In Defence of Peace – The Siege of Jadotville

In Defence of Peace

The Siege of Jadotville

By James Durney

Published in Winter 2016 edition

Commandant Quinlan alongside a Thompson Ford Armoured Car at Jadotville.
(image courtesy of An Cosantóir – the Defence Forces magazine)

The United Nations Operation in the Congo (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, or ONUC), was established in July 1960. Ireland was one of the first countries to contribute peacekeepers to the mission. In June 1961, the Irish Defence Forces’ 35th Infantry Battalion deployed to the Congo.

The Situation in Congo Deteriorates

By early August 1961, with a functioning government and parliament established, it was time to end Katanga’s secession from the Congo. Operation Rumpunch was designed to take into custody and repatriate European Gendarmerie officers and mercenaries. It began with a raid on Gendarmerie headquarters in Élisabethville by Irish troops and simultaneous raids and arrests by other United Nations (UN) forces. At this time there was 400 foreign mercenaries and advisers still in Katanga, mostly in the south of the country, protecting the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (mining union of Katanga) operations.

On the morning of 28 August, UN forces began apprehending European officers in Élisabethville and in the North Katangan centres. At the same time the UN also occupied the premises of the post office and radio and set a guard, comprising of Irish troops, around Katanga’s Minister of the Interior, Godefroid Munongo Mwenda’s villa. UN representatives, including Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ireland’s special representative to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the UN, met the Katangan government and received the answer that President Moïse Tshombe was willing to give full co-operation, to dismiss all the foreign officers. Tshombe then broadcasted a statement, free from complaint or hostility, in which he said that he bowed to the UN decision and that ‘all foreign officers were dismissed from service and must leave Katanga’.

By 8 September, 273 foreign mercenaries had been repatriated, while another 65 were waiting to go. However, another 104 were unaccounted for. With their replacement in the Gendarmerie by African officers a revolt by the Gendarmerie against the Tshombe regime was quite possible. An African mutiny would possibly take an anti-European turn and UN troops were requested to protect white populations in the Katanga mining belt. There were 32,000 Europeans in Katanga. Few of them owned land, or their own businesses’ and most worked for one of the great companies of the Union Minière or for economically subsidiary enterprises like the Simba Brewery.

Meanwhile, the Katangan Government began a propaganda campaign against the UN. Katanga Radio accused UN troops of rape and pillage in Élisabethville, while the Union Minière announced publicly that it was ready to repatriate European women and children if that became necessary ‘as a result of the activities of the UN’. President Tshombe announced a UN plot to arrest him, disarm the Gendarmerie and send in the Congolese army. Demonstrations against the UN began with troops being stoned, mainly by youths organised by the Gendarmerie.

A Company Deploys

Members of A Company. By the time A Company was cut off there were 157 personnel in the camp, including two Scandinavian pilots and an interpreter.
(Image courtesy of Declan Power)

It was into this flashpoint that, on 11 September, the 155 strong A Company, 35th Battalion, arrived into the sprawling mining town of Jadotville. This number also included two Thompson Ford Mark VI armoured cars under the command of Lieutenant Kevin Knightly. The Irish were replacing a 300-strong Swedish force who had been openly informed by the European population that they were not wanted. The Swedish commander sensing his isolation and precarious position withdrew on ½ September. As the Swedes had ostensibly withdrew without orders ONUC needed to save face and a new force had to be assembled to protect the white population in the town from an allegedly growing threat from the local populace. The only unit available was A Company.

Initially, A Company were well received, but the situation changed when the Gendarmerie staged a mock attack and advance up to the Irish lines before being recalled. A Company commanding officer, Commandant Patrick Quinlan, ordered his men to hastily dig five-foot deep trenches around their encampment on the outskirts of the town. Soon A Company found itself surrounded by hundreds of Katangese, their Belgian advisers and a contingent of French mercenaries who drove around the camp in jeeps pointing their mounted machine guns at them.

Commandant Pat Quinlan ID Card. (Image courtesy of Military Archives)

Jadotville veteran Pat Dunleavey (Then a Private), from Mullingar, said: ‘We were billeted in disused galvanised houses and tents around an abandoned disused garage with pumps and a forecourt. Commandant Quinlan visited Jadotville to meet the mayor and quickly saw the hostility towards the UN. On return he called his platoon officers together and briefed them on the situation. He patrolled the area and ordered us to dig trenches in strategic areas. The ground here was as hard as concrete. Commandant Quinlan was called in again to Jadotville and threatened that if we did not move out and back to Élisabethville hostilities would erupt. He called a conference that night and told the men of the company’s situation’.

More trenches were dug 20-30 yards apart. The two armoured cars were placed in an enfilade position from where they could cut off infiltrating enemy attacks and provide full support to the criss-cross of trenches. Radio communications were established and ammunition and water supplies checked. The troops then settled down to await the first attacks, which were not long in coming. These were small probing actions and then to the surprise of everyone the Gendarmerie commanders called a cease-fire and offered to allow a message to be sent through the lines to Battalion HQ and explain the company’s situation.

Captain Liam Donnelly, accompanied by an NCO and a driver drove back through enemy lines to Élisabethville only to be left waiting five hours while the battalion staff entertained Conor Cruise O’Brien, head of the UN mission in Katanga. Neither the staff officers, nor O’Brien, appeared to understand the seriousness of the situation. Captain Donnelly returned to Jadotville to find the situation grimmer than ever.

The First Attack

The first serious attack took place on Sunday morning while most of the company were attending Mass. Gendarmeries in jeeps and on foot swarmed into the Irish positions. Corporal John Monahan, from Athlone, was returning from the wash house and spotted them. He jumped behind a Vickers machine gun and opened fire on the enemy, taking them completely by surprise. The Katangese had been led to believe that the Irish would be a pushover.  The heavy machine guns of the armoured cars opened-up and the Katangese retreated in confusion.

From a safe distance the Katangese kept up a continuous hail of rifle and mortar fire on the Irish position, keeping the defenders pinned down and making movement during daylight hours practically impossible. While the enemy mortar crews were very professional, being mainly Belgian and French ex-soldiers, they caused few casualties as the Irish trenches were built up rather than down. The looseness of the Congo soil made it impossible to dig down, instead the loose soil was thrown up and packed high all around the trench to give protection from shrapnel.

Not all the locals were against the Irish. An Irishman working with Union Minière estimated that there were between four and five thousand troops around the Irish unit, although Irish evaluations put them at 2,000. A Belgian woman also helped the besieged troops. Pat Dunleavey witnessed the devastating effect of the Irish firepower: ‘Paddy McManus, from Athlone, was in a trench facing a road about three-quarters of a mile long, a straight road heading in towards Jadotville, when all of a sudden a Belgian officer crossed the road about two hundred yards away, got down on his hunkers and beckoned his troops to come across. As the troops came across McManus engaged with his machine gun on the first two and then about six or seven immediately ran across the road straight into the line of fire and were killed. They were left sprawling all over the road’.

Another veteran, Noel Stanley (then a Private), from Clara, Co. Offaly, broke up several Katangese attacks with his Bren gun: ‘I used up about 100 mags’ (thirty rounds in each) and wore out a few spare barrels’. Stanley had served a previous tour in the Congo with the 32nd Infantry Battalion. ‘When the fighting started, we never left the trenches. The only time I left them was when we moved in from the outer trenches into the houses. Father Fagan gave us general absolution while we were in the trenches. I thought he was a very brave man’.

Siege

For the next five days and nights Katangese attacks made life difficult for the beleaguered defenders. On 15 September alone, at least ten separate attacks, up to sixty strong, were beaten off. Occasionally during lulls in the fighting, the defenders could see bodies being dragged away by the Katangese. Exploding mortar shells from the Irish 60mm mortars destroyed a nearby garage and damaged some surrounding buildings, causing a ferocious blaze, which lit up the night sky. Irish mortar fire also hit an enemy assembly area and an ammunition dump, which sent shells whizzing in all directions to the accompaniment of hearty cheers from the defenders. The dump, which contained most of the shells for a French-made 75mm gun, blazed furiously all night long and into the next day. The 75mm could have knocked out the armoured cars and devastated the Irish positions. In its haste to deploy, A Company had left its 81mm mortars and extra rations behind. ‘Sergeant Tom Kelly was in charge of the mortars,’ Noel Stanley recalled. ‘We only had 60mm mortars. Tommy Kelly could drop a mortar round on a plate a mile away, he was that good’.

In one attack the Katangese took a house about 150 yards from Company HQ from where they completely pinned down troops manning the forward trenches. It was essential that this enemy position was neutralised. Under covering fire an anti-tank section commanded by Corporal John Monahan raced into open ground to engage the enemy position with a 84mmm recoilless rifle. The house was completely destroyed and several Katangese killed. When the Katangese took another nearby house Private John Mannion, from Mohill, Co. Leitrim, crept down to it under cover of darkness and lobbed in a hand grenade, driving the Katangese out. Commandant Quinlan was in constant contact with the mayor of Jadotville, named Amisi, who threatened the Irish with a mob of locals. ‘They will eat you up,’ he threatened over the phone. ‘You can send them out,’ Commandant Quinlan retorted in his best Kerry accent. ‘We would probably give them indigestion.’ Commandant Quinlan regularly went out among his troops to make sure their defences were solid enough. ‘He was tough, but good,’ Noel Stanley recalled, ‘And that’s what we needed out there’.

The company radio sets were virtually useless as most of them failed to operate accurately at such long range, but Commandant Quinlan managed to contact HQ in Élisabethville and stated that unless reinforcements arrived soon, the defenders were in grave danger of being wiped out. He was told that a relief force was on its way. This news greatly encouraged the men and raised their flagging morale.

The Irish were not the only ones listening to the radios. The mercenaries were able to intercept the messages on their more powerful radios. There was only one point where a crossing was possible and this was at Lufira Bridge. When the Irish reinforcements, codenamed Force Kane, arrived at Lufira Bridge, on 13 September, they were met by a strong enemy force. A decision was taken to abandon the attempt to cross the bridge until the next day and Force Kane retired to bed down for the night and prepare for a dawn attack the next day. The attack did not kick off until 08.30, which lost them the element of surprise. During the night the Katangese had been busy and had moved up more troops which ensured that any attempt to force a crossing would result in heavy casualties. The rescue attempt was abandoned and Force Kane returned to Élisabethville.

Two days later another attempt was made by the same Irish company, reinforced by a company of Gurkhas. The column arrived late due to transport problems and strafing by a Belgian piloted Fouga jet from Kolwezi, which killed three Gurkhas and wounded five. Attempts to approach the bridge were met by withering enemy fire from the reinforced Katangese, who had been informed of the UN advance by a BBC World Service report. It became apparent that a daylight attack without air support was impossible without heavy losses.

Again, the decision was taken to abandon the rescue attempt and they reluctantly returned to Élisabethville. The Fouga jet bombed and strafed the retreating UN force, killing two and injuring ten Gurkhas. Four Irish soldiers were also wounded. With the failure of the second rescue attempt the Katangese moved up more reinforcements to Jadotville, where the situation was now becoming desperate. Water was running out and the defenders sent urgent radio messages to HQ requesting that supplies be air-dropped in.

Around the same time a helicopter piloted by Bjørn Hovden, a Norwegian, crash-landed in the Irish position with a limited supply of food and water. It suffered severe damage and was unable to take off. The water on board was in jerry cans that had previously carried oil and was of little use to the defenders. The Fouga jet now began bombing and strafing the Irish position and urgent requests to Britain to allow UN planes to use Manono airport to relieve the beleaguered garrison were refused.

As the fifth day of the siege dawned the situation was evidently desperate. The men had no proper sleep for five days and nights. Food and water were very scarce and the tropical heat was also taking its toll. The radio sets were beginning to fail, with only an occasional garbled message getting through. The enemy was growing extremely confident, despite suffering heavy casualties. Further low-flying attacks by the Fouga were thwarted when it was damaged by concentrated and accurate ground fire, ensuring that its bombing attacks from then on were carried out at a greater height. Pat Dunleavy recollected: ‘This jet used to come from Kolwezi airport and fly over first of all and then fly up into the sun and do a turn and start firing as it came down. He would start firing his cannons at us and he would let off two bombs every time. His whole object was to hit the filling station. Fortunately, he didn’t succeed. He would do four or five raids a day on this caper’.

From a safe distance the Katangese kept up a continuous hail of rifle and mortar fire on the Irish position, keeping the defenders pinned down and making movement during daylight hours practically impossible

As the Irishmen prepared for what everyone thought would be the final battle the mercenary leaders appealed to them to surrender. This offer was immediately rejected and another offer was then put forward. He stated that, ‘if the Irish would agree to a ceasefire, the Katangese would withdraw from around their positions, water supplies would be reconnected, and joint patrols from both sides would operate to maintain order in the town. If this offer was refused the Irish could expect to be overwhelmed and their safety would not be guaranteed’. Commandant Quinlan consulted with his senior commanders the options available. They now had no further communication with the outside world, and had little hope of escape or rescue; ammunition supplies were low; supplies of food and water were practically gone and the men were exhausted.

Ceasefire and Surrender

On 16 September, Commandant Quinlan reluctantly agreed to the Katangese cease-fire terms. After destroying all documentation and rendering their heavy weapons unserviceable A Company moved to a hotel in Jadotville, housing their weapons elsewhere. The attitude of the Belgian paratroopers and French mercenaries was surprisingly friendly. Many of them complimented the Irish on their bravery and the tenacity of their defence. However, the native Katangese, who had suffered heavy casualties, were far more hostile. The arrival of Minister Munongo and more Katangese troops from Élisabethville changed the situation. Only small quantities of food and water were delivered to the Irish and it came as no surprise when several days later the Katangese broke their agreement.

A large force of Katangese, who confiscated all of A Company’s arms, surrounded the compound. Effectively the Irish were now prisoners of war. The mercenaries firmly believed that the Irish had suffered heavy casualties and they asked Quinlan how they had disposed of the bodies. They flatly refused to believe that no Irish soldiers had been killed and only four had been wounded. Enemy casualties had been heavy. One estimate revealed that 30 European mercenaries had died as that number of coffins had been buried and only whites justified coffins, and that 150- 300 Katangese had been killed and several hundred more injured. Pat Dunleavy said: ‘We were taken into the town of Élisabethville under guard and compounded in a hotel there. We were very well treated in the hotel regards food and accommodation, but we were subjected to a lot of searches and if any parts of ammunition or weaponry, was found on us we were harshly dealt with. I remember three or four of our people who had still ammunition on them were severely beaten. Arrangements were made for a swap of prisoners. We were brought to a camp between Élisabethville and Jadotville, on a lake, in buses with a heavy escort. When we arrived in this camp it was deplorable. The hostility that we received from the soldiers’ wives was very, very frightening. They threatened us with signs of cutting our heads off, cutting parts of our bodies off, stuffing them in our mouths, etc… Needless, to say this surrender did not take place and we were brought back to the hotel again. This went on three times in succession. We agreed a plan that on the third and final attempt ― if it failed ― we were to disarm the troops in the bus, shoot the troops in the bus in front of us and make a breakthrough back to Élisabethville. Fortunately, this did not have to happen as we were brought to a disused airport on the outskirts of Élisabethville where the official hand-over took place’.

As negotiated the radio station and the Post Office seized by the UN would be handed back in exchange for 185 prisoners held by the Katangese. A Company returned to Ireland on 22 December, and received a huge and enthusiastic reception in Athlone. Commandant Quinlan’s men have the highest regard for him and his reputation. According to Pat Dunleavey, ‘Pat was really great and we owe a lot of gratitude to him. Unfortunately, he was not given the recognition for what he did in overwhelming odds. We put up such a fight’.

Forty-four years after the event the veterans of Jadotville were honoured at a ceremony at Custume Barracks in Athlone.

James Durney is Co. Kildare Historian in Residence and author of many books including the bestselling The 100 Kilo Case. The true story of an Irish ex-NYPD detective protected by the Mafia, and one of the most infamous drug busts in New York City.

Read more on James Durney at: www.jamesdurney.com

Letter to the Editor Spring 2017

Dear Sir
I want to bring to your attention an error in the caption on page 14, article: In Defence Of Peace, Winter 2016. The caption states that the photo was taken at Jadotville. I think this photograph was not taken in Jadotville for the following reasons:

  1. The building in the background was Headquarters for the 35th Infantry Battalion, and later the 36th Infantry Battalion, at Leopold Farm,
    Élisabethville.
  2. In this photograph, the armoured cars are painted green. This did not happen until after the ceasefire in September 1961, to make them less conspicuous, which was when the Jadotville action took place. When the cars arrived in the Congo with the 34th Infantry Battalion, they were painted white. I was on a detachment that travelled by air from Élisabethville to Kamina, to bring a couple of cars just arrived in the Congo, to Élisabethville by train. They were painted. This journey of 500 miles took 3 days and nights through mostly jungle. Therefore, the two cars at Jadotville were still white at the time of the engagement.
  3. The officer in the photograph may or may not be Quinlan, it is very hard to tell.
  4. The helmet the gunner in the armoured car is wearing was worn by the 36th Infantry Battalion members and was not available to members of the 35th.

Yours sincerely
John O’Mahony, Former Trooper, Armoured Car Group, 35th Infantry Battalion

Posted in: Irish Army, Irish Defence Forces, Óglaigh na hÉireann, Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, Peacekeeping, United Nations, United Nations Operation in the Congo

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