UN communications. He believes that there was an intentional shootdown for the benefit of mining companies like Union Minière.[21][22][23] A US intelligence officer who was stationed at an electronic surveillance station in Cyprus stated that he heard a cockpit recording from Ndola. In the cockpit recording a pilot talks of closing in on the DC-6 in which Hammarskjöld was traveling, guns are heard firing, and then the words "I've hit it".[24]

In September 2013, a voluntary independent commission, headed by the British jurist Sir Stephen Sedley, released its review of information which had come to light in recent years, which concluded there was sufficient reason to revisit the investigation. It recommended that the United Nations reopen its inquiry "pursuant to General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962".[25] A key impetus for the commission was the publication of the book by Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?[a] which laid out the accumulation of alleged new evidence.[26]

In April 2014, The Guardian published evidence implicating Jan van Risseghem, a military pilot who served with the RAF during World War II, later with the Belgian Air Force and became famous as the pilot of Moise Tshombe in Katanga. The article claims that an American NSA employee, former naval pilot Commander Charles Southall, working at the NSA listening station in Cyprus in 1961 shortly after midnight on the night of the crash, heard an intercept of a pilot's commentary in the air over Ndola – 3,000 miles away. Southall recalled the pilot saying: "I see a transport plane coming low. All the lights are on. I'm going down to make a run on it. Yes, it is the Transair DC-6. It's the plane," adding that his voice was "cool and professional". Then he heard the sound of gunfire and the pilot exclaiming: "I've hit it. There are flames! It's going down. It's crashing!" Based on aircraft registration and availability with the Katangese Air Force, registration KAT-93, a Fouga CM.170 Magister would be the most likely aircraft used and the website http://www.belgian-wings.be/ claims that van Risseghem piloted the Magisters for the KAF in 1961.[27][28]


Hammarskjöld's grave in Uppsala

The Dag Hammarskjöld Crash Site Memorial is under consideration for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A press release issued by the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo stated that, "... in order to pay a tribute to this great man, now vanished from the scene, and to his colleagues, all of whom have fallen victim to the shameless intrigues of the great financial Powers of the West... the Government has decided to proclaim Tuesday, 19 September 1961, a day of national mourning."[6]

In media[edit]

  • The accident and subsequent investigation were featured in the 15th-series 5th episode of the documentary series Mayday (also known as Air Crash Investigation) titled "Deadly Mission", first broadcast in February 2016.[citation needed]
  • In the 2016 film The Siege of Jadotville, Hammarskjöld's plane is shot down by a F-4 Phantom II aircraft and it is implied that Katangese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe ordered it done. The film is incorrect, however, in depicting the plane crash as taking place during the six day attack by Katangese forces against Irish peacekeepers led by Commandant Pat Quinlan. In reality, Hammarskjöld died the day after the besieged Irish contingent had surrendered.


  1. ^ See book entry in google


  1. ^ "Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on the report of the Eminent Person relating to the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him". United Nations. United Nations. Retrieved 18 February 2018. 
  2. ^ Halberstam, David (19 September 1961). "Hammarskjold Dies In African Air Crash; Kennedy Going To U. N. In Succession Crisis". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Hamilton, Thomas J. (23 September 1961). "Interim U.N. Head is Urged by Rusk; His Timing Scored". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  4. ^ "MS 393 Hugh Douglas Ross papers". Archive Services Online Catalogue. University of Dundee. Retrieved 28 March 2018. 
  5. ^ "eARMMS, June 2012". Archives, Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. University of Dundee. Retrieved 20 December 2017. 
  6. ^ a b "Special Report on the Fatal Flight of the Secretary-General's Aircraft" (PDF). United Nations. 19 September 1961. Retrieved 2009-01-16. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Hollington, Kris (August 2008). Wolves, Jackals and Foxes. Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 978-0-312-37899-8. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j United Nations General Assembly Session 17 Report of the Commission of investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Mr Dag Hammarskjold and members of the party accompanying him. A/5069 24 April 1962. Retrieved 2008-11-21.(direct link: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-05-14. Retrieved 2010-03-24. )
  9. ^ Macarthur Job, Air Disaster Volume 4, Aerospace Publications Pty Ltd, 2001 ISBN 1-875671-48-X, p 142
  10. ^ Lauria, Joe (19 May 2014). "U.N. Considers Reopening Probe into 1961 Crash that Killed Dag Hammarskjöld". Wall Street Journal. 
  11. ^ "1961: UN Secretary General killed in air crash". BBC. 18 November 1961. Retrieved 2009-01-16. 
  12. ^ page 36 "The Spectator" 29 October 2011
  13. ^ United Nations (12 June 2015). "Ban receives report probing new information on Dag Hammarskjöld's death". UN News Centre. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  14. ^ Matthew Hughes (9 August 2001). "The Man Who Killed Hammarskjöld?". London Review of Books. 23 (15): 33–34. Retrieved 2011-09-19. 
  15. ^ a b Arthur Gavshon (1962). The Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjold. New York: Walker and Company. p. 58. 
  16. ^ P R O FCO 31/165300 Ethiopia: Annual Review of 1961
  17. ^ "Notes for Media Briefing By Archbishop" – by Desmond Tutu, Chairperson of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission – 19 August 1998 – "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-16. Retrieved 2016-02-08. 
  18. ^ "UN assassination plot denied," BBC World, 19 August 1998. Retrieved 13 October 2007.
  19. ^ Cato Guhnfeldt (1970-01-01). "Så hull i pannen" (in Norwegian). Aftenposten.no. Archived from the original on 2014-02-01. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  20. ^ "Gaddafi's address to UN General Assembly". 23 September 2009. 
  21. ^ "Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief's plane was shot down". The Guardian. 17 August 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  22. ^ I have no doubt Dag Hammarskjöld's plane was brought down, Göran Björkdahl, The Guardian, 2011 Aug 17
  23. ^ Julian Borger (2011-09-16). "Call for new inquiry following emergence of new evidence". Guardian. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  24. ^ BBC News Magazine, 18 Sep 2–11, "Dag Hammarskjold: Was His Death a Crash or a Conspiracy?," https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14913456
  25. ^ "Dag Hammarskjold death: UN 'should reopen inquiry'". BBC News. September 9, 2013. 
  26. ^ "Background". The Hammarskjöld Commission. 
  27. ^ Borger, Julian (17 August 2011). "Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief's plane was shot down". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-08-02. 
  28. ^ Borger, Julian (4 April 2014). "Dag Hammarskjöld's plane may have been shot down, ambassador warned". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-08-02. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]