Jadotville, Congo

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2006), Letters, Letters, Volume 14


—Col. John Terence O’Neill is entirely right in his observations onDavid O’Donoghue’s book about events in Jadotville, Congo, in September1961 (Reviews, HI 14.4, July/August 2006). Though even the barestknowledge of the Jadotville affair raises questions, anythingapproaching rational and/or informed discussion has long and famouslybeen taboo. However, my new book, Heroes of Jadotville: the soldiers’story, tells, in the words and memories of the men who fought there(including the commanding officer, Comdt Patrick Quinlan), about theinjustice done to a group of Irish UN soldiers in the mining town ofJadotville that September and of its consequences.
What was it all about? In essence, 156 men of A Company were sent80 miles from base to defend a town that neither wanted nor neededdefending and where, isolated and without back-up, they weremercilessly bombed from the air and attacked by up to 4,000mercenary-led Katangan gendarmerie soldiers. Their survival andsubsequent ostracism say much about yet another Irish institution (thistime the army) behaving badly. Their treatment highlights dangerous andunpardonable shortcomings in the United Nations and its chain ofcommand, while showing how the politics of greed dictated events.Unforgettably, the story as told by those who were there illustrateshow life, death and honour are of value only in their usefulness.
In writing the book I had unprecedented access to primary sourcematerial, a wealth of information about Jadotville never before seen,discussed nor made public. This includes the letters and journal keptby Comdt Patrick Quinlan, the officer in charge in Jadotville, alongwith tactical notes he intended for the future training of Irishsoldiers, as well as reports and documentation on the battle itself.Additionally, there are the letters and writings of others who foughtin Jadotville, army radio logs, official battalion and company reports,and a detailed submission twice made to the army by an officer with thebeleaguered company.
Perhaps most tellingly, I was infinitely fortunate to meet with andinterview many of those who fought at and survived Jadotville. Theirmemories and acute recollections, allied to the letters and writingsfrom the time, bring life, answers and clarity to an ignominious UNepisode long and shamefully ignored. The questions raised in Col.O’Neill’s review—why A Company was sent to Jadotville and on whoseorders—are answered and explored in the book. The background, in whatyour reviewer calls the ‘Katanga issue’, highlights Col. O’Neill’seloquently made point that ‘a decision to send soldiers to kill and todie in pursuit of an uncertain objective should not be taken lightly’.
Jadotville, in the Katanga province, was a mining town crucial toBelgian and other mining interests. Katanga, the wealthiest of Congo’sprovinces, had within weeks of the nation’s independence, and withBelgian backing, declared itself a separate state. By the time ACompany under Comdt Quinlan was dispatched there in September 1961, atwo-company-strong body had already been withdrawn on ‘militarygrounds’. Quinlan was given no written orders. He was repeatedlyrefused permission to leave. Isolated, ill-equipped, without water,food or reinforcements, he and his troops defended themselves in whatbecame a remorselessly brutal and bloody battle. They suffered fivewounded but no fatalities. Hundreds of Katangans were killed.
Comdt Quinlan, with no possibility of reinforcements, water, foodor ammunition and no choice but to save his men from certain slaughter,agreed terms on Sunday 17 September with Godefroid Munongo, Katanga’sminister for the interior. A Company, taken prisoner as hostages to bebargained with in the Katanga/Belgian power struggle with the UnitedNations, were ultimately released in late October and resumed theirtour of duty. Quinlan writes:

‘I was not prepared to let my brave men die for nothing . . . the UNmade a complete mess of things. Organised by the Belgian government wewere lured to Jadotville . . . and ended up as hostages.’

And in this political reality there lies the tale, in this and in aculture that saw surrender and the saving of lives as shameful, aculture in which, as Quinlan ruefully observed: ‘If you have men killedyou have a victory but if you save your men and have a good defence itis a defeat’. Brig. Gen. Kas Raja, the UN’s military commander inKatanga, observed that ‘the Irish troops in Jadotville were magnificentand Comdt Quinlan, the Irish commander, would, in the Indian army, beawarded the highest military award for gallantry . . . I believe hecould be held as an example to all soldiers.’ Sadly, though a plaquehonouring A Company was unveiled in Custume Barracks in November 2004,medals recommended for bravery have never been awarded. A portrait ofQuinlan is to hang in the Congo Room of the United Nations trainingschool in the Curragh.
This writer was privileged to meet with and come to know many ofthe men who fought in Jadotville almost half a century ago. In the oddway of the world, their stories and views of the event, their loyaltyto their commanding officer and to each other, their understanding ofand empathy with the Katangan situation and their lack of bitternessabout the way they themselves were treated, all highlight the reasonsthey came through their ordeal safely and to a man. Born of generationsand a time before this country, in any real sense, joined the twentiethcentury, it can be said, without sentimentality, that ní beidh leirleitheid ann aris.

—Yours etc.,

Heroes of Jadotville: the soldiers’ story has just been published by New Island.


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