The CIA versus the UN in the Congo: The covert delivery of fighter jets to Katanga in 1961

An edited extract from White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa by Susan Williams.

The events in this extract took place shortly after the assassination on 17 January 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

The new nation started to unravel almost immediately after independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. A mutiny broke out among the ranks of the national security force, which was used by the Belgian government as an excuse to send in troops. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld condemned this intervention and swiftly organized an operation to send a UN peace-keeping force to the Congo.

The crisis worsened the day after the arrival of the Belgian troops, when the mineral-rich province of Katanga seceded from the Congo under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. This illegal secession had the backing of the Belgian government and of multinationals – as well as the private support of President Eisenhower.

It was in Katanga that Lumumba was murdered. White Malice reveals that the CIA had a far greater involvement in the assassination of Lumumba than has been acknowledged by the US government.

The CIA continued to spread its tentacles deep into the Congo after Lumumba’s death: on land, by sea, and by air. This edited extract records one strand of its secret operations in the Congolese skies.

As reports of Lumumba’s death sank in across the world, there were revelations of deepening US involvement in the Congo. On 17 February 1961, a story broke in the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, that an American cargo airline was secretly shipping Fouga Magister jets to Katanga.

This was shocking news. For the French-built Fouga CM. 170 Magister was a jet-trainer aircraft that could be used for combat: with a maximum speed of 400 miles per hour, it had the capacity to carry and use rockets, bombs and two machine guns. The delivery of fighter aircraft to Katanga was in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and contrary to official US policy.

The British press got hold of the story by chance because a US cargo aircraft was unexpectedly forced by engine trouble to land in Malta, then a British colony, in the early evening of 9 February 1961.The aircraft was a Boeing C-97 Stratocruiser – a long-range, heavy, military cargo plane – on which the words ‘Seven Seas Airlines’ had been painted over but were still visible. Otherwise, the only marking was the registration number on the tail, which identified it as a US plane. It had flown from Luxembourg and was apparently bound for Johannesburg; it carried three Fouga jet trainers. The names of the crew members, all Americans, were given to the US consul general in Malta.

Parts for the engine were flown from the US to repair the cargo plane; once it was ready to fly again, the aircraft and its sinister freight left Malta for Entebbe, Uganda, in the night of 13 February. While in the air, the captain reported to air traffic control that it was short of fuel and needed to alter course for Fort Lamy (now N’Djamena), the capital of Chad; this was a ploy to justify flying in the direction of Katanga. It then flew to Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), Katanga’s capital.

Patrice Lumumba meeting with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld at UN headquarters in New York on July 24, 1960. Credit: UN Photo

British authorities in Malta had not appreciated the significance of this flight until the story broke in the press. At this point they quickly shared information about the episode with the colonial office in London, generating a file of reports and correspondence which has provided many of the important details set out in this edited extract.


Seven Seas Airlines was closely linked to the CIA, either as a CIA proprietary company or as a company contracted to the agency. Set up in 1957 by the American brothers Earl J Drew and Urban L ‘Ben’ Drew, the airline based its fleet in Luxembourg. Its headquarters was in Manhattan.

In July 1960, Seven Seas had been awarded a contract with the UN for the delivery of relief goods to the Congo. The company’s four Douglas DC-4s were mainly used for flights from Europe to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa); later that year the company purchased two Boeing C-97s from the US Air Force, which were deployed to the Congo to carry UN troops and supplies around the country.

Jan Knippers Black, in later years an American professor of human rights and international politics, was unexpectedly exposed to this world in 1961, which she wrote about in 1980 in an article for the Washington Monthly. Every evening, she recalled, she ‘stumbled upon a nest of Americans’ at cocktail hour in the Hotel Dolphin in Luxembourg. She described herself as ‘a naive 21-year-old woman from rural Tennessee, vagabonding across Europe’; they were the managers and crew of Intercontinental US and Seven Seas. She was entranced by the ‘spectacle of the crews staggering in’ and one of them, a Seven Seas pilot—amused by her ‘wide-eyed wonder’— arranged for her to fly to Katanga. It was a ‘bizarre adventure’, which made her curious about the airlines.

Some years later, explained Black in her article, ‘I ran across the son of the man who had identified himself to me as the manager of Seven Seas. The son confirmed what I already suspected: his father, now retired, was a career CIA officer. Both Intercontinental and Seven Seas had belonged to the CIA, he said’.

Another aircraft company linked to the CIA and operating in the Congo was Southern Air Transport, which flew DC‐6 transports. The CIA’s involvement with Southern Air became a matter of public record in 1973, when documents relating to a planned purchase of the airline were filed with the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, DC. The documents revealed that the CIA proprietary airlines, including Southern Air Transport and Air America, all shared the same Washington address. Southern had begun its connection with the CIA in August 1960, according to a 1973 report in the New York Times; the article quoted a Miami-based pilot as saying, ‘Everybody knows Southern was doing spook stuff’.

Another airline flying in the Congo with links to the CIA was Air Congo. On 1 June 1961, Michael Hathorn, a medical doctor escaping South Africa for exile in Accra, flew to Ghana via the Congo. ‘We boarded an Air Congo plane’, he recalled later, ‘and we were rather disconcerted at first to find that half the seats had been removed and the rear half of the cabin was filled with cases containing bank notes and ammunition!’

Air Congo featured prominently in the brutal treatment of Lumumba in his final weeks of life. When he was taken to Leopoldville on 2 December 1960 from Kasai, where he had been captured, he was flown in an Air Congo plane. Then, when he – along with Maurice Mpolo, the Minister of Youth and Sport, and Joseph Okito, Vice President of the Senate – were flown to their deaths in Katanga on 17 January 1961, their journey was on board an Air Congo DC-4. They were beaten so badly by Mobutu’s soldiers that the radioman vomited and the air crew, horrified, locked the door to the cockpit.


When the three Fouga Magister jets arrived in Katanga, David W Doyle, the chief of the CIA base in Elisabethville, was at the airport. ‘Not long after the Lumumba incident’, he wrote in his memoir True Men and Traitors, ‘three Fouga Magisters . . . were secretly flown in by US commercial air craft and crew, in direct violation of US policy, to join Tshombe’s forces. During a routine airport check-up, I chanced on them being unloaded from a US civilian KC97 pipeline cargo aircraft at night’. He added that when he chatted with the American air crew, it seemed to him that they were mere delivery men, with ‘no idea of the situation their cargo was about to make more tense—the aircraft were obviously there to shoot down UN planes’. Years later, Doyle identified the crew as US Air Force personnel.

The three Fougas, Doyle explained in his memoir, were training aircraft, but they were armed and perfectly able to destroy UN transport planes. ‘The UN was furious’, he said, ‘and it was suspected that was a CIA operation to help secretly build a stable, pro-Western Katanga in case the rest of the Congo were to fall under communist domination’. But if that was the case, he insisted, ‘nobody had told me anything about it—which makes CIA involvement highly unlikely’.

Kwame Nkrumah welcomes Patrice Lumumba to Ghana on August 8, 1960, following Lumumba’s visit to the US. To mark the importance of the visit, Nkrumah gave a speech in Ghana’s National Assembly, laying emphasis on the need for Ghana to support the legitimate government of the Congo. Credit: Rue des Archives 3 bis rue Pelleport Paris/The Granger Collection

Doyle’s version of events cannot be true. Documents show that the CIA had arranged the purchase of the Fougas and their delivery by Seven Seas. It is reasonable to assume that Doyle, as head of the CIA base in Katanga, was kept fully informed and was instructed to await the arrival of the planes. Doyle’s claim that he was at the airport that night to carry out ‘a routine . . . check-up’ is implausible, since he was not responsible in any way for the functioning of the airport, and in any case routine checks rarely happen at midnight. Equally unlikely is his claim that he ‘chanced’ on the Fougas being unloaded. Doyle may have felt obliged in his memoir to acknowledge the Fouga episode, since it had been splashed across newspapers in February 1961. And in doing so, he contrived – but unconvincingly – to dissociate the CIA from it.


On 17 February 1961 the Foreign Office in London sent a telegram to the UK’s UN mission in New York, headed, ‘Jet aircraft for Katanga’. The American embassy in London, it stated, had received reports that the three French-made Fougas were the first batch of nine to be delivered to Elisabethville.

The Stratocruiser C-97 that had been carrying the Fougas had previously been owned by US Air Force Air Materiel Command at Kirtland Field, New Mexico, and was used in a project code-named ‘Chickenpox’, in which its interior was adapted for the mobile assembly of atomic bombs. The C-97 was then assigned to the US civilian registry and ‘may have been used to ferry arms to Katangan rebels in early 1960s’, according to a flightlog. However, it was not registered under the name of Earl J Drew until 16 February 1961, which was two days after it had delivered the Fougas to Elisabethville.

Aware of the flare-up of tensions over the matter of the Fougas, the British government hastily sought to distance itself from the incident and to prevent further embarrassments. ‘In view of serious political repercussions that could arise out of Aircraft ferrying operations to Katanga’, wrote the colonial secretary to the governor of Malta on 18 February, ‘I should be most grateful if you would do what you can to prevent use of Malta by such Aircraft’.


Kwame Nkrumah, the President of Ghana, felt intense grief at the killing of Lumumba, with whom he had had a warm friendship and a strong political alliance. He was outraged: he blamed the US and the Western powers for the assassination. When he learned on 17 February 1961 from the UK press of the delivery of three Fougas to Elisabethville by a US aircraft, he was appalled. Then he discovered that the three jet trainers were merely the first of nine to be delivered to Tshombe.

Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs issued a strong statement to the US ambassador to Ghana on 20 February. If the reports were true, the minister objected, they ‘are obviously of most serious nature’. In this regard, he continued, the government of Ghana called attention ‘to statement made by president of US on Thursday 16th February to effect that unilateral intervention in Congo by one country [or] one group of countries would endanger peace in Africa’.

President Kennedy was embarrassed. He told Nkrumah: ‘The United States government did not, in fact, learn of this shipment in sufficient time to prevent a transaction which took place entirely outside the borders of the United States’. He added that Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the UN, had condemned the delivery of the aircraft. Nkrumah was unimpressed—and said so.

President John F. Kennedy meets with the President of the Republic of Ghana, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, 8 March 1961 Credit: JFK Presidential Library /Abbie Rowe

The American embassy in London reported to the UK foreign office on 17 February that its government had little control over Seven Seas, since it operated outside the USA. The embassy added, ‘The French have apparently detained the remaining six Fouga aircraft at Toulouse’.

But there was some confusion about the intentions of Seven Seas. A week later, on 27 February 1961, the UK embassy in Luxembourg sent further information to the UK foreign office about the delivery of the Fougas to Tshombe; the information was then cabled to the governor of Malta on 3 March. The message reported that Seven Seas proposed ‘to transport to Katanga six more Fouga Magister jet trainers (with machine guns) which were awaiting shipment by them from Toulouse’. According to the US embassy in Luxembourg, however, Seven Seas had now given an assurance that it would not transport any more such aircraft to Katanga, in response to the embassy’s ‘strong representations’ after the shipment the week before.


The exposure of the role of Seven Seas Airlines in the delivery of the Fougas came as a shock to the UN, which had a contract with the airline. It grounded the entire fleet of Seven Seas planes in the Congo.

But the UN could not stop the airline from operating in Katanga and working directly for Tshombe’s government. Tshombe used a Seven Seas Curtiss C-46A-35-CU Commando as his personal aircraft.

Urban L ‘Ben’ Drew, one of the brothers who had set up Seven Seas Airlines, was working in Katanga for Tshombe in 1961, according to a 2014 article in the South African newspaper The Citizen. Drew, an American veteran of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), was an ace fighter pilot. He was described as ‘an extremely handsome and sociable man, who liked women and whiskey, who would make a lot of money just to lose it’.

Urban Drew during World War II. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to his son, Drew ‘was called upon by the U.S. government to work on clandestine bases in the Belgian Congo and Vietnam’. In a 1975 study of arms trafficking, Drew is presented as ‘an old hand of the CIA with a particularly adventurous past’.


Once the three Fouga Magister jet fighters had been delivered to Elisabethville on 13 February 1961, the Katanga Air Force dominated the skies, for the UN had no combat aircraft at all. This superiority in the air was diminished within a few months, when one Fouga was seized by the UN and another was destroyed in a crash. But there was still one operational Fouga left: Kat #93, based at Kolwezi airfield. This Fouga continued to wreak havoc on the UN, bombing and attacking its ground forces and crippling the UN’s ability to fly. Suggestions have been made that in the last few months of 1961, more than one Fouga was operational; however, the evidence thus far is unclear.

UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld appealed urgently to a number of countries, including Ethiopia, for jet aircraft capable of protecting the UN forces from the Fouga. Ethiopia willingly agreed, but Britain refused to give them the right to fly over British East African territory, which was necessary for the planes to reach the Congo.

It has been claimed that Kat #93, which was capable of air-to-air attack, shot down the DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld on the night of 17–18 September 1961 near Ndola airport in British-ruled Northern Rhodesia (independent Zambia from 1964), not far from the Congo border. The crash of this plane led to the death of the Secretary General and all those who were travelling with him; their deaths were separated from the execution of Lumumba by only eight months and by less than 200 kilometres.

Commander Charles M Southall, a US naval intelligence officer working at the National Security Agency’s listening station in Cyprus in 1961, was one of those who linked the Fouga to Hammarskjöld’s death. Giving testimony in 2012 to an independent commission of inquiry into the crash, Southall said that he heard the recording of a pilot’s commentary as the pilot shot down Hammarskjöld’s DC-6: ‘It was, I was told, a Belgian mercenary, up there in his Fouga Magister.’ A pilot himself, Southall made the following observation: ‘Now mind you, the Fougas only had what we call a loiter time of about 30 minutes at altitude, so he must have been pre‑positioned up there’.

Southall said he heard the pilot call out, ‘I see a transport coming in low, I’m going to go down and look at it’, and then he said ‘yes, it’s the transport’. Southall added, ‘Now whether he said “yes it’s the Trans Air”, “DC6”, or it’s just, “yes, it’s the plane”, I don’t remember, but he said “I’m going to make a run on it”.’

Southall continued, ‘It’s quite chilling. You can hear the gun cannon firing and he said “Flames coming out of it, I’ve hit it! Great”, or “good” or something like that[;] “it’s crashed”. And that was the end of the recording. I remember the watch supervisors commenting that this recording was only seven minutes old at the time’.

Asked who he thought was responsible for the crash, Southall replied: ‘In my view, and it’s a private view . . . there was a CIA unit out there and they had responsibility for fuelling the plane, finding the pilots, coordinating with the Belgian, French mining interests and it was the CIA unit that ensured that [Hammarskjöld’s] plane would be shot down’.

Inquiries into the role of the Fouga constitute an important plank in the current UN investigation into the cause of Hammarskjöld’s death, which was initiated by the UN Secretary General in 2015. This investigation is led by Mohamed Chande Othman, the former chief justice of Tanzania.

Three earlier inquiries into the crash were conducted in 1961-62. The first was conducted by a Board of Investigation set up by the Rhodesian Department of Civil Aviation. The report of the Board identified several possible causes, including pilot error and the ‘wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees’. The subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry identified pilot error as the cause but without any actual evidence. The third investigation was carried out by a UN Commission, which reported in April 1962; it reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack.

There is evidence to suggest that British government representatives influenced the Rhodesian Commission to adopt the pilot error theory. The Rhodesian Commission’s report was welcomed by powerful Western forces, such that the pilot error theory became widely accepted in the decades after the crash. However, this explanation has been challenged in recent years by fresh evidence. ‘It appears plausible’, observed Judge Othman in 2017, ‘that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack . . . or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots’.


It is difficult to flesh out the full details of the purchase and delivery to Katanga in 1961 of Fouga fighter jets to attack UN forces. Even as recently as April 2022, a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA for records in 1961 on Earl J Drew, one of the brothers who set up Seven Seas Airlines, produced only five pages. The pages have been so extensively redacted that two of them are almost blank.

This is a further example of the secrecy that prevents any full understanding of the Congo’s history, so much of which has been shaped by other nations.

Nevertheless, sufficient information has emerged to reveal a thick nexus of clandestine and coercive operations that were used by the CIA to support American plans for the Congo and for the African continent.

Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who chaired the 1975 Senate Select Committee investigation into the abuses of the CIA, opposed covert action of any sort. He described it as nothing more than ‘a semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies, whatever is deemed useful in bending other countries to our will.’

Excerpted and edited from Chapter 32 of White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa by Susan Williams and published by C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. © Susan Williams, 2021. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Footnotes have been removed to ease reading; they are available in the printed book.

For more information about the author and the book, see the publisher’s site here:

Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her books include Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, which in 2015 triggered a new, ongoing UN investigation into the death of the UN Secretary General. Spies in the Congo spotlights the link between US espionage in the Congo and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Colour Bar, the story of Botswana’s founding President, was made into the major 2016 film A United Kingdom


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