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.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Jadotville

  1. NFB says:

    Thank you for your comments. An interesting topic to be sure, and my long-term plan is to go back and tidy up entries on that period, and before and after, when I have the time.

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

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

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