Ireland’s Wars: Unokat, Grandslam And The End In The Congo

The events of September 1961 were critical in the history of the Congo Crisis in general and for ONUC in particular. Operation Morthor had essentially been a disaster, a mission that fell far short of its objectives and resulted in significant loss of life. In combination with the surrender of the Irish position at Jadotville, despite the bravery and martial skill displayed by the soldiers engaged there, the entire affair essentially emboldened the Katangan secession rather than cripple it. But things were already turning on Moise Tshombe and his forces. The murky circumstances surrounding the death of Dag Hammarskjöld would be the catalyst for firmer UN action going forward, and the Irish contingent of ONUC would be intimately involved.

The aftermath of Morthor brought a great deal of change to the leadership of the UN and the ONUC mission. Conor Cruise O’Brien would resign his position, and the UN itself would have a brand new Secretary General, in the form of Burma’s U Thant. Under Thant, and with the chaos that has engulfed ONUC very much in mind, new updates to the UN resolutions governing the mission in the Congo would be rapidly made. The gloves were now very much coming off, with the UN now directly mandating its forces to end the Katangan secession, and to destroy Moise Tshombe’s mercenary contingent in the process. Indeed, the word “destruction” was literally used in these new orders, a very firm indication that peacekeeping was no longer the highest guiding principle. In light of the many casualties that had been suffered and the ongoing drama about the Irish soldiers being held captive by Katanga – the Jadotville veterans would be released on the 25th October – this new attitude is perhaps understandable, but taking a larger view flew in the face of what it seemed the UN existed to do. The maintenance of law and order had now transformed into active warfighting.

The first practical demonstration of this new ethos was Operation Unokat. Tensions in Elizabethville had barely reduced since Morthor, and in late November/early December 1961 a number of incidents, that included the deaths of peacekeepers and Katangan seizure of vital transport links in the city, ratcheted things up more. On the 5th December, UN troops were ordered to take what action was necessary to clear gendarme roadblocks and other positions that were limiting their freedom of movement, beginning what was known later as Unokat.

One of the first operations of this major resumption of hostilities was a UN attack on roadblocks outside the airport, made largely by Indian troops with Swedish armoured cars but also involving significant amounts of Irish personnel. Their objective was little more than to smash the routes around the airport open by force, and this they did. They were still numerically inferior to the local forces, but the balance of power had seriously shifted with the establishment of a UN air force, made up of jets and other attack craft from Sweden, India and Ethiopia, while land-based attacks were now backed up by freshly arrived artillery. The jets themselves did not immediately engage targets, though in the coming days they would launch retaliatory strikes on Katangan ground forces; their mere presence was enough to limit the Katangan jets to night-time operations, severely limiting their effectiveness. Remarkably the Irish contingent of this initial attack was largely mad up of men from the 35th battalion’s A Company, those men who had just been released from captivity and were essentially waiting to be flown home at any point. The Irish of ONUC was scattered throughout Katanga at the time and also in a state of circulation in terms of some units coming to the end of their tour and others about to arrive, necessitating that this A Company be thrown back into combat. Their task was to guard and advance the flanks of the UN advance, taking out sniping positions and turning the turning the opposing flanks of the enemy, which they did successfully without taking any loss. The Indians were not so lucky, taking several casualties, but the roadblocks were taken.

The pattern of Unokat, an operation yet to be formally launched, was set by such actions, with Elizabethville awash with attacks on roadblocks and counter-attacks to retake the same over the following few days. Irish camps, like that at Leopold Farm, came under mortar and sniper fire, with one man, Corporal Michael Fallon, killed by a mortar strike on the 8th December. ONUC forces for a time held their positions and let their jets attack vital Katangan military and infrastructure targets, while the Irish busied themselves with seeking out sniper positions around their camps and eliminating them. On the 12th A Company, now only days away from their final departure from the Congo, were sent back into action again, this time to attack a roadblock position that had a dual function of protecting a fuel depot near Avenue Usoke that was vital to Katangan forces and cutting off outlying Irish and Swedish positions from UN HQ. Cmdt Pat Quinlan commanded the attack, which went ahead at night: using the flashes of their anti-tank guns to good effect, the Irish penetrated through the roadblock in good order and then rapidly set the fuel depot ablaze, a fire that could be seen from a very long way away. Within ten days, the last of A Company were on their way back to Ireland.

By then a new unit of Irish peacekeepers, the 36th battalion, had already been heavily engaged themselves, in what can be considered the primary Irish contribution to Unokat. They had actually flown into Elizabethville after Unokat had been launched, and the landing occurred to the sound of bullets hitting their plane. On their first day in country they were unable to sleep owing to the sound of mortars and sniper rifles targeting their base, which killed that one soldier and wounded five others. Within days they would be called upon to take a key part in the ongoing military operations.

On the 10th December, mere days after arriving, A and B Companies of the 36th battalion were at the forefront of efforts to expand the operational reach of the Irish and Swedish bases, pushing out their outer limits and driving off encroaching gendarmerie forces without major difficulty from the nearby Liege crossroads, “Point E”, before finding much more trouble from incoming mortars, that wounded several. The Irish held the position for several days, engaged in mortar duels and dealing with occasional small arms fire, with one man, Sergeant Paddy Mulcahy, dying later of wounds incurred in these exchanges. It was not quite Jadotville, but was similar in some respects: the Irish unit dug-in around the crossroads and dealt with repeated attacks, holding their ground. A much tougher test was to come, in the form of “the Tunnel”: a deceptively small railway underpass that controlled a key avenue into the heart of Elizabethville. Control of the Tunnel had long been recognised as a key element to controlling the city, and right then and there it was the gendarmes that held it, fortifying nearby buildings to augment its defence. ONUC was determined to take the position, and a large-scale operation was planned to assault it. The 36th battalion, with A Company at the forefront, would be the main attack force, supported by their sister B Company and with C Company in reserve, with other international contingents assisting in other ways.

The Battle of the Tunnel, also known as Operation Sarsfield, went ahead in the early hours of the 16th December. In torrential rain the elements of the 36th went forward on parallel advance lines under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel Mick Hogan. The cover of night and the rain would have helped this advance, but eventually the Katangan defenders, at least two companies worth themselves, opened up. The Irish were forced to push through small arms, machine gun and mortar fire, gradually gaining ground and pegging the gendarmes back. This action has been described as a “storming” of the tunnel in some accounts, and the Irish would certainly have had to move fast in order to take full advantage of the circumstances, but the overall attack took about two hours, so heavy was the opposing fire, that Irish and Indian mortars had to deal with. The gendarmes were first pushed out of the underpass, and then from the positions on the bridge above, where they had been using abandoned rail carriages as defensive positions. The Katangans rallied to attempt a counter-attack, but this was beaten off. For taking the objective, two Irish soldiers had been killed: platoon leader Lt Patrick Riordan and Private Andrew Wickham, both hit by bursts of machine gun fire at different points in the attack. Six Katangans lay dead on the other side, with many more wounded. But the Tunnel had been taken.

At the same time as the Battle of the Tunnel Indian, Ethiopian and Swedish attacks elsewhere in the city were making ground. Over the next several days the vast majority of Elizabethville fell into ONUC control, including the main base of the gendarmerie at Camp Massart: ONUC control of the main thoroughfares, like the Tunnel, was undoubtedly vital. On the 20th of December a ceasefire was agreed as Tshombe went into firmer negotiations with the Congolese government, essentially agreeing in such talks that the Katangan secession was be unsustainable. Unokat had been a success, albeit not without cost: it was essentially what O’Brien had hoped Morthor would be, with a much grander set of end results. But still the fighting was not over.

For most of 1962 Tshombe would prevaricate on serious engagement with the Congolese government, repeatedly delaying the implementation of a federalised Congo with Katanga involved, and re-building his forces as well as he could. The mercenary presence in Katanga rose again, defensive positions were prepared and the Katangan air force even began operations once more. UN patience had its limits on such matters: the Sino-Indian War now threatened to end India’s involvement, while the United States, who had underwritten much of the cost of ONUC, was also now pressing for a definitive resolution. Towards the end of 1962, as Katangan forces began to take aggressive moves once more towards UN personnel, UN representatives and ONUC’s military chiefs, among them Sean MacEoin, came to an agreement to put a final end to the secession by force.

The result was Operation Grandslam, which was launched on the 28th December. UN forces rapidly pushed gendarme forces away from roadblocks and other defensive positions, backed up by their own air power. The last of the key Katangan areas of control, such as Tshombe’s presidential palace, were stormed and occupied. The UN then went further and, over the next two weeks, rapidly advanced on various Katangan military forces and key positions in the rest of the province. A succession of towns and other key areas fell rapidly, among them Jadotville on the 3rd January 1963. Irish troops involvement in Grandslam was primarily along the border with Rhodesia, where Irish garrisons moved in and secured border crossings, preventing Katangan avenues of re-supply from that direction. By the 17th of January, it was clear that Katangan efforts to resist had fallen apart, and Tshombe’s forces surrendered, with the Prime Minister once again acknowledging that the secession was over. This time it would stick.

The rest of ONUC’s mission, and more particularly Irish involvement, would be comparatively quiet: from the end of Grandslam the UN would begin to gradually draw down its forces in the Congo. Its job in that time was to maintain law and order as best that it could, and to offer protection to foreign workers, especially foreign aid, from the continuing unrest. In May 1964, nearly four years after the first soldiers had arrived, the last of the Irish contingent was withdrawn, followed rapidly by all that remained of the large ONUC structure.

On the political side of things Tshombe was invited to become a key part of a new federalised Democratic Republic of the Congo, but containing violence from Maoist rebels and a succession of attempted coups thwarted any possibility of a sustained piece. The Congo, later renamed Zaire, would emerge out pf the crisis as a dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, with Tshombe exiled to die in murky circumstances in Algeria a few years alter. Continued rebellion and civil war has marked the Congo’s subsequent history, and peace and stability in the region remains elusive today.

Over 6’000 Irish soldiers, which constitutes a majority of the Irish Army as it existed at the time, served in the Congo, a clear sign of how popular a posting it was for Irish soldiery. There were many casualties, and 26 fatalities. Those killed in combat, 16 in total, we have discussed already. Three others died of illness, four others in car crashes, three as a result of an unintentional discharge of firearms. With one exception, it would be deadliest UN mission for Irish soldiers, and by far the deadliest in terms of those killed in action.

Irish involvement in the Congo can be described as a mixed bag in terms of tangible results and how in how the Irish Defence Forces were able to present themselves. There are numerous negative aspects to the whole affair: the deficiencies in equipment and training that were evident from the off; the inexperience that led to events like Niemba; Irish soldiers becoming pawns in a dangerous international game, resulting in the Siege of Jadotville; leadership debacles, like that which led to Operation Morthor. But there are positives also: in the vital role that Irish soldiers played throughout the crisis; in the tactical-level excellence showed in places like Jadotville, but also during Unokat and Grandslam; and the fact that the Irish Defence Forces, after a lengthy period of stagnation at home, had now successfully shown they could operate effectively in a new role as members of UN missions. The rights and wrongs of those UN missions, with that in the Congo morphing over time into active warfighting as opposed to peacekeeping, are another question entirely. It suffices to say that the UN essentially entered the Congo on one side of a messy civil conflict, driven as much or more by the realities of Cold War politics than a genuine desire to reduce the instability that was occurring in Africa.

The UN had now gotten a taste for what it was capable of doing, in terms of interventions in areas of conflict, even if the end results of their first effort were decidedly mixed. So had many of the countries that donated troops to such endeavours, and the Irish were no exception. Before the end of the Congo mission, Irish soldiers were already taking part in a different UN mission, one in a very different part of the globe. This was to be significantly less dangerous as an environment, but one that is still worthy of some discussion: next week we will look at the UN mission on the island of Cyprus, and Irish involvement there.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: Unokat, Grandslam And The End In The Congo

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

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