‘The Peacemakers of Niemba’
Sir. – There are several points in your article about the Niemba ambush (“60 years on: Why Irish soldiers who died in Niemba did not get medals”, November 7th) which, in the interests of historical accuracy, require clarification, particularly in relation to my book, The Peacemakers of Niemba.
Taking them in sequence, Ronan McGreevy says eight of the soldiers were killed on the spot by arrows tipped with poison. There was a belief among the soldiers that the Baluba used poisoned arrows, but no evidence emerged that the arrows used in the ambush were in fact poisoned.
Your article states that it was assumed the Irish troops were killed in a case of mistaken identity as the Balubas believed they were hostile foreign mercenaries. This is not so. According to the evidence of the warriors tried afterwards for murder, the chief told them, “Either the Irish will turn back at the bridge, or else it is war and you will win or die.” Furthermore, speakers on phone calls intercepted afterwards referred to the “Irish”.
I would also like to make it clear that no draft of the manuscript of my book, The Peacemakers of Niemba, was submitted by me to the Army or the Department of Defence, so no changes were recommended to me and no changes were made. When I asked the then-taoiseach, Seán Lemass, to write a foreword to the book, I sent a copy to him, and neither he nor any of his staff asked me to make any changes.
The reason I asked Lemass to write the foreword was that one particular officer I wished to interview was worried about the ethics of Operation Shamrock in which a number of Baluba warriors were taken from their hospital beds and handed over to the Katanga authorities who tried them for murder. The officer subsequently agreed to talk to me in the knowledge that Lemass had endorsed their actions.
Among the changes to my manuscript said to have been recommended referred to the fact that an unnamed soldier was only 16 years old.
This presumably is a reference to Pte Patrick Davis who, when under age, enlisted using his brother’s baptismal certificate. The circumstances in which he was killed accidentally by a fellow soldier in the tense situation that followed the ambush are set out in detail in my book, together with a photograph of Pte Davis. I received no request for changes to this episode or any other parts of my book and, as I say, no such changes were made.
If in retrospect, the taoiseach asked the Department of Defence for their views after receiving my manuscript, he certainly didn’t convey their recommendations for changes to me, which speaks well of him.
As for medals, if Lieut Gleeson and his men had deployed their light machine guns they could have survived the ambush, but only by killing perhaps 200 Baluba, in which case it would have been seen as a massacre by UN troops. Instead they paid a price that should have been recognised. I also believe that the courage displayed by Lieut Gleeson and another patrol in rescuing the Belgian priest Fr Peters from a town swarming with hostile warriors should have been recognised. – Yours, etc,