NFB Re-Watches Caprica: “Retribution”

He’s sleeping with his sister-in-law…

Air Date: 12/10/2010

Director: Jonas Pate

Writers: Patrick Massett & John Zinman

Synopsis: Newly empowered by the STO, Clarice embarks on a campaign of revenge against Barnabas and his cell. Daniel begins his fight to take back his company by any means necessary. Amanda starts to suspect a close friend of hiding something.

Review

Here’s an interesting one, just for its structure if nothing else. “Retribution” makes the curious choice to deliberately and with a deal of attention drawn to the fact, set all of its actions within one hectic 24 hour period, and yet doesn’t really do anything with that conceit. There’s no reason really why the events depicted in the episode could not have taken place over a week or a month or whatever, but instead it is one day with plenty of time stamps to remind you of that fact. Was this just because 24 was popular at the time, or something? It’s a strange choice that creates some early interest and then rapidly becomes just a bit peculiar, and the whole thing isn’t helped by an abundance of apparent filler material and a return to the wide net approach of including as many sub-plots as possible. Only a few of those are actually any good, with the rest decidedly iffy (and the good ones have their own problems if we are being honest). A proper focus on the 24 hours plot beat as something intrinsic to the episode may have helped, but here it is just a kind of pointless window dressing.

“Retribution” doesn’t really have a main plot, but it starts with Lacy so I will too. It’s hard to really get a grasp on what is going on with her. So, she has joined Barnabas’ cell, but doesn’t really seem to be all that enamoured with him. She takes part in attempted terrorist bombings, but does with a fumbling incompetence that borders on the unenthusiastic. Her crush/manipulation of Kleo appears to have been dropped as an idea. She presumably thinks Zoe-A is gone, so that’s not a reason for her to still be here. So what is the deal? Is Lacy a genuine adherent to this militant monotheistic ideology, or is it something else? Caprica could do with some clarity for all of that, and Lacy’s abduction by Clarice might provide the opportunity for it. But in “Retribution” I have to admit that I was just mostly confused by her, and in trying to figure out just what is motivating the character to do the things she is trying to do.

Obviously Clarice’s part of “Retribution” is a bit more substantial, though it takes a while for it to really take hold of the episode. She’s seeking vengeance, for the perceived betrayal of her monotheistic students in going with Barnabas, for the attempt on her life and for the lackadaisical effort to bomb the airport terminal. It’s the first part of that equation that is the most important, as can be seen in the nature of the killings. All three – the bathtub electrocution, the ambush outside the house and then the exploding of Barnabas – come with a degree of theatricality. More ominously for the future direction of things, they also come with a degree of Clarice toying with her prey, allowing them the chance to beg for their lives, to try and run or to fully contemplate the death they are about to experience.

This is a harder Clarice, but also an unsettling one, exulting in her power to deal out death, or life, provisionally, in the case of Lacy. “History will absolve me” she says in the face of Barnabas’ taunts, and the megalomania that members of the Conclave were worried about in “Unvanquished” is becoming more and more evident with such statements married to such action. Plot-wise it is exciting stuff though, the most exciting element of the episode, and the only part that seems to actually fit into that 24-hour timespan properly in terms of drama.

A very limited, but actually very enjoyable, sub-plot sees Daniel and his two new best friends the Adama brothers teaming up to orchestrate his takeover of Graystone Industries. The opening scene is almost hocky in its set-up, Daniel coolly outlining all of the blackmail material he has on a hapless board member while a storm rages outside, but for me it did kind of work: I like seeing Daniel lean into this dark side of himself, his inner bastard to borrow a phrase. His confidence in outlining the limited options available to his opponents, the way that he throws himself into this seedy task with abandon, even showcasing himself as better at it, at parts, than the Adama’s, it’s a fascinating turn from protagonist to something vaguely resembling an anti-hero. After all, we should really be looking at Daniel as the villain of the piece all things considered, but episodes like “Retribution” show him as far more compelling than he has before, and we perversely want him to succeed. Even when his actions lead to people killing themselves, and the man himself ignoring the distraught widow left behind. There are consequences for every action, and Daniel is realising that. Is he going to be ready for some of the bigger ones?

Coming late into proceedings really is Amanda, whose lack of agency in her own story is starting to become more and more obvious really. “Retribution” tries to change that I suppose, by having the character start to suspect that Clarice is more than just a friend, but even here Amanda is essentially just following the tune of others. Amanda as a CI is an interesting idea for future episodes of course, but I will admit that I have rapidly tired of Amanda in general: she started as just a non-entity attached to the Daniel character, proceeded to become the show’s favourite punching bag for additional trauma, and now is whatever this is. In a show that is routinely weighed down by various sub-plots, Amanda’s is consistently the least interesting to me, even as a study of a woman choosing isolation over fraught connections and now deeply suspicious of what at first seemed like a very important friendship.

Lastly there is Agent Duram himself, who seemed to be shaping up to be an important part of Caprica in “Gravedancing” and then suddenly vanished for the following six or so episodes. But his investigation into the STO remains ongoing, and in “Retribution” we get a belated effort to give that sub-plot some progression, and to flesh out Duram a bit. We learn a few inconsequential details: he’s an opera fan, has a family at home that he’s ignoring and is a devout polytheist, enough that such things are noted by his superiors as a potential problem when it comes to this investigation. That curious line from “Gravedancing”, that he “lost everything” in the maglev bombing, does not get any further elaboration though, which I regretted. Instead Caprica seems to be pivoting to the idea that Duram is a religiously motivated zealot for the “other” side of the debate, and while that is a not-uninteresting way of showcasing him, it’s come a bit out of left-field for me. It does explain his single-minded effort to get Amanda onside I suppose, and maybe the two of them might form an effective sub-plot of their own going forward. But I’m not convinced.

The entire Duram plot underlines some of the key weaknesses of Caprica really, in its abundance of mini-narratives that are never very appealing, and the show’s inability to find the right balance to flesh them out properly. There’s also an issue with the lack of flat-out protagonist characters for us to root for: the main players of all of these various sub-plots are a terrorist, an amoral blackmailer, a mafioso, another terrorist, a corrupt cop and a well of self-hatred and misery, with the morally iffy digital person not appearing. I’m not sure it has the time to fix these issues. In the end I was not really wowed by this episode in most respects, which might explain why this review is so short. It’s becoming more and more obvious why Caprica never grabbed hold of an audience.

Apotheosis is a lie…

Notes

-A pretty straightforward title this time, you have to say.

-“Retribution” leans into the 24 hour setting, with time cards flashing up on screen a lot, not unlike “The Oath” and “Blood On The Scales”.

-Has to be said, Lacy’s cell of the STO looks pretty obviously to be up to something dodgy. She’s taking a bomb out of her bag in a public waiting area for goodness sake.

-And they are pretty stupid too, taking one of the bombs back into the waiting car and then nearly detonating it. At least this comes off as an accurate depiction of a group of teenagers trying to blow something up.

-I do love Daniel’s rejoinder to the idea presented about how it “would look” that this board member is being seen with him: “It would look loyal”.

-Queue the literal thunder and lightning, which was almost comedic. We’re just missing the “It was a dark and stormy night”.

-I’m not sure that we really need these flashbacks to Amanda in the hospital. Feels like a real “less is more” kind of situation.

-As Daniel and the Adama brothers ogle a photo of a board member caught at a brothel, Sam gives us a pearl of wisdom: “Go to a whorehouse, expect to be on camera”.

-Daniel does join in on this game all the same, with a touch of glee as he reveals that he knows things about other board members that the ha’la’tha wasn’t able to fetter out. This one is a doozy all the same, a guy having an affair with his sister-in-law, who thinks his nephew may actually be his son. It’s like the Mooby massacre scene in Dogma.

-Amanda has what I assume is a dream of Zoe but, like with the earlier flashback, I don’t think it really adds anything. We already know she feels guilty about her daughter.

-Like that shot of Amanda bathed in lightning as she contemplates what Clarice might be doing in the V-World.

-Clarice does take her students involvement with Barnabas as a personal betrayal, which might have worked better as a plot point if we had seen more of them together.

-There is some unnecessary re-do of dialogue for some scenes in “Retribution”, like when Amanda remembers words Clarice said to her earlier. It betrays a real lack of faith in the audience.

-This is a bloody episode by the standards of Caprica, with stabbings and shooting leaving puddles of the red stuff everywhere. Trying to look a bit edgier?

-We get a brief scene of one of the would-be terrorists flicking through the channels, and with it a nice mix of what passes for Caprican entertainment. Not much different to our own I suppose, which is probably the point.

-This bathtub bound member of Barnabas’ cell pleads for his life in a distinctly unconvincing manner. Was the actor directed to do it this way?

-Barnabas goes through the gambit of emotions in “Retribution”, and like all good tyrannical leaders starts out with some basic paranoia, enough that he gets physical with Lacy.

-You want to talk about a good depiction of pleading for your life, just look at what Magda Apanowicz does with Lacy in this scene. Much more believable.

-Daniel takes the wrong tack with Amanda’s anger at his role in the Vergis Corporation murders, that’s for damn sure: “Do I blame you for Zoe?”

-Perhaps I misheard him, but it sounded like Duram referred to monotheists as “monheads”, which was sort of silly.

-It might just be a meaningless addition to the character, but Agent Duram seems to like opera.

-I appreciate that there is some casual holoband usage in background of this scene, the technology a pretty standard part of life on Caprica.

-Barnabas goes from paranoid to just all out crazy, pointing a gun at Kleo when the young man tries to leave. I didn’t really like this devolution for the character, who was much more interesting when portrayed as much more capable.

-Is it just me, or is Clarice kind of kidnapping Lacy in a very obvious manner here? The explosion is even drawing eyes to what is happening.

-Things conclude with another ominous flash of lightning as Amanda considers things, and as cliché as it is I have to admit I kind of like the effect.

Overall Verdict: Like so many Caprica episodes, “Retribution” is a real mixed bag. Some of the plots are decent, others remain looking very much like filler. The 24 hour conceit has potential, but is then largely immaterial. There is a sense of progression in places, and that things are stalling in others. I keep expecting Caprica to find a way to wow me, like it did back in “There Is Another Sky” or in “End Of Line” to an extent, but it can’t find consistent quality it seems. It only has so much time to figure it out.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Jadotville

Not counting the supplementary editions, this is the 500th entry in the Ireland’s Wars series. And hey, the end is in sight, kind of. Thanks again to all readers. subscribers, commenters (the nice ones anyway) and well-wishers for sticking with me this long.

While Operation Morthor was unfolding in Elizabethville, with all of its minor successes and major disasters, an engagement was taking place over 50 km’s away that actually dwarfed any of the individual encounters between the UN and Katanga in the city. A company of Irish soldiers would take on an enemy force many times that, and be compelled to hold out under repeated assaults for days, all the time waiting for relief, and in many cases wondering just why they were even there in the first place. It was a battle that would showcase some of the very best qualities of the Irish Defence Forces as it existed in 1961, and some of the worst aspects of the larger ONUC organisation. Its aftermath would be controversial for many reasons, and it has taken a very lengthy amount of time for the name “Jadotville” to properly invade the Irish popular consciousness.

Following their spell at the Elizabethville airport and their role in Operation Rumpunch, A Company of the 35th battalion, under Commandant Pat Quinlan, were initially down to be moved to a position near the Angolan border, as part of a mission to intercept the movement of weapons over that border and into the hands of mercenary soldiers. But shortly before they were due to travel the orders were changed and, instead, A Company was sent to take over a position just outside the small mining town of Jadotville, to the north-west of the city. Known today as Likisi, Jadotville was notable, then and now, as a place where vast quantities of uranium were mined, with that used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in 1945 sourced from this part of the Congo. It had a substantial population of white settlers, mostly Belgian in origin, and it was on account of these people that the UN was in the town in the first place. A Company’s mission, as it had been for the Irish and Swedish soldiers who had previously been garrisoned in Jadotville, was to “protect” these settlers from Congolese locals, doing so from a collection of requisitioned buildings just outside the town itself, centred around a garage called Purfina. To undertake the task Quinlan had just over 150 men, two armoured cars and a number of Vickers machine guns.

A Company was in situ within the first week of September 1961, and it became rapidly clear that their presence in Jadotville was an unwelcome one. Such UN deployments were largely being done at the angry request of the Belgian government and its UN representatives, who felt that affairs like Rumpunch had only inflamed the Congolese situation and shattered any ability for white and black to live side-by-side in the region. The response of the UN to this risible situation – Colonial Congo had hardly been a multi-racial paradise – in stringing out their available forces in isolated positions like Jadotville to appease this anger, was exceedingly dangerous. Quinlan and his men were sent to Jadotville with only a certain amount of supplies, and certainly not enough to make a lasting military resistance should any trouble ensue in the area. For some, this was exactly what Belgium wanted: annoyed at UN interference in an area where they still wished to wield a large amount of influence, they were now manufacturing a reason for ONUC to fragment itself, and leave elements of its peacekeeping capability open to attack.

Soon after arriving in Jadotville Quinlan met the local burgomeister, and was told in no uncertain terms that he and his soldiers were not welcome in the town. Quick-thinking, Quinlan used his own money to but additional supplies from a local German seller afterwards, doing so just before an informal boycott of Irish troops went underway in Jadotville. The Irish went about establishing a routine of training and “presence” patrols of the town and the area, and were left in no doubt as to the hostility that the locals were displaying towards them as they did so.

The tension grew and grew as the days slipped away. Quinlan was no fool, and could see there was a high chance of the latent hostility erupting into violence aimed at him and his men. To that end, he began to actively prepare for a combat situation, ordering his men to prepare defensive positions around the buildings they occupied, with trenches dug and mortar’s sited on the approaches. He also smartly ordered his troops to stockpile what water they could, guessing their access would soon be cut off (which it was). It became even more obvious that something bad was about to occur when phone communications were cut off to the peacekeeper position, with the Irish reduced to relying on their radio equipment to stay in contact with Elizabethville: these equipment often malfunctioned, and was so prone to eavesdroppers that Irish radio operators frequently resorted to relaying their most important messages in the Irish language.

The key transportation route to the Irish position ran over the Lufira Bridge to the east, through which re-supply was meant to be maintained. But, in the days after A Company’s arrival in Jadotville, the local gendarmes suddenly set-up a roadblock on the bridge, and prevented such re-supply from occurring. Later, gendarmes also cut the roads leading to and from Jadotville. Protests to the Katangese government about this were largely unheeded. In the days leading up to the 13th September, a civilian Irishman, Charles Kearney, wo was working with the local Belgian mining company, went as far as to meet Quinlan privately and warn him of the danger that his position was not in. All the signs that Quinlan’s men were soon to face an assault were there, and a more competent UN leadership should at that point have ordered a withdrawal. But they did not do so, either ignorant of the threat presented, or too focused on the imminent Operation Morthor. Quinlan went as far as to send a personal messenger to the HQ in Elizabethville, who got by the Lufira blockade by faking a medical emergency, requesting that he be allowed to withdraw. This request was refused, probably because the UN hoped that the success of Morthor would make such a request immaterial: O’Brien probably expected that Moises Tshombe’s government would soon be negotiating its own lack of existence, and Jadotville’s enemies would withdraw.

The noose tightening around the Irish was made of over 3’000 gendarms, led by a number of Belgians, French and Rhodesian officers. The commander seems to have been noted French mercenary Michel de Clery, who had experience fighting in a number of colonial arenas. He himself was under the overall command of the fearsome Roger Faulques, a veteran of the Marquis during the Second World War, and French campaigns in Indochina and Algeria. They were all well-armed personally, and had recourse to vehicles, machine guns and mortars in greater numbers than their opponents. They had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and of having the opportunity to slowly build up their forces around a powerless UN, who were on strict instructions not to begin any engagement. They began to test the UN position, carrying out manoeuvres close by and at times sending jeeps charging towards the UN lines only to veer off at the last second, recording the response time of the Irish soldiers to such things.

On the morning of the 13th September A Company radio operators received the news of Operation Morthor being launched, in the form of an overly-optimistic assessment that all key positions in Elizabethville were in UN hands: before the day was out this would be updated to an acknowledgement that UN positions were under fire in the city. When informed, Quinlan issued warnings to those soldiers standing to in the trenches. His forces, outnumbered somewhere in the region of 20-1 all told, were spread out into defined areas of responsibility in platoon strength, with the 1st and support platoons, the latter that which contained A Company’s mortar strength, closet to Jadotville itself to the west, with the 2nd and 3rd platoons further east on the other side of a bisecting road. The ground was on a slight rise, but the gendarmes held higher ground in the direction of Elizabethville, and the position was surrounded by bush and trees that afforded excellent approach cover for any attacker. The two armoured cars with their machine guns were situated at either end of the position.

The gendarmerie attack went ahead around 0730. It was deliberately timed to coincide with the daily morning Mass that A Company held, a routine the gendarmes had been notified about by a local Belgian settler only too happy to provide such information. It might seem extraordinary that, in such circumstances, Quinlan would allow for such an event, that had only a skeleton force of sentries in the defensive positions, but the comfort of religion should not be under-estimated for soldiers facing life-or-death situations. Thus, when the Katangese vehicles and other soldiers attempted to rush Irish positions, there was a decent chance they would have been able to over-run the Irish quickly. But they were stopped by the quick actions of those soldiers who were in those trenches at the time, bot least Sgt John Monaghan, who, in taking up one of the available Vickers machine guns and levelling a steady stream of fire at the oncoming vehicles, did more than anyone to disrupt this attack. Concerns that the UN might be perceived as firing first were largely moot, given the amount of enemy now prepared to pour towards the UN position. The alert was rapidly raised and the Irish soldiers at Mass, many of them carrying weapons, raced back to their positions.

There followed then a lull in the fighting, which might well have proved critical to the overall result. The gendarmes had retreated, but now were observed moving in force around the Irish positions and onto the flanks. A Company could have inflicted heavy casualties through the use of machine guns and mortars, but Quinlan ordered against this, seeking to find a peaceful means out of the situation: it must be remembered that he was more than aware of how precarious A Company’s position was, and was presumably thinking in terms of a coordinated withdrawal back to Elizabethville at some point in the very near future. Some criticised Quinlan for his reticence later, but A Company were not in Jadotville to engage in a fight to the death with local forces, they were meant to be keeping the peace. Communication was still possible with the local burgomeister at this point, and he pressed Quinlan for an immediate surrender, indicating that a local mob of civilians would overrun the position if this was not forthcoming. Quinlan, under orders now to hold out from Elisabethville, was not to be moved.

A few tense hours after the initial attack, gendarme mortars and a French artillery piece opened up on Irish positions. This must have been a terrifying moment for inexperienced young men like those that made up the bulk of A Company, but the excellent leadership of their officers and NCO’s, combined with the wok that had gone into preparing trenches and foxholes, meant that the bombardment was far less effective than it might otherwise have been, though their were some casualties. A major infantry attack followed, made by gendarmes and supported by some of the local white settlers, with perhaps 600 or so involved. The attack lacked any sense of subtlety, being more of a mad dash against the Irish positions, over open ground once the surrounding natural obstacles had been cleared. The Irish, now able to bring heir own mortars into the fray and more than happy to have a clear shot at an advancing enemy, cut many of the attackers down long before they had a chance to close. At least one enemy mortar crew was taken out by an Irish equivalent at this point in the fighting, with a large explosion registered nearby probably the result of a mortar shell hitting an ammo dump. These infantry attacks lasted for some time before being called off, after which Irish troops demolished one house in their vicinity with an anti-tank weapon when it became clear an enemy sharpshooter had managed to get into it. Sniper fire would be a recurring issue for the rest of the engagement. The fighting simmered down and Quinlan agreed to a brief ceasefire request from his Katangese counterparts so that wounded could be collected, which held as night began to fall.

At the same time, the sound of fighting could be heard coming from the direction of Lufira bridge, and it was naturally hoped that this meant UN reinforcements were coming to the rescue of A Company. Such thoughts increased the morale of soldiers manning trenches after their first proper taste of combat, but it was a false hope. The UN had dispatched a relief column, dubbed “Force Kane” after its commander, Cmdt Johnny Kane, a mish-mash of Irish and Swedish troops in armoured cars and buses, but they ran smack into the gendarme barricades at Lufira bridge. When the UN tried to get through them on the night of the 13th they were forced to back off under withering fire from the opposite bank, and the same result repeated the following morning. Lacking the men and the arms to force the issue, Kane had no choice but to withdraw back to Elizabethville, where another attempt o break through to Jadotville would be organised.

In Jadotville, A Company was subject to bursts of small arms and machine gun fire through the night of the 13/14th. On the morning of the 14th, Quinlan determined that his current position was untenable, with not enough men to defend too much ground, and so decided to contract the outer lines. The 1st and support platoons were pulled back east, so that A Company then occupied trenches and buildings with the Puvira garage at its centre in a more concentrated area. The move was carried off without casualties, and the early sections of the fighting on the 14th were categorised by a continuing mortar duel, with gendarme advantage in numbers of these devices offset somewhat by the better accuracy of the Irish equivalent, which destroyed several Katangan mortar positions and then were able to attack the operators as they moved. The gendarmes got wise quick enough though, executing a tactic of moving their mortar sits frequently, though this also effected their accuracy.

The Irish were holding well enough, but at lunchtime things swung again, as the attackers were able to call in air support. Piloted by a French mercenary, the Irish lines now began to be strafed by one of the Fouga Magisters in Katanga possession. Primarily used as a training aircraft and noted for its distinctive V shaped tail, the Magister could still operate well as a close support attack aircraft, and it was as this that the gendarmes utilised it at Jadotville. Initial strafing runs dropped bombs and peppered Irish positions with automatic cannon fire, inflicting no casualties but a huge amount of alarm: none of the Irish soldiers had ever had anything resembling experience of aerial attack. The Irish vehicles would be wrecked by these attacks, which was a hard loss, but the soldiers held on still. They fought back as well as they could, rallied by Quinlan, and when the Magister returned later in the day a coordinated storm of small arms and machine gun fire meant that he could no longer swoop as low as before, effecting his accuracy. All the while, Irish lines were the subject of repeated piecemeal attacks from gendarme infantry, with the Irish actually capturing two European members of the attacking force, a Belgian and Frenchman, who would be held as prisoners for the duration.

The pattern held into the next day, the 15th. The Irish lines were the subject of a constant string of mortar and sniper attacks, with more concrete infantry assaults occasionally stopped in their tracks by Irish fire, with the Magister a constant threat from the skies. The Irish had taken about five casualties at this point, most of them shrapnel from the mortars, with one soldier taking a snipers round into the shoulder, but there had been no fatalities. Quinlan continued to message HQ in Elizabethville about the seriousness of the situation, and continued to be told that his unit would simply have to hold out until relief could be arranged. All the while he also received threatening messages from the Jadotville burgomeister, urging him to surrender to avoid a wholesale slaughter of his troops.

The Irish faced more attacks into the 16th, a Saturday, but continued to hold. One platoon became so beset by increasingly accurate mortar fire from the enemy they were obliged to fall back to a reserve line, with just one Sergeant left in the outer one to ward off any infantry attacks. By now dwindling food was an issue, as was ammunition, but most important was the falling supplies of water: Quinlan’s decisive action to stockpile this before the fighting started insured his unit was in a position to keep the fight going far longer than they would have otherwise, but the baking heat of a Congo September meant that even this move only bought the Irish a few days.

One of the bravest, and yet also most farcical, aspects of the fighting followed, when Norwegian Lt Bjorn Hovden and Swedish Warrant Officer Eric Thors attempted to fly a helicopter with supplies of water to the Jadotville position, at a time when the Magister was busy attacking targets in Elizabethville. The chopper developed engine trouble and had to come in for an unplanned landing around the Irish position, necessitating Irish soldiers to leave their trenches to assist with laying out markers for an appropriate spot: as soon as the chopper was down, it was the subject of a murderous onslaught from small arms, machine guns and mortars, that rapidly left it unusable. It was all for naught: the water had been carried in emptied petrol canisters, that had not been properly cleaned before being filled, making the liquid contained inside undrinkable. Hovden and Thors now had no choice but to join the Irish. There was at least one positive outcome from the affair for the Irish though, as the enormous amount of fire visited by the Katangans had revealed many of their positions, and an extended exchange of fire for the rest of the day allowed the Irish to inflict more casualties.

For all that, there was no hope of a military victory for the UN in Jadotville without relief. The UN attempted this for the last time on the morning of the 16th, with Cmdt Kane sent against Lufira with Force Kane 2, consisting of 300 men from the Irish, Swedish and Indian contingents – the last battle-hardened Gurkhas – of ONUC, with armoured car support. But Kane also had the additional problem of strafing runs from the Magister to contend with this time. An Irish Sgt, Joe Gallagher, was among the first casualties from the jet, but survived. The Gurkhas, accompanied by Irish-driven armoured cars, attempted to storm the bridge, but were driven back by opposing fire and the Magister, with three of the Indians killed and eight others wounded. Kane withdrew again, with the convoy taking more casualties from a gendarme ambush on the way back to Elizabethville, with several Irish soldiers among the wounded. There would be no more relief attempts, much to the fury of the Irish who remained besieged at Jadotville: at least one subsequent account claims that Quinlan had to be pulled off of Kane when the two happened to meet some time later.

On Saturday night, Quinlan agreed a ceasefire with the Katangans, to allow the wounded to be collected from, the battlefield. At that point he would still have had hopes that either the UN would break through to his position by force, or that a larger ceasefire in the wider region would result in the fighting coming to an end: he did not have access to the wider picture. Promises were made that the Magister would be removed from the area and water access for the Irish permitted: neither promise would be kept. The only liquid the Irish got was a supply of beer that Quinlan obtained from Jadotville after a brief visit, where he astonished assembled mercenary officers by insisting that the Irish had yet to lose a single soldier.

For all that, the Irish were now operating on limited time. The Katangese broke truce terms of placing troops closer to Irish lines than had been agreed, and then later demanded that the Irish soldiers own position contract to less buildings. Quinlan was told by higher-ups to inform the gendarmes that UN air power would soon be over the area, but this was a fantasy. At conference held in Jadotville on the Sunday, attended by Katanga’s Minister of the Interior Godefroid Munongo – the alleged killer of Patrice Lumumba – Quinlan was told that an immediate surrender of his soldiers was required.

Quinlan prevaricated for a time, canvassing the opinions of his officers – who gave him a mixed response, some eager to continue fighting, others seeing the writing on the wall – and seeking orders from Elizabethville. None of any clarity came, aside from praise for A Company’s stand. Allegedly, when Quinlan sent a message that he would soon surrender he received the startlingly cold-hearted reply of “Are you abandoning the men?”, but this is disputed: no written record of such a message exists. From what does, it is not hard to imagine that those in a command position in Elizabethville were extremely reluctant to authorise a surrender, preferring to leave Quinlan on the hook for such an act. That is conjecture on my part, and others, but I believe it is not too much a shot in the dark.

The truth is that Quinlan was out of options. His men had very little water and food; their ammunition stocks were low, with the Vickers guns now essentially just props; their position had become weaker in a physical sense, with the contraction in the face of Katangan movements; they did not appear to be any indication that a third UN relief column was even planned, let alone that it would succeed; the Irish themselves lacked the supplies and vehicles to attempt their own breakout. They had held out in incredible circumstances, but to keep fighting now would have been to invite a gendarme attack that the Irish may not have been able to repel, with the likelihood of fatalities that would have been incurred for little purpose. Later on the Sunday, Quinlan signed a document of surrender, explicitly noting he was doing so “In the absence of orders from a higher authority”. His men paraded, stacked arms, and went into captivity. The siege was over. The gendarmes looked around to find evidence of the Irish fatalities that they insisted must have occurred, to the point of even digging up what they thought might have been graves, and to their astonishment found none. Their losses are hard to pin down, but are generally estimated at maybe 300 dead and three times that wounded. In return the Irish had five wounded, who all recovered.

A Company’s defence of the Jadotville position was as good as it could possibly have been in the circumstances. Quinlan’s decision to dig-in and prepare for a coming battle insured that he and his men were able to hold out for as long as they did, and when the battle was joined Irish utilisation of what they had to hand, in terms of mortars and machine guns, was exemplary. In holding out as long as they did, in inflicting the amount of casualties that they did and in sustaining a corresponding lack of casualties as they did, A Company provide a stern example of tactical-level military excellence during the siege. True, they were helped by the straightforward nature of the enemy assaults but, given the huge disparity in numbers between the opposing sides, the Irish ability to hold out for as long as they did is nothing short of incredible. What missteps were taken – such as Quinlan’s decision not to open fire on flanking Katangan forces in the early stages, or perhaps the willingness to trust too much in Katangan promises with the ceasefire that ended the fighting – can be forgiven in the context of UN rules of engagement and the misinformation from Elizabethville that Quinlan was operating with. Even the failure of both examples of Force Kane can be excused, as relief columns that were ordered to take a bridge position they were incapable of taking. The real failure of Jadotville, and by extension Lufira bridge, was in the political machinations that put the soldiers in such impossible positions, and in the military command that did not react to the circumstances appropriately.

A Company would endure about a month in captivity, never fully knowing what their fate was to be. They were frequently moved from location to location, paraded before members of the media and the subject of some humiliating treatment, but got through the ordeal without suffering any major harm. At one point they were joined both by Cmdt Pat Calahane and those who had surrendered at the Elizabethville Radio College, and Charles Kearney from Jadotville. Eventually, after a tortured serious of negotiations between the UN, Tshombe’s government and the Congolese government, the Irish soldiers were released as part of a prisoner exchange. It can be claimed that this was the point of the entire exercise: that the Irish had been placed in Jadotville due to the machinations of Belgians who wanted Katangese forces to have the opportunity to capture extremely valuable hostages, whose release would be allowed in conditions that prolonged the Katanga secession. That may have the whiff of a conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t mean that it is not true.

At this point we have to take a moment to talk about how Ireland itself received the news of what was happening in Jadotville and Elizabethville. Sensationalist stories about the fighting had spread like wildfire, with extreme claims that the Irish at Jadotville had been butchered, causing immense alarm in Ireland, especially among the families of those involved. The situation was considered fraught enough that Frank Aiken, then Minister for External Affairs, was sent to the Congo to get a better feel for what was going on, and he was quoted as urging military leaders to take whatever steps were required to insure that no Irish soldiers died as a result of the incident. Fears were acute that a disaster to dwarf what occurred in Niemba had occurred, and it took some time for the truth of Jadotville to fully emerge, the government of Sean Lemass as prone to being a victim of the swirl of propaganda and misinformation around the Congo as anyone else.

It was from this point that the biggest controversy surronding the fighting at Jadotville begins to emerge. On the face of it, Jadotville was an almost miraculous example of what the Irish Army was capable of, with Quinlan enduring days worth of attacks, cut off from resupply and reinforcement, without losing a single man. But this is not how the Siege of Jadotville was treated. In many respects the Irish Army, with the seeming support of the Irish government, were happy enough to brush the events of that September under the rug, to the extent that, over time, what occurred in Jadotville became a niche topic of little renown.

This was not a conscious thing, but can be seen in the lack of formal recognition, for decades, of what A Company had managed to pull off and endure, and in a well recorded sense from veterans that the “Jadotville Jacks” became a subject more of scorn than admiration. Quinlan made numerous applications for Ireland’s highest military honour, the Military Medal for Gallantry, to be awarded to those under his command, but none were given specifically for Jadotville: a few members of A Company would later receive the second highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, but for their general conduct during their entire tour of the Congo rather than the one specific engagement. Those in A Company who stayed in the Congo or served additional tours have reported feelings of hostility and shame being directed their way by other units at the time and after. Much of this has been put down to command embarrassment over the fact that an Irish unit was compelled to surrender, and perhaps also to the circumstances – the failed relief force, the lack of clarity over what Quinlan was to do when supplies got too low, the larger mess that was Morthor – that led to that surrender. In essence, there were elements of the ONUC and Irish Defence Forces who felt that Jadotville made them all look bad, and which did their best to downplay, ignore and ultimately dismiss the experiences of A Company. That they seemingly would have preferred if the Jadotville soldiers had fought and died to the last man is extraordinary, but there it is.

It has taken a very long time for this to be rectified. More recent study of the period, in combination with several military history books and Richie Smyth’s The Siege Of Jadotville, a filmed version of the story starring Jamie Dornan as Quinlan released on Netflix in 2016, has produced a much greater knowledge and appreciation of what A Company did that week in September 1961. The unit generally has been recognised as worthy of praise with several individuals, not least Quinlan himself, the subject of extensive campaigns to redeem their record and receive the military decorations it seems obvious that they deserve. “Jadotville Jack” seems no longer to be a derogatory term, which is only just.

The Siege of Jadotville remains the standout moment of Ireland’s contribution to ONUC, and can be rightfully considered the largest single engagement that the Irish Defence Forces have ever experienced after the revolutionary period. But, despite some voices who called for it to be, it was not the end of the Irish commitment in the Congo. The events of Morthor, and specifically the death of the UN Secretary-General in such murky circumstances, had hardened minds within the UN, and they now wanted the Katangan secession to be brought to a very clear and firm close. Before the end of 1961 the UN would undertake more military operations to make this a reality, and Irish soldiers, including some of those who had fought at Jadotville, would be taking part.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Narvik

Narvik

Trailer

Fight for your rights.

April 1940: Residents of the strategically vital town of Narvik, Norway, prepare to be caught in a war as tensions rise with Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom begins efforts to pre-emptively get in the way. Soldier Gunnar (Carl Martin Eggsbø) goes into action as his unit prepares to sabotage a vital railway bridge, while his wife Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen) does whatever she has to in order to protect her family from the threat of German occupation and British artillery.

Narvik is a film that makes me think about war movies, and specifically localised war movies. You know what I mean: every country has its own story, and there are probably loads of filmmakers in those countries who want to the chance to tell that big, brash, loud story. Hell, look at Ireland and something like The Siege Of Jadotville as a classic example, or how about The King’s Choice for Norway. The problem is that the available means to things like the Irish filmmaking industry, or in this case the Norwegian filmmaking industry, aren’t there to do the story as much justice as it needs in terms of spectacle. Lacking those means, directors and writers – Erik Skjoldbjærg, best known as the writer of Occupied, fills both roles here – have to resort to something else.

In the case of Narvik this is done in the effort to split the story of the Battle of Narvik into two different narratives. One is what you would expect: a young Norwegian soldier facing fearful odds, up against the Nazi war machine with lots of daring do to be accomplished. The other is the much more drawn back affair, as we follow that young soldier’s wife trying to make her way under German occupation, in a succession of dingy locations. Some of this works, and some of it does not. But it is inevitable when you look at projects like this I suppose.

So what works: I think this is a decent, if under-funded, depiction of a largely forgotten chapter of the Second World War, one where British, Norwegian, French and Polish troops briefly found themselves fighting side-by-side against the Germans (the mix of languages at times reminded me of Pilgrimage actually); Eggsbø is quite good in the lead role of Gunnar, a young man who plainly does not want to be a war hero, but does what he feels he has to; the depiction of the awkward choices people have to make under occupation is thoughtful and subtle, whether it is a small compliance at gunpoint or a more large-scale betrayal of allies in dire circumstances.

What doesn’t work: the general cheapness on the production side with Narvik suffering from a lack of sets and appropriate lighting; the same for the few combat sequences, which in their limitations are unable to truly capture the magnitude of what was occurring at Narvik in that time; a certain kind of casual string-pulling in the unfolding story, with a focus on dead relatives and sick children that crosses the line from intense realism is almost eye-roll worthy; and a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion, where the two narratives intertwine and characters reckon with their choices for about two minutes before resorting to the status quo.

The key flaw however is that Narvik doesn’t really know what it wants to say about war. This may be intentional: after all it is a very complex topic, and a nuanced view where the moral imperative of defending your home against outside invasion – hardly a niche topic nowadays – comes up hard against the necessity of defending your loved ones from unnecessary harm is not illegitimate. But on the other hand I think I would have preferred if Narvik had made the call one way or another. The narrative is too split up and a little tortured to really go at the idea with that two-pronged view, like, say, Anthropoid did in a different World War II environment, and might have been better served with a bit more in the way of focus: by the end of Narvik you are left distinctly unclear about whether the production is saying that the titular town is worth fighting for or isn’t. A film purely about Ingrid might have been much more thematically interesting and rich, but when you are cutting away to a routine war story every five minutes that chance is lost.

In the end Narvik is likely to really only make a serious splash in the country where it is set, lacking the sense of spectacle to do so anywhere else. To some degree it feels like it might have been better off in a serialised form, or given the limitations of set as a stage show of some description. As a film it too frequently inhabits the worst of all worlds: limited in production, with an unclear thesis as it pertains to the subject of war, and not helped by a certain sense of needless soap-opera in some of its plot choices. It’s not a bad effort by any means, but even within Norwegian cinema, a film like The King’s Choice does a better job with the intricacies of this period. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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NFB Re-Watches Caprica: “Unvanquished”

Imagine a world in which death has been conquered.

Air Date: 5/10/2010

Director: Eric Stoltz

Writer: Ryan Mottesheard

Synopsis: After losing his company to Tomas Vergis, Daniel attempts to craft an alliance with the ha’la’tha to get it back. Clarice attempts to convince the Conclave to back her vision of a virtual heaven.

Review

We start off the second half of Caprica with a good old fashioned “X Weeks Later” story, with plenty left unresolved after the cliff-hanger ending of “End Of Line”. It’s a bit of a cliché to do that I suppose, but Caprica has had issues with narrative momentum before this, so a time jump isn’t actually the worst idea. It gives the show the opportunity to advance several important sub-plots in a way I would have thought it would waste a few episodes on otherwise, and pitch the viewer into some slightly changed circumstances. Of course the other side of the coin is that some sub-plots essentially undergo a soft reboot of sorts, at least within this episode, so it’s fair to say that “Unvanquished” is a bit of a mixed bag.

The main focus for “Unvanquished” is a dishevelled Daniel, not unlike Joseph in previous episodes, whose life seems to have further fallen apart since “End Of Line”. He has lost his company, has become something of a wreck at home and Amanda is “gone”. The unstated fate of Amanda helps to keep “Unvanquished” ticking over, but it’s never really easy to credit the idea that she is actually dead, especially when no one is able to come out and say so when they have the opportunity to. Instead I approached “Unvanquished” from the perspective of Daniel just being left alone – no company, no daughter, no wife – and needing to start battling back. This is not a guy who is liable to just lay down and give up.

The Centurion idea is toast, at least for the moment, so his next big pitch is on the possibility of monetising a fight against grief, an amazing concept. His pitch to the head of the ha’la’tha – a very different environment to the boardroom we saw in “There Is Another Sky” – is another impressive piece of theatre, but it all belies how desperate Daniel has become. Going to the ha’la’tha in “Pilot” was one thing, that was intended to be one and done. This is a more substantial partnership. And it’s one that Daniel is not fully prepared for, as he fails the ha’la’tha test that is presented to him, in terms of the kind of nerve he has and what he is willing to sacrifice.

That test is a bit silly in its drama, not unlike that which Daniel presented to the Centurion in “Ghosts In The Machine”, but it does show us some more interesting things about Daniel. He appears to have his limits in terms of the lines that he is willing to cross, but that sentiment itself only goes so far. In his talk with Cyrus, when it becomes clear that Vergis is going to throw away the Centurion and essentially negate all of Daniel’s work, then suddenly those same lines don’t seem so absolute anymore. We’ve seen this kind of slipshod moral compass before: we might recall the praise that Amanda heaped on her husband in “There Is Another Sky” before we saw Daniel consciously torturing Zoe-A a few episodes later. At this stage I think that Daniel is a man good at putting on the front of being morally righteous, but one who is all too easily convinced to give in to baser instincts when it is convenient to do so. And it still seems primarily about his own personal enrichment: getting his still breathing wife back is only a secondary objective.

On the other side of the ha’la’tha table is Joseph. When talking about soft reboots it was this character that I had in mind, with the effects of the holoband addiction that were so acute in “End Of Line” not to be seen here. Not just that, but Adama is suddenly taking steps to increase his position within the ha’la’tha, a marked change from some of his previous positions on the organisation. I found all of this a bit odd: it isn’t that the V-World subplot has been dropped exactly, Joseph is asked to basically outline what it is that Daniel is proposing and draws on that experience in doing so, but we’ve moved from point A to B in an instant and neither looks very much like the other. Joseph as a gangster rising in the ranks will be a very different story for Caprica to tell, and it tells that kind of story well enough in “Unvanquished”. As long as Caprica settles on a role for Joseph going forward, and doesn’t just bounce him back into the search for Tamara-A, it’ll be fine, but I have my doubts.

The other big part of the episode, maybe the biggest really, is for Clarice and her efforts to basically take over the STO. She starts off using words to try and get what she wants, pitching the Conclave the idea of a virtual heaven as an answer to the normal doubts of the religious and a way to make manifest what the monotheistic faith offers. That she does this through a simulated bombing of a pyramid stadium makes clear that while she is willing to play nice to an extent, the larger threat has not diminished. This follows through in the rest of the episode, where Clarice showcases a canny ability to play by the rules and go through the right channels, even while she makes sure that she has a very sharp knife ready to go if that fails. Even her proffered paradise has that dark side, a place where the unworthy are not to be welcomed, and where the person designing the system – presumably her – will have a Godlike power over its denizens. Other members of this faith see that truth becoming manifest, and end up silenced.

We get an interesting glimpse of the STO/Church of the One in “Unvanquished”, the two entities portrayed as intrinsically tied, yet nominally separate. It was hard not to think of an IRA/Sinn Fein style arrangement, where the political side of things has at least partial plausible deniability of what the militant side is doing. Clarice can’t get what she wants without handling both sides of the equation, hence her soft coup against her opponents in the religious side that automatically puts her into a position of power on the military side. I hope we get a chance to spend more time with the Diego character, a kingmaker who seems to be a true believer in the Clarice model of how the STO should operate in future. And, still, there is Clarice’s efforts to wrap a vulnerable Amanda around her little finger. In essence, we get a showcase here of Clarice as a woman with a lot of spinning plates she is trying to keep steady, with every scheme interesting in its own right. This part of “Unvanquished” was a great success in my view, showcasing a well-told self-contained story about Clarice’s sudden takeover of things within the show’s monotheism, and a promise of more interesting stuff still to come.

“Unvanquished” is a fairly focused episode, Caprica leaning into the idea that less is more when it comes to its many sub-plots albeit some of those – like anything to do with Willy Adama, last seen in “There Is Another Sky” – seem to have been dropped entirely. There is room for some small attention to two others. The first is Lacy, who in the weeks between “End Of Line” and now seems to have become a more permanent fixture in Barnabas’ cell, though without an enormous amount of enthusiasm. Her ignoring of Barnabas’ ritualistic musings and her nonchalant effort to keep onside by slicing her own hand open speak to a woman who is all-in on this membership of the STO, but certainly not all in on Barnabas himself. When the war comes Lacy is presumably going to be on the side of Clarice, and this fifth columnist in the Barnabas faction promises some interesting drama to come. It’s only one scene, but this is one brief check-in I can get behind.

Last but not least is the fate of Zoe-A. Of course there was always going to be the option of an escape to the virtual world, one where Zoe-A would actually have a lot of options that she doesn’t have in the real one. Not least the freaky powers she is able to exhibit, that mark her out as a “dead walker” similar to Tamara-A. “Unvanquished” has time for only one scene regarding Zoe-A at the conclusion and it is an awkward affair, a take on The Matrix done on a shoestring, and very different from anything else we have seen in New Cap City. But it is a step in another interesting direction as we ponder the question as to whether Zoe-A is going to be treating Tamara-A as a rival, or as a potential ally.

And the nature of this exciting windfall? – A cure for human grief.

Notes

-The title presumably refers to the idea of people on the apparent outs, like Daniel and Amanda, not being beaten just yet.

-“Unvanquished” is the beginning of a steep ratings drop for Caprica at the time, substantially under a million viewers. The writing was on the wall, though it would take a few weeks for the axe to be wielded.

-Stoltz steps behind the camera for the first and only time in the run of Caprica, and does a good job.

-Our opening shot is of Tomas Vergis firmly in charge, making robots and wowing the press. It’s a good introduction to the changed circumstances.

-Duram makes a brief, TV screen, appearance in the opening, reminding us all that he still exists.

-In what must be a fairly galling reality for Daniel, it appears that the “C-Bucs” are doing very well under their new owner. Vergis appears to have decided to win that championship after all.

-This stadium bombing is very much like that of the maglev in “Pilot”, in perpetrator and cinematography, enough that I assume it is intentional.

-Big emphasis on the number of children in this stadium, which should have been a hint I suppose.

-The stadium bombing seems a very big hot for the STO to be making, so of course it turns out to be a virtual fake-out. But it is where we might well be heading.

-The Conclave is a fairly Catholic/Orthodox looking bunch, not unlike ecumenical councils I have seen from time to time.

-Clarice’s pitch to the Conclave revolves around a curious plea to remove “the need for faith” and instead move towards “a religion of certainty”. It’s a plea to merge the scientific and the religious that matches Zoe-A as a messiah within the virtual space.

-Diego is played by Ryan Robbins, previously Conor in BSG. Like others earlier, it’s still bizarre to me that actors who were so prominent in the previous show are in this as new characters.

-Nice spinning shot as we see Daniel waking up from his couch after a night of drinking. That’s a rare one for this property, but I like it.

-The ha’la’tha that we see here is a much more formal-looking affair than the Tauron club that was a location earlier in the season. The mafioso elements are even more obvious.

-I love how Daniel mentions the ha’la’tha’s leaders deceased son and everyone in the room is suddenly standing up ready to do violence. Even talking about this stuff is an apparent affront.

-Our first proper look at Gemenon here, and what we see is a mountainous land that, in the repeated use of “holy land” as a descriptor, naturally makes one think of Israel and Palestine.

-Some down to Earth priests anyway, with one’s response to Clarice’s vision of a virtual utopia being “It’s tacky for one thing”

-Joseph’s opinion of Daniel leaves out his own descent into obsession over Graystone’s creations, instead focusing on what he saw of Tamara-A all the way back in “Pilot”. It’s a dishonest approach from an increasingly dishonest man.

-A little bit of a cliché line, but I did like Joseph informing a curious Daniel that he will not get in contact with them, “The ha’la’tha finds you”.

-The “Blessed Mother” has vibes of the Virgin Mary crossed with Mother Theresa, and appears to serve as a sort of Papal role within this Church.

-The ha’la’tha’s terms are fairly brutal for Daniel, essentially a long-running interest in his company. It’s a measure of how desperate Daniel is that he’s content to contemplate all this.

-The test that the Adama brothers place in front of Daniel is a bit ridiculous all the same. He’s hardly going to murder his own mother, is he?

-Love the Adama brothers telling Daniel to think about their arrangement, to “take the afternoon”. The contrast between the reality of what they do an the façade is just great.

-We’ve already seen indications that Barnabas was something of a flagellant, and that goes into over drive in “Unvanquished”. Incorporating self-harm into the worship of the one God indicates a very particular mindset.

-Lacy draws the infinity symbol in her blood, with enough that she should probably be feeling a little woozy honestly.

-Diego mentions that the monotheists are sharing a building with the “Hephaistons”. These are presumably devotees of the Greek God Hephaestus, the God of Fire and Craft.

-Vergis comes up with a potent moniker for Daniel’s wrecked Centurion: “toaster”.

-Vergis can also go down as the first character, chronologically anyway, to use the term “boxed” in the manner we have come to be used to it.

-Did we need this short flashback where Zoe starts telling Clarice about the world she is trying to construct in the virtual space? It added nothing.

-Daniel does not want to hear “That’s enough for the military” in terms of the Centurion project. It’s a marked contrast from his attitude in “End Of Line” when he just wanted ” a cell phone that works”.

-Not sure I like the “Well played” line from the senior Conclave member about to be murdered. Given that Clarice looks fairly ignorant of the circumstances it doesn’t quite fit.

-The murder of that guy has to be seen as a take on the assassination of Caesar, what with all of the assailants and knives. No “Et tu, Clarice?” though.

-The Blessed Mother comes to a rather soft spoken agreement with Clarice, readily agreeing that she can take over the STO. For such a seemingly important character she feels very powerless in this moment.

-Daniel’s pact with the ha’la’tha is sealed with a handshake, one that is a marked difference to how he was treated earlier in the episode.

-Surprise, kind of. Zoe-A is “alive” and well, having jumped into New Cap City before her physical destruction. Her new narrative seemingly involves a hunt for Tamara-A.

-It’s an awkward enough fight scene that concludes the episode isn’t it? Caprica is going for The Matrix, and ends up with something decidedly less impressive.

-Like Tamara-A, Zoe A exhibits powers within the virtual space that seem a nod to Neo in The Matrix, wherein she can exert control over her environment.

-The episode might have been better off not really delaying the “revelation” that Amanda is still alive and well, as a finale moment surprise it falls fairly flat. And it’s actually the second fake-out of the 44 minutes, following the simulated stadium bombing.

Overall Verdict: “Unvanquished” does a good few things well, and a few things not so well. I can forgive it its flaws though because I think it serves well as a set-up episode, establishing new plotlines and advancing others ahead of greater stuff to come. The Daniel and Clarice stories especially have a lot of promise, if Caprica has the mind to actually make the very best of them.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: Rumpunch And Morthor

After the problems of the initial deployment in the Congo, the Irish contingent had settled down to a life of barracks duty and presence patrols, as ONUC attempted to fulfill the mission that had it in the country in the first place. More and more Irish servicemen were going to be travelling to the Congo, among them a company of soldiers that would soon be fighting the largest engagements that the Irish Defence Forces would ever be engaged in under that name. But before we get to that we have to discuss the events that led to it, as things got even worse in the region politically and the UN attempted grandiose operations aimed at instituting some form of law and order. The Irish would be involved when they came.

In order to fully understand the situation that the Irish would be facing, we must devote some time to discussing the evolving political situation in the Congo in the latter half of 1960 and on into 1961. As previously noted, the Prime Ministership of Patrice Lumumba had run into serious opposition, a consequence of his own erratic behaviour and appeals for Soviet assistance. President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, backed by the now leading military figure in Mobuto Sese Seko, would win out, and Lumumba was under house arrest before the end of 1960. He would escape a combine cordon of ANC and UN troops for a time, but would eventually be re-captured and sent to Katanga, allegedly after the insistence of Belgian government officials who wanted rid of him. There, after suffering torture, he would be shot dead in January of 1961.

Into this maelstrom of coups and killings, two Irish men were appointed as senior leaders of the UN effort in the Congo. The first was General Sean MacEoin, a thirty-year veteran of the Irish Defence Forces who had been a battalion commander during the Emergency. Now, in January 1961, he was appointed the Force Commander for ONUC, as part of an effort to revamp its military organisation and bring some order to the chaos that had been part-and-parcel of the opening few months. MacEoin was a popular appointment it would seem, with his background ticking many boxes: the western powers appreciated an English-speaking leader, smaller nations involved in ONUC appreciated a commander from such a participant and Ireland’s lack of colonial past wouldn’t have hurt either. MacEoin’s appointment was an understandable boost to the Irish contingent in the Congo as well, with volunteers for deployment never in short supply. But his was a difficult task, dealing with often contradictory orders from UN officials far away, trying to manage a multi-national force spread out over a vast swath of sub-Sharan Africa and operating without much in the way of a working intelligence apparatus.

The other, and arguably much more important, appointment from Ireland was Conor Cruise O’Brien, who in June of 1961 would take up a position as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. A long-time veteran of the Ministry of External Affairs with extensive experience within the diplomatic world of the UN, O’Brien would prove a controversial appointment, interpreting his role as being little less than the main UN civilian authority in the area of Katanga, whose secession O’Brien was determined to negate. Stubborn and single-minded, O’Brien did not wait too long before trying to put his ideas into practise, whatever criticism his actions were going to engender.

It was during this period that the UN mission in the Congo underwent serious alterations. Outrage over the death of Lumumba prompted a new UN resolution, one that allowed UN forces to leeway to take what action was needed to prevent civil war in the region, and to remove opposition forces non-Congolese in origin. The second aim was one that will inform much of what else we will discuss, in this entry and in future ones dedicated to the Congo. Moises Tshombe was busy augmenting his Katangese military forces with the hiring of a slew of foreign mercenaries, whose experience in militaries like those of Belgium and France, among others, added a level of ruthless professionalism to the gendarmerie that was the UN’s primary foil. These men came to the Congo for many reasons: because they had a genuine connection to the country in the colonial past, for adventure or just for the money that Tshombe was offering. Among O’Brien’s mot immediate problems was finding a means to remove the mercenaries from the equation, with it commonly believed that their experience was doing the most to buttress Tshombe’s forces and indeed his entire regime.

Through all of this, Irish soldiers continued to arrive into the Congo. The latest newly created battalion, the 35th, touched down for the first time in June 1961, consisting of men drawn from all over the pre-existing formations of the Irish Army. This time they arrived in the Congo a bit better equipped than some of those that had come before, with more up-to-date vehicles, and support weapons in the form of machine guns and mortars. Among the most important, as it would turn out, was A Company of the 35th battalion, just over 150 men under the command of Commandant Pat Quinlan. A Kerry native, Quinlan was a long-time veteran of the Defence Forces by that stage, and stood out as an effective leader of men from the off.

The experience of this company, even before the more momentous events that would take place towards the end of 1961, offers an indicative picture of what life in the Congo was like for Irish soldiers. A Company was initially deployed to hold a factory complex on the outskirts of Elizabethville, where Quinlan would mix deployments on patrols and other missions with a strict regimen of training and drill. Among the tasks that A Company and its contingent were asked to carry out was providing security for train transports, which were often the target of attacks from tribespeople; the securing of Elizabethville’s airport, where A Company were among those set to dig-in on the position in the expectation that it would prove a high value target; and in the retrieval and transporting of key individuals of the UN mission and the Congolese government operating in or around Katanga, as occurred during a hair-raising mission to Dilolo, near the Rhodesian border, that Summer: the Irish sent to transport the official suffered vehicle and equipment failures on the way back, but were able to successfully complete the mission in the end.

At the same time, things could also get decidedly dicer. An example of that was a moment on the 26th August 1961, when elements of the Katangese gendarmerie approached the airport mentioned above, seemingly in the expectation of taking control of it. Quinlan, suspicious of gendarmerie movements at the time, had established armed mobile patrols to reconnoitre the borders of the airport. These patrols reported Katangese in arms digging trenches, presumably in advance of an attack on the airport. With the authorisation of his battalion OC, Quinlan organised a pre-emptive movement to surround these gendarmerie positions with armoured cars and machine guns, forcing their surrender. In the process he discovered that the “enemy” troops had been setting up mortars to land rounds down on the airstrip, where Indian military forces had been due to land the following day. Despite this, orders soon came down from O’Brien’s office to release the vast majority of the prisoners taken, with a much bigger operation to disarm the Katangese government due to being very shortly afterwards, that O’Brien did not want to jeopardise by inflaming local opinion.

This was to be Operation Rumpunch, whose objectives were to seize strategically important positions in Elizabethville not already under the control of the UN, and to round-up the many non-Congolese mercenaries therein to be found, with the expectation they would then be forcefully deported out of the country. The idea generally was that by seizing these men, and critical positions like post offices and radio stations, the UN could stifle Tshombe’s government and alter the paradigm, inducing a peaceful end to the Katangese secession. Rumpunch went ahead in the early hours of the 28th August, and can be considered top be mostly a success. A combination of Irish – with A and B companies of the 35th battalion involved – Swedish and Indian troops – took nearly all of their objectives without a shot being fired, and took into custody nearly 280 foreign mercenary soldiers. The local gendarmerie HQ was stormed by A Company, with Quinlan in the armoured car that punched through its gate even as other men were bursting through rear entrances: the only firing was a brief burst from an Irish Sergeant, more to scare the rapidly surrendering gendarmerie than anything else. No casualties were taken.

But while O’Brien was celebrating its successes, it was clear that Rumpunch was not all that it was cracked up to be. Many mercenary troops escaped the net, with over a hundred still at large in the aftermath. Some of those that had been arrested were difficult to deport, especially with the Belgian government presenting difficulties in doing so for their contingent. And many of the weapons that had been captured while handed back to the Katangan government in the aftermath, part of a show of magnanimity organised by O’Brien, and would inevitably be used to target UN troops in the future. Most importantly, the Katangese succession looked as viable as ever, with no strong signs that Tsombe was seriously considering throwing in the towel.

Rumpunch was just a prelude though, to the much larger scale endeavour that would be Operation Morthor, named for the Hindu word for “smash”. This would see the UN seize additional positions around Elizabethville, including key Katangese ministries and communication centres, to the point of essentially making Tshombe’s government untenable. The remaining mercenaries would be detained and deported, arms would be confiscated and stored and then the Katangese secession would be brought to a close. The plan was ambitious, and failed to take into account the number of remaining mercenaries propping up the gendarmerie, their armament – especially in vehicles – and in Tshombe’s recent purchase of three jet fighter aircraft, piloted by Belgians. The UN also perhaps underestimated the mood in the area, which was turning decisively against them, if it could ever be said to have ever been on their side: an anti-UN riot of local youth took place a week after Rumpunch, and local radio continued to broadcast a succession of anti-UN propaganda pieces. UN patrols in the city were now routinely stoned, with two Irish soldiers sustaining wounds during such an encounter. At the same time, an Irish position a fair bit away from Elizabethville, in a mining town named Jadotville, was being slowly surrounded by local hostiles, a story for the next entry, but the news of which was increasing worry and tension in Elizabethville.

Still, O’Brien was intent on moving forward with his efforts to end the Katangese secession in one stroke and there is considerable debate over how much Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General, knew and did not know about what was being planned: O’Brien would insist afterwards that Hammarskjöld approved of everything, but Hammarskjöld would deny this, inferring that O’Brien and other high-ranking UN diplomats in the Congo were taking matters into their own hands. The Irish contingent of the plan, the 35th battalion, was given several specific objectives: to take the St François de Sales Radio College; to secure the underground crossing at Chaussee de Kasenga, known simply as “the Tunnel”; to protect existing positions like the Italian hospital and refugee camp near the factory position; to arrest key allies of Tshombe, most especially the Katangan Minister for Foreign Affairs. Their mobile element, an Armoured Car Group, would also be tasked with patrolling the streets and getting needed supplies to different positions. Swedish and Indian units would undertake other objectives. Morthor would go ahead in the early hours of the 13th September.

The initial part of Morthor went well for the Irish soldiers. They secured the locations they had been assigned to secure without bloodshed, and settled in. But they were the lucky ones. As the sounds of gunfire all around them in Elizabethville attested, other elements of Morthor were running into serious resistance, with the gendarmerie not willing on this occasion to surrender without a fight. A number of engagements now took place around the city, between the UN on one side, and the mercenary-backed gendarmerie on the other, with frequently deadly results. One Irish soldier, Trooper Edward Gaffney, was killed by machine gun fire while driving a truck with supplies through the streets, with another soldier wounded in the engagement. An especially brutal fight was at the Radio Katanga building – different to the Radio College the Irish were at – whose takeover had been assigned to the Indian contingent. The Indians accomplished their objective, but in the process a large number of gendarmes were killed, with it alleged afterwards that they had been herded into a room after surrendering, and then had grenades tossed inside, an apparent revenge killing for the death of an Indian sergeant in the attack. Some Irish soldiers had been attached to this attack as armoured support and, over 40 years after the fact, would attest to these execution-style killings they were unable to prevent, covered up as part of a larger effort to protect ONUC’s reputation.

The Radio Katanga incident rapidly became a rallying cry for anti-UN sentiment all the same, and certainly helped to prolong the violence now engulfing Elizabethville. The UN had taken its physical objective, to the point that O’Brien was quoted as declaring that the Katangese secession had been ended, but the reality on the ground was different. Tshombe had not been detained for one thing, and the gendarmes had not been defeated. Now UN occupied buildings came under sustained sniper fire, the Katangese jets ensured that UN helicopters were unable to move and the work of the Irish Armoured Car Group became even more vital, in terms of patrolling the streets, engendering communication between stretched UN positions and providing fire support when needed. It was not an easy job, with the Irish vehicles, Ford Armoured Fighting Vehicles or AFV’s, limited in number and in operational usefulness, and generally inferior to the heavier and better armed vehicles that the Katangese forces were using, one of which had been responsible for Trooper Gaffney’s death. Very often, when engaged in firefights, Irish soldiers using such vehicles were expected to expose themselves so as to draw fire and reveal the positions of the enemy for others to engage, but in situations where the enemy had even the most basic anti-tank weapons this carried with an enormously high risk. Even rifles or machine guns could offer a threat to personnel using such vehicles.

On the 14th, a convoy of these vehicles – two armoured cars, an armed jeep and a bus transporting ten soldiers – was tasked with moving out to tthe factory position to re-enforce the Irish there, who were trying to manage 600 refugees while warding off gendarmerie probes. But before the convoy, under the command of a Commandant Pat Calahane, set off, it received updated orders to instead swing by the Irish held Radio College to confirm or refute rumours it had been overrun by Katangan forces, with dodgy communications preventing traditional contact. If it had, Calahane was tasked with re-manning the position if at all possible. Arriving at the College after an tense but uneventful journey, the convoy stopped and briefly awaited the appearance of any Irish troops inside. Nothing happened, and just as Calahane was about to order his men out of their vehicles and into the building, a Katangan ambush went effect.

Gendarmes had, in fact, earlier surrounded the Irish position at the Radio College and, after some brief negations with the officer in charge, Lt Tom Ryan, had taken custody of the men inside. Ryan’s garrison was only 11 men, reduced in number from its initial contingent by the need to reinforce hospitals, and lacked the kind of weaponry needed to make a stand: when he realised how outnumbered he was by the surrounding enemy, who had armoured cars and anti-tank weapons they were only too happy to demonstrate, he was left with little choice. Led by an able Belgian mercenary, the gendarmes then awaited the inevitable arrival of an investigative patrol, and attacked when it was most vulnerable. The leading AFV, which contained Calahane, was hit first, blown to the side then crashing back to an upright position, before small arms and machine gun fire erupted. The other armoured car stalled, leaving the convoy dangerously exposed and under-armed: those soldiers capable of doing so fled to residential buildings on the street to take cover and fire back, using their own anti-tank weapons to ward off efforts to assault the rear of those buildings. At the same time a Sgt Tim Carey dragged a wounded Calahane from the attacked AFV, taking a machine gun round to the leg in the process, but making it to cover. Two other men were left in the stopped vehicle, unconscious, with the Irish soldiers unable to get to them owing to the constant fire.

Pinned down, the Irish had little they could do. Two soldiers volunteered to break out of the encirclement and seek help – the radios they had were either inoperable or useless – and managed to do so in requisitioned civilian clothing, reaching an Indian Army depot in Elizabethville a short time later, but there was nothing to do done. By the time that morning came, the Irish position in the buildings around the Radio College were untenable, with limited arms and surrounded on all sides. A dazed Calahane, concussed and with significant damage to his eardrums, was eventually compelled to surrender by Belgian officers leading the gendarmes, who were threatening an assault with no prisoners to be taken. 15 Irish soldiers went into captivity. The only other escapee was Sgt Carey, who had been permitted to leave the encirclement on account of his bullet wound, helped by the intervention of local missionaries: treated in a local medical facility, he would eventually wind up back in a UN position.

A curious part of the entire incident is the fate of the two soldiers who were left in the AFV, Corporal Michael Nolan and Trooper Patrick Mullins. At some point in the night when the Irish soldiers were hunkered down inside the buildings, the AFV suddenly rumbled to life and left the scene: Irish accounts indicate it was believed at the time that members of the gendarmerie had managed to get it going and were moving it out of reach from any potential Irish effort to re-take it. Subsequent investigation indicate a different reason: the car was discovered stuck in a drainage ditch, partially burnt-out with evidence that of a firefight around it, elsewhere in Elizabethville a few days later. Neither of the two men known to have been inside the vehicle were there, but the body of Nolan, buried in a nearby cemetery by local nuns, was discovered a week later. The fate of Mullins was unknown, and he was listed as missing in action, changed to killed in action a few years later. From the evidence available, and rumours from those present in the city at the time, it has been posited that Mullins regained consciousness in the AFV and drove from the scene in order to break out of the encirclement and seek help, but then got lost in the darkness. After getting stuck in the ditch, he was presumably attacked by either gendarmes or hostile locals, and was killed at the scene after effecting some degree of resistance. What happened to his body is unknown: it has been theorised that locals may have used it for tribal rituals, or it may have been dumped in a nearby river, or both. We will never know for certain. Trooper Mullins remains the only Irish soldier killed on duty whose body was never recovered.

Morthor continued to turn into a strung-out street battle in Elizabethville for the next few days, inexorably tired to the events happening at Jadotville. Irish troops holding positions at the Tunnel and the aforementioned factory complex were the subject of repeated attack, from snipers, mortars and the Katangan air contingent, but were able to hold. Calahane and his men would remain prisoners for some time, subjected to mixed treatment: Calahane himself was the subject of some not-so-pleasant interrogations and “trials” connected to the Indian assault on Radio Katanga, but would survive, along with all of his men, despite threats from the Katangese to execute him if officers and officials held by the UN were not released. A ceasefire in Elizabethville would come into being on the 21st of September, after 13 UN peacekeepers and over 200 Katangese had been killed. This came three days after Hammarskjöld had flown to the Congo himself in an effort to arrange a ceasefire, only to be killed when his plane crashed, in circumstances that have never been fully resolved: the death of the UN Secretary-General cast an even further pale over the entire situation.

Both Rumpunch and Morthor showcase the difficulties that the UN was facing in similar and different ways. The partial success of Rumpunch appears to have engendered a false confidence in the likes of O’Brien, that led to the disaster that was Morthor in Elizabethville, the UN lacking the support from their own side and the acquiescence of the locals to actually pull off what O’Brien wanted pulled off. Irish soldiers performed as well as they were able to in the circumstances, but by the conclusion three of them were dead and many more in captivity, in pursuit of goals where it is questionable that the UN should even have been pursuing them at all. With not enough men, inadequate arms and, most importantly, inadequate vehicles and air support, the idea that these Irish, Swedish and Indian soldiers should have been capable pf ending the Katangan secession is fanciful in the extreme. The Radio College affair was especially tragic: the initial force sent to occupy the building was gutted to the point of fatal weakness by the decision to send elements of it to other posts, the reinforcements had little option but to drive straight into a lethal ambush, and once that ambush was enacted the chances of rescue were slim to none. The calamity only showcased the mountain that the UN had to climb, emboldened their nominal enemies and did precious little to bring the Congo crisis in any way closer to a resolution.

But all of this is only one half of the overall mess that was created for the Irish peacekeepers of ONUC in September 1961. The other half, the larger half, is what we will focus on for our next entry. As stated above, Pat Quinlan’s A Company had already experienced more than their fair share of issues since arriving in the Congo, but now they were about to be placed right in the middle of a maelstrom. In that small mining town of Jadotville, the largest post-revolutionary period engagement that the Irish Defence Forces would ever be involved in was about to take place.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Bank Of Dave

Bank Of Dave

Clip

Not the main character.

When successful Burnley minibus salesman Dave Fishwick (Rory Kinnear) seeks to turn his side-business of person-to-person loans into a fully-fledged bank, he hires the legal advice and support of disillusioned Hugh (Joel Fry). Hugh is sceptical of the entire scheme, knowing full well that Britain’s banking infrastructure, exemplified by elitist Sir Charles Denbigh (Hugh Bonneville), is unlikely to tolerate such an application, but finds his mind slowly turned by the evidence of Dave’s connection to his community and by the work of his niece Alexandra (Phoebe Dynevor).

Two things struck me about Bank Of Dave. The first is that Rory Kinnear is pretty good at this acting thing, isn’t he? I mean most people probably only know him for his pretty much bit part in the Craig-era Bond films, but this is a guy who has been doing great things in lesser films roles and in greater stage ones for a long time now. Even in the minutia, like in his role as the villain in the under-watched and under-rated iBoy, he was great. Only recently, thanks to the interesting but dividing Men, has Kinnear seemingly been able to stake a claim as a natural leading man, and Bank Of Dave, a biopic whose titular character has a very specific accent and a delicate tightrope to walk regards his personality and interactions with people, is a great role on paper. And Kinnear plays it very well, just about managing to make Dave seem believably likable, as opposed to a ridiculous quasi-saint like he could so easily have been. This is a proper “salt of the earth” performance, and is another reason why Kinnear is worthy of greater attention than his already lengthy career has gotten him.

But the other thing that struck me about the Bank Of Dave sort of undercuts all that: biopics are hard, aren’t they? Take this one: there didn’t really appear to be enough material in Dave Fishwick’s life and story to make a 90 minute film all on its own, since Dave himself is actually something of a secondary character in his own story. Instead director Chris Foggin, whose utterances on the film use the term “feelgood” so much that the term begins to lose all meaning, opts to make a mostly fictional character, Dave’s solicitor Hugh, the main character, complete with a romantic sub-plot with Dave’s niece. Bank Of Dave really is Hugh’s narrative, a somewhat sickly sweet story of Hugh learning to appreciate things again, and to learning that there is human decency outside the realms of banking and law. Fry does what he can, and Dynevor is decent, but there is only so much that they can do with this kind of material. I suspect that A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, where a biopic of Fred Rodgers was largely overshadowed by a fiction involving the man sent to profile him, was an inspiration here. That and there are plenty of other fictionalised elements, up to and including an appearance from Def Lepperd of all people.

So Bank Of Dave has its immediate good sides and bad sides. Rory Kinnear is good, but the sense that you are watching a lackadaisical rom-com that has been stapled onto someone else’s biopic is not so good. The film’s general commentary on the unfairness of the British banking system is good, but the cartoonish depiction of the people behind that banking system – including Bonneville, who is only missing a moustache to twirl – is not so good. The way that the film attempts to craft a really engaging picture of the Burnley community and how this small-scale support group can work effectively is good, but for a long-time city-boy I could do with less “people in the big city are all miserable until they migrate to the countryside” type narratives, that appeal to lazy tropes (I’m not sure that anyone ever says the word “London” with anything other than manifest scorn in the whole running time).

In the end Bank Of Dave strikes me as the kind of film liable to vanish into the ether pretty quickly, so nothing I have to say about it is liable to stick all that much. It’s a perfectly watchable 90 minute depiction of an interesting man who did an interesting thing, but the film’s lack of confidence in that story, in basically making over half of its running time about something else entirely, is palpable. And if the film doesn’t have any faith that we will follow along with the story of Dave Fishwick and his bank, then why should we exactly? Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: Niemba

It was the Autumn of 1960, and the Irish Army was firmly committed to the United Nations mission in the Congo. Several battalions of soldiers had arrived in the south-eastern province of Katanga and, along with the larger multi-national mission, were attempting to carry out ONUC’s stated aims of restoring Congolese territorial stability and law and order in this area of sub-Saharan Africa. Before the end of that year the Irish were to suffer their first combat casualties which, in retrospect, were inevitable when one considers the unpreparedness of the peacekeepers and the fraught situation on the ground that they were walking into.

From early Autumn through to early Winter, the situation in the Congo, and in Katanga, had continued to be fraught. Patrice Lumumba, frustrated that the UN would not take a pro-active stance in terms of repressing the breakaway Katanga state, had asked the Soviet Union for assistance, getting it in the form of weapons, vehicles and military “advisors”. With these the Congolese army, the ANC, had brutally suppressed another secession, this one in the province of Kasai, with thousands of local tribespeople killed in the process. Lumumba’s dalliance with the Soviets concerned the United States, and others within the Prime Minister’s government, both parties wary of the Congo becoming a gateway for Soviet expansion in Africa. In September the Congolese President, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, dismissed Lumumba, who in turn tried to oust Kasa-Vubu from power: the situation ended with Lumumba under arrest, and the Congo operating as a de facto military dictatorship, with the Army’s head, Mobuto Sese Seko, more-or-less in charge. The Soviets were sent home, but the chaotic situation on the ground remained. Other supporters of Lumumba attempted to form alternative governments elsewhere in the Congo. Amidst all of this, the UN mission continued to try and operate.

A key aspect of the crisis remained the status of local tribes, of which over 200 existed within the Congo. Many of these did not recognizs any of the would-be governments, and fought against any who attempted to exert control over them, sometimes with very bloody result. Among the most important were the Luba people, more commonly known as the Baluba, who populated large stretches of the south of the country, including Katanga. Known for several rebellions against the Belgian colonial administrations, the Baluba were a significant part of the ongoing chaos in the Katanga region, with most members of the tribe refusing to acknowledge Moises Tshombe’s government, and actively fighting against its forces when the opportunity arose, with a repeated target being trains and train stations. Their military level was mixed: there were many Baluba who had guns and the training to use them, while others were still using bows and arrows as their primary weapon. I feel it is important to state that the popular image of such tribesman as technologically unsophisticated hunter-gatherers is, at best, only partially accurate. In response to the Baluba’s opposition the Katangese gendarmerie, sometimes backed by European mercenaries hired by Tshombe, would enact savage reprisals, raiding Baluba villages and killing many. The mercenaries tended to be mostly white, hired from Belgium, France and other places, and the Baluba thus tended to be deeply suspicious, if not outright hostile, to any white soldiers that they encountered. For them, the difference between Katangese mercenaries and the UN was a very thin one.

On the 8th November 1960, a platoon of soldiers from A Company of the Irish Army’s 33rd battalion left their post at Niemba, a town to the north of Katanga, and made their way down a pre-arranged route to a nearby bridge. It was a typical outward posting of the mission, with the soldiers designated to occupy a point in the town and to undertake patrols of the surrounding area: the Niemba position had been held for about a month by that point, with the battalion headquarters situated over 100 km’s away in Albertville. Consisting of 11 men, the youngest only 18, and commanded by a Lt Kevin Gleeson and travelling in a Land Rover and a pick-up truck, the patrol’s mission that day was to offer familiarisation to newly-arrived peacekeepers, scout out the route leading south and clear obstacles that may have been left on the roads: efforts to be supplied from the air had allegedly drawn the reply from the UN that peacekeepers had to open the roads themselves. In a larger sense their mission was to encourage the return of locals to nearby villages that had been abandoned owing to the ongoing violence. The patrol was not especially heavily armed, and they had no radio. Naturally, they also contained very little in the way of practical experience of armed combat, even if they could not possibly have been totally ignorant of the danger they were in.

As the patrol attempted to ascertain if the damaged bridge could be repaired, a large group of Baluba tribespeople emerged onto the scene, on either bank of the river, having been waiting in cover. Some had apparently been there for some time, and had chosen not to attack a stronger UN convoy that had passed through that area the previous day. Some had guns, but most were armed with bows, spears and clubs. A tree was felled on the other side of the Irish vehicles, blocking their retreat. This was a coordinated and planned ambush that the Irish had fallen into, with the Baluba either intent on attacking the UN, or seeing no difference between the UN and the mercenaries that Katanga had employed against them. Baluba advanced from all directions. Lt Gleeson had the wherewithal to follow the established terms of engagement, and order his own men to withhold their fire until they were fired upon, but an incoming storm of arrows soon made that moot. Within seconds of the Baluba making their presence known, the Irish, who were not arranged in a defensive posture, were fighting for their lives.

It is hard to find any pattern in the violence that followed. Gleeson appears to have directed his men, not all of whom were armed, to a slight rise in ground across the river, from where they could make a stand. In the movement to this position and in the attempted holding of it the Irish inflicted a great many casualties with what guns they had, though how many is in dispute: eyewitnesses on the scene later would claim dozens of Baluba had been killed. At the same time the Irish were being pelted with arrows and spears, with it long claimed that the arrows had been dipped in the poison of local snakes. Gleeson may have attempted to speak to the Baluba attackers to try and defuse the situation, but got nowhere. The Baluba closed rapidly, and hand-to-hand fighting resulted. Five of the Irish soldiers, including Gleeson, were killed here, stabbed or beaten to death. The remainder attempted to break out of the engagement and flee into the bush, with three more men killed in the process. The last three – Trooper Anthony Brown, Private Joseph Fitzpatrick and Private Thomas Kenny – made it further. Fitzpatrick and Kenny survived, using the dense vegetation to avoid the hunting Baluba, with Kenny, hit by several arrows, having to feign death when discovered.

Browne’s fate was more controversial. He died, but the circumstances seem to have been obfuscated by Army officials, who may have wanted to manufacture a moment of outright heroism to put some form of sheen on the disaster that had occurred at Niemba. Posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry, the Army claimed that Browne was killed at the ambush site after firing his weapon in a deliberate effort to deflect attention from the wounded Kenny. Kenny himself denied this is what happened, and it is undisputable that Browne made it away from the ambush location alive. The exact timeline of events is not known for certain, but Browne made it a few miles to a nearby village, Tundula, where it appears that he was killed by local men, possibly after attempting to solicit help. His remains were only discovered two years after the ambush, by a unit of Irish officers backed by Malayan soldiers after a tip-off from a local.

It took several hours for Gleeson’s patrol to be noted as overdue returning, and several more for a search party to reach the ambush site. There, the bodies of the dead Irish soldiers were recovered. The following day a truck containing 10 wounded Baluba was intercepted not far from the ambush site, then allowed to proceed to a nearby hospital: five of these were later arrested and tried by local courts for their part in the ambush, receiving sentences of up to three years penal servitude. Later in November the bodies of the dead were repatriated to Ireland, where thousands attended their funerals. The news of Niemba hit Ireland hard, calling into question, as it did, the capability and professionalism of Irish soldiers at a time when the Irish Defence Forces was actually doing something for the first time in some time. Lurid stories of cannibalistic Africa tribesmen mutilating and eating the bodies of the slain did not help matters. The Irish mission in the Congo was rocked, but did not falter: Niemba would remain a a painful memory from then until now, the worst single loss of life in combat suffered by the Irish Defence Forces after the revolutionary period.

There were numerous failures that contributed to the disaster at Niemba. At a higher level, not enough was done to adequately prepare Irish soldiers for the possibility of combat, both in terms of adequate briefings on the area they were patrolling/the people they might encounter and in terms of the equipment provided, whether it weas guns or radios. On a tactical level, Lt Gleeson perhaps should have been more wary of trouble, and insured that his men were all carrying guns leaving their vehicles, and were arrayed in a defensive posture. But there is only so much blame that can be assigned to a junior officer who had only been in the Congo for a few weeks, or to men who had never been involved in any kind of combat scenario before. The kind of fighting that they encountered in the Congo was not what they had signed up when they joined the Irish Defence Forces, and not when they volunteered to go to Africa. The Niemba ambush was the outcome of a confused operational policy by the UN, which did not take into account the response that white peacekeepers were liable to get by locals who were being routinely preyed upon by white mercenaries.

Niemba was a wake-up call for the Irish Army, which now took steps to insure that their patrols were driving more suitable vehicles that carried heavier support weapons. Another Niemba would not take place for the rest of the Irish deployment in the Congo. But the larger situation in the area remained extremely volatile, from the political machinations at the very top right down to the violence that was still creating chaotic conditions in every part of the country. In the next entry we will discuss how the UN, now under Irish leadership in many respects, attempted to bring an end to the Katangese secession, and how these efforts led to another nightmare for the Irish contingent of ONUC.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker

The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker

Trailer

Smashy smashy

In 2013 a transient named Kai jumped to a brief bit of social media fame when he intervened in what appeared to be a moment of attempted vehicular homicide, and then gave a viral-worthy interview afterwards espousing a hippy philosophy matched with a recitation of how it feels to “Smash, smash, smash” a bad person. TV invitations and reality show offers abounded in the aftermath, but Kai – real name Caleb McGillvary – was hiding a seriously dark past that lead into an even darker future.

I’ll admit that I am mostly burnt out on these kinds of Netflix documentaries, that pretty much peaked early with Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and have since become formulaic and predictable to the point of obsolescence, with things like Operation Varsity Blues and The Tinder Swindler. You can’t help but roll your eyes at the introduction to talking heads, always allowed the opportunity to walk to the chair before the caption telling you who they are appears, like we’re sitting in the front row of a peculiarly well-worn talk show: one for this film, that featured a police officer getting to dramatically whip off some sunglasses, seems especially designed to make you roll your eyes in response.

If asked to come up with a term for this kind of project, I think I would go with “Wikipedia Documentary”. That is, you could decide instead of watching this to read up on Kai’s Wikipedia page, and get the same kind of experience in a much shorter time. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is for Kai what White Hot was for Abercrombie And Fitch: a recordation exercise that aims to just get the facts out to as wide an audience as possible in an palatable a way as possible. We’re taken through the beats of the Kai story – the assault, the brief media storm, the Kimmel appearance, the social media fame, the manhunt for murder, the arrest, the conviction – in a very straightforward manner. About the only big surprise, if you are completely unknowing of the Kai story anyway, is the comments offered by those who saw Kai’s dark side in the days immediately after his leap for fame, but who were dismissed or silenced by the sheer power of the popular narrative, which wanted to stay focused on the feel-good story of a bandana wearing gonzo-like vigilante with an infectiously alluring manner and an uncaring attitude. For those completely ignorant of the circumstances, well, it probably shouldn’t come as a shocking surprise that a long-term homeless man who boasts about his drug and alcohol use and has demonstrated violent tendencies is suffering from severe mental health problems, that probably contributed to an incident where he killed someone.

Where The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker falls down is in its lack of thesis. It gives us the Wikipedia summary of Kai’s time in the spotlight, but never anything more than that: director Colette Camden seems essentially to be telling a story in the most literal terms, which I don’t think is good enough for documentary film-making. Very late on the question is asked by one of the talking heads as to who is to blame, really, for what happened, with it inferred that it is the media because it is they who made a celebrity out of Kai. But such celebrity didn’t make him a murderer, and Kai, as far as I am aware, has never claimed that media attention was involved in the circumstances that led to the death of Joseph Galfy, however it happened. If The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is hanging its hat on the idea that going viral made Kai a killer, then it presents no compelling evidence to back that assertion up. McGillvary himself has criticised Netflix for making this film without compensating him, but he has much bigger problems in his life.

This is far from the last time that Netflix is going to have a Wikipedia Documentary in its top ten. They are presumably cheap and easy to make, in exchange for drawing a great deal of eyes who are interested in the subject matter and not put off by an overly-long running time. The downside is that they really aren’t much good, only reaching higher levels when the subject matter is truly intriguing, like the aforementioned Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is not one of those stories for me, being a mostly predictable, but still quite sad, tale of a young man with a bad background who needed the kind of help that society wasn’t in a position to give him, and who ended up taking a life. Give the Wikipedia page a look instead. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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NFB Re-Watches Caprica: “End Of Line”

You’re the only one that cares about me right now.

Air Date: 26/03/2010

Director: Roxann Dawson

Writer: Michael Taylor

Synopsis: In danger of being destroyed by a desperate Daniel, Zoe-A takes matters into her own hands with tragic consequences. Joseph’s friends and family take extreme measures to get him out of V-World. The fractures within the STO become murderous.

Review

There is an awful lot happening in “End Of Line”, the mid-season finale of Caprica, as the show decides to go back to its previous practise of trying to fit everything in. Considering how badly that has worked out before it is a bit of a bold choice, but it actually works out much better in “End Of Line” then it did in episodes like “Rebirth” or “Reins Of A Waterfall”: at this crucial half-way point, Caprica decides to craft a big multi-part drama, and the results are stellar.

It’s hard to know where to really start, so we’ll go with Zoe-A. As a framing device shows the Centurion trying to escape in a literal car chase we get to see the slow build-up to that point, as Zoe-A runs out of options in the lab. Daniel wants her deleted, Lacy can’t come through on the escape and that leaves Philomon as the only option. I’ve not had a great deal of time for that sub-plot, seeing as it had a very predictable endpoint, and so it proves here. But at least Caprica introduced some element of intrigue to it, as Zoe-A battles past an insistence that she is simply using Philomon to facilitate an escape, to admitting that she has at least a degree of affection for him. Not that such affection helps Philomon in the end, as his inability to immediately get onboard with what Zoe-A reveals to him results in him getting literally tossed aside.

Zoe-A does sort of lose it in this episode, perhaps struggling to balance the more complex side of her being with the robotic body she is inhabiting. Her repeated plea that she “is real” showcases this, but the conflict is also there. It’s pretty clear she didn’t intend to kill Philomon, but she did it anyway, after a truly desperate gambit to reveal all to him in the space of about 10 seconds and just hope he would help her escape. Having lost Philomon, and on the verge of losing her freedom, she appears to choose the only path left to her: self-destruction. This whole experience, from “Pilot” to now, appears to have done a number on Zoe-A’s psyche, to the point that she now actively chooses suicide.

A smaller part of that sub-plot involves Daniel, who is starting to get rather desperate. Giving up the pyramid team gets him a few weeks in terms of the job that Graystone Industries needs to do for the military, but all of that goes up in smoke when Zoe-A undertakes her escape attempt. I feel like much of this might be set-up to events later to come, when Daniel is presumably going to have to find a way to get his Centurion project moving and save the day, just like he did in “There Is Another Sky”: in that regard seeing him react to shortened deadlines and the tragedy that occurs in his lab works well. He’s also showcased as being distance from Amanda at a time when such distance is a very bad idea. This is all good stuff, but only as long as it has the kind of pay-off that we need to see. He’s contrasted ably with Tomas Vergis in the one scene where his adversary appears, the Tauron all suave and confident as he effortlessly charms the military officer in charge of the project and even playfully suggests a more intimate liaison with her.

Elsewhere, I love what the episode does with the STO. We knew beforehand of course that the STO was a divided entity, with different cells having different approaches to achieving their goals, and liable to come into conflict. But “End Of Line” is the first time we see some of that conflict, and it’s great that Caprica has added this wrinkle firmly. It helps that the two contrasting forces that we see are so different, with Clarice’s polyamorous marriage-turned-militia out to get Zoe-A through a “softly softly” approach when at all possible, and Barnabas leading what appears to mostly be a criminal gang in a dingy part of Caprica City’s docks. But there are similarities too, especially in how both sides have attempted to use Lacy for their own ends: Clarice in her seductive, subtle manner, before she moved onto Amanda, and Barnabas using a more straightforward method of quid pro quo and then naked threats.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the STO is no exception to this. I was intrigued by Barnabas from the moment that he was introduced, and am only coming to enjoy his presence even more after “End Of Line”, the kind of more traditionally charismatic and decisive antagonist that Caprica arguably really needs. In a way the faith seems almost secondary to his enjoyment of power over those close to him, whose lives he can threaten with abandon, and I appreciate this depiction of a character whose determination to follow through on his threats actually make him a very dangerous proposition. Going as far as trying to murder Clarice, using Lacy as a go-between, adds a very important dollop of genuine peril that Caprica has often been missing, and while there is a sense that we have gone from 0-60 very, very fast in that regard, a mis-season finale needs the kind of excitement this sub-plot provides, and all of the intrigue too.

The “Amanda is crazy” sub-plot is not something that I have found hugely impressive, but I have to admit that “End Of Line” is probably the best exploration of it since it was introduced in “The Imperfections Of Memory”. Amanda faces into a relapse of her mental state amid continuing isolation, and one by one her options to relieve the two issues vanish. Clarice is suddenly unavailable, and her husband all but admits his role in a double-murder: with such things, it becomes easier to understand why Amanda feels she has run out of options. The really heart-breaking thing is that she is trying: she reaches out to Amanda, she reaches out to Daniel. It’s just that no one is listening.

The Daniel thing especially is a final straw. Amanda has been at pains at times, like in “There Is Another Sky”, to big-up Daniel as a fundamentally good man, prone to making the right moral choices. Now, presented with proof to the contrary in a chilling scene where Daniel doesn’t even deviate from chopping vegetables, she loses the last thing that seemed to keep her set on this mortal coil. At the conclusion Amanda takes obvious steps to end her life, and Caprica ends things on a cliffhanger in that regard: doubtless she is still alive, but I did like our look at how we get to this point, even if I never really bought that she had died. Amanda as the great cosmic punching bag of Caprica has not been that great really, but this sub-plot plays its part in the general excellence of “End Of Line”.

Somewhat lost among all of these other sub-plots is something of a resolution for Joseph’s search for Tamara-A within New Cap City. He’s become totally lost, spending all of his (not-so) waking hours within the virtual space, using the drugs provided there to get an edge and seemingly unwilling to wake up. In some ways Caprica was starting to give off Inception vibes in that regard, with it made clear that Joseph can only leave the V-World of his own volition, and in danger of making it his new reality. Emmanuelle, showcasing a concern for Joseph that is ever more obvious, comes up with a solution. The revelation that she is actually Evelyn caught me out: I was convinced it was going to turn out to be Tamara-A in disguise, but this works better I think. The slightly creepy way that Evelyn treated Joseph in “Know Thy Enemy” is replaced by something much more interesting and much more caring in “End Of Line”, as she attempts to break him of his pathological need to find this computer copy of his daughter, first by playing along to the extent that she can, and then by decisively intervening when Joseph is unable to make the right choices himself. Tamara-A’s willingness to go along with the plan signifies her own change since “There Is Another Sky”: the “girl” who started that episode was the kind of person who would have gone running to her father at the first opportunity, now she’s engaging in a façade of murder/suicide in order to get him to leave her be forever. “End Of Line” showcases what could be a suitably dramatic conclusion to this plotline, but I suspect that Joseph will be drawn back towards Tamara-A sooner or later.

It’s here at the end that I want to note how well “End Of Line” flows. Previous episodes that tried to pack in a few minutes for every sub-plot faltered under the difficulty of that task, but “End Of Line” manages to pull it off, helped by Taylor’s writing and a much better sense of when to place certain scenes. The culmination is this well-orchestrated sense that so many of the sub-plots are seeing their finales for the episode take place in the same space, while still remaining largely separate. It’s a trick that Caprica has taken a very long time to learn, but if it manages to repeat it then the second half of the season will be something to see. “End Of Line”, and the conclusion specifically, was the first time I really thought that Caprica got as far as BSG generally in terms of quality, and I think we can say that it is the best episode of the show so far.

Defense may have turned a blind eye, but down in procurement, we knew what we were getting into.

Notes

-The title refers to something more commonly called “newline”, that is a character code used to designate the end of one line of text and the start of a new one. It might also, in this context, be a nod to the Tron franchise. And of course it is something that the Cylon hybrids used to always say.

-Dawson, better known as Torres on Voyager, has her sole Caprica directing credit here. She does a good job.

-The “Previously on…” section features some awkward repeated use of the word “Deadline”, in terms of the Graystone military contract, that it all seems a bit much.

-There are moments in this section that I don’t remember seeing elsewhere. Not the first time the franchise has done that in fairness.

-“End Of Line” has an in medias reis framing device, ala “Act Of Contrition” or “Black Market”, and I’ll admit there could be worse ways to pique my interest in this episode than showing the Centurion driving a lorry.

-Nice detail as the Centurion eye follows the lab tech’s lit cigarette.

-Zoe-A smiles at Philomon’s efforts to talk to the robot, and it appears to be a genuine one. We can put that debate to bed.

-Another look at a pyramid court in the following scene. It’s still hard to get an idea of just what this game is meant to be, but the arena it is played in is small enough.

-Some pretty obvious ADR lines in this scene, inserted for Daniel when is back is to the camera.

-A very noir-ish meet-up between the STO follows, Clarice and her people literally coming out of fog on a dock side to rendezvous with Barnabas and his team.

-Barnabas has a great descriptor of what Clarice is trying to create: a “homemade heaven”.

-The VTOL craft tracking the lorry appear to be using a form of DRADIS from this look at the cockpit.

-Amanda is trying to soothe herself, and of course happens upon a documentary about a Caprica City bridge, that happens to be the perfect size to jump off of.

-Amanda’s isolation is becoming very acute, with even Clarice now shutting herself off as an option. That phonecall is a desperate plea for help, but doesn’t get answered right.

-Barnabas’ service (prayer meeting? Mass?) concludes with a very militant affirmation: “In the name of the one, we cast out the many”.

-It also contains the extraordinary image of candles arranged in the infinity symbol, which must be a pain in the ass to set-up every time.

-Creepy Barnabas wants “gratitude” from Lacy, as he gets a littler physical. He wouldn’t be the first holy man to not be as pure as he likes to make out.

-“Welcome to my cell” is a bit of a clunker. Would terrorists actually describe their units that way?

-This is our first look at what full-blown holoband addiction looks like, and the parallels with actual substance abuse seem pretty clear. How does that work?

-Evelyn is revealed to be Tauron too, as she drops into using the language a bit randomly with Sam.

-Philomon certainly is a romantic with this V-World location, a four-poster set-up in an idyllic field. And just what is this bed for?

-A nice sense of tension is created over the key swap in Clarice’s office, even if it is just a very small part of the episode.

-Colonel Patel is played by Jill Teed, last seen as Sgt Hadrian in “Litmus”. And it’s not the last role she will play in this canon.

-The military are playing some odd games, pushing up the timetable for delivery of the desired robots beyond reason. Or are we to take this as Patel just looking for an excuse to dump Graystone?

-The use of first names is important here, with Patel’s “Daniel” having a certain bit of condescension to it.

-Tamara-A returns, albeit very briefly. In this first scene we see that she has an obvious connection to Emmanuelle, enough to pique the interest.

-Joseph has missed Willy’s “ink day” apparently, some form of coming-of-age I imagine.

-I love Daniel’s annoyed utterance of “Sweet Aphrodite”. Would that be a contrast to “Sweet Jesus” maybe, or “Holy Mary”?

-Daniel is so far gone with what he thinks of his project that he has gone from a representation of his daughter right down to being compared to “a cell phone that works”. It’s just pure function he wants now.

-Zoe-A’s anger towards Lacy really goes into overdrive here. Is this the defining aspect of her own personality, as opposed to the “real” Zoe?

-In something that is really jut a bit too much on the nose, the world of Caprica has its own Valentine’s Day: “Eros Day”. Eros was indeed the Greek God of love and sex, better known by his Romanised name of Cupid.

-I liked Amanda’s comment to Daniel on how the start of their relationship helped to get her out of her depressed mental state: “It was hard to be crazy around you”.

-Amanda confronts Daniel about his role in the Vergis theft: “Tell me it isn’t true” His answer is about as bad as it can be really: “…It’s complicated”.

-Tamara-A really does go full murder/suicide with her father, in a brutal but brilliant scene.

-It’s a measure of Zoe-A’s desperation that she turns to Philomon in the manner that she does, without any preamble. I love the look on his face when the Centurion starts talking.

-It’s a bad plan all the same. Is Zoe-A that naïve that she thinks Philomon will just be onboard with all of this instantly?

-Another defining aspect of Zoe-A: she is very easily lied to. She instantly thinks that Philomon is going along with her plan, and can’t contemplate anything else.

-“End Of Line”, in its closing stages, makes liberal use of some flashback sequences for Zoe-A, all rapidly cut together, and I don’t really like them. They just seem like filler.

-I like the scene of Vergis and the military officer, whom he casually calls “Sasha” in a nice contract with Daniel. The atmosphere is more like a date, and I’d say Tomas is certainly looking for it to end in a certain way when he offers to accompany her on the drive home.

-There’s a mad sub-plot that was meant to be kicked-off with this scene, where Vergis’ driver is revealed to be the “brother” that Amanda has been seeing. Essentially, part of Tomas’ plan was to fake a resurrection of Amanda’s brother to mess with her. They dropped it, thankfully. Vergis works better as a righteous avenger, not a psychological sadist.

-The operatic piece playing over much of the conclusion is Bear McCreary’s amazingly named “Capricoperatica”, with Elissa Johnston as the female soprano and none other than Alessandro Juliani with the male vocals. The lyrics are both an ode to Caprica’s gods, but also a sort of admonition for their lack of sympathy for the plight of mortals: “The gods have wings and bright ascend, to leave us weeping in the end”.

-Back in his lab, Daniel plays the Graystone theme on his own piano, which is a bit meta.

-“The key’s the key”, another slightly clunky line in a script that is otherwise very good.

-Clarice hopes that the Conclave gives her the authorisation to “terminate” Barnabas “personally”, which is as bloodthirsty as we have seen here really.

-“You want to be a terrorist?” asks Barnabas. This guy just has a tendency to talk a bit strange, doesn’t he?

-Excellent confluence of cuts and scenes towards the conclusion, culminating in Barnabas’ understated “Kaboom” as the bomb goes off.

-And, at the very end of it all, a different form of suicide as Zoe-A decides to Thelma And Louise it all.

-“This is Graystone”. “End Of Line” ends on a suitable cliffhanger, as we await the news of who is, and who is not, dead.

Overall Verdict: “End Of Line” is the strongest episode of Caprica yet, and rights the ship after some slipping between “There Is Another Sky” and now. Just about every sub-plot gets either some badly needed progression or a resolution that has felt a long time in the coming, and for the first time in a while I am excited to see just where this show is going. Just from production and editing standpoints, this one is a real stand-out.

As this is a mid-season finale we’ll take a break for a week, but when back we’ll be going all the way to the end of Caprica.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The United Nations And The Congo Crisis

Our “coverage” of the 20th century in terms of Ireland’s military history now affords us the opportunity to look at the sorts of things that Ireland was able to do with its regular military forces as a free and independent nation. The Irish Defence Forces, in the aftermath of the Civil War, had seen their defining contribution to the state’s existence take place during the Emergency but now, 15 years after the end of the Second World War, they would get a very new and very different opportunity to make their mark. At the beginning of what is now a 62 year history of involvement in such things, the Irish Army would be called upon to send soldiers into the heart of the African continent, on a peacekeeping mission that would combine humanitarian efforts at reducing violence with all-out combat the Irish Defence Forces would never again really experience on such a scale.

Ireland had to wait a while to join the UN. As previously mentioned, its initial application had been rejected owing to a Soviet Union veto, Moscow believing that Ireland’s wartime neutrality and lack of diplomatic relations with the USSR made it unworthy of membership. Ireland spent the next ten years attempting to get past this block, while participating in some of the UN subsidiary organisations, like the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The situation finally changed in 1955, when the Soviet Union was convinced to drop their objections, perhaps in part because some nations in Eastern Europe and abroad aligned to their interests were also seeking membership at that time. On the 14th December of that year, along with 15 others, Ireland’s application for membership was unanimously agreed.

Ireland’s initial involvement with the UN, under the administration of John A. Costello, was defined by anti-communist and pro-western stances, married to neutrality. Fredrick H. Boland would be Ireland’s first ambassador to the UN, later winning election to chair the 15th General Assembly in 1960, on which occasion he banged a gavel so hard in an effort to silence Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so hard it splintered. Other key diplomat of Irish delegations in this time included Conor Cruise O’Brien, an ambitious and confident veteran of External Affairs who would become a key figure in Ireland’s first UN deployment, and Minister of External Affairs Liam Cosgrave, a future Taoiseach. Later Frain Aiken would serve a similar role. Ireland was notable in this period for criticising Soviet intervention in Hungary, the French efforts to supress Algerian independence and supported dialogue on the topic of allowing the membership of the People’s Republic of China.

But the key early crisis that these delegations were witness too was that in the Suez region in 1956, when an Anglo-French force attempted to wrest military control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. The attempt was roundly condemned in UN meetings, with Ireland joining the chorus. Ireland supported an initiative to create a “United Nations Emergency Force” to help maintain a ceasefire in the region and ensure the separation of Egyptian and Israeli forces. This was the beginning of what we know today as UN peacekeeping, wherein multi-national forces go into regions under an agreed UN mandate, there to preserve peace between previously warring factions.

After a slight amendment to Irish laws in order to make participation in such things legal, Ireland was prepared to honour its commitments under the UN charter and contribute soldiers to such endeavours. The first such commitment was not, as is widely beleived, in the Congo, but a few years before. This was actually with soldiers attached to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and then the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL), both in 1958. The first provided a command structure to UN efforts in the Sinai, the second was designed to stop arms trading into Lebanon from Syria following internal unrest within Lebanon. In both instances the Irish Defence Forces contributed a small number of officers, whose role was mostly of an observing nature.

Which leads us to 1960 and the Congo. The Congo was the third largest country in Africa at the time, about the size of western Europe, a county of jungles to the north and bush/savannah to the south. It had been a badly exploited Belgian colonial territory for decades ahead of independence, valuable for its vast mineral deposits, especially in the south-eastern province of Katanga: such things gave the area a great deal of importance in the world of Cold War politics, with the USA and the Soviet Union both having an interest in maintaining influence in the region. When the Belgians withdrew in the face of a growing Congolese independence movement, in a story that was repeated throughout the African continent as Europeans departed, the vacuum of educated government, police and military officials – the Belgians had deliberately fostered a culture of denying advanced education to natives in order to make their subjugation easier – rapidly created an environment of disorder.

Not unlike Ireland decades early, the Congolese independence movement had been a disparate thing of many factions with many competing cultures and ideologies, temporarily united with the common goal of getting the Belgians out: with that goal achieved, perhaps faster than it should have been, things began to fall apart, with widespread civil unrest and mutiny from native members of the police – the ANC – against white officers still in situ. Within days of Belgium’s official withdrawal, their own military forces had essentially re-invaded the country, nominally to protect Belgian nationals from the growing chaos but in reality to maintain their influence, especially in the perceived crown jewel of Katanga. With Belgian support (especially its mining companies, that were practically their own actors in the crisis) Katanga would declare its secession from the larger Congo under Moise Tshombe in July 1960, prompting the leadership of the Congo – President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba – to ask for UN assistance.

The UN’s Security Council would soon after adopt Resolution 143, which called for the UN to facilitate a withdrawal of all Belgian military forces, maintain law and order in the region, shore-up the post-colonial government and maintain the new nations territorial borders. Within 48 hours the first soldiers of what would soon be dubbed the United Nations Operation in the Congo, or ONUC, had arrived in the Congo. It was a dangerous situation for the UN to intervene in, with immediate dispute over just what their mandate was: Congolese officials wanted them to enter Katanga and end its secession by force, something UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was loath to do. The situation was made further chaotic by the disorder evident in the Congolese leadership, with would-be coups, appeals to the Soviets and military insubordination from civilian control very much evident. Even as UN peacekeepers were replacing Belgian soldiers, the situation remained very much in flux. Among those peacekeepers would be an Irish contingent.

The period between the end of the Second World War and the Congo deployment was an unexceptional one for the Irish Defence Forces. The conclusion of the Emergency led to a significant drawdown in the overall size of the force, soon back to around 12’500 regulars and then under 9’000 in the Army, with the Irish Air Corps remaining small and the Naval Service operating mostly as fishery protection. The Defence Forces generally suffered an understandable stagnation in that 15 year spell, operating with outdated equipment and in substandard facilities: about the only major evolution worth noting was the transformation of the reserve element into An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil (FCA), which was integrated into the “Regular” Army in 1959. An Army career at this time, as part of an organisation with no defined purpose beyond existing, could be tedious and close-ended. With the exception of an increased military presence on the border during Operation Harvest, the Defence Forces, and most especially the Army, had very little to do. Membership of the UN, and then the reality of peacekeeping deployments throughout the world, were to change all of that.

Ireland had initially agreed to send a battalion-sized contingent to the Congo soon after the call went out from the UN, and it took less than two weeks for the first Irish soldiers to begin the trip. There were no shortage of volunteers at all levels, with the chance to participate in such an adventure proving hugely attractive to bored soldiers and officers who felt they had hit a dead-end in their careers beforehand. Hopes were high that Ireland’s commitment to the mission would mean a renewal of financial support for the Defence Forces from Sean Lemass’ government, which for some time had severely limited the purse strings for the Department of Defence.

That would come, but it would take a while. When that first Irish unit departed Baldonnel Aerodrome in July 1960 – 700 men of the 32nd battalion, under the command of Colonel Murt Buckley – they did so with equipment and uniforms that were severely outdated, and made the unit the subject of scorn from American serviceman tasked with flying the planes to take them to Africa. The hob-nailed boots were one thing, but it was the bulls wool tunics, just about the worst thing you could be asked to wear in the sweltering humidity of Sub-Saharan Africa, that garnered most of the attention. The 32nd was armed with bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles as well, which to outside observers made them seem more like a unit preparing for combat in the Second World War: more rapid firing weapons were now the norm across the world. Thus the 32nd battalion, and the later 33rd which followed a few weeks later, would arrive in the Congo severely underprepared for what they were being asked to do. These issues would be solved eventually, with lightweight kit sent and the Lee-Enfield replaced by the more modern FN-FAL – somewhat ironically, a rifle of Belgian design – but for the opening period of their deployment the 1’500 or so Irish soldiers “in-country” simply had to get on with what they had.

They were stepping into a situation was was very much in flux. 30 different nations had committed 20’000 troops to ONUC, but it was still unclear just what it was they were meant to be doing: a mission to impose law and order was all well and good when spoken in a UN meeting, but what did that actually look like? And there was a question about who exactly was giving the orders, given that every international contingent had its own commanders, under a multi-force commander who in turn was expected to take orders from the UN’s civilian leadership, many of whom did not fully comprehend what was actually happening in the Congo. Despite being invited into the country by its nominal political leadership, ONUC faced hostility from native Congolese at every turn, and when they entered Katanga they struggled to fill the vacuum of the withdrawing Belgians.

Based in Katanga’s capital of Elizabethville, the Irish were among those now tasked with imposing some form of law and order on the province. Among their obstacles were Katanga’s heavily militarised gendarmerie, which included a number of lethally effective Belgian officers and NCO’s; local tribes hostile to the breakaway Katanga government and not liable to see much of a difference between them and patrolling UN peacekeepers; and elements of the larger Congo military, deserters from which sometimes turned up, heavily armed, within Katanga. An uneasy truce between the UN and Katanga’s mercenary contingent held for a time, as isolated pockets of peacekeepers attempted to get on with the job. That often involved mobile patrols but for contingents like the Irish, expected to operate over a vast area with very limited access to vehicles, and reliant on interpreters to interact with locals, this was a task impossible to carry out properly. All the while the larger political situation remained fraught, with coups, counter-coups and appeals for Soviet assistance when the UN wouldn’t do as requested all marking the chaos of the period.

But the Irish Army was there now, and the contingent would only get bigger. The experience was going to stand to the Irish military, and in the improvements that were made in the early months of their deployment the stage was being set for a force that would have a greater role to play in the UN in the future. In time, they would be involved in some truly monumental military operations in Africa, even as the larger ONUC project continued to see lofty ideals slam into the realities of Congolese life and politics. But before that there would be a harsh lesson in how things really worked. In the next entry we will discuss an ambush that has become a defining tragedy of the post-revolutionary history of the Irish Defence Forces, and showcased many of the difficulties that UN peacekeepers were facing in the Congo.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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