How a force of 155 raw, poorly-equipped Irish soldiers held back an army of 3,500 rebels, including seasoned Belgian and French mercenaries, in the Congo and remarkably survived.
In 1961, as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission and in response to the request by the newly formed Congolese Government, 155 men of “A” company of the 35th Battalion, found themselves at the remote mining town of Jadotville.
The town is 80 miles northwest of the Katangese capital of Elizabethville in the outlying Kantanga region and the 155 men faced a massed army of colonists, Gendarmerie and battle-hardened Belgian and French Mercenaries.
The rebel force was well equipped, generously financed by the Anglo-Belgian mining cartel Union Miniere, a covert international company responsible for supplying most of the World’s copper, Cobalt and Uranium.
In contrast, the Irish were poorly armed: initially with first-world-war era Lee Enfield rifles, a few heavy machine guns, mortars and a couple of ancient armored cars that ‘you could have fired arrows through’ The force was lightly provisioned and outnumbered by more than 20 to 1. According to 17-year-old Private John Gorman, “The Yanks who flew us out there were laughing at our old uniforms”
Unbeknownst to them, they had been sent on a mission which they were expected to fail and one which would put them center stage in the cold war between the Western powers and the Soviet Union.
Belgium had left a brutal colonial legacy of genocide, slavery, and exploitation and after 52 years, the movement for independence, with increasing international pressure was gaining momentum forcing Belgium to reluctantly agree to grant independence to the Congo.
By 1960, the revolution had engulfed the entire country and civil war was imminent On July 11, the mineral-rich province of Katanga had declared independence from Congo and had executed the elected prime Minister Lumumba who had been handed over by the Belgian authorities to the Katangan leader Moise Tshombe.
Troops dig in
The Irish Senior Officer, Commandant Pat Quinlan, in preparation for a full-frontal assault had very wisely ordered his men to dig trenches under cover of darkness.
This single action undoubtedly saved all of their lives.
The Rebels had been making hourly patrols around the perimeter of the garrison and Commandant Quinlan had instructed his men to appear relaxed, not to react and give the appearance that they were just enjoying being out in the sun!
No doubt emboldened by reports of ill-equipped soldier boys in WWII battledress The rebels mounted an audacious attack sending three trucks into the camp.
Most of the men were attending Mass but fortunately, Sargent John Monaghan immediately reacted by manning one of the machine gun positions and firing above the heads of the attackers who fled.
Soon after, at 7:40 am on September 13, 1961, the Rebel army attacked the Irish garrison initially in waves of 600.
The small Irish force whose role was primarily a policing action was made up of raw recruits; the average age was 18.5 with two soldiers only 15 years old with no battle experience. Yet despite enduring four days of constant heavy machinegun, mortar attack and strafing and bombing from a Kantagan jet, they held their positions.
This was not what the rebels had expected. The Irish troops had fought with incredible courage and discipline and largely due to the exceptional leadership of Commandant Quinlan and the professionalism of their NCOs had remarkably suffered no fatalities whilst the rebels had suffered 300-400 killed and around 1,000 wounded.
The rebels not wishing to endure further losses called for a cease-fire. After consultation with HQ by Quinlan, who at this point had exhausted most of his supplies and ammunition and moreover their transport had been destroyed by air attack, agreed.
However after agreeing to hand over their Bren guns and machine guns to the rebels. The Rebels reneged on the agreement and demanded that the Irish surrender.
None of the Irish troops recognized what had transpired as surrender and after a period in captivity and eventual repatriation through prisoner exchanges, they returned to Ireland, not as heroes but cowards: None were decorated despite Quinlan recommending a number of his men for the Distinguished Service Medal, Ireland’s highest honor, and it soon became obvious that it was best to disassociate themselves from the siege.
It would take 40 years and mostly thanks to the efforts of Jadotville veteran John Gorman, all of the men would be cleared by an official inquiry of any suggestions of soldierly misconduct and the siege would be rightfully recognized as one of the most remarkable and exemplary actions in Irish Military history.
Einstein and the A-Bomb
In 1939 Albert Einstein had written to President Roosevelt expressing his concern of the Nazi regime’s potential to develop an Atomic bomb and urged him to protect the Uranium from the Shinkolbwe mine in the Katanga province in the Belgian Congo which was the richest in the World.
Up until the 1950s, the mine was the USA’s single supplier of uranium and America had invested vast amounts of dollars in building a processing plant close by. The Belgians also invested heavily in improving the infrastructure to facilitate the export of uranium ore.
A day after the end of the siege at Jadotvill,e the U.N Secretary-General, Nobel Laureate Dag Hammarskjold was killed in an air crash en route to a meeting in Ndola in British-held Northern Rhodesia. His mission was to formulate a peace plan with Moise Tshombe and to prevent Katanga from seceding from Congo which would have had massive geopolitical ramifications, especially as Congo was by then receiving Soviet aid.
According to eyewitnesses and a recent UN report published by a Tanzanian Judge: "His aircraft was shot out of the sky by a hostile fighter jet as it prepared to land."
In 2016 the Irish Government awarded a Presidential Unit Citation to “A” company. The first in the history of the State. A year later the men were presented with the ‘An Bonn Jadotville’ medal by the Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe. The remaining eight survivors of the battle who were recommended to receive Distinguished Service Medals are however still waiting on a final decision from the Irish Government.
Leo Quinlan, son of Pat Quinlan, said it would act as closure for the former soldiers and their families and added it “doesn’t make any sense” for the survivors of the 1961 siege not to receive the distinguished service medals as was recommended.
Sadly, Colonel Pat Quinlan died in 1997. He would not live to see his comrades honored and their names and reputations cleared.
In 2016, the Netflix feature film the "Siege of Jadotville" was released starring Jamie Dornan.
The film is based on Declan Power’s book "The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle."
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