Letter from High Commissioner of South Africa, H.L.T. Taswell, 29 September 1961

Vlado cityscene
Having spent so much time thinking about the life of Vlado Fabry, it has been impossible not to care about the way he died, and to want to know the truth about what happened. I’ve been reading every book and article I can find on the subject, but, for me, just reading the 1962 reports of the UN and Rhodesian Commissions investigation of the crash has been very revealing, especially in regards to Fouga Magisters which, I am convinced, shot down the Secretary General’s plane and caused it to crash on the night of 17/18 September, 1961. There were many Africans who saw one or two smaller planes following the DC-6 SE-BDY, but when they were interviewed by the Rhodesian and UN Commissions, they were treated like ignorant children and their testimonies were dismissed as fantasy. I learned a lot more about their treatment in Goran Bjorkdahl and Jacob Phiri’s excellent 2013 article for INTERNATIONAL PEACEKEEPING, Eyewitnesses: The Hammarskjold Plane Crash. From the article, here is one particularly awful comment from UN consultant Hugo Blandiori:

‘Thus, when it is taken into consideration that some of the African witnesses had lack of knowledge in air-plane identification, were of limited learning and might have been motivated by personal or political reasons, it becomes difficult in assessing the truth of their statements…As a consequence, I am of the opinion that the testimony of the African witnesses to the effect that they saw one or two small crafts flying along with SE-BDY just prior to its crash, has to be accepted with a grain of salt’.

I have provided here a few excerpts from both the Rhodesian and United Nations Commission, in order for you to appreciate the context of the following letter, which was written by former High Commissioner of South Africa, H.L.T.Taswell, on 29 September 1961, and was found in the archive of former Prime Minister of the British territory of the Central African Federation Sir Roy Welensky. A scan of the letter was sent to me by an anonymous source. I’m not positive if this particular letter is still considered “TOP SECRET”, but it won’t be anymore. It belongs in the public domain.

“At the outset we would say no reason was suggested, and we cannot think of one, why anyone who might have been able to attack this aircraft from the air should ever have wanted to attack it as it carried Mr. Hammarskjold on the mission he was then undertaking.”
(Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Report of the Commission on the Accident Involving Aircraft SE-BDY, chaired by Sir John Clayden, Chief Justice of the Federation, presented to the Federal Assembly, Salisbury, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; February 1962; Annex III, p.20, par.10)

“On landing at Leopoldville [the morning of 17 September 1961], [Flight Engineer] Wilhelmson had reported that SE-BDY had been fired on at the takeoff from Elisabethville. A thorough inspection of the aircraft was accordingly carried out under the supervision of Chief Mechanic Tryggvason of Transair. In the course of the inspection it was found that number 2 engine (inboard port) had been struck by a bullet, which had penetrated the engine cowling and hit the exhaust pipe. The exhaust pipe was replaced and the plane refueled to a total of ten tons.”
(…)
“The Commission further notes that no flight plan for the SE-BDY was transmitted to Salisbury. The Commission has taken into consideration the conditions existing in the Congo at the time and in particular the danger of an attack from the “Fouga Magister” which explains this departure from the rules governing commercial aviation. Indeed, the system of aeronautical communications cannot ensure the secrecy of messages”
(…)
“It is also relevant to observe that, because of the danger of an attack from the “Fouga Magister”, most of the flights in the Congo at the time were undertaken at night”
(…)
“The possibility of other aircraft being in the area of Ndola at the time of the crash was examined. Since the “Fouga Magister” of the Katangese Armed Forces had been operating against the United Nations in Katanga, the possibility of its reaching Ndola was examined by the Rhodesian Board of Investigation and the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry. It was established that it could not have made the flight from its normal base in Kolwezi to Ndola and returned to Kolwezi since the distance is greater than its operational range. It was also stated by its captain and others that the “Fouga” was on the ground at Kolwezi the night of 17/18 September and could not have operated that night. This evidence is not entirely conclusive since the captain admitted before the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry that on at least one occasion the “Fouga” had taken off from an unpaved track. While this track was said to be at an even greater distance from Ndola, nothing would appear to preclude the use of a track within range of Ndola. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the “Fouga” was in the vicinity of Ndola on the night of the crash.”
(…)
“The Commission has, however, been informed that no radar watch was maintained in the Ndola area during the evening and night of 17 September 1961 and, therefore, the possibility of an “unknown aircraft” cannot be entirely excluded.”
(…)
“Certain witnesses testified that they saw or heard a second, or even third, plane. In particular, some of these testified that they saw a second smaller aircraft flying close to SE-BDY after it had passed over the airport or immediately before the crash and that the smaller aircraft was beaming lights on the larger. The Commission visited with some of these witnesses the spots from which their observations had been made and endeavored to obtain an understanding of their testimony. The Commission considers that several of these witnesses were sincere in their accounts of what they believed they saw.
The Commission is also of the opinion, however, that those witnesses may have misinterpreted their observations and reported some incidents which may not in fact have occurred in the way or at the time that they believed when they testified before the Commission.”
(United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Commission of the Investigation into the Conditions and Circumstances Resulting in the Tragic Death of Mr. Hammarskjold and the Members of the Party Accompanying Him, chaired by Rishikesh Shaha (UN A/5069); 24 April 1962; par. 69, 82, 89, 135, 136)

“TOP SECRET”

Salisbury S.R.
29th September, 1961

Dear Mr. Jooste,

As you will know, I had correspondence, during your absence, with our Minister regarding a suggestion made by Mr. Harper, Leader of the Opposition in Southern Rhodesia, that we assist in the establishment of an English language paper in this territory. The Minister’s reply is dated 5th September, 1961.

I have since had a further talk with Mr. Harper and explained the position to him. He will be visiting South Africa one of these days to have a discussion with Minister de Klerk on our Immigration laws. I will write to you again in due course on this matter.

Another approach for the establishment of an English language paper in Southern Rhodesia has since been made to me. It comes from quite a different quarter – namely from Mr. John Gaunt, Independent Member for Lusaka West, Northern Rhodesia, in the Federal Assembly. Particulars of Mr. Gaunt, taken from page 940-92 of the Who’s Who of Southern Africa 1961 are attached.

Mr. Gaunt is a colourful, outspoken and irrepressible politician who has a considerable following in this country. I would be inclined to describe him as the Arthur Marlow of the Federation. He is a fighter, a strong protagonist of the maintenance of white civilisation, yet not a supporter of our Government’s policy in its entirety. At the same time he is not an open or malicious critic of ours but a good friend.

A summary of what Mr. Gaunt had to say during the interview is attached.

Very briefly, his suggestion is that we make about £300,000 available through commercial interests in South Africa for the establishment of an English language paper here. This would be in opposition to the Argus press which is dedicated to the appeasement of “black nationalism” and aims at inducing whites to hand over control to a black majority as quickly as possible.

If £300,000 seems a great deal of money it should, he says, be borne in mind that it is barely the cost of a medium size commercial aircraft.

Mr. Gaunt does not feel that the proposed paper could dedicate itself to applying our racial policy in this country. The position here has already changed too much for that. But what it could do is ensure that the present constitution is rigorously adhered to. The Governments in Southern Rhodesia and the Federation should not be allowed to use the present constitution just as a temporary measure and as a means of sliding towards a still more liberal constitution.

Mr. Gaunt also feels that this paper would be able to further South Africa’s interests greatly by concentrating on favourable positive information. Such a paper if air mailed to South Africa each day could also serve a valuable purpose in our country and would assist the Government.

Mr. Gaunt would like to be made editor-in-chief so that he could give the correct slant to reports. He does not want to be responsible in any way for the financial side.

To me this idea of an independent paper has great appeal. Any opposition here is completely frustrated through having no paper. The Argus group is so powerful, moreover, that it could go far to breaking even the most established politician who does not follow its particular line – and I do not exclude Sir Roy Welensky.

Nearly two years ago Anglo-American and NST[? abbreviation unclear] withdrew their financial support of the United Federal Party. It looked then as if they were going to support Todd who was given a tremendous boost by the press because of his liberal line. Now the U.F.P. are following the liberal line themselves, Todd is in the background, Anglo-American and NST[?]have, I hear, restored their financial support of the U.F.P. and the Argus press are supporting the party. That the United Federal Party have been forced to toe the line by Argus press is no secret to us in South Africa.

The future say of the white man in the Government of this country does not look rosy. Banda has control in Nyasaland, Kaunda may, through British action, still attain a similar position in Northern Rhodesia. Southern Rhodesia’s new constitution could be merely the first step towards giving greater say to the black man here. The Federal constitution when revised must follow the pattern of the constitutions of the three constituent territories. That means infinitely greater say for the black man in the Federal Assembly. Such say will have to be very considerable indeed if Banda is to be induced to stay in the Federation.

Sir Roy and the United Kingdom are already at loggerheads over the talks on the Federal constitution. Sir Roy wanted them now. The United Kingdom wants postponement, no doubt with the object of further appeasement in Northern Rhodesia and conditioning of white feeling to a black majority government.

There is strong and bitter feeling in this country against the United Kingdom. Given an independent press it could be fanned to a point where the United Kingdom could be seriously embarrassed, and where Southern Rhodesia could still be saved, where it could break from the Federation and become independent. There are many influential men here would gladly grasp a weapon like an independent paper.

There are many seeds of discontent. This week we heard rumours of a serious division in the Federal Cabinet. The Deputy Governor of the Bank of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, told me only a few days ago too that the financial picture here is far from rosy. The “expected” recovery after the Southern Rhodesia referendum has not materialized. The number of people who voted “yes” at that referendum and now feel they were duped and should have voted “no” is increasing. Properly exploited this discontent could have a marked influence when Southern Rhodesia goes to the polls in about a year’s time.

If the United Federal Party and the Argus press continue unchecked, it is merely a matter of time before our buffer zone north melts away. With an independent paper we could stave that day off and could even preserve the Southern Rhodesia[border? word obscured]with its 215,000 whites(2,630,000 blacks).

As Mr. Gaunt points out it is surely to our interest to have the main struggle for survival take place in Southern Rhodesia rather in South Africa.

A Canadian group is now negotiating for the purchase of African Newspapers here. One can imagine the kind of vitriol the Canadians would be capable of using against us.

The “Citizen”, Mr. Gaunt says, could be bought by us for a song. An immediate start could be made with a paper. Improvements could follow.

The Argus will try to kill any independent paper and financial losses must be expected. But would they not be worthwhile? We are fighting for our lives. They are fighting for a black majority government, for cheap labour and greater profits.

H.L.T. Taswell
High Commissioner

This letter perfectly illustrates how propaganda works, and it’s a history lesson on racism, and the lengths men will go to defend their right to it. Even though the Fouga Magister is a small fighter jet, the sentence about an independent paper being less expensive to purchase to defend their racial policy than “a medium size commercial aircraft” gave me a chill, because this written only 11 days after the crash. No wonder they hated Hammarskjold so much – what was the fragrance of life to the African was the stench of death to white rule.

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4 thoughts on “Letter from High Commissioner of South Africa, H.L.T. Taswell, 29 September 1961

    1. fabryhistory Post author

      I don’t know how far we’ve come, either. History is not static, and the poisonous legacy of men like Taswell, Rhodes and Leopold are still being played out.

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