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Bravest of them all

WHEN Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson saw the large force of screaming Baluba warriors advance on the small patrol of 11 Irish soldiers, he ordered a rapid retreat.

Lt Gleeson ordered troops to turn their two vehicles around in a bid to escape the deadly fate, on a hot African day about 13 miles from the village of Niemba in the former Belgian Congo.

But within seconds, the dusty road near the River Luweyeye, became a bloody battleground as the Irish UN soldiers fought for their lives.

A total of eight, including the patrol leader, Dublin-based Lt Gleeson, were killed. Two survivors escaped into the bush.

The fate of the 11th, Trooper Anthony Browne from Dublin, would not be known until exactly two years later.

The short, fierce fight at 3pm on a hot day on November 8, 1960, has gone down in Irish history as the Niemba Ambush.

It was, and remains, the biggest single loss of life suffered by the Defence Forces in a proud history of more than half a century of Irish soldiers serving under the blue UN flag.

grief

The ambush seared into the national consciousness and proved a seminal moment of the 1960s.

When the victims were brought home for burial in Glasnevin, half a million people lined the streets in a huge outpouring of sympathy and grief.

The ambush also raised questions about the army's role in the Congo and why a band of well armed soldiers were overwhelmed by tribesmen mainly armed with bows and arrows.

Veteran journalist Tom McCaughran's book, The Peacemakers Of Niemba was first published in 1966 and answered many of the questions posed by the public and politicians.

Now, nearly 50 years later, he brings the story up to date – and provides a valuable resource for a new generation of Irish people who want to learn more about the sacrifice by young soldiers in a foreign land.

It is a tale of bravery in the face of a superior enemy force, of bringing killers to justice – and of a secret mission to recover Trooper Browne's body deep in Baluba territory.

Lt Gleeson and his platoon of 40 men based in the small town of Niemba were part of two battalions of more than 1,000 Irish soldiers, the 32nd and 33rd, sent to the Congo in the summer of 1960.

The Congo was a vast area with just 1,500 UN troops deployed over an area of north Katanga as large as England and Wales.

The initial Irish troops sent to the Congo arrived in bulls wool uniforms, more suited to the dank Irish weather and armed with the outdated .303 Lee Enfield bolt action rifle as their standard weapon.

Many had never been outside Ireland or flown in an aircraft before, but they quickly adapted to their new surroundings although shortages of vehicles and radio equipment were to be a major problem.

Lt Gleeson and his soldiers were typical of the Irish peacekeepers: they saw their role as stabilising the area, preventing wanton killings and flying the UN flag.

The Congo was in turmoil, with bloody clashes between the gendarmerie – Katangan soldiers operating with white Belgian officers –and the Baluba of North Katanga, who were opposed to the new secessionist regime.

Lt Gleeson and his soldiers had already proved their mettle by negotiating their way through hostile Balubas to rescue a Catholic priest, overcoming constant roadblocks and harassment and caring for local civilians.

But they were 86 miles from their headquarters and any reinforcements would take hours to get to them if they needed help quickly.

On November 8, 1960, that help was badly needed after a savage ambush near Niemba.

Even as more than 100 warriors advanced on them, the Irish still tried to talk peace.

Only when the arrows flew and soldiers were hit, did they fire back with rifles and Gustaf sub machine guns.

More than 25 Balubas were killed and many wounded in the bitter hand-to-hand fighting.

The Irish who died were were Lt Gleeson, Sgt Hugh Gaynor, Cpl Liam Duggan, Cpl Peter Kelly, Pte Matthew Farrell, Tpr Thomas Fennel, Tpr Anthony Browne, Pte Michael McGuinn and Pte Gerard Killeen.

Trooper Browne was later posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry, for his bravery during the action.

The two survivors were Trooper Thomas Kenny and Private Joe Fitzpatrick. Both are still alive.

A search by UN troops and planes failed to find Tpr Browne.

Irish troops later arrested some of the Baluba killers in Operation Shamrock. Five were jailed.

diary

Two years later, in a top secret operation, four Irish officers, including my father, Captain Jim Lavery, second in command of Tpr Browne's home unit in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, recovered his body.

My father followed a village headman through the bush to a spot near a vegetable patch, and there, as he wrote in his diary, "was little Browne". The remains were found about three miles from the ambush site.

The Peacemakers Of Niemba by Tom McCaughren is published by Somerville Press at €11.99. Former Justice Minister Nora Owen will officially launch the book at McKee Barracks on March 21.

mlavery@herald.ie


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