Remembering heroes from
hot and cold wars
Liberty is not for the weak and slack; it comes with a strong will to defend.
Remembrance Sunday this year will be on 8th November. It is when people who fought in wars for their countries are remembered and honoured. This happens every year and most prominently at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London where the British Monarch traditionally lays a wreath. But it happens also at many other places in the world, including Kyrenia on the northern coast of Cyprus where the Anglican St Andrew’s Church provides a special Remembrance Sunday service and where the Kyrenia Branch of the Royal British Legion holds a ceremony a little later the same day by the Old British Cemetery.
These events can be very uplifting and inspiring. They provide an opportunity for one to dress up and be humble and grateful to the many who took great risks to defend our free societies against evil attempts to enslave us with combinations of foreign dictators and state controlled collectivism.
Remembrance Sundays also remind us of the need for our defence forces to be well equipped and maintained. We always need people who are well trained for defence duties and prepared to go into action with little notice. Our defence organisations furthermore need special security units with experts who realise that certain more or less unseen wars are already going on. Free countries are always under attack by shady powers that wish to weaken and eventually destroy them with sabotage, terrorism, propaganda, disinformation, ridiculing of good values, promotion of destructive ideas and lowering of standards. The Free World must always fight against such threats, because Liberty is not for the weak and slack; it comes with a strong will to defend.
A great World War II hero was Hugo Conrad Munthe-Kaas, an almost unbelievably brave Norwegian soldier who, when he was still a teenager, began to serve not only his country’s resistance movement but also Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS, now also known as the MI6. Having been trained in England, he took on numerous extremely risky assignments.
He was flown back to Norway where he parachuted into German military areas in which he carried out special operations and gathered vital intelligence. He returned to England in fishing boats and was sent out again to Norway, France and other German-occupied countries to set up and maintain resistance units with food, radio equipment and ID documents. He crossed the Atlantic several times in submarines to collect food supplies for resistance units in Europe. He rescued Allied Forces soldiers and sailors who had been stranded at various places.
Nothing could stop this fearless Danger Man, and in 1943, when he was still just a 21 year old sergeant, he was invited to the Admiralty House in London where none less than the then First Sea Lord Sir Andrew Cunningham pinned the Distinguished Service Medal onto his Norwegian Army field uniform.
The same year, the Norwegian King Haakon VII decorated Hugo Munthe-Kaas with Norway’s highest medal for ”exceptional contribution in war”: the War Cross with Sword. France presented him with the Legion of Honour and the Croix du Guerre, the War Cross.
After World War II, Munthe-Kaas, now a commissioned officer, continued his military career as a parachute regiment commando and also served as the ADC to King Olav of Norway. In 1962, the then Major Munthe-Kaas commanded the Norwegian garrison in Kirkenaes in the northernmost part of mainland Norway near the border to what was then the Soviet Union.
On 17 May, Norway’s national day, Munthe-Kaas delivered a public speech in which he praised the men and women who, with brave resistance, had helped to save Europe from National Socialism and German occupation. But he wanted his soldiers and the members of the public to know that their freedom was under threat again – by another dictatorial power, that of the Soviet Union, “only a few hundred metres away”, he said and pointed in the eastern direction.
Munthe-Kaas, the son of an army colonel, came from a prominent family and was a personal friend of the King. As a recognised war hero, he had gained the moral right to speak his mind about important defence matters. But pro-Soviet left-wingers within Norway’s Labour Party reacted against the Kirkenaes speech and demanded that Munthe-Kaas should be stripped of his rank and dishonourably discharged from the Armed Forces for being an official who had taken foreign policy matters into his own hands.
That did not happen, but it was understood that Munthe-Kaas could now not easily be promoted. Yet, he remained greatly respected and was known as the major whom colonels and generals saluted.
The next year, in 1963, Major Munthe-Kaas volunteered for service with the United Nations Force in the Congo. He reported for duty at the UN Katanga Area HQ and was appointed as Chief of Military Operations and Information, the latter word being a UN euphemism for intelligence.
I was Chief Signals Officer at the same HQ, but after a while, when Munthe-Kaas was Acting Chief of Staff, he moved me to his Operations/Intelligence Branch.
I was soon trusted to assist him with an assignment that was politically very special. He and I went to the house that had been the residence of President Moise Tshombe of Katanga to search for items of military importance. The building had been guarded by UN soldiers since Tshombe had left Katanga some time earlier.
It was widely felt that the war between the UN and Katanga was over and that the UN, backed by Congolese troops, had won, so it was time to confiscate some enemy belongings and properties. However, in a desk drawer we found some obviously very private letters. I suggested that it was our duty as gentlemen to protect the privacy of the owner of the letters. If we passed them on to civilian UN administrators, the letters would probably be sold to news media. Hugo Munthe-Kaas, a true nobleman, took the decision that we should burn the letters in the open fire place, and so we did. It was the decent thing to do.
Near the end of July (it is still 1963), the UN Secretary General U Thant announced that the state of Katanga had been totally defeated and that there was nothing left of its army, known as a “gendarmerie”. The UN force in the Congo should therefore now be withdrawn, U Thant said.
But was the Secretary General rightly informed? We had information that some well hidden Katangese army units had survived and were prepared to move into the Katangese capital Elisabethville and other towns would the UN forces leave. Our reports should have reached the UN Secretariat but its top boss could have chosen to trust other sources.
As civilian lives would be at risk if rebel units invaded the towns, we felt it was necessary to find out for sure whether there were any Katangese left in the bush. How do you do that? Aerial surveillance would not be good enough as the Katangese had learnt how to camouflage themselves as soon as an aircraft could be heard.
Munthe-Kaas decided to fly to the Kasenga area where Katangese soldiers, if there were any, might be hiding. Kasenga in southern Katanga was a village by a river that had many crocodiles and was the border to what was then Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia. It was to Northern Rhodesia that the Katangese President Moise Tshombe had fled and he had probably done so via Kasenga where he had many loyal supporters.
Munthe-Kaas’s plan was to fly a small aircraft to a field outside the village and then just walk in and see what might happen. He ordered that a fairly large military UN unit should be standing by at various places for action.
The UN Katanga Area Force Commander approved of Munthe-Kaas’s plan which included the proposal that if neither Munthe-Kaas nor any of his subordinates had returned to Elisabethville by 1600 hrs (4 o’clock p.m.), the Duty Officer should order the rescue force to move in to Kasenga.
For his intelligence expedition, Munthe-Kaas chose me as his assistant and bodyguard. He requested a small UN aircraft and was given a Canadian De Havilland Otter which was flown by two Swedish Air Force pilots whom I knew, Olle Andersson and Lennart Edvinsson. He also accepted that a British journalist, Tim Knight, of the United Press International, should be invited to the expedition along with Roger Asnong, a Belgian photographer and interpreter.
So, we were six men who flew off from Elisabethville in the early morning of 6 August, 1963. Munthe-Kaas wanted us to give a peaceful impression. I think I was the only one who was armed. I had my usual Husqvarna 9 mm pistol, and I had borrowed a submachine gun. As we landed, my boss wanted me to leave the latter behind in the plane.
Hence, when we walked towards the village our only weapon was my pistol with two spare magazines. We saw no Katangese soldiers, but we also noticed that the villagers did not smile, and that was a bad sign. We reached the village hall with the local administrator’s office. He welcomed us in Swahili and French, but he did not smile. Munthe-Kaas sat down in front of him while I placed myself by a window with a view of the field outside the entrance.
Munthe-Kaas asked our host: “Are there any members of the Katangese Gendarmerie in this area?” I did not hear what the administrator said, if at all bothered to reply, but I soon saw and heard the answer from outside.
About a hundred Katangese soldiers moved to the entrance area with Jeeps, Land-Rovers and military lorries with mounted machine guns. Their commander made no attempt to communicate with us. He just ordered “fire”. The building was sprayed with bullets. Its windows were smashed.
The only way we could survive this situation, I thought, would be if I neutralised two or three of the attackers on their way into the building, and if I and the militarily trained pilots took their submachine guns so that we could return fire more effectively than I could do with just my pistol.
The attackers swiftly invaded the house from different directions and killed no-one but took five prisoners. I was holding my pistol pointed at the head of one of the attackers. He and another Katangese soldier held submachine guns pointed at me.
Munthe-Kaas and the others were now outside the building being beaten up by the rebels. Without seeing him, I shouted to him that I was held up by two soldiers but that I also held my pistol at one of the two. “I request orders, Sir, shall I shoot, or shall I surrender my gun.”
From outside I heard my superior replying: “Surrender your weapon.” I did so and I was now pushed outside where we all, the six members of the Kasenga expedition, were beaten up. We were then ordered at gunpoint to sit down along a concrete wall. Soon a seemingly senior Katangese commander arrived. He shouted to us: “You are spies and you will die.”
We were lined up at least five times against the wall to be shot by an execution squad, and once we were taken down to the river to be thrown to crocodiles, but as two Katangese officers seemed to disagree about something the execution was repeatedly postponed. On one occasion a local man arrived with a tray and a knife. Roger Asnong, who then sat beside me, explained that the man’s job was to amputate our penises before we were killed. The parts would then be dried and given by the Katangese commander to his first wife, and she would then hang them on a string around her neck to show that her husband was a successful warrior.
When Asnong had told me that with a low voice, I asked him to pass on a message to Munthe-Kaas who was sitting on his other side: “If the man with the knife comes near me, I will get up and fight with my fists, because I would rather be shot dead than having my private part removed.”
Munthe-Kaas did not reply to this message. Instead he told the Katangese soldiers that he wished to speak to their supreme commander. Such a person arrived. Roger Asnong now translated Munthe-Kaas’s mixture of English and French into a mixture of French and Swahili.
Munthe-Kaas said that we had come with peaceful intentions to ask whether we could help with UN food supplies and other things. The war had appeared to be more or less over. We, as UN soldiers, wished to help the Katangese soldiers so that they could make peace with the new authorities and be able to return to a peaceful civilian life.
The Katangese Commanding Officer said that he hoped that what Munthe-Kaas had said was true, but that he did not believe it. “No, I am convinced”, he said, “that you are a spying advanced party and that a large UN force will soon come here trying to kill us all.”
“But I shall give you a chance”, he added: “If by 5.30 no UN or Congolese troops have been seen or heard in the Kasenga area, I will let you go and you will have your airplane back so that you can return to Elisabethville.”
This was not very comforting as the UN HQ in Elisabethville was going send troops to Kasenga if we had not returned by 4.00 p.m.
We waited, on that concrete floor along the concrete wall by which we seemed likely to be shot dead at any minute. We waited and waited, and the Katangese served us a meal: tinned sardines and coca-cola. We did not know exactly what time it was, because our watches had been stolen, but as the shadows grew longer we understood that the 4.00 p.m. deadline had passed.
But nothing happened and soon we were visited by the Katangese commander who said: “OK, you were right. We have seen no UN or Congolese soldiers, so you can go.”
When we had returned to Elisabethville we realised that it was by mistake that we remained alive. The Duty Officer had fallen asleep after lunch and forgotten about the instruction that he had been given. His mistake was a serious one, but as it saved our lives, we hoped he would not be punished. Perhaps it was God’s way of responding to our prayers.
Now Munthe-Kaas had good news for the force commander and indeed the UN Secretary General because when he had been trying to bluff us away from execution, he had in fact made a peace deal with Katanga’s military commander. The latter had agreed to demilitarise his unit if his soldiers were allowed to return unharmed to civilian life.
But the Secretary General would not accept such a deal. He had been insulted by Munthe-Kaas’s actions. The Kasenga expedition had shown that he had been mistaken when he had announced that there was nothing left of the Katangese Gendarmerie. Then the Norwegian officer had achieved a peace treaty, an end to the conflict.
Secretary General U Thant did not want to agree to someone else’s end to the war between the UN and Katanga. He ordered his Force Commanders in Leopoldville and Elisabethville to attack Kasenga and kill all Katangese soldiers there.
Then he ordered that the UN Intelligence Branch of the UN Katanga Area HQ should be closed down immediately
Munthe-Kaas had acted aright. He had tried to save human lives. The UN’s top civilian boss had reacted wrongly in a way that would unnecessarily destroy human lives.
The next morning I could not find Munthe-Kaas in what had been our office. I flew with a UN DC 3 to Leopoldville, the capital of the former Belgian Congo. There, outside the UN Headquarters, I found Munthe-Kaas sitting in a car, smiling and dressed in civilian clothes. He explained to me that the King of Norway had just appointed him as a Consul of Norway. His time as a UN soldier had ended.
His colleagues and subordinates in Katanga had admired him greatly, and he always spoke well of them, not least his compatriots Captain Thor Magnus Bronder and Lieutenant Viggo Lange both of whom had been educated in France and were invaluable linguists.
Munthe-Kaas continued his military career when he had returned to his own country. Soon he was promoted, and as a lieutenant colonel he commanded Norway’s Parachute Regiment. After his military retirement, he became a politician by joining the relatively new Norwegian Progressive Party which was somewhat Thatcherite as it stood for individual freedoms, liberal democracy and strong defences against both visible and unseen threats to the values for which brave men and women fought during the world wars.
Hugo Conrad Munthe-Kaas, Norwegian soldier and British secret intelligence agent, never gave up his fight for freedom and decency. He died in 2012 and is remembered officially on Veterans’ Days and by some of us on Remembrance Sundays.
Copyright (c) Bertil Wedin
Pictures courtesy of Bertin Wedin