Tuesday 20 February 2018

The day we were mistakenly told our father had been killed in action

As the 50th anniversary of the Niemba ambush is commemorated, Don Lavery recalls his father's role in the horrific event that changed a nation

It was unusual at seven years of age to be kept home from school with my twin brother, so I knew something was up.

Things became even more strange when a chaplain and army wives called to our home in Rathmines to see my mother Nancye.

They believed my father had been killed at a place called Niemba in the Congo while leading a patrol of Irish soldiers.

It seemed possible -- my father, Capt Jim Lavery, was serving with the 33rd battalion in November 1960, the second Irish unit to go to the Congo.

But communications with Africa were primitive then and mistakes were made. He hadn't been killed and went on to win the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions at the Battle of Kipushi two years later.

But a friend of his, Lt Kevin Gleeson, had died along with eight other Irish peacekeeping soldiers. Two others survived.

It shocked the Ireland of the early 1960s to the core. Around half a million people thronged the streets of Dublin to pay their respects when eight of their bodies were brought home.

The deaths were a seminal moment for Ireland in that exciting decade, and for the Defence Forces, which has never looked back.

The ambush of the small patrol of 11 men by Baluba tribesmen resulted in the single biggest loss of life by the Army in 50 years of peacekeeping.

About 25 tribesmen also died when the soldiers fired back in self defence.

At the weekend the sacrifice made by the peacekeeping soldiers was remembered in a simple moving ceremony in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines to mark the 50th anniversary of the ambush.

Organised by the Organisation of National Ex-servicemen and Women, (ONE), it was attended by survivors Joe Fitzpatrick and Tom Kenny, families of the fallen, politicians and senior military personnel led by Chief of Staff Lt Gen Sean McCann.

After a minute's silence at the Niemba monument, wreaths were laid, followed by the haunting notes of the 'Last Post' and the soldier's wake-up call 'Reveille'.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who gave the homily at the anniversary Mass at the nearby Our Lady of Refuge Church, said what was being celebrated was an important part of our recent history with many lessons for today.

The dead soldiers would today have been grandparents looking back with pride and satisfaction on the nobility of their commitment, and with affection telling their story to their grandchildren.

"That experience was not to be theirs," he said.

The Military Medal for Gallantry was awarded to 20-year-old Dubliner Tpr Anthony Browne for his bravery during the ambush.

However, his body was not found until two years later in deep bush. A small heavily armed group, including my father, went on a mission into Baluba territory to find his remains and finally bring him home.

Irish Independent

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