Congo: the Army's bloody coming of age

 

On Friday, the Irish Army commemorates the 50th anniversary of deploying troops to the Congo. They were ill-equipped, inexperienced and unprepared for the catastrophic battles they would face

THEY BOARDED the giant US cargo plane at Baldonnel giddy with excitement. The archbishop blessed them and the minister for defence said a few grave words. With crowds of well-wishers and press photographers gathered on the tarmac, many felt like movie stars.

“As far as we were concerned we were just going on a big adventure,” says Fintan Morrissey, then an 18-year-old private from Mountrath, Co Laois. “We hadn’t a clue where the Congo was or what was going on there.”

“I was just coming off the children’s allowance, really,” says Joe Mallon of Newbridge, another young recruit. “They were looking for volunteers, and I jumped at the chance; it was the excitement of going somewhere.”

It was July 1960. The Army was setting off on its first major overseas mission since the foundation of the State, providing an armed peacekeeping force in newly independent Congo. It was marked by a mixture of pride, optimism and excitement. Four years later the mood was very different. Twenty-six coffins had arrived home. The troops had been woefully underprepared and ill equipped for entering what was, in effect, a war zone.

The mission was regarded officially as a success, and there were moments of triumph. But the deaths and needless logistical mistakes cast a shadow over the Army for decades.

Getting the troops ready had been a rushed job. Ireland, which had joined the UN only five years earlier, responded enthusiastically to an urgent call for peacekeeping troops from UN headquarters in New York. The Army had just a few days to form a battalion, the 32nd, of almost 700 men; a second battalion, the 33rd, followed a month later.

“The mission evolved from a peacekeeping one initially to what would nowadays be called peace enforcing,” says Dr David O’Donoghue, author of The Irish Army in the Congo 1960-64(published by the Irish Academic Press). “The Congo had descended into chaos and civil war.”

The first hint of a problem was the Army’s uniform. Troops were wearing the traditional “bull’s wool” uniform and hobnail boots, which were totally impractical for the tropical climate. It also turned out that nobody spoke French, Swahili or Lingala, forcing the Army to borrow interpreters from the Swedish army and to hire locals.

Guns were also an issue. Most privates were issued with bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles, despite evidence that some local groups were equipped with much more advanced weapons.

But perhaps the biggest pitfall was the density of troops; the Army was patrolling an area several times the size of Ireland. The lack of advanced radio technology meant it was difficult to patrol with strong numbers or to stay in contact with headquarters. “I don’t like to run down the Army, but we weren’t well trained,” says Fintan Morrissey. “I don’t think we realised the danger we were in at the time.”

The biggest reality check came just four months into the mission. The Niemba massacre. in which nine troops died, was regarded not as a humiliating defeat but as the bravest of battles. Crowds not seen since the funerals of Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins lined the streets of the capital as the coffins returned home.

It also added to the national lexicon a new term of abuse, “Baluba”, referring to the tribe that mounted the attack. They were reviled at the time, but many people now feel they were simply protecting their homeland from attack. The tribe was being slaughtered by troops loyal to the breakaway mineral-rich province of Katanga, which is now widely seen as a puppet state for Belgium and powerful mining companies.

Cathal O’Shannon, who reported from the Congo for The Irish Times, wrote later that the Baluba tribe was “driven by sheer desperation to band together and fight”. “As far as they were concerned, the [Irish troops] were white men; they were moving Baluba road-blocks. That was enough. That doesn’t excuse or belittle the ambush.”

Many of the problems facing the Army were eventually addressed, and they received tropical uniforms, patrolled in bigger numbers and adopted a much more cautious approach to dealing with local tribes.

The Irish soldiers went on to play more important and enduring parts in the history of the Congo by fighting to save the city of Elizabethville; winning the battle of “the tunnel” on the outskirts of the city; and holding on to a military base at Jamina. In September 1961, 155 Irish soldiers were imprisoned after the battle of Jadotville. This was seen in some military quarters as a humiliation, although the Army has since recognised that the men acted appropriately.

Next week the Army will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the deployment of the troops to Congo. Although the deployment casts a shadow, Dr O’Donoghue says it also marked a coming of age for the Army. It was a watershed, he says. “It spurred many more armed missions to Lebanon and elsewhere which continue to this day.” He believes the mission may well have limited the death toll in the civil war and helped reunite the country.

Its achievements were to be undermined, however, by a coup by General Mobuto in 1965, which marked the start of a brutal 30-year dictatorship built on exploitation and intimidation.

Today most Congo veterans are in their late 60s and early 70s. Their stories are a blend of humour, pathos and tragedy. These were mostly lads in their teens with limited education and little or no experience of overseas combat. “It forged a bond between all of us who served,” says Morrissey. “I still get cards from lads in the 33rd.”

“When I came back I was hugged and kissed,” says Joe Mallon, now known as Congo Joe. “I think the Army was held in more respect afterwards. Why? Because, despite everything, I think we did them proud.”

Joe Fitzpatrick’s terraced house in Cabra, Dublin, is full of his paintings. Some are vibrant landscapes, others are intimate portraits. One in particular stands out: it’s an aerial view of the site of the Niemba massacre, with pen portraits of the Irish patrol members. Only two survived. He was one of them.

It remains the greatest loss of life suffered by the Irish Army in a single incident. On November 8th, 1960, an 11-man patrol was ambushed by Baluba tribesmen near the village of Niemba. Some tribesmen were armed with guns; others had spears and bows and arrows.

Fitzpatrick, now 70, recalls the chaos with perfect clarity. “I just remember Lieutenant Gleeson approaching them and saying, ‘jamba’, which meant ‘peace’. Then he got an arrow in the arm,” he says.

Discrepancies remain about what happened next. In any case, the patrol was hit by a hail of arrows. Some Irish troops were bludgeoned to death as they lay wounded. Others died within minutes from poisoned arrows. About 25 Baluba tribesmen were killed in return fire.

“The air was full of black arrows. It was like a John Wayne film. I got into a state of hilarity; I started roaring laughing. It was all excitement,” Fitzpatrick says. “We didn’t know where we were going. We were scattered everywhere. I met Gerry Kileen, a cook, in the bush. He was the colour of white marble and sweating like a tap.”

Some of soldiers regrouped by a ridge, but they were surrounded. They returned fire using bolt-action Lee Enfield riles. Fitzpatrick remembers the last words of Gleeson before he was killed: “He said, ‘Take cover lads, we’re all going to be killed.’ That was the last order I got. If it had have been a British army officer, he would have said, ‘For King and country!’ I wouldnt be here to tell the story.”

Fitzpatrick remembers Gerry Kileen being hit by an arrow in the shoulder. “I put my hand in my pocket and took out a little prayer book, and what came out but the Mass for the Dead: ‘Into thy hands, Lord, I command thy spirit.’ I think he died then.”

By then a crowd of tribesmen had gathered; Fitzpatrick says he fired more shots but couldn’t see much through the elephant grass and thick foliage. “I just remember the diarrhoea pouring out of me and the sweat pouring out of my fingernails.”

As night fell he stayed in the bush; the next day he was rescued by UN troops from Ethiopia. Another survivor, Tom Kenny, was also found shortly afterwards.

Fitzpatrick was surprised to be treated like a pariah on his return. “The whole concept of the Army was ‘do or die’. They didn’t want heroes – they only wanted dead heroes.” He left the Army shortly afterwards.

After a long campaign Fitzpatrick was recognised for his service in April 2007. Kenny was offered a similar commendation but did not accept it. Fitzpatrick says his anger about his treatment has subsided and he believes he has restored his good name. “I still say a prayer for the lads at Mass. We weren’t well prepared. We were only coming from the Curragh – it was all sheep and horses. They have learned a lot since, which is one good thing to come out of it.”