Band of brothers: Tom Farrell talks to some of the survivors 50 years on
Poorly armed and outnumbered, the Irish Army held out for five days against enemy forces in The Congo. Tom Farrell talks to some of the survivors 50 years on
‘I was alone in our trench with a plastic helmet on my head and mortar rounds exploding all around, thinking of my fiancée Angela and my family, and getting little consolation when I realised that I had actually volunteered for this."
The words are the recollections of Noel Carey, a captain who served 20 years in the Irish Army. When he wrote them, he was a 23-year-old platoon commander from Limerick who had found himself in the September 1961 Siege of Jadotville.
Around 150 Irishmen of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion had been deployed as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force — or the Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) as it was known at the time — in Katanga, a breakaway state in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ranged against them were more than 3,000 well-trained Katangan troops, backed by white mercenaries. It was the first time the Irish Army had gone into battle against an overseas military force. Fighting started on September 13 and the Irish held out for another five days, inflicting at least 300 fatalities on the enemy and suffering five wounded.
“Our fatalities were nil because we were so well camouflaged and so well dug in,” says Bill Ready of Mullingar, then a private aged 20. “But they were in the open and showed themselves and you’d see them moving into different positions and you could fire at them.” Fifty years on, the men of A Company are getting recognition, along with commanding officer Commandant Pat Quinlan, a Co Kerry native.
His son Leo, himself a former soldier, says: “Two of his officers (former NCOs) told me that only for his professional leadership, they would not have been alive that day.” Yet even today, the legacy of Jadotville is often clouded by hearsay, innuendo and a simple failure to acknowledge that these men held to the UN mandate under extremely challenging conditions. Veterans of the battle, men now in their 60s and 70s, baulk at the extent to which Quinlan’s decision to call a ceasefire on Sunday, September 17, has entered military lore as an ignominious surrender.
In fact, A Company had gone to Jadotville (now Likasi) after two other UN companies, one Irish and one Swedish, had been pulled out. Communications with their superiors at the Kantangan capital of Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) were poor. And it quickly became clear to Quinlan that the pretext of the mission, protecting several thousand Europeans in the mining town, was a false one. In fact, the Europeans there were violently anti-UN.
The Katangan state was viewed as a puppet of Belgium, recently departed as a colonial power, but still present in the form of the mining giant, Union Minière. “Union Minière was almost a government on its own,” says Noel Carey.
Given the history of The Congo, it was perhaps inevitable that the 1960-4 ONUC mission encountered violence. The country began not as a colony but as the personal estate of King Leopold II of Belgium. His rule was characterised by terrible cruelty: modern historians estimate that up to 10 million Africans died over 23 years. The 1904 report carried out by Dublinborn diplomat Sir Roger Casement catalogued horrendous atrocities.
The independence of The Congo after June 30, 1960, had been chaotic, and within six months the vast nation was divided into four regimes, each with an army and foreign sponsors. One of these was Katanga, declared the following month by Moise Tshombe with covert Belgian backing, prompting the government of Patrice Lumumba to request UN intervention to reunite the country.
By early 1961, the UN Security Council had passed resolution 161 which authorised force as a last resort. Quinlan’s men arrived from Elizabethville in early September, believing they were there to protect the European population. But, says Dubliner Liam Donnelly, then a 23- year old captain: “We went out and saw the natives’ reaction to our presence. They didn’t want us in the place. And we asked for permission to withdraw and were refused.” The Irish Army had experienced the tragedy of Niemba the previous November when nine were killed in an ambush by Baluba tribesmen.
Having gone into the town, Quinlan concluded that a Katangan attack was possible, if not probable. Thus it was decided to fortify A Company’s positions with trenches. “The ground was very hard,” recalls Liam Donnelly. “You had to dig to get into the earth. It wasn’t an easy task.”
When the attack came on the morning of September 13, the ONUC had already clashed with the Katangans in Elizabethville, 60 miles away. Sean Foley, a corporal from Nenagh, recalls the moment when Katangan vehicles approached Irish lines: “They attempted to take the forward positions that were supporting the platoon. And fire was returned. Mass was about to begin at 07.00 hours by (company chaplain) Fr Fagin. Then everybody ran or scrambled to their trenches.”
Once warning shots went up, the troops were in their positions in “a matter of minutes”, says Bill Ready who was on guard duty. “Everybody knew where to go. They all had their weapons with them at Mass. And there was total silence for hours. At around 11 o’clock (the bombardment) started.” Sergeant Ready was the first casualty, shot in the left thigh about four hours later. “We had a medical centre and they were able to bring me down,” he says. “They put me in under the stairwell in the garage where most of the bullets and bombs were trained on. I was back out in the trenches before long because everyone was required that could move.”
On the second morning, the soldiers saw a Fouga jet swooping, which they initially thought was a UN plane. Leo Quinlan recounts the lesson his father learnt from the initial enemy offensive: the company’s perimeter was too wide. “Under cover of darkness, he withdrew the troops and the soldiers dug new trenches,” he says.
“So when the enemy bombardments came the next morning, they were bombarding empty trenches where the Irish had been the day before.” During the siege, two attempts were made by Irish and Swedish troops to relieve A Company. On both occasions, they were driven back and bombed from the air. Quinlan’s decision to call a ceasefire the next day resulted in an agreement that Irish and Katangan troops would jointly patrol Jadotville. The men of A Company were then disarmed by the Katangans and spent six weeks as Tshombe’s captives, before being released in a prisoner exchange.
During the weeks of detention, the Katangans were keenly aware of the propaganda value of being seen not to abuse UN prisoners. At first, the members of A Company were billeted in a local hotel. At one point, Quinlan even attended two weddings by members of the erstwhile enemy force, officiated by Fr Joe Fagin, who baptised the child of one of the couples.
However, their time in captivity included frightening moments. On one occasion, after their captors relocated them to Kolwezi, Quinlan’s negotiating skills were called upon to defuse tensions as angry crowds gathered close to buses used to transport the men. “The truth of the matter was they’d have been massacred if they tried to fight on,” says Declan Power, author of ‘The Siege at Jadotville’. “Quinlan knew at that point that the mission didn’t exist any more.
The people they were meant to be protecting were attacking them. So why get his men murdered for that?” In November 2005, after years of lobbying by Jadotville veterans, the then Minister of Defence Willie O’Dea unveiled a monument to A Company 35th Battalion in Custume Barracks, Athlone.
Now 50 years on, the men of A Company hope their bravery will be acknowledged in Irish military history