Sad tale of a sensible surrender

 

History: An ill-fated battle by Irish forces serving the UN in the Congo in 1961 still generates unease.

In the past 18 months this is the third book to be published about the fight of the Irish UN soldiers of the 35th Battalion in the Katangese town of Jadotville in September 1961. It is by far the fullest account of what became known in the Irish army as the Jadotville Affair, a tragic tale of the surrender by Irish soldiers in an ill-advised battle by UN forces trying to prevent the secession of Katanga from the rest of the Congo.

The UN forces' attempt to halt Moise Tshombe's secession by force of arms was messy and unprofessional. Operation Morthor, as it was called, was centred on Elizabethville, while "A" Company of the Irish 35th Battalion was stationed in Jadotville, 80 miles away. The fact that Commandant Pat Quinlan, the CO of "A" Company, had not been told of the impending military operation is still inexplicable and appalling, now, 45 years later.

Quinlan and his 150 men had been sent by the UN to Jadotville, an important mining town virtually run by the Union Miniere, to replace twice that number of UN soldiers who had left it a week before Quinlan got there. UN troops were sent to Jadotville on the insistence of the Belgian government, ostensibly to protect the white population of the town. But the truth was that the Belgians there did not want UN troops, were not fearful for their lives, hated the whole notion of the United Nations and were opposed to its ideals and practices. With the aid of white mercenaries and the Katangese gendarmarie, the soldiers of "A" Company were surrounded and cut off from Elizabethville a week after they got there.

Ill-equipped and short of rations and intelligence about what was going on, Quinlan nevertheless took the logical and forthright precautions of digging in and entrenching his men in weapon pits, so that by the time the gendarmarie and the Katangese army attacked them - with the enthusiastic support of the huge majority of the white population - they were able to put up a stiff defensive resistance.

They were not only outnumbered by perhaps 10 to one, but their water and electricity were cut off and they were mortared on the ground and bombed and strafed from the air for four days before they agreed - sensibly in my opinion - to a ceasefire and eventual surrender. They were then imprisoned by the Katangese for weeks on end before being eventually released. Their casualties for the battle were five wounded. They may have killed up to 200 Katangese and wounded many more during the fighting.

Rose Doyle's book includes daily - sometimes hourly - details of the battle. And why not - she is, after all, Pat Quinlan's niece and has had access to his journals, his letters home, his subsequent writings and, most importantly, his radio log during the fighting and afterwards.

The UN decision to send men to Jadotville was wrong and should not have been allowed to happen . The company was ill-equipped for its task. Efforts to relieve the besieged men failed on two occasions.

The radio log between Quinlan and his superiors in Elizabethville clearly shows the desperation with which he appeals for reinforcements. Time and time again he asked his superiors for help "...in ainm Dé, in the name of God...", only to be told that attempts to get reinforcements through had failed.

In the end he was forced to concede to ceasefire talks with his enemy, talks which rapidly turned to surrender. Similar talks were going on in Elizabethville on the whole Operation Morthor, but only the Irish at Jadotville surrendered and were taken into captivity.

QUINLAN EMERGES FROM this book as a prickly character, utterly dismissive of the capabilities of UN civilian and military authorities. He justifies his surrender on the grounds that his men would have been wiped out if the fighting had gone on, and there is no doubt that their losses would have been great.

Yet for the rest of their lives Quinlan and the men who fought at Jadotville were tarnished by their action in giving in. The men were sneered at by other Irish troops, and for years their reputations suffered. Their surrender was seen by many in the army and in Irish politics as shameful. For years the army itself appeared to airbrush the whole incident from history. No one, it seemed, wanted to know the facts - that Quinlan had fought a good fight, that the UN had made a cock-up in sending these men to this town, that they had failed signally to relieve or reinforce them. Pat Quinlan is dead. I only met him once, when he looked at me quizzically in a bar in an Athlone hotel and said: "I suppose you don't want to talk to me?" We were both embarrassed at our encounter. Officers who served with him during the dreadful days of the fight have done a great deal to see that his name is honoured or at least not traduced. The army at home has done something, just a little, to make amends for its omissions.

Quite frankly this is a naturally partisan account of this whole affair, as seen and told by and about the men of "A" Company, who suffered so much. It is clear that the author does not accept that her uncle's reputation as a good soldier has been upheld, and there is a distinct feeling diplomacy has seen to it that those who should be named remain anonymous. Are there still heads to roll? The sense of unease about Jadotville, alas, remains.

Cathal O'Shannon is a broadcaster and journalist. He accompanied the first Irish troops to the Congo in 1960 as a reporter for The Irish Times

Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers' Story By Rose Doyle, with Leo Quinlan New Island, 383pp. €19.95