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The Congo, 1961. The renegade province of Katanga has declared independence from the rest of the country. Violence erupts. United Nations peacekeepers arrive to stop the fighting but find themselves at war when an attempt to disarm the Katangese government's mercenary helpers goes badly wrong. In September UN chief Dag Hammarskjöld flies down to Northern Rhodesia for peace talks. His plane will never arrive. Murder? Accident? Conspiracy? CHRISTOPHER OTHEN, author of 'KATANGA 1960-63: MERCENARIES, SPIES AND THE AFRICAN NATION THAT WAGED WAR ON THE WORLD' and 'FRANCO'S INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES: ADVENTURERS, FASCISTS, AND CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR' (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com), examines the facts in a chapter from his forthcoming book about the Katangese secession.



Katanga: Mercenaries, Spies, and the African Nation that Waged War on the World


This is an extract from my book 'Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies, and the African Nation that Waged War on the World', about a Congolese province's ill-fated attempt at independence. It will be published by the History Press in September 2015.



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The Last Flight of the Albertina


Mercenaries, Conspiracies, and the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld, 18 September 1961



For one egotistical moment Jerry Puren thought the crowds were waiting for him. Then reality hit and he was just another passenger descending the mobile stairs of a South African Airways passenger jet, its engines still cooling, into the crowds of reporters, UN officials, Federation soldiers, and Katangese politicians swarming Ndola airport. A newsman stopped him for a quote on the situation in Elisabethville.

“I am ready to fight to the end for Katanga,” said Puren, “and to avenge many of my colleagues who have been killed during the fighting.”

Tall and bald, with a neat moustache and legs thin as cigarettes, Puren was a used car dealer from Durban in his late thirties. He joined the South African Air Force as a navigator during the war, flying over North Africa and the Middle East. After Germany’s surrender he transferred to the RAF and spent the next decade transporting British soldiers around what was left of the Empire.

Then back to civilian life. Puren married, had two daughters, and a dull job. His marriage cracked up. By early 1961 he was a divorced businessman telling war stories to cronies in Durban bars. He directed any spare energy into a private airfield built by locals, reminding himself of the old days.

“The call to arms came casually, almost accidentally,” he said. “A contact in the South African Defence Force HQ mentioned in passing that a Belgian chappie was in the country recruiting for someone called Tshombe in a place called Katanga. Would I be interested?”

The Belgian chappie was Carlos Huyghé, then helping Russell-Cargill set up the Compagnie Internationale. Puren became a lieutenant and escorted a cohort of South African volunteers to Elisabethville. He was lucky to be in the capital when Malaysian troops swooped at Nyunzu. An officer without a command, he used his RAF experience to get a job as a bombardier with the thirty aeroplanes in four squadrons that made up Volant’s Katangese Air Force (Avikat).

Puren pushed through the Ndola crowds into the airport lounge and found Katangese officials deep in conversation with Max Glasspool and Gurkitz the Hungarian, two Avikat pilots. They explained the circus outside. Dag Hammarskjöld was on his way from Léopoldville to meet Tshombe. A ceasefire was possible.

Katanga had given the UN a bloody snout. A deal now could secure the country’s future.

Take Off

At 16:51 on Sunday 17 September a Transair Sweden DC-6B took off from Ndjili airport. Nicknamed the ‘Albertina’, it had enough fuel for thirteen hours in the air.

There had been some alarm on the tarmac that morning when engineers found a bullet hole in one of the engine exhaust pipes, picked up on an earlier flight over Elisabethville. Engineers replaced the pipe and cleared the aeroplane.

Captain Per Hallonquist, an experienced pilot and head of Transair’s navigation division, headed the Albertina’s six crew. American Sergeant Harold Julien provded security with a three man team. They had searched the Albertina’s interior before allowing Hammarskjöld and his retinue on board.

Hammarskjöld should have been in New York. His flight home, scheduled for the end of the previous week out of Brazzaville, had been cancelled when Abbé Fulbert Youlou could not guarantee its safety because of the fighting in Katanga. The Secretary-General stayed in Léopoldville. Then Conor Cruise O’Brien passed on Tshombe’s offer of peace talks. The Irishman volunteered to accompany Hammarskjöld to Northern Rhodesia but was told he would not be needed. The Secretary-General already had a five-person entourage, including Alice Lalande, a Canadian born secretary, and advisor Heinrich Wieschhoff, still hoarse with the bronchitis that had nearly kept him home.

The aeroplane took off. Hammarskjöld opened a book while the others busied themselves with paperwork or small talk. The Secretary-General was working on a Swedish translation of Martin Bubber’s Ich und Du, a German book of religious philosophy published back in 1923 and given to him by the author.

The Swede was a deeply Christian man, a throwback from a country that regarded itself as coldly rational. The fifty-six-year-old had kept his views quiet through a long career as a civil servant. His reputation as a competent, apolitical technocrat got him elected UN Secretary-General in 1953 after Norwegian Trygve Lie resigned. Some believed Hammarskjöld kept more than his religion quiet. Conor Cruise O’Brien liked to gossip that the Swede was homosexual, a diagnosis based on Hammarskjöld's dislike of women.

“At one of my last meetings with him – in New York, before I left for Katanga – he had flown into a rage because there was a large picture of Jacqueline Kennedy on the front page,” said O’Brien. “The attention the media were paying to ‘that woman’ was, he thought, preposterous. His normally pale face turned red and his voice shook. This was the only time I had ever seen him manifest emotions about anything.”

Thousands of metres above the bitchy rumours, Hammarskjöld wrote in flowing handwriting on a yellow legal pad. The theme of Ich und Du was that all human relationships eventually bring us into contact with God.

The Albertina set course for Ndola.

Caged Mercenary

Jerry Puren was only in Northern Rhodesia because of a roadblock in Elisabethville twenty-one days earlier. In the early morning of 28 August he had been making his way to the capital’s airport in a borrowed car for another bombing mission. Gurkitz dozed in the passenger seat.

Puren’s first duties when he joined Avikat had been to shower the area around Elisabethville with pamphlets announcing Tshombe’s release. Then it was raids on Baluba villages, the bombs falling from the makeshift racks welded to the underside of his aeroplane. The Belgian commanders assured Puren it was necessary war work. Later, in smoky Elisabethville bars, he heard stories of bloody women and children crawling into Katangese guard posts begging for help.

It was four in the morning when Puren drove out to Elisabethville airport, hungover from too many Simba beers the night before. The streets were empty. He passed Moïse Tshombe talking with a crowd of gendarmes outside the Post Office. The President looked tense.

A UN checkpoint blocked Route Don Bosco. Irish troops hauled the pair out of the car and pushed them into a lorry. Operation Rumpunch had begun.

“For my part I was quite calm,” said Puren. “It was as if all the tensions and conjectures of the past months were destined to end this way. Arrest by the UN. It was almost a relief that the situation had been crystallised; the battle lines finally and irrevocably drawn.”

Under guard at Kamina airbase he discussed escape with Jan van Risseghem, Commander of the Katangese Air Force’s Combat Squadron and one of the few pilots apart from Magain able to fly the Fouga. The Belgian mercenary had little enthusiasm.

“The surrounding tribes are hostile, this base alone is huge and crawling with UN troops,” the Belgian said. “Besides, why escape? Just accept, the party is over.”

Puren recruited a Belgian pilot called Verloo who had a fiancée in Elisabethville. They slipped out of the barracks on the third night and headed for freedom. Kamina base was so huge it took them two and a half hours to reach the perimeter fence. Early next morning they emerged from the bush and headed for the nearest town. The local Surêté man gave out fake identification and priest costumes, which got them south to Kolwezi, a scab of red dirt and smoky white factory chimneys.

Puren received a letter of thanks from Tshombe and two weeks leave in South Africa. He arrived in Johannesburg on 12 September. The fighting between UN and Katangese forces interrupted his holiday. Five days later Puren was in Ndola airport lounge waiting for Hammarskjöld to arrive so connecting flights could resume to Katanga. Gurkitz told him he should not have bothered escaping. After being expelled to Brussels by the UN the Hungarian had flown straight back to Rhodesia. The Belgians made no attempt to stop him.

Money, Guns, and Bribes

The secession had transformed Ndola, a mesh of colonial bungalows and copper mine scaffolding, into a transport hub. It had road and air links to Kipushi, a Katangese town so close to the border half its airfield sat in Rhodesian territory. Anyone wanting to visit the secession flew in from Salisbury and caught a ride north.

The company of Light Infantry who guarded the border ignored the daily parade of journalists and mercenaries. They only stirred when armed groups crossed the border the other way.

“We soon learned that any nervously chattering, disorganised and white- or light blue-helmeted group we encountered were likely to be Swedes or Ethiopians,” said Brigadier John ‘Digger’ Essex-Clark. “The French mercenaries would remain stock still and threateningly quiet in their camouflaged uniforms, as would the Indian Army Ghurkas.”

The Rhodesians stayed away from the French after they enlisted a mercenary doctor to help one of their own, hurt in a shooting accident. The Frenchman’s primitive surgery, learned under a flickering bulb in a tunnel at Dien Bien Phu, did not save the patient. The incident strained their sympathies for Tshombe’s regime. A Union Minière emissary turned up and tried to bribe the entire company to join the Katangese Gendarmes with a suitcase of cash. Essex-Clark told the man, “obsequious, mousy and shabby”, to piss off and not come back.

The inhabitants of Ndola had fewer scruples about helping Katanga. The landlord of the Elephant and Castle Hotel, Len Catchpole, a cheerful cockney who ran the place with the help of his boss-eyed brother Ken, the local hangman (“Met me bruvver? ‘E jerks them to Jesus!”), made good money smuggling weapons over the border to Katanga. Catchpole, a former mayor of Ndola who once lost a drinking competition with an elephant to promote his pub, was a born entrepreneur. He put up mercenaries in his hotel, arranged transport and, on one occasion, smuggled weapons into Elisabethville in a lorry-load of coffins.

“I do know that no one - no one - was going to search the wheels of either Len or his brother when they crossed the border either way,” said John Trevelyn "It was just not done. Both men had close relationships with police officers in Ndola at Superintendant and Special Branch level. It was really an extension of what used to happen back in the UK in those days - the unspoken word - the wink and nod”.

The town’s status as a backdoor into Katanga meant plenty of mercenaries hanging around the airport on 17 September, among them former Compagnie Internationale commander Richard Browne. He was missing his moustache and had grey dye in his hair, remains of a disguise adopted in a failed attempt to re-enter Katanga in June. Every time he slipped over the border UN troops scooped him up and repatriated him. Browne protested he only wanted to collect his personal possessions and sort out back pay. Carlos Huyghé sat with him in the Ndola airport lounge. The Belgian had been kicked out of the country on 5 August with barely enough notice to sell his possessions in the newspaper small ads: “Expelled by the UN; refrigerator for sale.”

On the other side of the lounge Puren, Glasspool, and Gurkitz huddled together and talked about the significance of the peace talks.

“History is unfolding,” said Puren.

African Approach

At 21:02 Léopoldville time, after four hours in the air, Captain Hollonquist contacted Salisbury Flight Information Service for a weather report. He also asked for the estimated time of arrival of a DC-4 carrying Lord Lansdowne to Ndola. The fifty-eight-year-old Lansdowne, British Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, had flown ahead of Hammarskjöld on the orders of the British government to smooth arrangements for the meeting with Tshombe.

Hollonquist gave his estimated time of arrival as 23.35 (00:35 Ndola local time). The Albertina had another two and a half hours in the air, flying wide to avoid Katangese territory. The pilot made contact with Salisbury twice more. At 21:35 he announced the Albertina was over the southern end of Lake Tanganyika and received the information that Lansdowne’s aeroplane had just landed at Ndola. During the last communication, at 22:32 Léopoldville time, Salisbury handed over to Ndola control tower. There were a number of communications between tower and aeroplane over the next half hour. The ETA changed to 00:20 Ndola time.

It was closing in on midnight when the Albertina approached the North Rhodesian airport. At 23:57 Ndola time Hallonquist requested permission to descend. At 00:10 the aeroplane made visual contact with the airfield. It was a clear night hazed with mist from a local cobalt refinery.

“Your lights in sight, overhead Ndola, descending,” Hallonquist told the tower.

Ndola asked him to report when the Albertina reached 6,000 feet.

“Roger.”

Jerry Puren was among the crowd waiting at the base of the control tower in the chilly night. They had been there for several hours. Someone said they could hear an aeroplane engine and conversation died as the crowd strained to listen. High in the air above Ndola the red anti-collision light at the top of the DC-6B’s tail fin flashed and the approach began.

One of Our Planes is Missing

At 00:30 Lansdowne’s pilot contacted the control tower to request permission to take off. Lord Lansdowne, a veteran of the Royal Scots Guards with a Croix de Guerre, had orders from the British government to be on his way to Salisbury before Hammarskjöld arrived. London wanted to keep its role in the peace talks secret. The tower admitted it had lost contact with the Albertina twenty minutes previously. Five minutes later it gave permission to take off and the DC-4 headed for Salisbury with a worried Lansdowne on board.

Airport manager John Williams discussed the overdue aeroplane with Lord Alport, the British High Commissioner for Rhodesia. Alport seemed unconcerned.

“The reason for breaking off contact with Ndola,” said Alport, “might be that Mr Hammarskjöld's plane had been informed by one of the United States attaché’s planes on Ndola airfield that Lord Lansdowne had only just taken off and that, in view of Mr Hammarskjold's expressed wish, the Léopoldville plane had gone off for a short time to allow a definite interval between Lord Lansdowne's departure and Mr Hammarskjöld’s arrival”.

He also suggested Hammarskjöld was transmitting a message or phone conversation from the Albertina and would not land until it had finished.

Williams agreed with his distinguished guest. No need for alarm. The group at the base of the control tower, including Jerry Puren and Glasspool, numbed by the cold and tired of waiting, made their way to the nearby Savoy Hotel. Tshombe waited in his room at a local villa waiting for the telephone call that Hammarskjöld had landed.

As the time crept towards one o’clock in the morning Lord Alport, now less sure, suggested Hammarskjöld might have diverted his flight. At 01:15 Williams telephoned the local police and asked if any explosions or crashes had been reported in the area. None had. He contacted the crew at Salisbury tower and asked if they had any information about the Albertina. They did not.

By 01:50 Williams had woken from Alport’s spell and sent a priority signal to Salisbury asking for information on SE-BDY’s whereabouts. Salisbury tried to contact Léopoldville for information, sending the request via a Johannesburg teleprinter, but got no answer. Ndola issued an INCEFA – an alert indicating concern about an aeroplane and its passengers.

Williams hung around the cold and empty airport for another hour. At 03:00 he went to his bed in the Rhodes Hotel and ten minutes later the airport shut down for the night. As Williams drifted off to sleep two policemen knocked at his door. One of their colleagues, an Assistant Inspector Van Wyk, had seen an aeroplane fly overhead at twenty past midnight. It flew out of view then a flash lit up the sky. They had patrols in land rovers looking over the area. An exhausted Williams told them there was nothing that could be done until daylight and went back to bed.

Police patrols, driving through the bush in the African night, found nothing.

Aeroplane in Distress

Ndola airport reopened just before six o’clock on the morning of 18 September. Just before seven Williams sent another INCERFA alert to Salisbury with additional information about the flash of light in the sky.

At 06:53 Salisbury finally woke up to the seriousness of the situation and issued a DETRESFA – the aeroplane in distress signal. They copied in Ndola, Elisabethville, and Johannesburg. At 07:44 Salisbury made contact with Léopoldville by radio. The Congo capital had no knowledge of the Albertina’s location. Salisbury ordered the Ndola police to start an official search by air and ground.

The first aeroplanes did not take off until 10:00, flying north and south of the airport. Police searched the bush in landrovers and on foot as the sun rose in the sky. Some time after 14:30 an African charcoal burner called Mazibisa contacted the authorities. He had seen an aeroplane wreck out in the bush.

At 15:10 a search aeroplane spotted a plane wreckage west of the airport. Almost simultaneously Rhodesian police reached the site on the ground. It was the Albertina. Seventy percent of the aeroplane was molten metal. Papers, smashed tree trunks, and possessions including the charred remains of a pack of cards, littered the ground. Only the American Harold Julien survived. He had serious burns and had been lying in the sun all day. The other six crew and nine passengers were dead. Their smashed wristwatches put the crash time at between 00:11 and 00:13.

The police found Dag Hammarskjöld lying on his back near the wreck with a fistful of grass in his hand, dead from massive internal injuries.

A Rhodesian Murder Mystery

The only people ever charged over Dag Hammarskjöld’s death were Ledson Daka and his friend Moyo, two black Rhodesian charcoal burners who investigated the Albertina’s wreck with Mazibisa. They looted Alice Lalanda’s cryptography machine, thinking it was a typewriter. The local police caught them trying to sell it in a local market. A judge gave them two years.

The DC-6B crashed as it turned to begin its approach. Its landing gear was down. During the turn the Albertina came into contact with the tree tops, banked slightly to the left, and slid at a low angle into the trees. Propellers thrashed branches into wood chip. The left wing got ripped away and the amputated stub smashed into the ground by a two and a half metre tall termite hill. The nose cone jammed into the hill and the aeroplane cart-wheeled over.

Five tons of fuel poured out of the broken engines and caught light. Ammunition and flares inside the aircraft exploded. A gas tank blasted high into the air. Hammarskjöld was thrown free of the burning wreckage, probably because he had been standing at the moment of first contact with the tree tops. His was the only corpse not burned. The final resting place of flight SE-BDY was a clearing smashed in the trees nine and a half miles west of Ndola airport.

Harold Julien lasted five days in intensive care. He drifted in and out of consciousness. In rare moments of lucidity he muttered about a crash and then an explosion, or an explosion and then a crash. Hammarskjöld saying “Go back!”. The pain …. . Morphine. Then he died, leaving investigators barely more informed.

Conspiracies and Crashes

“It wasn't such a big deal, as planes crash all the time in Africa and I had no idea who Dag was,” said John Trevelyn. “The general opinion at the time from people who were at the wreck is that it was a simple pilot error”.

The UN and Rhodesian Federation investigators who swarmed Ndola in the aftermath were less sure. But the DC-6B did not carry a flight recorder and the crash site had no conclusive evidence. Some investigators thought the Albertina could have been brought down by catastrophic mechanical failure, atmospheric conditions, or pilot error, possibly involving mistaken altitude. They thought it significant the Ndola page was missing from the Albertina’s navigation manual. Others believed one of several mutually contradictory conspiracy theories: failed hijacking, ground to air rocket, bomb on board, or interception by another aircraft. The Fouga jet in Tshombe's airforce which had caused so much havoc recently was top suspect for the last case, with the narrative of Katangese air superiority fresh in everyone’s minds. Whatever brought down the Albertina happened so suddenly the crew had no time to even begin a distress call.

Locals came forward to report what they had seen, confusing investigators with blends of truth and fiction. Northern Rhodesians were agitating for independence and some stories seemed designed to embarrass Salisbury. Investigators noted that a local leftist union organiser with no love for imperialism, coincidentally also a Swede, was encouraging black Rhodesians to approach the authorities. His motives were questioned. For every local who claimed to have seen two aeroplanes in the sky, another swore a squadron of Rhodesian government jets had taken off from Ndola to shoot down Hammarskjöld or that a group of uniformed paramilitaries blew up the Albertina after it hit the ground.

Even apparently reliable witnesses had their stories picked to pieces. An African charcoal burner called Buleni claimed to have seen a smaller aeroplane directly behind Hammarskjold’s DC-6B on its approach.

Investigator: “Could you clearly see this other aircraft above the big one you saw?”

Buleni: “Yes we did. It was a small aeroplane.”

Investigator: “Did it have lights on?”

Buleni: “Yes, it had lights.”

Investigator: “What kind of lights?”

Buleni: “Actually I did see one red light.”

Investigator: “On the smaller plane?”

Buleni: “Correct.”

Experts claimed the charcoal burner was describing the DC-6B’s anti-collision tail fin light.

Other theories failed to stand up. A hijacking? Bullets found in two Swedish security men turned out to be their own ammunition which had exploded in the heat. All bodies had been accounted for and the Albertina had no extra passengers. Pilot error? The Ndola page of a navigation information manual was missing from its loose leaf binder because it had been removed for closer study. Mechanical failure? All engines were running at the time of the crash and had been increasing power. The altimeters were correctly set. Rocket, bombing, interception? Despite the suspicions of Transair’s chief engineer Bo Virving, the Albertina had not sustained any combat damage. The Katangese Fouga did not have the range to reach Ndola and return to Kolwezi. And its Belgian pilot never flew at night. Other pilots claimed it would have been nearly impossible for another aircraft to intercept the DC-6B in the dark African sky. Most importantly, no-one had a motive for killing Hammarskjöld.

“I never made any secret of the fact that my sympathies were with Tshombe,” said Rhodesian Prime Minister Welensky, “but I would say that if there were two men in Central Africa, who had need for Hammarskjöld to stay alive, it was Tshombe and myself, because I have always believed that the thing that sparked off the attack on the Post Office and really brought about the bloodshed that developed, were the attitudes of two men: C. C. O’Brien and Khiari the Indian representative. Neither Tshombe or I had any reason for wanting the death of Hammarskjöld.”

The Rhodesian investigation established the Albertina had crashed because it was flying dangerously low. The final report suggested that someone in the cockpit misread the altimeter or that a ridge had temporarily blotted out the airport lights, disconcerting Hallonquist enough for the aeroplane to rapidly lose height. Perhaps the stress of flying a distinguished passenger around a warzone had got to the pilot.

It was the least unconvincing option. The Rhodesian Board of Investigation officially adopted a verdict of pilot error. The UN agreed. Bo Virving protested. No-one really accepted the verdict except for Carl von Rosen, Hammarskjöld’s regular pilot who missed the final flight because of illness. He re-flew the Albertina’s route and blamed Hallonquist.

On 19 September Moïse Tshombe drove over the border into Katanga. He sent a message to the UN through British embassy staff. He still wanted to negotiate a ceasefire.

Back in Ndola the airport slowly returned to being a staging post for mercenaries, arms dealers, and journalists. No-one was paying much attention in late September when a short, tubby Flemish Belgian burned brown as tree bark from years in the sun walked down the metal stairs of a passenger jet and lit a cigarette. Jean Schramme was just too late for the fighting in Elisabethville.



Further Reading


If you have any information about Dag Hammarskjöld’s death or the Katanga secession contact me at brightreview@aol.com.

Much of the information on 18 September 1961 crash comes from ‘UN Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Conditions and Circumstances Resulting in the Tragic Death of Mr Dag Hammarskjold and of Members of the Party Accompanying Him, 24 April 1962’ (A/5069), ‘The Ndola Crash and the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld’ by Bengt Rösiö in the Journal of Modern African Studies (Vol. 31, No.4, Dec 1993, p661-671), Rösiö's ‘The Ndola Disaster’ and ‘End Notes to the Ndola Disaster’ manuscripts (both 1992), accessed at the University of Gothenburg's website (https://gul.gu.se), Brian Urquart's ‘Hammarskjöld’ (Alfred A Knopf, 1972), and Susan Williams’ ‘Who Killed Hammarskjöld?’ (Hurst, 2011).



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