Eric Vandenbroeck 22 August 2016

The story behind the Cold Case Hammarskjöld documentary.

As quoted among others in Zambia: Life in an African Country by Godfrey Mwakikagile former US president Harry Truman is quoted as having told reporters two days after Dag Hammarskjöld’s death that the UN leader “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”

He refused to elaborate, but it was the start of decades of suspicions that western governments were not sharing all the information they held about the crash.

Come then to earlier this month when I was trying to investigate the claim that the head of UN, Ban Ki-moon, seeks to initiate a new investigation into the fatal crash of Hammarskjöld, a search that quickly led me to a recent Foreign Policy Magazine which at the same time refers to an upcoming documentary. The author of the Foreign Policy Magazine who noticeable also ads an alleged South African paramilitary organization into the mix writes: "UN. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will propose reopening an inquiry into allegations that Dag Hammarskjöld, 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 Hammarskjöld. 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.”

I found out that there were, in fact, competing interests one of them involving the potential advertisement for the cited documentary. Or as a contact person with intimate knowledge of the current investigations related to Hammarskjöld plane crash wrote to me in a communication on 8 August 2016 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."

As for the sensational claim that Pretoria confirmed that it had located previously lost documents related to Operation Celeste the leading investigator of The Hammarskjöld Commission responded with: "Sadly so, the current news concerning Operation Celeste are grossly misleading. I have reliable sources in the South African foreign ministry who informed me, 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. Basically, the only document existing is the one already known and dealt with by Susan, and also critically assessed in the independent commission's report. What is now published as a new story is seemingly old wine in new bottles. But it might have the (intended?) positive effect, that Ban and the UN will remain more determined to continue investigations. But one cannot give the current sensationalism any new credibility. It remains dubious if this was more than a hoax. -the two Swedish researchers mentioned in the June 2015 article are key persons for a documentary film currently finalized, which even refers to Operation Celeste in its (working) title. This 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. The director has provoked some controversial debates over his investigative methods for an early documentary of a honorary consul in West Africa."

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I of course next immediately 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.

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 Hammarskjöld was not the accident it has long been ruled to be but was, in fact, an assassination? And so begins Cold Case Hammarskjöld.

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 as members of the Hammarskjöld Commission suggested to me not all seems true what the film (although still in the making) currently claims.

The Operation Celeste SAIMR documents

Pivotal to the film 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.

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 probability 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 was. (2)

An earlier UN agenda item 129 stated 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.(3)

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 Hammarskjöld'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 Hammarskjöld” 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.


So what if any is reliable information at this point?

Hours after the plane crashed over central Africa in September 1961, the US ambassador to Congo, Ed Gullion, sent a cable to Washington claiming that the aircraft could have been shot down by a Belgian mercenary pilot. In the cable that was made public in 2014 Gullion correctly identifies the Ndola area as the crash site. He also names the suspected Belgian pilot as "Van Reisseghem", cited a mis-spelling of Jan van Risseghem, who had served in the South African and Rhodesian air forces, and commanded the small Katanga air force. If true mentioned in Brügger's Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Gullion's telegram calls into question Van Risseghem's insistence that he had not been in Katanga in September 1961. However the Othman Report concluded that the imprecise and imperfect nature of intelligence inputs pertaining to Risseghem renders this evidence weak.

The makers of the "Cold Case" documentary go even as far as indirectly connecting Van Risseghem with the shadowy SAIMIR.

Another possibility involves Roland Culligan, who is quoted by Lisa Pease who investigated this case as stating that: The EA involving Hammarskjöld was a bad one. I did not want the job. Damn it, I did not want the job. I intercepted DH’s trip at Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Flew from Tripoli to Abidjian to Brazzaville to Ndola, shot the airplane, it crashed, and I flew back, same way.”

According to Lisa Pease Culligan did not want his information released. He only wanted to use it to pressure the CIA into restoring his funds, clearing his record, and allowing his wife and himself to live in peace." And that Culligan was scheduled to be released from prison in 1977. He wrote the CIA’s general counsel offering to turn in his journal if he was released without any further complications.

And while I agree that as stated elsewhere it is likely that a second aircraft fired at Hammarskjöld’ plane contrary to the claims in Cold Case Hammarskjöld I believe that it was not a Fouga jet used here but one of the Dornier Do 28's delivered to Tshombe's Force Aérienne Katangaise by West Germany. The Katangese Air Force was a short-lived mercenary air wing made up of Belgian, French and British pilots.

I updated the following information based on a new 2017 UN report. This whereby the information published in the 2017 report reinforces but does not significantly add to the information which was already made available in an earlier  2015  report on this topic, namely, that Dornier DO-28 aircraft were supplied on a commercial basis to Katanga from West Germany in 1961, that at least one of the aircraft was present before the night of 17 to 18 September 1961 and that the aircraft may have been modified for aerial attacks and bombings.

According to a the more recent UN report from 2017 information from the United States indicated that at least one Dornier aircraft had been procured by Katanga and present in Kolwezi before the end of September 1961. This included a cable on 26 July 1961 stating that the “first Dornier was expected [in] Elisabethville this week” and multiple reports in September of the Dornier aircraft being present. This was consistent with a United Nations aide-memoire of 7 July 1961 indicating that it had received reports of German Dornier aircraft with military equipment having been procured by Katanga.

There also is a letter from the Foreign Office of West Germany of 5 October 1961 stating that the “first plane of the order” had been flown on 21 August 1961 by a German pilot together with the Belgian importer to Elisabethville. A later document from the Federal Ministry of Economy of 24 November 1961 appeared to confirm that the first Dornier DO-28 took off from Munich-Riem international airport on 21 August and flew to Katanga through Italy, piloted by a Mr. Schäfer, Dornier’s company pilot.

Also  information from Belgium states that “before the start of the UN operations” (assumed to be a reference to Operation Rumpunch of August 1961 or Operation Morthor of September 1961, both of which were carried out before the crash of SE-BDY), a Colonel Cassart had left on board a Dornier plane flown by a German pilot and used exclusively for transport, which had been routed urgently to Kolwezi through Brazzaville to reinforce the Katangan Air Force. On the same topic, the information from Belgium stated that it was probable but not certain that a second Dornier (of four ordered) had left directly by air from Germany to Katanga.

According to United Nations information, whatever Dornier aircraft to which the Katangan Air Force had access in 1961 was carrying out operations which included bombing operations during the day and at night, reported operations in locations which were approximately 1,000 km from each other (Kaniama and Ndola), as well as at least one, attempted air-to-air intercept.

United Nations documents, including a list of Katangan Air Force personnel dated 17 January 1961, shows that it had at least 32 personnel (14 pilots plus radio operators and technicians).

So we have to look at the likelihood that the order to kill Hammarskjöld was given by Katangese hardliners to prevent an agreement with the UN which may have had led to an end of the Katangese secession, possibly without a pardon for the punishable crimes committed by the hardliners during the secession.

Adding to the intrigue there is also a letter from 13 September 1961 where the Prime Minister of England wrote in a telegram that: “It will be Necessary to find some way of pulling Hammarskjöld up short.”


Indicating the importance of the region, 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.(5)

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 an 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). Hammarskjöld 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 the 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 Hammarskjöld to fly to Northern Rhodesia to negotiate a settlement with Tshombe in exile. This trip ended prematurely with the crash of Hammarskjöld’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 somehow have been involved.

In the end while skeptical of the "Operation Celeste" scenario in the (not yet fully completed) current version of the Mads Brügger documentary I tend to agree that the dead of Hammarskjöld deserves further investigation and that it appears there was indeed another plane in the air when Hammarskjöld’s plane was approaching Ndola airport. The open question however still is that of who was behind the assassination.

Update 27 Jan. 2019: I attended the opening screening of the movie and here my review and comments.


1. 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.

2. Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, 2011, pp. 215-18.

3. 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. 

4. Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, 2011, pp. 201-2.

Also on 5 September 2017 A (UN) letter dated 5 September 2017 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the General Assembly mentioned that the Eminent Person in charge of the Hammarskjöld inquiry considered information regarding the capability of Katangan forces to conduct an aerial attack.

5. Spies in the Congo by Susan Williams, the race to build the atomic bomb.


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