By Nathan Morley (Cyprus Mail Newspaper,Nicosia)
MYSTERY has deepened surrounding the death of the former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld after new evidence indicates that an American officer based in Nicosia heard the diplomat’s plane being shot at just seconds before it crashed.
The powerful claims feature in a new book called Who Killed Dag Hammarskjöld by academic Susan Williams, which presents a four-year probe outlining the possibility that foul play was behind the fatal flight.
When his plane came down in a forest near Ndola, in present-day Zambia 50 years ago this week, killing him and 15 others on board the world was left in shock.
Unlike previous UN leaders, Hammarskjöld adopted a hands-on policy when elected in 1953 – he was not afraid to take his diplomacy skills to troubled areas and displayed sympathy for emerging nations – as well as an intense distaste of the arrogance of big powers.
In turn, the big powers found the energetic Swede troublesome. They despised his immense energy, single-minded devotion to his tasks and what they saw as his meddling in areas that did not concern him.
Williams, a senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, says some of the strongest new revelations about the crash come from American pilot Charles Southall, who was working at the National Security Agency listening station in Nicosia.
“I was astonished when I came across this report which featured Mr Southall in the Royal Library in Stockholm, the testimony was in Swedish but there were some quotations in English. I was really shocked and had to immediately go and find a translator and find out exactly what the document said,” author Susan Williams told the Sunday Mail.
It transpired that Southall was a career intelligence officer, who trained as a navy pilot and held the rank of Commander in the US Naval Reserve; he is fluent in French and certified in Arabic as an interpreter and translator.
Nowadays Charles Southall, 77, is the CEO of the commercial intelligence company Omnifact LLC, but back in 1961 he was part of a team working at a communications installation on the outskirts of the Nicosia, which was then one of the major relay stations.
“I was living in a rented two storey duplex house, that a local dentist has built as dowry houses for his two daughters,” Southall told the Sunday Mail. “Our listening post was about five miles to the west of Nicosia. It was a concrete structure in an open field –surrounded by a chain linked fence.”
It was here on the evening of September 17 that he claims to have heard events unfolding 3,000 miles away as Dag Hammarskjöld was en route to negotiate a cease-fire between UN forces and Katangese troops of President Moise Tshombe.
Southall was assigned to work daytime shifts, so he was surprised when a co-worker phoned him at around nine o’clock that evening and said: “You wanna get yourself out here about midnight; we think something very interesting is going to happen.”
Three hours later, Southall and a handful of colleagues were listening to a recording being beamed in from Africa via the high frequency radio – he says they could hear the noise of an aircraft engine and a non-stop commentary from its pilot.
The recording was being transmitted via Cyprus to the USA just eight minutes after the incident and featured an unidentified pilot giving a running commentary of what seemed to be an aerial attack on Hammarskjöld’s DC-6 by a hostile aircraft.
According to Southall the pilot in the transmission said: “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.” After the sound of cannons firing he says: “I’ve hit it. There are flames. It’s going down. It’s crashing.”
Some accounts suggest that the DC-6 circled in the air two or three times before it crashed and a smaller plane was spotted flying above it. It was then reported that a bright light flashed in the sky above Hammarskjöld’s plane before it went down.
Southall has spent the best part of the last five decades trying to make sense of what he had heard that night in Nicosia. He thinks that the pilot was a character known as ‘The Lone Ranger’ and must have been communicating with the CIA or with some other Katangese, Rhodesian or British base, which was cooperating with the CIA.
“I’ve often wondered why we were called out that night and how did they know something was going on? It was just like hearing any dramatic news story. I went home that night, probably had a beer and went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning it was all over the world headlines.”
WHO’S IN THE FRAME?
In short, Southall thinks Hammarskjöld’s death was a CIA-sponsored operation. There is no shortage of theories: the plane could have been brought down by mercenaries fighting for mineral rich Katanga separatists that had revolted against the government of the newly-independent Congo – who Hammarskjöld supported.
Hammarskjöld’s backing of Congo’s elected central authorities – the Soviet-backed government of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba made him a hated figure amongst white settlers in the region, Katanga separatists and those exploiting its natural resources.
The Katangan separatists were aided by the mining company Union Minière which was owned mainly by Belgian, British and American investors and were deeply opposed to the UN mission in Congo.
It was no secret that Dag Hammarskjöld had made a string of powerful enemies prior to his death.
On the night he died he was travelling to Ndola with the aim of brokering a ceasefire, flying under cover of darkness to avoid being intercepted by Katangese warplanes and “The Lone Ranger” the man Southall suspects was the pilot heard in the radio transmission.
Hammarskjöld was reported to have suggested to collegues that ‘The Lone Ranger’ would be looking for his aircraft on that fateful night.
Speaking from Stockholm, Dag Hammarskjold’s nephew Knut let it be known to the Sunday Mail that he considered a thorough investigation should be launched in light of the new evidence.
“I think what Susan Williams has worked on and written gives us a very good spring board to continue investigations. I think it should be done by a small group of people who are well known for their integrity.”
Southall agrees: “I think very definitely it should be looked into again, because the matter has never been put to bed. There are many people who would be interested in obstructing an investigation – certainly the US government does not want to get tagged with bringing down that airplane – but they probably should be, that is conjecture on my part frankly.”
Knut visited the crash site a day after the incident and still vividly recalls the carnage and lackadaisical attitude of the British colonial authorities who were tasked with the probing the crash.
“It was complete chaos – the victims had been taken away and the area had metal from the airplane all around. When I got there I thought there was very little enthusiasm for looking into this.”
Every investigation into the incident has been criticised for not probing hard enough with demands for a brand-new inquiry gaining momentum. Susan Williams says there is no smoking gun in her book, but there is evidence that points in the direction that the plane must have been shot down by a second aircraft.
Other new evidence indicates that official photos of Dag Hammarskjold’s corpse deliberately hides the area around his forehead, possibly to conceal a wound. The only survivor of the crash said there was an explosion before the plane fell from the sky – he died a week after the incident.
The strongest evidence that Dag Hammarskjold was a target of his enemies comes from the radio transmission picked up in Cyprus – now the next stage for any investigator is to discover if a recording still exists.
Susan Williams’ book, Who Killed Hammarskjold?, is published by Hurst and Company and is available online.