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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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Rumpunch And Morthor

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Jadotville | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Unokat, Grandslam And The End In The Congo | Never Felt Better

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