Military Heritage of Ireland Trust CLG

Series of Articles – The Congo

The Irish Defence Forces Experiences in the UN forces in the Congo 1960 – 1964



It is fifty years since Irish soldiers went to serve as part of a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo in July 1960. The experiences and events of the Irish Defence Force’s service there reflect both the inconsistencies and constraints of the original UN mandates and the complex political and military situation, but also the determination of the Irish to carry out the work of the UN and keep the peace, and indeed create peace, in the Congo. Based on the experiences of many of the soldiers who served there, this article gives a quick overview of the four years and primarily concentrates on the initial phase of operations in the Congo and explains some of the routine work involved in peacekeeping.

The History of the Congo

In 1960 seventeen newly independent states, sixteen of which were from Africa, joined the UN. One of those countries was the Republic of the Congo, emerging from nearly a century of Belgian misrule, which dated back to the 1878 when King Leopold of Belgium hired the explorer Henry Stanley to explore the area, establish the king’s authority and to sign treaties with African rulers. During the next few decades the country and its’ people were continually exploited by many of the private companies intent on mining the great mineral wealth of the Congo. Reports by campaigners such as Roger Casement brought some changes to the worst of the mining and rubber companies’ misrule, but by the middle of the twentieth century the country was still only partially developed. In 1955, when demands for independence were mounting throughout Africa, Antoine van Bilsen, a Belgian professor, published a “30-Year Plan” for granting the Congo increased self-government. Disappointed with the proposed long time line, Congolese nationalists, notably Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba, became increasingly strident in their calls for independence. In 1959, there were serious nationalist riots in Kinshasa and thereafter the Belgians steadily began to lose control of the Congo.

The Background to the Formation of UN Forces

In January 1960, at a roundtable conference in Brussels that included Congolese nationalists, it was decided that the Belgian Congo would become fully independent on 30 June 1960. The first legislative elections took place in May and the first central government took office one week before independence, with Joseph Kasa-Vubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister. A high-level UN Secretariat Mission was sent to Leopoldville for the Independence Day ceremonies on 30th June and stayed on to discuss plans for UN technical assistance. On 5th July as a result of a decision to delay the start of re-organising the officers’ corps of the Congolese army, a series of mutinies by soldiers took place in garrisons all over the country. While the President and Prime Minister were trying to negotiate with the mutineers, the Belgian government decided that military intervention had become necessary. Contemporaneously two of the country’s richest states, Katanga and Kivu, started planning to secede. Parliamentary representatives from Katanga, who were most vociferous in criticising the government, were headed by Moïse Tshombé. On 10th July, Belgian paratroops already stationed in the Congo since before independence went to Elizabethville, the capital of Katanga province, purportedly to assist Mr. Tshombé to control the situation and protect Belgian civilians. On 11th July, Tshombé proclaimed the independence of Katanga province. The following day, the Congolese government sent a cable to the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld asking for the urgent dispatch of U.N. military assistance to respond to the Belgian’s military action. Hammarskjöld addressed the Security Council at a night meeting on 13th and the Security Council adopted a resolution which called upon the Government of Belgium to withdraw its troops from the Congo, and authorized the Secretary-General to provide the Congolese with the necessary military assistance until the national security forces of the central government were able to fully meet their tasks. Following Security Council actions, the United Nations Force in the Congo (Organisation des Nations Unies de Congo – ONUC) was established. On the 22nd, another resolution demanding Belgian withdrawal was passed. Meanwhile, the first of the ONUC troops from Tunisia, Ethiopia, Ghana and Morocco arrived at Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo, on the evening of 15 July and were deployed the next morning. By the 26th there were 9,496 UN forces in the Congo from the following countries Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Morocco, Sweden and Tunisia.

The Departure and Deployment of the First Two Irish Battalions

Irish Soldiers in The CongoOn the 17th July, the UN requested the Irish government to send a force of men as part of the ONUC to the Congo. The next day a cabinet meeting was called and the idea approved. Meanwhile the amendment to the Defence Act to allow the soldiers to serve overseas was drafted, was submitted by the IDF and was passed in the Dáil on the 26th July.The call for volunteers and departure of the Irish soldiers to Africa occurred exceptionally fast. In a period of just two weeks the government and Dáil agreed to send two infantry battalions to the Congo and the first Irish battalion in the ONUC the 32nd Battalion arrived in the Congo.

Preparations and Organization of Departure of Initial Irish ONUC Battalions.

The rapid escalation of tensions in the Congo led to a quick deployment, which was all the more amazing given that the army that had never before sent large units of men to serve abroad. While there were briefings for senior Officers, these were simple and basic due to time constraints. The advance part of the 32nd Battalion left on the 23rdJuly and the main body left on the 28th July. With personnel being sent out in such quick succession, the problems which arose for the first battalion were not all resolved by time the second departed. There was a scramble for supplies and information for the men – the English War Office was asked to supply water sterilizing equipment, health manuals for the tropics, and a very important piece of equipment 1,500 water bags. The Irish Ambassador to Belgium, meanwhile, sent 14 maps of the Congo to the Defence Forces. The soldiers also had to endure medical checks before they left. They endured thorough inoculations for tropical diseases which, left some ill, and rigorous dental checks. Nearly half of the 32nd and 33rd battalions had bad reactions to two of the vaccines. Due to this experience and those of later ONUC troops it was agreed by the medical corps that the inoculations should happen 5 weeks before departure. The dental health of the soldiers reflected that of the Irish nation: in other words, it was woeful, and some soldiers had to endure many teeth being extracted – some poor men as many as 11 -before they left. Infamous now are the photographs of the 32nd and 33rd battalions heading for Africa in their heavy “bulls wool” uniforms and soft caps as they board the huge United States Air Force Globemaster planes for their four day journey to the Congo. It would be two months before all troops had the appropriate lighter uniforms for the climate.

Uniforms and Health of Irish Battalions of the ONUC

Irish Soldiers in the Congo
Throughout the four years of their service in the Congo, there were continuous appeals for a greater supply of these uniforms per soldier. In the beginning, only two shirts were allocated per soldier, which is far from ideal in such a tropical climate. The brassards or armbands announcing the soldiers were Irish and part of the UN, essential for peacekeeping forces, were however fairly well organized, though too requiring cleaning! These brassards are key pieces of kit as they demonstrated the Irish soldiers were UN soldiers –important when there were many white mercenaries in the region. Unfortunately, the dye and colours sometimes ran and this problem still occurred in late 1963 during the last months of the mission. irish Soldiers in the CongoOver the four years of the mission the Irish soldiers at times endured erratic supplies, due to a labyrinth of UN paperwork and logistical problems, and on at least one occasion the Defence Forces sent officers to investigate logistical problems. Surprisingly the initial battalions of soldiers adapted well to the climate in that their sickness rate compared favourably to other ONUC battalions. During the first month the ratio of illness per 1000, was 81.3 for the first month, amazing given the majority of the men had not been outside Europe or served abroad before starting their month tour of duty. The sick rate would however vary through the four years given the wide range of accommodation, food and conditions experienced by Irish troops –from bungalows once occupied by the Belgian elite to tents and accommodation which had been long in use by other UN troops and not cleaned before it was handed over to the Irish. 80% of the 1st Infantry Group fell ill with dysentery to gastroenteritis. The Irish command also ensured, when the opportunity arose, the troops participated in as many athletic sports and leagues as possible. Irish troops of the 35th battalion joined in a sports days in Leopoldville and troops of the 38th played football against a Rhodesian team, and also against ANC, Belgian and other local teams. The GAA and the FAI also sent out sports equipment for the soldiers and some battalions at quieter times played many sports, the 39th utilised basketball and volley ball pitches, and a running track. One wise decision made by the Irish was the decision to limit the tour per soldier to six months at a time and this would have resulted in the long run in healthier troops.

The Nature of the Area the Irish were Deployed and Armed Forces in the Congo

The ONUC numbers peaked at 20,000 but this is not a large force as they were patrolling and keeping the peace in an area the same size of western Europe – 2,344,858 square kilometres. The first issue that the Irish battalions in the Congo had to tackle was the size and nature of the areas they were responsible for. The battalions were normally in areas worst affected by the fighting, in Katanga and Kivu, coincidentally the richest provinces and dominated by Belgian money. The dense jungle and scrub and poor roads of some of this area brought problems, the maintenance of vehicles being a major headache for many battalions. Initially, the problems of patrolling such terrain were exacerbated by a lack of powerful radios, resulting in some radio operatives being particularly imaginative when seeking radio signals. The 32nd Unit history notes on one instance, ‘On arrival at Shabunda, the patrol was met by a hostile group of ANC soldiers, but once again diplomacy won the day, and 22.0 hours saw Corporal King frantically climbing banana trees in an endeavour to set up aerials for his radio.’ The main issue facing the Irish was to understand the politics and thus actions of the three main types of military forces the Irish would encounter. The secessionist Katangan force that the UN was facing was well equipped and led by very experienced and determined white mercenaries. The Congolese Army, the ANC (Armeé Nationale Congolaise), was the Central Government’s force, hence the legitimate army of the state, but were poorly trained, indeed, initially the UN was invited to train this army. The last type of force was various groups of armed locals, from tribes such as the Balubas, who were poorly armed, but determined to protect their villages from either rampaging secessionist or ANC soldiers. The lack of infrastructure in some areas, the size of the areas they were responsible for and the financial importance and international political interests in the regions they were operating in, meant the Congo would be a tough mission for all units there over the four years.

Learning to Negotiate and Discovering Simple Tactics to Stop Escalating Tension

Keeping the peace primarily involved a variety of tasks such as securing important locations, for example air force bases, camp duties, including the day-to-day maintenance of equipment, patrols to show the vigilance and intent of the U.N. to ensure peace, and negotiating peace when tensions became high in areas. Examples of how quickly emotions and situations escalate can be found in many of the unit histories and reports by the battalions who served in the Congo. One example of this was nicknamed The Battle of the Shirts and occurred when ‘A’ Company of the 32nd Battalion were stationed in Bukavu on the border of the Congo and Belgian controlled Ruanda-Urundi. Belgian paratroopers in Ruanda-Urundi sent their uniforms to be cleaned in a laundry run by a Belgian in Bukavu. The Congolese army, the ANC, confiscated the clothes when they were being brought into the country stating the real aim was to distribute them to the local Belgian civilians to use. Another problem was that the ANC had received reports that three ANC officers had disappeared while on their way to an airport in Ruanda-Urundi. The ANC brought in two extra platoons of soldiers to back them up when refusing the Belgians access to the uniforms. The Irish heard what was happening and had to rush to the area. Due to recent relocating of other platoons, they had to use their initiative to appear stronger than they were by whisking foot patrols from one part of the city to another by vehicles and thus showing they had the force to ensure that things did not escalate. ‘The troops would be sauntering down a street one moment, the next moment they would be picked up by a jeep in a side street and rushed somewhere else.’ Meanwhile after several hours of discussion with the two sides, the missing officers were established as safe and sound and the laundry returned. Quick thinking, initiative and patience were vital in ensuring a peaceful status quo could be maintained.


Patrols and Niemba

Sgt Gaynor’s Platoon, with Lt Kevin Gleeson in centre & Sgt Gaynor on his left

Patrols were very important and served a variety of purposes, and they also varied in terrain, duration and size. They could be foot patrols going through a major town, or platoon strength going through the country side visiting native villages, plantations and religious missions. Patrols are a key strategy in peacekeeping and hence the last Irish force to serve there, the 2nd Infantry Group, initiated as many as the first. However, the initial UN mandates did not take into account that in some areas of the country there was an escalating civil war. The 33rd Battalion was stationed in Northern Katanga, which was spiraling into a state of anarchy with three forces in the area, those backing Katangan secession, the Central Congolese Government ANC, and local inhabitants, the Balubas, taking up arms to defend themselves. The Balubas who inhabited the area were loyal to the Congolese government in Leopoldville and hostile to the mercenary led Katangan Forces – these latter forces often had white mercenaries as officers. Frequently, as Irish UN patrols were taken through the jungle the soldiers discovered empty villages which had been raided and burnt, such as the village of Kisele where all inhabitants, 100 men women and children had been killed. This is an extract from a letter by Sergeant Hugh Gaynor to his family 6 days before the Niemba Ambush, at which he would die and which demonstrates what the situation was like on the ground in the villages:

‘……most of the places were burned down and we had to bury and burn 17 bodies and what a job. Most of the villages were deserted and we had to search each one looking for bodies. Only last Saturday two of the boys found a little girl of eight in one village, which was thought to (be) empty, When everyone fled before the Balubas they left her there because she is paralysed from the hips down and survived for 21 days without water or food by eating fruit which fell from a tree from outside the hut. Naturally we give her food and drink everyday….’

In reaction to the anarchy in the area, road blocks were set up though the area by the villagers, the Balubas. The Irish adapted quickly to their situation and normally negotiated their way through these by using a mixture of Swahili, French, English and sign language. Tensions still could escalate: on occasion the Irish had to fire their rifles as warnings and in self-defense, during one such incident the Irish accidentally shot a Baluba Chief’s son while firing warning shots. Irish soldiers in these early months were coming to grips with a difficult situation, all the time learning the diplomatic restraint, and working according to the limitations of the UN mandate. Unfortunately, an ambush by Baluba soldiers of a platoon of 10 Irish soldiers, near Niemba, occurred while the first mandates were in place. In early November a patrol from the village of Niemba to the main town of Albertville had easily been accomplished by Lieutenant Gleeson and some of his platoon. According to the Battalion Unit History, on the 7th November a patrol with Lt Gleeson tried to get to the southern town of Manono. They cleared one road block per mile then came to a river where the bridge was destroyed and could get no further. The next day, ordered to try to patrol the same road again, they decided to once again proceed down as far as the river. Gleeson and the others arrived at the bridge again the next day, the 8th November. Coming to a halt and getting out of the vehicles, Gleeson and one member of the platoon approached the fallen bridge over the river. Spotting a large party of Baluba –around 40- Gleeson raised his hand and said hello in Swahili. The Balubas at this stage attacked – there were nine Irish fatalities and two survivors. The survivors, Ptes Joseph Fitzpatrick and Thomas Kenny, gave nightmare accounts of what ensued as the Irish tried to defend themselves against a vicious attack. Some Irish were killed in the first hail of arrows and some bludgeoned to death. It later emerged one soldier had escaped but, injured and disorientated, he wandered through the bush, came to a Baluba village and was killed. 26 Balubas were killed by fire from the Irish Gustav machine guns. One other death resulted from the ambush and that was of an Irish soldier on guard duty at the Niemba accommodation, tragically accidentally shot at night while on guard duty by another Irish soldier.

1961 Resolutions and New Equipment

The mandate for UN operations in the Congo was altered twice in 1961 as Katanga continued to provoke war with the central government. There was a lot of infighting amongst the central government as the Prime Minster Lumumba was sacked and then taken prisoner in front of UN troops by Colonel Mobutu. Afterwards Lumumba was killed in Katanga. The Central Government also re-invaded northern Katanga at this time. One mandate in February authorised the force to take ‘all appropriate measures to prevent the occurrence of civil war….and the use of force if necessary in the last resort’ and one in the end of November ‘to take vigorous action, including the use of the requisite measure of force, if necessary to apprehend, detain and/or deport n of all foreign military and paramilitary personnel and political advisers not under UN command.’ In January 1961 along with the new Battalion and Infantry Group replacing the first two battalions, the Irish were equipped with some 84mm anti-tank weapons. The troops also had the more serious FN Light Automatic Rifle. The troops who first left for the Congo had basic weapons, outdated Lee Enfields and Gustaf Sub-Machine Guns. Armoured cars albeit the Ford APCs armed with machine guns were also sent out for extra support. The Irish troops would need these and more as the year progressed. Later in the year, the troops would be issued first with plastic and then with steel helmets, which were necessary for the operations later in the year, and also a walking out uniform which was not so relevant when the fighting began, but welcome all the same. In 1961 there were four major operations involving Irish forces, Operation Morthor (Hindi for ‘splash’), Rumpunch, UNOKAT and Sarsfield. They all took place in Katanga and were aimed at ejecting the mercenaries who were often Belgian and French and who were leading the Katangan Gendarmerie in harassing the UN Forces. At the same time relations between the UN and the Central Government deteriorated as the Congolese government felt that the UN was allowing the seceded state of Katanga to exist by operating a buffer zone between the forces.

UN Operations in 1961

In August 1961 as the situation deteriorated in Katanga during Operation Rumpunch and then Mothor, the Irish Defence Forces, for the first time since the Emergency, went into offensive action. Operation Rumpunch, instigated by Irishman, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was a UN Special Envoy in the Congo, and the representative of Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the UN, was at first considered a success but later a failure, and there were bitter political recriminations over whether the operation should have been planned. Its primary aim had been to round up and eject foreign mercenaries from Elizabethville. Contemporary photographs of Elisabethville from this time show buildings riddled with the results of the attacks. However it soon became apparent that many of the mercenaries had evaded capture and were re-grouping. Other operations were then planned and carried out leading to even fiercer fighting in September with Operation Morthor in Elizabethville and led to the siege of ‘A’ company at Jadotville. This company endured one of the most intense weeks of fighting experienced by any troops in the Congo. During the week they came under very heavy attack, their water and food ran out and re-enforcements could not get through from Elizabethville. ‘A’ company declared a truce with the Katangans who then took the Irish prisoners. Tense negotiations by UN officials finally led to their release. In 2005 an army report exonerated the 155 Irish soldiers of ‘A’ company who had been taken prisoner. In mid-December in Elzabethville, the capital of Katanga, the mercenaries were trying to reassert control over the city, and the UN initiated Operation UNOKAT and Sarsfield to stop them. Seven Irishmen would die in the fighting between September and December 1961. Three of these deaths, Lt O’Riordan, Pte Wickham and Sgt Mulcahy died at the Battle of the Tunnel on the 16th December 1961 during fighting which occurred at a crucial position on a bridge over a road.


It took many more patrols, and heavy fighting in December 1962 before the secessionist forces were defeated and Tshombé fled in early 1963. The 39th battalion’s Unit History demonstrates how the area was still a powder keg and how difficult the operation was for the UN forces in 1963. The Irish battalion was trying to control a troubled area, in South Western Katanga and also had to try to deal with an ill-disciplined ANC, the army of the Congolese government, who were technically supposed to be partners in maintaining a peaceful status quo in that area . For example in June 1963 the ANC forces got drunk and randomly killed inhabitants of the area. The UN troop’s presence and UN Commander’s pressure on the ANC commanders would stop this bloodshed. The 39th battalion repeatedly was called upon by even the commanders of the ANC such as Colonel Mobutu to suppress riots, like those after the elections in September 1963 in Kolwezi and which the Irish quickly quelled in a calm and peaceful manner. The ease in which the Irish troops carried out their duties as time went on can certainly be due to the fact that serious attention was being paid by the Irish as to what tactics worked and were most efficient. A large proportion of the initial troops who went to the Congo also re-volunteered for later battalions’ service in the Congo, meaning the men on the ground were increasingly confident and experienced in the tasks they were carrying out. Tsombé fled in 1963 and the last Irish unit to serve was the 2nd Infantry group who left in June 1964, and the ONUC was wound down by the end of that year.


One other strong Irish tradition while peacekeeping began in the Congo is the voluntary humanitarian projects that Irish battalions often carry out in the countries where they serve. In Kivu over 50 children were fed and clothed by the Irish troops from their UN allowance. These children were vagrants unwanted by their families who did not wish to pay a bride price if they got married. Medical treatment was also offered to local people and for a period of five to six weeks in one area of the 32nd battalions command, local people received medical attention.


Ireland had a uniquely important role in the overall ONUC operations at times over the four years, when Conor Cruise O’Brien was present and, importantly, when Irishman Lt-Gen S McKeown was appointed overall commander of the ONUC between January 1961 and March 1962. However, the actions and experiences of those Irish soldiers who were stationed far and wide in the Congo also should be closely studied as their experiences are very good case studies in how a peace keeping force can operate. It is often forgotten that soldiers in the Defence Forces volunteer to serve overseas with the UN and it is a testimony to them that there 1691 missions served by their personnel in the Congo. The history of the Irish battalions in Africa at this time demonstrates the steep learning curve for a force, the overwhelming majority of whom had never served abroad. Peace-keeping tactics also had to be developed amidst a complicated military situation. Understanding how the UN as an institution and its mandates were translated into military strategy also had to be learnt. The histories of the soldiers also show how resourceful and ingenious the soldiers were in coping with the challenges of peacekeeping in a country with a very different culture from their own and which was at war with itself.