Letters from Niemba: Irish troops in the Congo, 1960

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Volume 18

The 33rd Infantry Battalion platoon of Sergeant Hugh ‘Sonny’ Gaynor from Leixlip, Co. Kildare (front row, sixth from right), seated beside Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson (wearing gloves). (Military Archives)

The 33rd Infantry Battalion platoon of Sergeant Hugh ‘Sonny’ Gaynor from Leixlip, Co. Kildare (front row, sixth from right), seated beside Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson (wearing gloves). (Military Archives)

The Congo—later known as Zaire, but now officially the Democratic Republic of the Congo—was colonised from 1878 at the personal behest of King Leopold of Belgium. By the early twentieth century, reports—including one by Roger Casement, then a British diplomat and later a key figure in the 1916 Rising—exposed the savage exploitation of its people and resources by the commercially driven rubber plantations and mining companies. The ensuing scandal forced King Leopold to relinquish control to the Belgian government. By 1955, owing to Congolese pressure, the Belgians were considering long-term plans to transfer power. Within five years they had reacted to increasingly strident demands by quickly granting independence.

On 30 June 1960 an elected government led by Joseph Kasa-vubu as president and Patrice Lumumba as prime minister took power. By then, however, there were many powerful interests—some international and some internal—who had other ideas about how the newly independent country should be governed, and even whether it should be one state. Within a month the southern province of Katanga, backed by thousands of Belgian troops and assorted mercenaries, had seceded. Congolese leaders requested United Nations assistance to restore order, and Ireland was one of the countries asked to supply troops as quickly as possible.

Sergeant Hugh Gaynor
Among the Irish soldiers who went to bring peace to the Congo was Sergeant Hugh ‘Sonny’ Gaynor from Leixlip, Co. Kildare, then aged 27. In early August 1960 he left with the 33rd Infantry Battalion, the second Irish unit to arrive there. It took four days to reach the Congo, and in one letter to his in-laws in Dublin—sent on Tuesday 30 August—Gaynor describes the long journey. They flew in darkness over Europe until they reached Libya, and ‘when daylight came we saw the first of the sands of the N[or]th African Desert’. When they landed at Wheelus air base in Tripoli, he noted that ‘the heat was unbearable, especially in our bull’s wool uniforms’. After flying another nine hours to Nigeria, Gaynor was informed that they were heading for Kamina in the troubled province of Katanga, whose secession was opposed by the UN. Kamina air base was the largest in central Africa and important tactically. Although very modern, Gaynor observed: ‘It’s a beautiful place but it’s not like home.’


Balubas in rebellion against Katanganese

Niemba and its immediate vicinity

Niemba and its immediate vicinity

Meanwhile, the situation to the north-east of the air base was deteriorating. The local tribe—the Baluba—were not in favour of Kantangan secession and also had an uneasy relationship with the pygmy peoples of the area. On 14 September 1960, around Manono, the Baluba rebelled against efforts by Katangan forces to control the area. Most of the battalion was now transferred to northern Katanga, centred on Albertville and Manono. Set amidst countryside planted with cotton, Niemba—on a road between Albertville and Manono—consisted of a railway station, a small group of administration buildings and some shops and stores along one main street, with small local villages nearby, the closest of which was a mile away.

On 27 September, a 45-strong Irish patrol—made up of all ranks—noted that Niemba was untouched by the rebellion but that villages further along the road to Manono were deserted and burnt. At one village they encountered a party of nearly 100 armed Baluba, who rushed to within five yards of the Irish before halting on the orders of the Irish through an interpreter. Through the interpreter, the Baluba stated that they intended to attack Albertville and ‘the pygmies’, whom they accused of attacking their villages.

A week later, on the evening of 4 October, Niemba was looted by Katangan gendarmerie and many Baluba were massacred. A UN patrol sent to check the situation discovered an abandoned town, and it was decided to establish a small post there to encourage the local population to return, and to protect them if they did. Two days later, Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson, aged 30, and half his platoon—including Gaynor—left Kamina for Albertville, and on 8 October set up base at Niemba.

In a letter finished on 1 November, Gaynor wrote to his relatives about the violence in the area; he describes discovering bodies that ‘had been ripped open’ and ‘young men that they had cut the legs off below the knees and forced them to walk around in a big circle before they eventually opened their heads with a chopper’. He notes that the perpetrators, whom he thought were in some cases Baluba, had left: ‘When we came they had left and most of the places were burned down and we had to bury and burn 17 bodies and what a job. Most of the villages were deserted and we had to search each one looking for bodies.’

There is little doubt that these details must have alarmed his relatives, as well as giving an insight into the risks of stationing the soldiers at Niemba. Lt-Col. Donal F. Crowley, then a captain, remembered going by train to Niemba on 3 November. At five train stations there were only women and children—but no men—to be seen. When they disembarked at Niemba, he recalled that ‘a Land Rover approached promptly and we had a big handshake and fáilte from the driver, Sergeant Hugh Gaynor and Pte Jim Creagh’. Crowley states that Gleeson noted that an interpreter was needed for negotiating with local chiefs and while on patrol. In addition, there was an increased armed Baluba presence in the countryside and a jumpy Irish sentry accidentally wounded a local Baluba youth, who survived his head wound.

The ambush

how it relates to the rest of the Congo and Katanga. (Sarah Gearty)

how it relates to the rest of the Congo and Katanga. (Sarah Gearty)

On 7 November, two Irish patrols—one from Manono, the other from Niemba, which included Gleeson, Gaynor and 48 others from ‘A’ company in Albertville—left to meet along the Niemba–Manono road. Encountering roadblocks every mile, the Niemba patrol only got fourteen miles down the road, as far as a destroyed bridge over the River Luweyeye, before returning. That evening, Gaynor went to the train station in Niemba to pick up the remainder of the platoon, who had until then still been stationed at Kamina. This group included young Pte J. Fitzpatrick, who, like Gaynor, was part of the ill-fated ambushed patrol.

On the following day, 8 November, the Irish again continued down the road, but it was a much smaller patrol, comprising just some of Gleeson’s platoon in a jeep and pick-up truck. Accompanying Gleeson was Gaynor, Cpl P. Kelly, Cpl L. Dougan, Pte W. Davis, Pte M. McGuinn, Pte G. Killeen, Pte M. Farrell, Tpr A. Browne, Pte J. Fitzpatrick and Pte T. Kenny. Coming again to the destroyed bridge, the patrol halted—and some, including Gleeson and Gaynor, crossed the river to investigate how to progress. It was at this point that they were attacked by Baluba, and after the ambush only young Fitzpatrick and Kenny were found alive. It was a day later when Fitzpatrick was found by an Ethiopian UN search party, while it was two days before Irish Army personnel located Kenny. Both survivors have given interviews and written harrowing accounts of the attack by the Baluba on the small patrol at a river crossing some miles from Niemba.

Other activities

A somewhat creased part of Gaynor’s letter speaks of other work in which he had been involved before his death. ‘Only last Saturday’, he wrote, ‘two of the boys found a little girl of eight in one village, which was thought to [be] empty.’

Gaynor’s letter of 1 November 1960 from Niemba detailing Baluba atrocities. Within a week he and eight other Irish soldiers would be dead. (National Museum of Ireland)

Gaynor’s letter of 1 November 1960 from Niemba detailing Baluba atrocities. Within a week he and eight other Irish soldiers would be dead. (National Museum of Ireland)

‘When everyone fled before the Balubas they left her there because she is paralysed from the hips down and survived for […] days without water or food by eating fruit which fell from a tree from outside the hut. Naturally we give her food and drink everyday and someone washes her. Now we hope to get her taken to a hospital even if we have to pay ourselves.’

Gaynor also notes an event mentioned in the unit journal, when they rescued a Belgian priest, Fr Beeders, from detainment at Nyunza, a town 30–40 miles east of Niemba. The venture involved hacking their way through numerous roadblocks of felled trees: ‘Only ten days ago I was one of seven men who rescued a Belgian priest. We were heros [sic] in a few hours and for a few hours.’ It’s one of the most poignant aspects of Gaynor’s correspondence: he felt pride in the work of the Irish troops, and the desire to help those who couldn’t protect themselves shines through.  HI

Siobhán Pierce is Education Officer at the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street.

Further reading:

Military Heritage Trust of Ireland, www.irishsoldiers.com.

D. O’Donoghue, The Irish Army in the Congo 1960–1964: The Far Battalions (Dublin, 2005).



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