TEN DAYS IN ÉLISABETHVILLE
Irish Peacekeepers on the Offensive
An interview with Congo Veteran CQMS Jimmy Clarke (Retd)
First published in issue Spring 2015.
(Archive images and photos courtesy of Irish Defence Forces Military Archives and A Company Association.)
Anyone familiar with the Irish Defence Forces United Nations (UN) service in the Congo during the 1960’s will be familiar with A Company, 36th Infantry Battalion and the Battle of the Tunnel. For ten days in December 1961, the 166 soldiers of A Company were thrown into a war none of them would ever forget. The battle would cost the unit 4 killed and 15 wounded. For their actions that day 14 Distinguished Service Medals (DSM) would be awarded, making A Company the highest decorated company in the Irish Defence Forces. A veteran of the battle, Company Sergeant Quartermaster Jimmy Clarke (CQMS) gives us this eyewitness account.
After nearly 100 years under Belgian rule the Republic of Congo gained its independence on 30 June 1960. Almost immediately the country fell into chaos. With Belgian support, two states, the mineral rich Katanga and South Kasai, seceded. Moïse Tshombé was declared prime minister of Katanga. The UN established Opération des Nations unies au Congo (ONUC) under UN Security Council Resolution 143 on 14 July, and soon after a peacekeeping force was deployed. One of the countries to volunteer peacekeepers was Ireland. Irish Defence Forces Lieutenant General Seán MacEoin DSM, was appointed Force Commander of ONUC on 1 January 1961, serving in that appointment until 29 March 1962.
Jimmy joined the Irish Defence Forces in 1959. After initial training with the 7th Infantry Battalion in Collins Barracks, Dublin, he went on to serve with 2nd Garrison Supply and Transport Company in Mckee Barracks. ‘When I volunteered for UN service in 1961 Ireland had already deployed four infantry battalions to the Congo; starting with the 32nd Infantry Battalion. The newspapers were full of stories about the Irish peacekeepers. Soldiers coming home filled the barracks with tales of Africa and what it was like out there. The Niemba Ambush, which cost the lives of nine Irish soldiers, and the Siege of Jadotville, where a whole company had held out for a week before surrendering, was in all our minds. I volunteered’.
“It was pitch black and pouring rain. You didn’t know where you where. The rains had filled the trenches with mud and water. It wasn’t long before we heard the ping of small arms over our heads.”
In November 1961 the 36th Infantry Battalion formed up for deployment to the Congo. After tactical training in the Glen of Imaal the battalion was reviewed by the then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, TD, in McKee Barracks on 4 December. Transported by United States Air Force Globemasters, the Irish found themselves in the heart of Africa two days later. Little did they know what lay ahead.
‘Most of us had never been outside of Dublin, let alone on a plane. No in-flight movies back then. The Globemaster was a big plane. Two tiers of soldiers with cargo in the middle. For the flight we were given a carton of milk, a sandwich, an apple and an orange’
The first stop for the peacekeepers came after being ten hours airborne. Landing at Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya where they were provided with a welcome meal and a stretch. Then back in the air, flying across the Sahara Desert to Kano, Nigeria and then onto the Congolese capital Léopoldville (today known as Kinshasa). After being transported to the infamous Martini Transit Camp the peacekeepers were introduced to the common enemy – the dreaded mosquitoes. ‘We were eaten alive’. The 36th Infantry Battalion was originally meant to be deployed to area of Albertville and Nyunzu in the North East.
‘We were not long after arriving in the transit camp when a full muster parade was called. No exceptions. We were informed our destination had been changed to Élisabethville. The situation there had dramatically changed. We were told to expect warlike conditions. Still taking this in, our Chaplains came out on parade. Reverend Fathers Cyril Crean, (Head Chaplin to the Forces), and Colm Matthews. They imparted Absolution on the entire battalion. You can only imagine what most of us thought to ourselves’.
In an instant their mission had changed from peacekeeping to peace-enforcement.
Élisabethville was another long flight. Some 1,200 miles away. Waiting in the city was the 35th Infantry Battalion whose tour of duty had run over and they were eager to return home. Approaching Élisabethville in darkness and torrential rain the planes came under fire. ‘The plane ahead of us had two engines knocked out and two fuel tanks punctured. By some miracle no one on that plane was injured. Thankfully my plane was not hit at all. When we landed the crowd crews were frantic. There was fuel everywhere from the punctured fuel tanks on the first plane. We were wearing hobnailed boots and there was a fear our boots would spark and ignite the fuel. Fearing an inferno we double quick timed out of there’. There was no rest for the peacekeepers at the airfield. They were loaded onto trucks and transported to the 35th Infantry Battalion positions. ‘It was pitch black and pouring rain. You didn’t know where you where. The rains had filled the trenches with mud and water. It wasn’t long before we heard the ping of small arms over our heads’.
Facing the UN force around Élisabethville were well equipped and trained mercenaries and Katanganese Gendarmes. Holding key strategic positions the Katanga forces gave the peacekeepers no rest and rained small arms and mortar fire on the UN positions around the clock. For the next ten days it never stopped.
‘I was part of the company Transport Section. Along with Dan McGivern and Pat ‘Chalkie’ White. We operated behind the front lines conveying food and supplies to the forward positions and casualties to the Medical Aid Centre at Leopold Farm. We carried out these duties under great danger. At times under heavy mortar and sniper fire’
The Irishmen were only in their positions two days when they lost their first comrade. 18 year old Corporal Mick Fallon was killed by a mortar on 8 December. Over the next few days the Irish pushed out their lines and consolidated their positions taking objectives such as Liege Crossroads. At Liege the Irish came under heavy fire for four days solid. ‘I can recall some close encounters during this prolonged bombardment. I was in my trench one night when I got a call from Company Sergeant Mick Harte to help the cooks deliver food. As I jumped out of the trench Captain Harry Agnew jumped in. A split second later a mortar landed. Captain Agnew was hit. He lost a finger’.
In the middle of the constant sniping and mortar fire the cooks kept the men fed. Every veteran of A Company remembers Sergeant Tom ’Nobby’ Clarke, and Privates Danny Bradley and Jim Murray, DSM. The menu consisted of powdered eggs, powdered milk, powdered potatoes, bullied beef, and dog biscuits. As Jimmy recalls, ‘You had two choices: take it or leave it’.
It was during one of these attacks that Sergeant Paddy Mulcahy, DSM, was wounded for the first time. On 14 December, he was hit again, this time badly. ‘Paddy was one of those casualties I brought back to the Medical Centre. The Company Sergeant there said “who have you got this time”. “It’s me again”, Paddy said before I could answer. He was still conscious even though his leg was ripped apart. He died of his wounds on the 16th’.
On 16 December, the UN around Élisabethville was given orders to push the Katanganese Gendarmes and mercenaries from the city. Known as Operation Sarsfield, the coming battle would be the first time an Irish Defence Forces peacekeeping unit would be ordered into offensive operations.
In a torrential downpour the battle began at 04:00. A Company’s task was to attack and hold the ‘Tunnel’. This was a strategic railway bridge over a major road into the city. The Katanganese were well positioned. They had fortified the railway carriages, erected concrete emplacements, and had well dug-in heavy machine guns and anti-tank positions. The Irish announced the battle by opening up with a mortar barrage. A Company moved forward with B Company in support. Other UN forces also took part in the operation, including the Ethiopians and Indians.
Coming under continuous heavy fire the UN were made fight for every inch of ground. Over a 12-hour period A Company advanced, took a position, consolidated, re-supplied and advanced again. During the final assault on the ‘Tunnel’, No. 1 Platoon’s Lieutenant Paddy Riordan and his radio operator Private Andy Wickham were killed. ‘Seeing his two comrades fall, Sergeant Jim Sexton immediately ran forward and took over the platoon. The attack did not falter’.
Both sides took casualties. The engagement broke the back of the Katanganese and they withdrew from the city. By the end of the month the UN forces had full control of the city and things began to return to normal for the local people.
For their action that day, 14 members of A Company were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, including Paddy Riordan. ‘Many of us believe there should have been two more, including Jim Sexton for taking over the attack and Andy Wickham for staying beside his platoon commander under fire’.
With some of their casualties being repatriated home due to their wounds, the remaining men of A Company, 36th Infantry Battalion settled down to routine peacekeeping for the next five months. ‘After those first ten days. Everything was quiet in comparison. There were a few more skirmishes but nothing as serious. We helped the locals as best we could. We learned languages such as French, Kongo, Swahili, and Tshiluba. Sadly, Corporal John Power died in March of natural causes. For £1 I bought myself a box camera and brought back some photographs for everyone at home to see’.
Jimmy Clarke retired from the Irish Defence Forces after 43 years service with the rank of Company Quartermaster Sergeant. After his tour of duty with 36th Infantry Battalion he served again with the UN in the ONUC Headquarters, Cyprus and Lebanon. Today Jimmy is one of the main organisers of the A Company Association. Every year on the closest Sunday to 16 December, veterans of A Company and their families hold a commemoration at the Irish Defence Forces plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, to honour their fallen comrades.
‘Some went out as boys and came back as men. Some went out as men and came back better men. Today more than half a century later, many are Grandfathers, some are even Great Grandfathers.’
Sadly CQMS Jimmy ‘Nobby’ Clarke passed away in November 2016.