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Obituary: Gerald Ratzin

Gerald Ratzin, who as a correspondent scored what he remembered as a bittersweet scoop on the death of a United Nations secretary-general in Africa half a century ago, died at home in London on Sunday after a long illness. He was 79.

His scoop occurred early in his career, at the beginning of Africa's messy post-colonial era. In September 1961 he was sent to cover a meeting between UN chief Dag Hammarskjoeld and Moise Tshombe, leader of the secessionist Congolese province of Katanga, about a ceasefire in fighting between UN troops and Tshombe’s forces.

“Communications in Africa were a lottery, but by some miracle Reuters found me, with a telegram, in a hotel in Gabon on the West Coast,” he recounted later in the 2001 book Frontlines: Snapshots of History. Fly at once to Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where Tshombe and Hammarskjoeld were to meet, head office instructed him. He made the 1,500-mile journey by taking three flights and a ferry across the Congo river, reaching Ndola the next night.

Ratzin knew the Congo from what he recalled as a rough debut in 1960 soon after the country wrested independence from its Belgian colonial rulers. It was a dangerous place. The day after Ratzin’s arrival, an American correspondent had been killed and Ratzin himself had been arrested twice. 

In Ndola, he staked out the airport with other reporters and waited for the Swedish diplomat to arrive. They heard an airplane land and saw a man disembark, but no one knew for sure who it was. “I had certainly not seen anyone who was definitely Hammarskjoeld and I did not send a story to say that he had arrived,” he recalled.

Other journalists, less scrupulous about their sourcing than Ratzin, assumed it was Hammarskjoeld and reported his arrival. Unknown to Ratzin, Reuters had picked up an arrival story from the South African Press Association and distributed it – then killed it after Leopoldville correspondent Friedel Ungeheuer, who knew when the aircraft had left there, told London that it could not yet have reached Ndola.

“After a nail-biting wait, I returned to my hotel towards midnight, as we had been told there would be no further landings that night,” Ratzin remembered. “We did not know what had happened to Hammarskjoeld – but in fact his aircraft was close by at that time, apparently having flown due east across the Congo then south down Lake Tanganyika…

“At dawn there was still no news and reporters fanned out around Ndola in a frantic search. Not really knowing what to do, I used a roadside telephone box to call the Rhodesian government information officer in Ndola and he told me that the DC-6 had crashed and that Hammarskjoeld was dead. He hadn’t been able to tell anyone else yet, so I had a world beat.” Reuters remained alone with the story of the secretary-general’s death for 38 minutes. It was many more hours before AP and UPI corrected their erroneous reports. Investigators reached no conclusions on what caused the crash.

Ratzin joined Reuters from university as a trainee in 1957. After spells on the sports and general desks he was assigned to Moscow, then spent two years from 1960 to 1962 in the Congo and West Africa. He was correspondent at the United Nations in New York for six years before becoming chief representative in India from 1970s to 1975. He then served as personnel manager in Europe before being appointed in 1985 as European manager of Reuters pictures service, based in Brussels. From 1987 until he retired in 1994 he was personnel manager in France. Post-retirement, Ratzin was a committee member of The Reuter Society.


PHOTO: Gerry Ratzin at a meeting of The Reuter Society in Geneva in 2008. ■