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In 1961 I was a UN soldier in the Congo

KG Hammar, the retired head of the Church of Sweden, well known to care deeply for the Hammarskjöld heritage, received the following letter in January 2015 from a Swedish member of the UN peacekeeping mission active in the Congo in 1961. The translation by Hans Kristian Simensen is published with the kind permission of the writer and translator.

The investigation of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld - What is happening?

In autumn 2012, I read in several Swedish newspapers that people had started to question what really happened when Dag Hammarskjöld´s plane crashed in 1961 in Northern Rhodesia. Was it a 'normal' air accident or was it an attack? A new investigation was to be launched, initiated by KG Hammar and others. Two years have now passed. About three weeks ago a news article reported that a new international investigation is to take place.

Why do I write this letter? Why am I at all interested? I do so because I was in the Congo when this happened and because my dear friend Per Persson from Bollnäs died together with Hammarskjöld when the plane crashed.

My story

In 1961 I was a UN soldier based in the Congo. I belonged to the XIth Swedish UN battalion which had served along the demarcation line between Israel and Egypt. After completing our tour of duty in the Gaza area we transferred via Cairo, Libya, and Nigeria to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo. We arrived at the end of July 1961. Only a few weeks later upheavals and regular fighting broke out between Tshombe’s Katangan mercenaries and the Swedish UN troops.

Our company was based at Camp Chanic, an abandoned shipyard by the Congo River in the outskirts of Léopoldville. We were in a state of preparedness to be sent on missions if needed to other parts of the Congo. Two nights before Dag Hammarskjöld´s plane crashed outside Ndola, I was flown into Katanga with my platoon to the Kamina airbase, where a UN force was trying to defend it against the attacks of Tshombe´s mercenaries. An important junction in Katanga for the UN, the airbase was not to be lost. The UN force (Irish and Swedish) had sent recurrent radio messages to UN headquarters in Léopoldville asking for reinforcements. Food, ammunition, etc., were lacking. There were also wounded UN soldiers in need of help.

For weeks Tshombe´s mercenaries had encircled the airbase, which was regarded as very important for the independence of Katanga, but so far the UN forces had succeeded in offering resistance. Pressure from Tshombe´s mercenaries was growing, and in Léopoldville they now feared that the UN could lose control of the base. This could not happen. That´s why it was decided in the evening of September 15th to fly us in as reinforcements. Our plane took off from N´Djili (the airfield in Léopoldville) at around 2 in the early morning of September 16th. When we passed into Katangese airspace after some hours of flying, we were met by a Belgian Fouga Magister fighter plane which attacked and forced us away. Probably Tshombe´s mercenaries had listened in on the radio traffic and knew we were on the way. We flew to the safety of Kasai province and landed in Luluabourg (now Kananga).

We spent the 16th and 17th of September in Luluabourg and on the evening of the 17th made a new attempt to break into Katanga. To avoid detection, the plane´s lights were completely switched off, as were radio communications. We managed to get through, but when we descended for landing we were detected by mercenaries posted around the base and all hell broke loose. The sky was lit by tracers, it felt as if we were flying through a sea of flames. But we were in over the base and minutes later put down on the runway.

While we were descending we had dismantled the aircraft doors so that we could get out quickly when we landed. Six to eight of us formed a ring around the aircraft so that the others could off-load weapons, ammunition, food and equipment. At this stage we didn’t know if UN soldiers still controlled the base or not. Fortunately, it had remained under UN control, but the fury of Tshombe´s mercenaries over our success in flying in reinforcements led, at the break of dawn, to a Fouga Magister run over the base. It swept our defensive positions with machine gun fire and dropped bombs on the airport building and runways. The plane that had flown us in at night was hit and caught fire. The airport building where we had temporarily taken cover was bombed. We had to get out on the field quickly and dug ourselves in along the runway so that no enemy planes could land and Tshombe´s ground forces couldn’t get in. About two hours later the Fouga Magister returned. It swept our defensive positions with machine gun fire, dropped some bombs and disappeared over the rainforest.

The day after (September 19th), we learned via radio that Dag Hammarskjöld´s plane had crashed in Northern Rhodesia and all on board had perished. Later I learned that Per Persson and Stig Hjelte from my platoon were among those who perished. They were in the security detail on board. The night we left Léopoldville, Per Persson had told me that he would not be following us to Kamina—he had special orders and was in fact relieved and grateful not to be involved in the Katanga mission. He probably didn´t know what special orders he had been given. It was to be Per´s last journey!

The night of the 15th, when Per and I said farewell in Léopoldville, I felt strongly that we were not going to see each other again. It was a curious feeling that made it very hard to say good-by. Naturally my belief was that we who were to be flown into Katanga had the worst chances to return. But that was not to be.

When the fighting in the Congo finally stopped, we heard from various sources that Dag Hammarskjöld´s plane had been shot down. There were local city dwellers who had witnessed how two smaller planes (type Fouga Magister) were circling when Hammarskjöld´s plane flew in for landing at Ndola. One had heard an explosion and seen flames in the air. Thereafter the two smaller planes had disappeared.

During all the years that have passed and after all the inquiries concerning the disaster, I have never believed it was an accident. Hammarskjöld´s plane was exposed to the same air attack as we had been some nights earlier when we flew into Katanga.

It is now more than fifty years since this happened, and since I lost two close friends from my platoon. Memories and thoughts of the night I took leave of Per Persson in Léopoldville often return. I am very glad that new and serious investigations concerning the accident have begun. Hopefully they will clear the fog from the incident in the Congo in the night of 17th-18th September 1961. The night when Dag Hammarskjöld, Per Persson, Stig Hjelte and thirteen others died. All in the service of peace.

I will be grateful to be kept informed of the investigations. One way or another, I feel I owe this to Per and Stig!


Lennart Frank


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