‘A’ company, 35th (Irish) Infantry Battalion: The Action at Jadotville

‘A’ company, 35th (Irish) Infantry Battalion:  The Action at Jadotville, Katanga, Republic of the Congo, September 1961

This is an article, published in the October edition of An Cosantóir, written by Dr. James McCafferty DSM, BA, (Hons), PhD.
Dr McCafferty served with the United Nations in the Congo with the 34 Infantry Battalion, 36 Infantry Battalion and 39 Infantry Battalion.

His PhD thesis ‘Political and military aspects of the Irish Army’s service with UN forces in the Congo 1960-64’ is based on research carried out in Ireland, Belgium, Britain, France, Portugal, USA and USSR.   A copy of his thesis is lodged in Defence Force Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.

When there are strongholds to your rear,

And narrow passes in front,

You are on enclosed terrain.

And when there is no way out,

You are on Death terrain.

Sun Tzu.

This defensive action, fought over a period of five days in September 1961, has recently been the subject of renewed media interest and also, a recently released film.  It has been the subject of several books, journal articles and newspaper features.  This action is commonly known as ‘The Siege of Jadotville’.

This following analysis of the action is based on primary source material at Defence Forces Archives, Belgian Military Archives and on interviews with ‘Congo veterans’, who served in Katanga at that time.  The purpose (of the analysis) is to extrapolate and comment upon the essentials of the action; the efforts to relieve the garrison at Jadotville; the outcome for the men involved and the lessons to be learned.  Except where directly relevant, contemporaneous military actions by Irish troops in Elisabethville and Kamina are not discussed.

‘A’ company, 35th (Irish) Infantry Battalion (35IrBatt) had been posted to Jadotville on 3 September 1961, some ten days before hostilities with Katangese forces recommenced.  The company was about 155 all-ranks strong, supported by two Ford armoured cars. Available logistical information does not detail food, water, fuel or ammunition supplies carried.  35 IrBatt transport schedule records that ‘A’ company’s assigned transport comprised two buses, two trucks, three jeeps and two cars – all of which were either destroyed in action or captured at Jadotville.
‘A’ company had been detached from its parent unit at Elisabethville, some 120 kilometers south, crossing the river Lufira on the journey. A sole road bridge and a single-track rail bridge, some twelve kilometers distant, traversed this deep and fast river.   The next nearest UN unit was a composite force of 1st Irish Infantry Group plus one Swedish infantry company at Kamina air-base, some 200 kilometers north of Jadotville:  this force was actively engaged in defending the air-base from attacking Katangese forces at the same time as ‘A’ company were under siege in Jadotville.

Katangese forces had several – possibly up to five – Fouga Magister jet fighter/ trainers as air support.  UN forces had only fixed-wing transport aircraft and helicopters available: no fighters or helicopter gun-ships.

Neither the unit history, nor O/C ‘A’ company’s action report, make any mention of the preparation of precautionary defences at the Irish camp, but the action report clearly indicates that trenches had been dug about the Irish position.  As there had been earlier offensive action by Irish troops (and other UN troops) against Katangese forces in August 1961, digging-in at the Irish position in Jadotville suggests prudent defensive deployment – “dig-in or die”!

To summarise the situation, then, before the attacks by Katangese forces on the morning of 13 September 1961: ‘A’ company was established in a defended position at Jadotville.  Their nearest support elements were 120 kilometres to the south, and 200 kilometres north: as both elements were themselves engaged with Katangese forces, relief or support from either force was, to say the least, problematic or unlikely.  In addition, the company’s assigned transport based at Jadotville was insufficient to enable ‘A’ company to withdraw, which suggests that additional transport vehicles were used in the movement to Jadotville, and then returned to their base at Elisabethville.  ‘A’ company was without air-support, and the river Lufira presented a major obstacle if the bridges were defended or destroyed by Katangese.

Before the assault by Katangese forces began, on the morning of 13 September, the road-bridge was blocked by Katangese who also established strong defensive positions about the northern side of the bridge, and two days later, the rail-bridge was destroyed.  The total strength of Irish troops at Jadotville was about 170 men, when the crews of the armoured cars were factored in.  The strength of the Katangese forces was estimated by O/C ‘A’ Company at between 4,000 and 5,000 men, equipped with FN SL rifles, MMGs and LMGs; 81 mm mortars.

Irish armament was, mainly, FN SL rifles, Vickers MMGs, Bren LMGs, 81 mm mortars and 84mm Carl-Gustav anti-tank recoilless riles, with two Ford armoured cars in support; these latter equipped with Vickers MMGs.

Additionally, the Katangese forces had control of the road to Elisabethville, of the river Lufira; also, of the road north and – crucially – the water supply to the Irish position, which was cut-off during the siege.  As the offensive action by Katangese forces against the Irish troops began, on the morning of 13 September 1961, ‘A’ company were faced by vastly superior forces and were in a strategically untenable position to withstand sustained, prolonged assaults.

In the period between first assault of 13 September and inevitable capitulation by ‘A’ company on 18 September, two attempts were made to relieve the company by Irish and Indian forces sortied from UN brigade HQ in Elisabethville.  These attempts, known as Force Kane, were first essayed by one infantry company and at second attempt, two infantry companies plus one section of armoured cars in support.  Robust defence of the road-bridge and the destroyed rail-bridge foiled both relief attempts over the otherwise impassable Lufira River.

There is no record of an attempt to co-ordinate a fighting breakout by ‘A’ company with the relief efforts.  One attempt to re-supply ‘A’ company by helicopter ended in the destruction of the helicopter – when it was on the ground at Jadotville – by air attack from a Fouga jet fighter.   35 IrBatt signal log records that, during the siege of ‘A’ company at Jadotville, airdrop re-supply by either of a Douglas DC 3 or a DC 4 was mooted on two occasions, but not executed.

When, inevitably, ‘A’ company’s commander decided on 18 September 1961 that his troops could no longer resist the sustained assaults by Katangese ground and air forces and that capitulation was the best course open to him, it was because his troops’ food, water and ammunition were virtually exhausted and that further resistance would lead to loss of life of members of his command.  At this point, it is salient to observe that despite five days of alternating fighting and temporary cease-fires, not a single Irish soldier had been killed.

In his post-action report, O/C ‘A’ company estimated that the Irish had inflicted losses on the Katangese forces of some 150 killed and eighty wounded.   In circumstances such as those obtaining at Jadotville at that time, a commander is faced with the dichotomy of ‘fighting to the last man – or capitulating with honour’.  That the course of the ending of resistance was chosen by O/C ‘A’ company ensured that his men survived and ‘lived to fight another day’.

The Irish infantry company and supports went into captivity on 18 September, were released in prisoner exchange on 24 October 1961, and took part in renewed fighting with Katangese forces in December 1961.  This captivity was – for the most part – endured in very poor conditions.

In total, sixty-five Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs) were awarded to Irish soldiers for service in the Congo.  Of these, three were awarded to one officer and two NCOs who were involved in the action at Jadotville and Force Kane.  However, only one of these can positively be linked to Jadotville: the award to an NCO who took part in Force Kane relief efforts.  As for the other two DSMs awarded to an officer (a platoon commander at Jadotville) and to an NCO (a platoon sergeant at Jadotville), their citations merely state that they were awarded for ‘distinguished service in the Republic of the Congo, during September and December 1961’.

In September 2016, 55 years after the events, Presidential Citations were awarded for the action by ‘A’ company at Jadotville in September 1961.

The details of the siege, the fighting and the attendant temporary cease-fires have been exhaustively analysed and discussed: this article did not set out to repeat those exercises, but to take an holistic overview of the siege and to extrapolate lessons.

The most significant lesson from the Siege of Jadotville is that a unit should never be placed in a position where it cannot be withdrawn, relieved, re-supplied or reinforced.

James McCafferty. 27 September 2016.