The Irish Army in the Congo, 1960–64: the far battalions

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The Irish Army in the Congo, 1960–64 the far battalions 1The Irish Army in the Congo, 1960–64: the far battalions
David O’Donoghue
(Irish Academic Press, hb ?55.50/pb ?25)
ISBN 0716528185/0716533197
The UN operation in the former Belgian Congo was a confused and sometimes chaotic affair. Some saw its role as keeping communism out of Africa, others as ending Belgian influence. The force’s mandate was to help restore law and order but it could not, in theory, intervene in the state’s internal affairs. Military command was vested not in the force commander but in the secretary-general (Dag Hammarskjöld) and, through him, his special representative. Troops were deployed in penny-packets without adequate military resources or logistical support, a policy that resulted in the death of nine members of an Irish patrol at Niemba and the surrender of an Irish company at Jadotville. The UN Security Council (in February 1961) authorised the ‘use of force’ but failed to ensure provision of the necessary resources. And while Taoiseach Seán Lemass declared that this country would not become involved in any internal Congolese dispute, Irish personnel would kill and be killed in efforts to end the secession of Katanga province.
Dr O’Donoghue’s compilation of essays and interviews does not seek to address major issues; it is simply, in his words, ‘a living testimony of people who lived through the 1960–64 time’. Nevertheless, the accounts of Irish troops’ first experience of peacekeeping should cause many readers to examine in more detail the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of still-controversial events. The book provides considerable material for debate on views expressed and accounts of events found in the literature on ‘the Congo’; in particular, contributions from General P. D. Hogan and Belgian and Congolese sources challenge certain ‘accepted truths’ concerning the background to the crisis and the attitudes and motives of major players in the drama.
Life for the Congolese in the 1950s was not as grim as usually presented. Congolese workers were arguably the best paid in Africa; housing and medical facilities were good; and while the number of third-level graduates was extraordinarily low, much of the population had attained a level of post-primary education that compared favourably with that of most Irish people at that time. Patrice Lumumba, generally presented (including in this book) as an inspirational leader, was a controversial figure, erratic and irresponsible. Having warned that premature introduction of political ferment would result in dissent and discord, he then launched a ‘nationalist’ movement, precipitating over-hasty granting of self-rule. Within weeks of becoming premier he sent the undisciplined National Army against his enemies, unleashing a campaign of violence described by Hammarskjöld as ‘genocide’. The United States undoubtedly connived at Lumumba’s downfall, but this move was, in the circumstances of the time, unsurprising. The Congo had been the source of raw material for the American atomic-weapons programme; allowing the Soviet Union to gain access to this material would have been, for most Western governments, unthinkable. Equally, permitting the Soviets to gain a foothold in such a strategic location could have had major repercussions.
There are graphic descriptions of the ambush at Niemba from the survivors, Privates Kenny and Fitzpatrick; interestingly, these differ markedly from their earlier statements, particularly in relation to the role played by the late Trooper Browne, who for his action was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry. In their initial accounts, recorded in the History of the 33rd Battalion, both refer to Browne’s role in a favourable light, Kenny presenting the trooper’s intervention as saving him from certain death. Kenny now regards the awarding of the medal as a mistake, without explaining why. Fitzpatrick makes no reference to Browne’s medal, but clearly both feel aggrieved at not receiving an award. Whatever the merits of their case for greater recognition, their accounts, ‘old’ and ‘new’, highlight the unpreparedness of the Irish soldiers for the attack. Trained for ‘conventional warfare’ and bound by strict rules of engagement, the patrol fell easy victim to Baluba tribesmen armed with bows and arrows.
If Kenny and Fitzpatrick’s perception of events long ago has changed, that of Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien has not. In an interview, the former representative of the secretary-general in Katanga holds to the version of events given in his To Katanga and back, laying blame for the ill-fated attempt to ‘smash’ Katanga in September 1961 squarely on Hammarskjöld. While the latter could certainly be faulted for going along with the February ’61 resolution, it was O’Brien (in his own words ‘a total civilian’) who, without consulting the force commander and ignoring advice from the experienced Swedish commander, committed the troops to action. The operation in Elizabethville was poorly planned, resistance was greater than anticipated, and 150 Irish soldiers isolated at Jadotville became, effectively, hostages.
An article on Jadotville presents a colourful description by one of the participants of events at that location. Still unanswered, however, are the questions that have ensured that discussion of the incident has for long remained taboo, namely (a) why the troops were there, and (b) on whose orders. ‘A’ coy. 35th Battalion was dispatched to the strongly pro-Katanga town just days before hostilities in Elizabethville were to commence, and within hours of a two-company strong body having been withdrawn by the commander of forces in Elizabethville ‘on military grounds’. Why the smaller Irish force was sent into an obvious trap has never been satisfactorily established. Dr O’Brien’s ‘explanation’ (to this reviewer) that the move was in response to ‘orders from the top’ suggests that UN HQ knew or cared little about the situation in the field or that the peacekeepers were mere pawns in a game being played out by members of the Security Council. Moreover, Dr O’Brien’s declaration in 1995 that now the Congo should be allowed to fall apart raises the question of whether the military action to preserve the Congo’s integrity in 1961 and the associated loss of life were really justified. Most importantly, the Katanga issue shows that a decision to send soldiers to kill and to die in pursuit of an uncertain objective should not be taken lightly.
In a desire to recount their experiences, personnel of all rank pour out recollections in a disorganised fashion and with much repetition; it is clear also that time has impaired the powers of recall of some of the older soldiers. Accounts of encounters with personnel of other contingents will to the reader of today seem almost juvenile in character, but they reflect the extraordinary isolation of Ireland in the early 1960s. And if there is much padding there is much to entertain and inform.
Given the many references to the highly unsuitable clothing and obsolescent weapons with which the troops were provided, it is a pity that the book contains no contribution from an Irish politician. Possible participation in a UN mission (UNEF 1) had been debated in the Dáil in 1957 but no provision whatever had been made for engagement in any subsequent operations. The politicians were not entirely to blame, however, for the army’s unreadiness for UN service. The absence of any meaningful debriefing of returning personnel suggests that the then general staff may not have welcomed discussion of the issues of planning and training. Niemba could thus be presented as an ‘unfortunate incident’, and Jadotville could be ‘buried’. And while the general staff might have had no direct role in these two incidents, the state of submissiveness induced in the troops over many years had left its mark. Accustomed to hardship and to operating with limited resources, the Irish abroad stoically accepted conditions and assignments that other nationalities would reject. It is not surprising that, on occasions when Congo veterans meet, an inevitable comment is ‘we were blessed not to have lost many, many more’.

Col. John Terence O’Neill PhD served with 34th Battalion in the Congo from January to July 1961.

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