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Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen's life

by Patrik Andersson

Carl Gustaf von Rosen

Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen is one of the last century's most interesting human destinies in Sweden. Although sometimes considered controversial in his actions he continued his quest for an inner meaning of his life with great determination and courage by helping people in need and despair.

His early life

Carl Gustaf von Rosen was brought up at the castle of Rockelstad in the central parts of Sweden where his father, Eric von Rosen (1879-1948), strictly raised him (see picture to the right). R's father was a very interesting man and at the time a well-known explorer in Sweden. He was also an adventurous character all through his life - something that his son indeed inherited - filled with numerous enterprises. He participated in the Swedish ethnographic expedition to Argentine and Bolivia in 1901-02, which he to a large extent economically stood for. The expedition was conducted by the prominent Swedish ethnologist Nils Erland Herbert Nordenskjöld, a son to the world famous explorer Nils Erik Adolf Nordenskjöld.

Eric von Rosen

Count
Eric von Rosen
(1879-1948)

In 1911-12 Eric von Rosen embarked on a major expedition to Africa seeking traces after the Batwa tribe and was able to bring home very rich and valuable finds to the ethnographic department of the Swedish national museum. He did also do great things in Sweden as he was the founder and provider of the first national park at his large estate of Rockelstad. He did also donate the first fighter aircraft to the Finnish air force in 1918 painted with his lucky symbol, a blue swastika on a white background, a symbol that should not be mixed up with the later notorious Nazi one. He was also the author of many ethnographic books.

Of a distinguished family

Carl Gustaf and his father is not the only notable members of the family that got a long and intriguing history as it is an old noble family known since the 1200th century. It arised from a knight that came from the Baltic (coat of arms to the right). Several members moved to Sweden during the 1600th century when Sweden incorporated great parts of the Baltic within its borders. One branch, to which R descends from, was via the later appointed general lieutenant Gustaf Fredrik von Rosen (1688-1764) naturalized as Swedish nobility in 1724, created a Baron in 1731 and finally created a Count in 1751. His son's son, son's son, son's son was Carl Gustaf von Rosen.

Coat of arms

The coat of arms
of the family von Rosen

His interest in technology

R became early interested in cars, airplanes and technical matters. But that interest affected his schoolwork in a negative way resulting in poor grades and R left the well-known private school Lundsberg with not examine. Already during these early years he showed an independence and determination that became his sign for the rest of his life.

R's great interest for airplanes started for real in February 1920 though when the later notorious Hermann Göring took him on a flight. Göring was married to R's aunt and a friend of the family. Göring was, after a successful career in the First World War as fighter pilot, at this time civil pilot in "Svenska lufttrafikbolaget (SLA). In 1929 R went on taking flying lessons and lived until 1935 a rather carefree life as an acrobatic flyer, even though it was under limited economical circumstances. At this time he also meet my grandfather Carl Gustaf Hallberg (picture below) that made his military service as a mechanic and finally became a corporal in the Swedish air force. R took my grandfather on several adventures flights in the summer as well as in the wintertime when they landed on ice frozen lakes. For a few years they where friends but time eventually separated them from each other and my grandfather became a successful seller of hats and caps. My grandfather remembers this time with great joy though and considered R as a good chap.

Corporal
Carl Gustaf Hallberg
(My grandfather)

His first baptism of fire

By chance R happen to hear a speech by the Swedish prince Carl in 1935 about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. After hearing the terrible stories from the war a major change took place in his mind and he understood how pointless his own life was compared to the great sufferings in Ethiopia. He joined shortly after that speech as a volunteer ambulance pilot in the group of ambulances that the Swedish Red Cross sent to Ethiopia. The role he played was not any easy one and the conditions were extremely difficult to deal with. At the same time R laid the basic fundament for his later engagements in the country and he caught the eye of emperor Haile Selassie that saw R as a great asset.

As a result of his merits in Ethiopia the Dutch airline company KLM offered him a job as pilot that he accepted. During his year with KLM R both flied the Dutch domestic routes, European routes and the prestigious Amsterdam-Batavia route in the colony of Dutch India.

The second world war

When the SSSR attacked Finland in 1939 R joined as a volunteer bomb flyer. He managed to persuade the CEO of KLM Albert Plesman to sell one civil aircraft to the Finnish air force together with to rather old reconnaissance aircraft's from the Dutch army air corps. In Finland he flew one bombing mission. In 1940 he received the Finnish Aviation Badge ("Wings") and was decorated with the Vapaudenristi 3 (the Finnish Cross of Freedom 3rd Class) for is service in Finland.

After the German invasion of Holland in 1940 R became a civil pilot at AB Aerotransport (ABA). His genuine knowledge of instrumental flying was well used by the Swedish air force and during one month in 1944 he was the teacher at Jämtlands airbase with the rank of sergeant, the highest rank he ever reached in Sweden. With airplanes from ABA R did many dangerous flights of which Berlin was one location. Here he met Göring several times. According to a report from the US legation in Stockholm in May 1945 R had helped Göring bringing out money from Germany to be invested in Swedish companies. He was also supposed to have been smuggling out stolen Jewish properties - paintings and jewelry - to Sweden. During a flight to Warsaw at the end of the war R visited the by the Germans ruined city. He saw the ghettos and that experience once again made a crucial impact on him and he later saw that as a major moment in his life towards a new way of thinking. It was from now on he started his life long support for people in need, that was ended by his prematurely death.

The Ethiopian air force - A Swedish affair

In 1944 R established contact between emperor Haile Selassie and the Swedish airline company ABA and SILA (Sv interkontinental lufttrafik ab). R had during his time as ambulance flyer realized that using airplanes in the road less Ethiopian high land was the best solution for communication and the emperor had plans creating a civil aviation as well, so it was a very good timing between the two. However, the American airline company TWA received the responsibility over the civilian air traffic without the emperor taking notice of R's suggestions. R was instead offered to organize the Ethiopian air force, a role he accepted with some hesitation. With valuable support from the Swedish commander in chief over the Swedish air force Bengt Nordenskjöld he started to work with the Ethiopian air force in 1946. R though was that the Ethiopian air force initially was to be integrated with the army and later on form an own branch. The fighting units were to be equipped with striker aircraft's, which could be used fighting guerrilla units. R considered three divisions, one bomb, one fighter and one combined reconnaissance- and transport division, to be a good fundament for the becoming branch.

An amazing feat

In May 1947 R managed an astonishing nonstop flight between Bromma airfield (outside Stockholm) and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in a Swedish three-seated Saab 91A Safir airplane that was going to be used by the air force (see picture of such a plane to the right). He had flown 6220 kilometers in just 31 hours under difficult circumstances in fog and trough whining sand storms. This was indeed an amazing feat and can be compared with Charles Lindbergh's flight over the Atlantic. It also gave the Swedish manufacture Saab some good publicity. R was as a result of that awarded the medal of merits in gold by the Kungliga Svenska Aeroklubben (KSAK).

Problems within the Ethiopian air force

The Ethiopian air force was to a large extent built with Swedish materials, including 30 Saab 91A Safir's, and with over hundred Swedish employees hired by contract. But R's time in Ethiopia was filled with great difficulties. He had to constantly fight against the Ethiopian department of finance getting the means he wanted. His work sometimes even stopped completely as the promised money for fuel didn't come. R's tactic was to find other ways around the department of finance and appeal directly to the emperor. But R had more problems to deal with, as he still had to fight with the emperors first appointed developer of the air force, the American officer John Robinson, that the emperor strangely enough hadn't discharged.

Haile Selassie

Emperor
Haile Selassie
(1892-1975)

Haile Selassie (see picture above) obviously wanted to play out the two against each other in an old fashion way - a not that unusual way of dealing with insufficient employees (Robinson) in Ethiopia - but the only result was even more problems. It actually did get a rather unpleasant crescendo in August 1947 when Robinson attacked R. In the following trial Robinson was finally discharged and R could now in an efficient way draw the guidelines for the development of the air force with the emperors full attention.

Saab 91A Safir

Saab 91A Safir
(Photo Inge Bergström)

After a couple of plane crashes the Ethiopians appointed a Swedish officer, colonel Gösta Hård, as head in chief of the air force. Both him and his two Swedish successors Christian Nilsson and Knut Lindahl were lacking in practical experience about the Ethiopian air force though. They were also much too influenced by the Swedish military thinking when it came to matters concerning the organization-, materials and personnel. As a result of that the relations between R and his countrymen became less smooth and with Nilsson they broke entirely. Nilsson even saw "The sergeant" R as too ignorant in all questions concerning military warfare. When R wanted to be released from his duties in 1956 it wasn't a big surprise. The main reasons were to be found in difficulties to cooperate with both the Ethiopian authorities and the Swedish officers. Once again R showed his independence and determination to walk his own way whether it was liked by others or not, whether he was forced to leave his work or not, that was his life long trademark.

R thereafter went back to the to his old life within the civil aviation as flight captain in the Swedish charter company Transair. R's role in Transair was very much more independent than the regular flights by airline companies. This was clearly shown in Transair's activities during the civil war in Congo that broke out in 1960 after their independence.

The terrible war in Biafra

At the end of the 60s Nigeria was a divided country with a Muslim part in the north and a Christian part in the south and southeast, a fact that was displayed on each level in Nigeria. After a coup by northern officers resulting in severe massacres of the originally southern Igbo inhabitants living in the north the Igbo majority in the south east region declared it self as an independent republic under the name of Biafra. In the following bloody civil war with the central government, that took the lives of between 1 to 3 million Nigerian's, R was heavily engaged to help the Biafrans'.

MFI--9B fighters

The fighters!
The Swedish built MFI-9B that was used by von Rosen and his pilots during the raids against the Nigerians.
  The photo is taken from the cover of Gunnar Haglund's book "Guerillapilot in Biafra".
  As a curious thing my grandmother knew Haglund's daughter, the skillful painter Lisa Haglund.

Besides helping them food and medicine by air R also equipped a small attack force of Swedish built MFI-9B sport airplanes with French anti-armour rockets. R and a handful of other Swedish pilots, like Gunnar Haglund, the author of the book "Guerillapilot in Biafra". They did use them quite successfully against the notorious Nigerian Mig-17 fighters, trucks and other military vehicles and by the military used facilities, but the attacks came to late and in too few numbers to affect the outcome. Luckily no pilots or airplanes were damaged on R's side.

R's standpoint was indeed controversial and awaked a large opinion storm within the official Sweden against R actions. Even several help organizations condemned his actions. Some of them even thought he extended the suffering among the Biafrans instead of shortened it. R on his side meant that helping humans in need was beyond anything else the most important thing to do. He had taken action according to his consciousness and what he felt in his heart, not according to international laws. This firm view of his made him to a very uncomfortable person.

Count
Carl Gustaf von Rosen
circa 1960

Despite these hard words from the official Sweden and some help organizations R's efforts was, and still is, highly regarded among the Biafran's and other freedom fighters in Africa. For them his name will always shine as a symbol for a man that fought for the little man and tried to prevent the death of over two millions by starvation in this horrible catastrophe.

The final struggle

After an extensive famine in Ethiopia the power of Haile Selassie was gradually overtaken by a military junta that finally overthrown R's old friend in 1974.
The emperor was one year later killed by his hostage takers. The new leaders soon after introduced a socialistic oriented republic during a bloody power struggle among different fractions. It was in the heat of that terrible turmoil R once again returned to Ethiopian soil. He was in charge of a joint venture between 1974 and 1975 that had been initiated by several Swedish help organizations to rescue isolated humans that were suffering to severe starvation by using the tactic of food bombing, the so called "wheat bombings".

Even after the emperor was removed R stayed and helped the new revolution government to build a national help organization. It was during that hard work he was killed on the 13th of July 1977 in the village of Gode when it was attacked by shells by local guerrilla in the in the Southeast parts of the country in the so-called "Ogada war" between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Summary (by Patrik Andersson)

Already during his early years von Rosen showed an independence and determination that became his sign for the rest of his life. He did what he believed in regardless of what others though, sometimes with the result that he had difficulties to cooperate with others, but that was his nature. He was a real searcher in life trying to find a meaning, a place that was his own. He was also in many respects an adventurous person without fear that did not just talk; he acted, just like his father. For his honest search to be a better man and unselfish humanitarian efforts he has to be seen as one of the last centuries most fascinating persons.

Sources:

SBL (Svensk biografiskt lexikon), fortskridande
Haglund, Gunnar, Gerillapilot i Biafra, 1988
Nordisk familjebok, fjärde upplagan, 1952
Krönika över det 20:århundradet, Bonniers, 1986
Norstedts uppslagsbok, åttonde upplagan, 1982
DN.arkivet
SvD - Historiskt sidarkiv
www.globalsecurity.org

Sidans topp | Startsidan | starpatrik[at]yahoo.se | Reviderad 2016 12 08

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