Magnificent A Company: Battle in the Congo
Ronan Abayawickrema on the Battle of the Tunnel, which made one Irish company the most decorated in the history of the Defence Forces
As the plane came in to land, the soldiers onboard could hear a strange 'pinging' sound.
At first, they didn't know what it was. Then, the chilling realisation dawned -- it was the sound of bullets piercing the aircraft's fuselage.
The men rushed to take evasive action -- some spread-eagled themselves against the sides of the plane.
"I sat on my helmet," says Dubliner Tony Confrey, who was then a 19-year-old private in the Irish Defence Forces.
"The bullets were coming up (through the floor of the aircraft), so it was the handiest thing to do."
The plane was a huge US Globemaster, carrying the men of A Company, 36th Infantry Battalion, to Elizabethville in the Congo in December 1961.
A Company's deployment, which ended 50 years ago this May, was part of Ireland's contribution to the UN peacekeeping mission to the war-torn African country, which had only gained independence from Belgium the previous year.
"Over the years, Niemba (where nine Irish peacekeepers were killed in an ambush in November 1960) and Jadotville (where an Irish company was besieged by rebel troops) have been adequately covered, and rightly so, but we feel the achievements of A Company have been overlooked," says Jim 'Nobby' Clarke, from Dublin, also then a 19-year-old private and a company driver.
On arriving in the Congolese capital Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) following a 24-hour flight, A Company found that the situation in the country was deteriorating rapidly, and its mission had been altered.
"At the transit camp, a muster parade was called and we were informed we were going into a war-like situation, and our destination was changed from Nyunzu (in the north of the country) to Elizabethville," says Jim.
"It was obvious that things were changing -- fast."
Now known as Lubumbashi, Elizabethville was the Congo's second city and capital of the resource-rich Katanga province, which had seceded from the rest of the country.
Katangese leader Moise Tshombe had broken away from the central government and set up his own administration. Tshombe had mustered a considerable military force, made up of the province's gendarmarie, backed by Western mercenaries.
The UN's mandate was to return control of Katanga to the central government. "We went out as peacekeepers, and overnight became peace enforcers," adds Jim.
The men of A Company were in no doubt about the perilous nature of their new mission. "While we were in Leopoldville, (chaplain) Fr Matthews actually gave anyone who wanted it absolution, because we were going into a dangerous situation," says Tony Confrey.
Just how dangerous things were in Elizabethville was confirmed as A Company's plane came under fire from Katangese forces as it approached the city's airport.
The US crew safely landed the aircraft, but it had been riddled with bullets. "They discovered 40 puncture holes in the fuselage," says Jim.
"As a result, there was fuel flying out around the tarmac and the biggest fear the Americans had was that our hobnailed boots would cause sparks on the ground and ignite the fuel. There would have been an inferno."
The journey from the airport to the Leopold Farm UN base was no less fraught.
"(It) was quite frightening, because you could hear the gunfire from all directions, and you could also see the tracer bullets flying overhead," says Tony.
"From the time we got to the Farm, we had to dig in -- we lived in the trenches, we ate in the trenches," he adds.
Conditions were grim. At first, the soldiers had only the regular 'bull's wool' Irish Army uniforms in the stifling heat; tropical clothing didn't arrive until later.
What's more, it was the rainy season and the area was wracked by tropical storms. However, waterlogged trenches were the least of A Company's problems, says John Woolley, from Co Cavan.
Then an 18-year-old private, he was on his second tour in the Congo.
"When someone fires a shot at you, you'll dive into a sewer, it's as simple as that," he adds wryly.
Tony sums it up: "All in all, it was a war situation... there were snipers, there were mortar bombs falling, there was all kinds of chaos going on." Many of the company were young men who had never been outside Ireland before, let alone seen action, but now they found themselves in the middle of a vicious internecine war.
The company suffered casualties just two days after arriving in the Congo, and on December 8, Corporal Mick Fallon was killed by mortar fire at Leopold Farm.
"I was quite close to him when he was hit," remembers Tony, quietly, "and I actually didn't think there was anything wrong with him, because I didn't see any blood. I think he got a shrapnel wound straight into the heart."
Four days later, A Company fought the Battle of the Tunnel. Their objective was to take 'the Tunnel', the railway that was the main link in and out of Elizabethville.
"We were the first Irish troops to be ordered into battle," says Jim, "and, indeed (the only ones) since then."
They achieved their objective, but at high cost -- two of A Company were killed in the battle and many more were wounded.
The Katangese troops they faced were a formidable foe; John Woolley notes that they were well armed, with automatic weapons, and were supported by three Fouga jets.
And they were backed by Western mercenaries from a host of countries -- including Germany, Britain, South Africa and Belgium -- led by the Irish-born 'Mad' Mike Hoare.
As a result of the bravery shown by A Company in the action, it garnered 14 of the 25 Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs) awarded to the 36th Infantry Battalion, making it the most decorated company in the history of the Defence Forces.
"We feel perhaps it could have been more (DSMs)," says Jim. "For example, Pte Andy Wickham, who was killed alongside his platoon commander, Lt Paddy Riordan -- he was his radio operator."
Tony was wounded in the battle, being hit by mortar shrapnel in the left hip.
He was treated in the field hospital, and was able to serve the rest of his tour, but he still had two pieces of shrapnel in his leg, which were only discovered and removed after he visited the doctor in pain some 15 years later.
And he has high praise for his platoon sergeant, Jim Sexton, who took command of the platoon after Lt Riordan had been killed.
"He was a fantastic sergeant -- we were all very young, he was the senior man, and he looked after us like we were his own family."
Sgt Sexton survived the battle.
After the UN's victory in the Battle of the Tunnel, the situation improved and the peacekeepers were now able to enter Elizabethville, although there were still some skirmishes.
A Company was even able to celebrate Christmas, cobbling together enough provisions for Christmas dinner by bartering with other contingents. The menu reveals the gallows humour that sustained the soldiers in the grim conditions -- dishes include Sniper Soup and Turkey a la Tunnel.
After Christmas, A Company moved from the Leopold Farm camp to billets in villas abandoned by Belgian settlers.
Tony remembers that there were still meals on the tables in some of these homes, so quickly did their owners have to flee the fighting.
The Congo was largely peaceful when A Company returned home in May 1962, says John, but the country, now known as The Democratic Republic of Congo, has had a turbulent history since then.
Millions died in renewed conflict between 1998 and 2003, and the east of the nation remains unstable today.
"You have to ask yourself what's been achieved really," says Tony.
But if the UN mission of the 1960s failed to bring lasting peace to the Congo, it was the beginning of Ireland's contribution to international peacekeeping, which continues today, 50 years later, and has won the Defence Forces worldwide respect.
"The mere fact that 25 DSMs were given shows that we were up to the task," says Tony, "and any Irish troops sent on peacekeeping missions after that have lived up to the Irish name."
Tony Confrey left the Defence Forces in the 1960s, while John Woolley served another peacekeeping tour, this time in Cyprus, before leaving in the 1970s.
Jim Clarke stayed in the army, retiring in 2002 with the rank of Company Quartermaster Sergeant after 43 years' service.
Yet all three men clearly still feel a strong connection to the country in which they served as peacekeepers for six months half a century ago and to the five fallen comrades who didn't return.
"I've been to lots of places since then," says Tony, "but it's the Congo that stays in your heart."
Thanks to the Irish United
Nations Veterans Association (IUNVA), www.iunva.com,
for the use of its facilities