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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