By Eric Vandenbroeck

When I was trying to investigate the rumor that the head of UN, Ban Ki-moon, seeks to initiate a new investigation into the fatal crash of Dag Hammarskjöld (a rumor that also seemed confirmed by a recent Foreign Policy Magazine article mentioned below) I found out that there were, in fact, competing interests one of them involving the advertisement for an upcoming movie.(1)

Previously titled “Operation Celeste” Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a feature length documentary based on what likely are fake documents (see SAIMR documents below). But that doesn’t seem to disturb the producers.(2)

The director, Danish comedian Mads Brügger, already earlier has provoked controversial debates over his investigative methods for a documentary of an honorary consul in West Africa.                

After building a name for himself with his features The Red Chapel, in which he posed as an experimental theater director to gain access to North Korea, and The Ambassador, in which he literally bought fake diplomatic credentials to see if he could travel to central Africa and return with a briefcase full of blood diamonds (throughout the movie Brügger dances between the necessity of blurring moral lines and actually crossing them). Now Danish provocateur Brügger returns with what sounds like a much more conventionally structured doc but one which could be no less shocking.

What if, Brügger asks, the 1961 death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was not the accident it has long been ruled to be but was, in fact, an assassination? And so begins Cold Case Hammarskjold.

The geopolitical reverberation of Dag Hammarskjöld's death in the jungles of Ndola in present day Zambia can still be heard and felt today, yet somehow his untimely death has always been overshadowed by the clear cut assassinations of iconoclastic heads of states, such as Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Olaf Palme. But now a critical mass has assembled itself, and the time to make an indisputable argument for the likelihood, which Dag Hammarskjöld's death was not a simple plane crash.

Part of the investigation, as portrayed by the movie, is to look at how a ‘hit squad’ allegedly bombed Hammarskjöld’s plane. Whereby the investigators who are portrayed in the film ask questions about a possible recruiting office, apparently set up by Moise Tshombe, president of the breakaway Katanga province of the Congo, in the Empire Building in downtown Johannesburg in 1961. According to their sources, 61 mercenaries were recruited and sent to Katanga in the spring of 1961.

But not all seems true what the film claims.(3)

Pivotal to the team’s investigation, are documents of the SAIMR’s alleged Operation Celeste, which (although unproven) they believe were leaked earlier from the files of the State Security Agency (SSA). According to these documents, Operation Celeste was the plan to kill Hammarskjöld in a plane crash. These documents are said to be found by Susan Williams, a British historical researcher who wrote the book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, published in 2011.

Williams came across 12 pages of correspondence marked top secret. The documents were headed with the Johannesburg address of an organization called the SA Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).

The existence of this private intelligence outfit operating from South Africa first became known in 1990. The organization had close ties with jailed Polish assassin Janusz Walus. He was linked to the unit a few years before he murdered SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani. However there is no evidence that the organization existed in 1961.

Also, the operation apparently involved the placing of a bomb, made of 3kg of TNT on Hammarskjöld’s plane from Leopoldville to Ndola. It was to be placed beneath the undercarriage so it would detonate soon after take-off when the wheels were retracted. A major [the Belgian Union Minière] mining conglomerate was referred to as the source of the TNT and technical equipment.

The 2015 UN appointed Othman panel following an in depth investigation, gave the theory little credence, and pieces of wreckage bore no evidence that a bomb brought down the plane.

The SAIMR documents and the Operation Celeste myth.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld correctly states that Susan Williams writes that while conducting its work, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission received from the (South African) National Intelligence Agency, in July 1998, a file relating to the assassination in 1993 of the leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani. Included among the file's contents were eight documents purported to be the internal correspondence of the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), an organization allegedly engaged in clandestine mercenary activities in and around the Congo, among other places, in the early 1960s.

The documents refer to an operation codenamed "Operation Celeste", the objective of which was purported to "remove" Hammarskjöld. The orders to do so call for his removal to be "handled more efficiently than was Patrice" (assumed to be Patrice Lumumba, the former and first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo, who was executed by Katangese Gendarmerie with the complicity of other persons, on 17 January 1961). The same document purports that "[CIA Director] Allen Dulles agrees and has promised full cooperation from his people" and that "[Dulles] tells the United States that Dag will be in Leopoldville on or about 12/9/61." The document also mentions that "The aircraft ferrying him will be a D.C.6. in the livery of `TRANSAIR'" and urges that, "Leo[poldville] airport as well as Elisabethville is covered by your people."

Another of the documents, undated but seemingly sent after that which first called for Hammarskjöld to be "removed," reports that "[Belgian mining company] Union Minière has offered to provide logistically or other support." It goes on to say, "We have told them to have 6lbs. of TNT at all possible locations with detonators, electrical contacts and wiring, batteries, etc.", and, "Your decision to use contact, rather than barometric devices is a wise one".

In a handwritten instruction bearing the same letterhead as the remainder of the documents, dated 14 September 1961, "Captain" reports back to "Commodore" that a: "DC6 aircraft bearing `Transair' livery is parked at Leo[poldville] to be used for transport of subject.

Our technician has ordered to plant 6lbs tnt in the wheel bay with contact detonate (sic) to activate as wheels are retracted on taking of. We are awaiting subjects time of departure before acting."

Another of the documents, the date of which is not clearly legible, which seemingly provides a report back to "Commodore" and "Captain" on events, a "Congo Red" writes 1. The device failed on take-off. 2. Dispatched Eagle [illegible] to [illegible]. 3. [Illegible] activated [illegible] prior to landing. 4. As advised O'Brien and McKeown were not on board. 5. Mission accomplished: satisfactory.

As suggested above, a first question about the possible authenticity is that no evidence has ever surfaced that proves whether SAIMR even existed in 1961. This along with the non-availability of the maker of those documents or parts thereof, or anyone with personal knowledge or familiarity with their contents; the unexplained whereabouts and chain of possession of the documents between the time they were allegedly made in 1961 and their handing over in July 1998, and their eventual public disclosure; and the uncertainty of the genuineness of photocopies and the discrepancies therein, including in the very title of SAIMR in one (the abbreviation of the name of the organization varied in one document, which uses SAIMAR as opposed to SAIMR).

As to the document's content, which is to say the feasibility of the alleged plot. Whether there is scientific evidence to support the claim that SE-BDY crashed as a result of the detonation of TNT, as described in the SAIMR documents, or more generally by types of explosives on board the aircraft. The analysis, by a UN-appointed expert, concluded from his examination of the wreckage of SE-BDY for traces of a bomb, infernal machine or foreign bullets, that he could exclude the possibility of hostile actions from the air or the ground and leave no room for the suggestion of sabotage.

Turning to the available expert medico-legal analysis, the opinion of qualified pathologists, stated that there was no evidence from the autopsy reports that Hammarskjöld had been subjected to an explosion or exposed to smoke.

In terms of an overall assessment of the probative value of the SAIMR documents, weighing the considerations, and in particular their authenticity; the unknown whereabouts of the originals or anyone who has ever seen them or any reliable secondary substitute; their chain of possession, there is little probative value to the SAIMR documents and what they purport to assert.

In fact, Susan Williams in her 2011 book herself sheds doubt on the probablity that the Operation Celeste documents are genuine and asks about the alleged 1947 F.Malan letter: This letter is startling: it suggests that SAIMR may have existed not only in 1961 but even before that—as long ago as 1947. But is it genuine? And refers to the possibility that Maxwell could have "forged" some of the paperwork to show others how important SAIMR and he were. (Williams, 2011, pp. 215-18.)

The independent Hammarskjold Commission a body of four international jurists who have been invited by the United Nations whether in their view the evidence now available would justify the United Nations in reopening its inquiry, state that it is doubtful whether a covert agency, even if it were to respond publicly, would be candid in what it said.

The reporter who wrote the at the beginning mentioned article for Foreign Policy Magazine(FP), said that: "UN. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will propose reopening an inquiry into allegations that Dag Hammarskjold, one of the most revered secretaries-general in the organization’s history, was assassinated by an apartheid-era South African paramilitary organization that was backed by the CIA, British intelligence, and a Belgian mining company, according to several officials familiar with the case.

The move follows the South African government’s recent discovery of decades-old intelligence documents detailing the alleged plot, dubbed Operation Celeste, that was designed to kill Hammarskjold. In a recent letter to the United Nations, South African authorities said the documents had been transferred to their Justice Ministry so U.N. officials could review them, according to diplomatic sources.” And adds:” But officials familiar with the South African letter to the U.N. said Pretoria confirmed that it had located previously lost documents related to Operation Celeste.”

The 17 August session Agenda item 129 UN statement indeed mentions that:

The Panel was not able to conclude whether such documents might be authentic or not, given that it had only “poor quality copies.” If it is the case that original documents may now be available from South Africa, it may be possible to conduct forensic or other analyses to make a determination of their authenticity.(4)

However, reliable sources in the South African foreign ministry stated that this is blown totally out of proportion and the result of a leak in what they considered an ordinary exchange between Pretoria and the UN with no new evidence. The only document existing is the one already known and dealt with by Susan Williams in her 2011 book. What is published in FP as a new story thus is seemingly old wine in new bottles.

The FP article, citing Hans Corell, ads that the Operation Celeste documents seemed “fishy” and that neither the documents nor their contents, could be considered “trustworthy.”

Thus suspecting the Operation Celeste documents might indeed be a fraud I asked the Directors of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation who stated in their answer: One cannot give the current sensationalism any new credibility. It remains dubious if this was more than a hoax.

If it is possible that there could have been another plane that was in the air when Hammarskjold’s Douglas DC­6B plane, called “Albertina,” was approaching Ndola airport, this would make it more relevant to get access to air traffic likely to be recorded by NSA with its planes on the ground. And also, since it was partly British territory (and while it does not make them responsible for the crash) there might still be a British intelligence report that has not surfaced yet and thus could contain additional information. This is something what the new UN panel that is currently in the making now wants to further investigate.

The FP article also mentions the mistaken testimony of Charles Southall, a retired U.S. naval officer, who said he heard a recording of a pilot boasting about shooting down what appeared to be Hammarskjold's plane. “I see a transport plane coming low. All the lights are on,” Southall, who had been stationed at a NSA listening post in Cyprus, recalled the pilot saying.”I'm going to go down to make a run on it. Yes, it's the Transair DC¬6. It's the plane. I've hit it. There are flames. It's going down. It's crashing.” Southall was simply too far away and could not have intercepted radio transmissions from an aircraft in the Congo.

Much more reliable is Paul Henry Abram who working for the NSA witnessed ground forces stating: The Americans just shot down the UN plane.(As detailed in Abram’s book Trona, Bloody Trona: A Revolution in Microcosm, 2013) See also here: He recalled that on one frequency, he heard a voice saying: “We have the plane in sight. The plane is well lit. We can see it approaching.” Then he heard an accented voice on a different frequency saying, “The Americans shot down the U.N. plane.”

Responding to the initial results of the star investigator of the current “Cold Case Hammarskjold” movie, Göran Björkdahl, people like Brian Unwin, the only British official still living who was present at Ndola airport throughout that fateful night, continues to maintain that the cause of the tragic crash was due to pilot error.

For an earlier response to Cold Case Hammarskjold’s Göran Björkdahl see also.


Update 6 Dec. 2016: UN says evidence justifies further inquiry.

Among the new information uncovered by the panel was a declassified report from a senior British diplomat to a secret service agent, Neil Ritchie, who details how he helped the Katanga leader Moise Tshombe travel to Ndola for his meeting with Hammarskjöld.

The report did not mention the possible crash but “its existence and content serves as new information about the presence of the British intelligence agency in the area”, said the UN panel.

Update 6 November 2016:

Dag Hammarskjold and his assistants were carrying a CX-52 from Crypto AG. Therefore, all his telegrams were read not only by the UN but also by several agencies in the USA, England and Belgium. All these countries had major interests in Congo.

On September 13 1961 the Prime Minister of England wrote in a telegram that:

“It will be Necessary to find some way of pulling Hammarskjold up short.”

It is well known that the first atomic bomb was produced with uranium supplied by Union Minière in Belgian Congo. A book titled "Belgium and the bomb" published in 2012 presented a detailed investigation. Also Susan Williams book "Spies in the Congo" details the story of a special unit of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency; that was set up to purchase and secretly remove all the uranium from the Congo that the U.S. could get its hands on. By 1960, however, the U.S. interest was preventing Soviet access to Congolese uranium.

The Congo gained its independence at a time when Cold War tensions had been increased due to major strategic threats to the United States. As both sides planned for a possible World War III (WWIII), international diplomacy and logistical planning took into consideration many obscure nations and areas that were otherwise deemed unimportant. The Congo lay in the middle of Africa and could provide the United States with transit points to move their air and ground forces through to the battlegrounds of the Middle East.

As the world’s leading producer of uranium ore and all of it guaranteed to the Americans and British, the Belgians thus possessed powerful leverage to resist U.S. pressure to grant independence to the Congo. The expansion of missile capability around 1960 added to the value of cobalt to the national security requirements of the United States.

In the years leading to the Congo Crisis tensions were elevated and peace between the two nuclear-armed superpowers was anything but secure. The Congo Crisis took its place in a string of continuous crises affecting the international balance of power in the early 1960s. Congolese possession of the largest reserves of materials required by any industrialized nation made it almost inevitable that the two largest powers in the world would attempt to gain influence over the Congo. In the superpower struggle to secure advantage over their opponent, the Congo played the role of a nation literally caught in the middle.

Following the obvious cover-up of the death of Lumumba in early 1961 (the United States and Belgium were publicly believed responsible). Hammarskjold realized a harsher course needed to be taken to end the secession of Katanga and thus the Congo Crisis.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution denouncing Lumumba’s death, calling for an independent investigation into the death and authorizing U.N. actions to prevent civil war in the Congo. After six months of little to no action the United Nations launched, with approval of newly elected Adoula, its first operation to forcefully remove Belgians and mercenaries from Katanga.

The United Nations launched a second operation in early September to expel mercenaries from Katanga and return that province to the central government of the Congo. The United States was still not supportive of this action because it desired a peaceful resolution that would prevent a possible power vacuum in Katanga being filled with communists. U.S. objection to this operation proved justified; Operation Morthor developed into a debacle due to lack of tactical surprise, fierce resistance by Katanga military units and disjointed U.N. leadership. The United States was in tough position; Katanga was protecting itself against actions the United States believed could lead to a communist takeover. However, the Katanga military was defeating the United Nations, the organization that gave credibility to Western objectives and policies in the Third World. These concerns led to U.S. calls for a ceasefire; some argue this pressure motivated Hammarskjold to fly to Northern Rhodesia to negotiate a settlement with Tshombe in exile. This trip ended prematurely with the crash of Hammarskjold’s plane and his death. To be continued… In my upcoming article, I will, along with the Congo/uranium aspect, also investigate the question if hardline Belgian colonialists, outraged at UN support for the Congolese government in Kinshasa, could somewhow have been involved.

1. I first found out about the existence of the documentary trough a contact person with intimate knowledge of the current investigations related to H. plane crash and who added in a communication to me on 8 August 2016 his opinion that the documentary film "nourishes some thoughts that the new prominence given to what seems basically old (and dubious) information based on a document with little credibility might come opportune as a kind of promotional news for the film to be soon released." Hence I next contacted the producer of the film himself, who, when I asked him if “the author of  the FP article knew about your movie” answered: "Yes, the author of the article knew about the film, and we are in contact."(e-mail communication to me on August 10, 2016 10:00 AM). The above of course does not mean that the filmmakers somehow would have influenced the reporter who wrote the Foreign Policy Magazine article, it might however show the crossroad of interests this subject finds itself in, and which does not only include Ban Ki-moon.

2. Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is a feature length documentary is a co-production with WingMan Media (DK), Piranya Films (N) and Laika Films (S) and Bram Crols from Associate Directors. It is supported by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund a co-production with RTBF in association with VRT, and will among others be presented at the November 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

3. For the advertisement of the film see:

4. UN agenda item 129 titled "Investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him Note by the Secretary-General" was published on 17 August 2016, here.