50 years ago today, the Irish Army suffered its single worst engagement in its post Civil War history. Nine members of a patrol of eleven were killed in an ambush carried out by Baluba tribesmen.
Part of the UN force ONUC, the troops were among the first Irish soldiers to serve abroad. Four months into the mission, while serving in the south-east of the Congo, a patrol made up of members of the 33rd Battalion approached the village of Niemba. It was around 3 P,M, local time. Their mission was to repair a bridge just outside the town, damaged by locals. They were forced to dismount their vehicles to deal with a blockade on the road.
While attempting to clear it they were surrounded by over a hundred Baluba tribesmen, armed with spears, bows and clubs.
After attempting to greet the Baluba peacefully, they came under fire. Retreating behind trees on either side of the road, they opened fire on their attackers. The leader, Lt Kevin Gleeson, was cut down and beaten to death while covering the retreat of his men. The Baluba closed with the Irish in the trees, taking heavy casualties. Most of the Irish were apparently killed in hand to hand fighting, cut off from their vehicles. Others regrouped on a nearby ridge, but not for long. The survivors escaped by running into the forest, being picked up by friendly troops later. One of those who escaped the initial engagement, Trooper Browne, ran into another group of Baluba’s and was killed. His remains were not found for a year. Browne’s death has been the topic of much debate, with official records insisting that he died during the ambush, protecting wounded, though local accounts say different.
Roughly 25 tribesmen were killed by the Irish soldiers.
Having come under an unexpected assault, caught in poor ground, in unfamiliar territory, hugely outnumbered, they stood little chance despite their superiority in technology. They were:
Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson
Sargent Hugh Gaynor
Corporal Peter Kelly
Corporal Liam Dougan
Private Matthew Farrell
Trooper Thomas Fennell
Trooper Anthony Browne
Private Michael McGuinn
Private Gerard Killeen
The survivors were Trooper Thomas Kenny and Private Joe Fitzpatrick.
Questions remain about the lack of intelligence on the area, the motives for the ambush, the shortage of translators and the delay in sending out a search party. At this stage, it is unlikely we will ever get acceptable answers.
In the modern-day and age, we would do well to keep in mind, with pride, their service and their commitment to the UN effort. Dying, far from home, they did so while trying to maintain peace in one of the worlds most tragically divided areas. And that is worthy of remembrance.