The launch of the Netflix film “The Siege of Jadotville” last week marked the 55th anniversary of an important event in Irish military history. The bravery of the unit involved, ‘A’ company, 35th Battalion which was serving on United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Congo, has only now been acknowledged by the authorities.
Over the years, this group of men under the leadership of Commandant Patrick Quinlan was never given proper recognition for the courage they showed in Jadotville. The Irish soldiers resisted the secessionist Katangese forces for six days as they waited for reinforcements to reach them, but had to surrender after their supplies were exhausted. The men were then taken as prisoners of war for close to a month, but none of the 155-strong contingent was killed.
Last Saturday 17th September the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe T.D. hosted an event at Custume Barracks, Athlone marking the collective actions of the men of ‘A’ Company, 35th Infantry Battalion and its attachments at the Siege. The Minister presented a unit citation to the Company in recognition of their bravery and heroism. A copy of the citation was presented to each member or next-of-kin of the unit. This was the first time a unit citation had been awarded within the Irish Defence Forces. In marking this unique occasion, Minister Kehoe also commissioned an insignia recognising the professional performance of the men of ‘A’ company.
Speaking at the event the Minister said: “I am very pleased to present this Unit Citation which recognises the bravery and courage of ‘A’ Company during the Siege of Jadotville whilst cut-off from support and reinforcements. The United Nations Operation in Congo was the first peacekeeping mission in which significant numbers of Irish soldiers took part. A total of 6,000 Irish soldiers served in the Congo from 1960 until 1964 and I want to take the opportunity to recall the contribution of all who served in the various Irish contingents over the course of this long Mission.”
The Minister concluded by saying “Ireland can be justifiably proud of all our brave men and women who have contributed to the cause of peace and security. Our continued participation in United Nations missions illustrates the very positive and practical difference that small countries, like Ireland, can make in the world’s trouble spots.”
Jadotville was an event that occurred during Ireland’s peacekeeping mission in the Congo in September 1961. ‘A’ Company of the 35th Infantry Battalion took responsibility for the UN post at Jadotville on the 3rd of September. On the 9th of September they were surrounded by a large force supporting the breakaway province of Katanga. Early on the morning of the 13th September the Company came under attack from this force. Over the coming days until 17th September they endured almost continuous attacks from ground and air.
Despite their courageous resistance and the sustained efforts of 35 Infantry Battalion HQ to provide assistance, ‘A’ Company was taken into captivity on 17th September. By this time ‘A’ Company had no water and several men had been wounded. ‘A’ Company remained in captivity until finally released on 25th October 1961.
The men of ‘A’ Company were drawn mostly from Custume Barracks, Athlone and what was the Western Command. The Citation is as follows:-
UNIT CITATION AWARDED TO ‘A’ COMPANY, 35TH INFANTRY BATTALION
“This Citation recognises the leadership, courage, bravery and professional performance of “A” Company 35th Infantry Battalion and its attachments who, under challenging circumstances at Jadotville, while besieged by overwhelming numbers of Katanganese Gendarmerie and cut-off from support and reinforcements, did valiantly defend their position from the 13th September 1961 to 17th September 1961.”
IRISH JOURNALISTS VISIT THE SOLDIERS HELD PRISONER IN JADOTVILLE
My father the late Desmond Fisher was one of three leading Irish journalists who managed to visit the soldiers when they were held prisoners. He was accompanied on the trip by Raymond ‘Congo’ Smith from the Irish Independent and John Ross from RTE. In the accompanying article my father does not admit that he was the person who was driving the hired car that failed to stop at a gendarmerie checkpoint, but luckily they all survived to tell the tale. Nor does he mention what apparently became of the ballot papers that the journalists brought with them to hand out to the troops, who were experiencing a shortage of modern domestic essentials in their confinement. The story ends with my father’s memory of the soldiers cheering them after their one-hour visit and singing as the reporters departed: “It’s a long way to Tipperary…”
The Irish Press October 2nd 961 p.1
AN 80 M.P.H. DASH TO CAMP . . .AND THE PRISONERS CHEERED
I meet the men of Jadotville siege
(From Desmond Fisher)
JADOTVILLE, Sunday —- Today I became one of the first Irishmen since the fighting in Katanga to drive down the famous Jadotville Road, across the Lufira Bridge — which two relief columns could not pass — into the town itself to meet the 181 Irish prisoners there. The outstanding impression from our visit was that all the boys were in the best form and delighted to get the bag of mail we brought to them.
Special permission for our trip was given by President Tshombe. General Muke, head of the Katangese gendarmerie, provided an escort of a gendarmerie adjutant and a paracommando officer to ensure our safe conduct.
Our trip had minor historic significance — with us we brought ballot papers which, if inevitable Congolese differences are straightened out in time, may enable the prisoners to vote in the General Election.
The ballot papers arrived by air from Leopoldville (a) half hour before we left. They were handed over to us at a heavily-guarded Indian roadblock outside Elizabethville by Lt.-Col. Jock Casserley, who was accompanied by Col. McNamee, O.C. of the 35th.
The trip began at gendarmerie headquarters in Avenue de La Reine, Elizabethville, where we picked up the escort. For eighty miles we drove at eighty miles an hour in a large hired American car which, after crashing through a gendarmerie roadblock, we discovered had no brakes. By the time we had pulled up on the dead straight road the gendarmerie were out of sight and the paracommando with us laughed — and waved us on.
But we made sure to pull up at Lafira Bridge, where a strong guard and roadblocks were still maintained round the clock. We got out of the car to inspect the bridge, which has now gone into Irish history, on account of the two gallant rescue efforts to relieve the Jadotville garrison.
It was very easy to see why the rescue columns could not get through. Steep banks lead down to muddy waters and on both sides of the river is swampy ground. Upstream, about fifty yards, is the wreck of a concrete bridge blown up during the fighting.
Clambering down the embankment to get a closer view of the bridge, we clutched for support to a strong yellow cable. Gendarmerie called out a warning that the cable was a trip-wire for the mined bridge.
On arrival at the sunbaked mining town of Jadotville, fuller of soldiers than of miners, and with boarded sidewalks closely
To page 3
The Jadotville story (p.3)
From page 1
resembling the scene for a Western film, we drove to gendarmerie headquarters. Here there was more red tape for an hour, while we drank ice-cold Simba beer and gave diplomatic pats to a naked toddler tumbling on the dusty floor of the guardroom.
In true Congolese manner the Colonel in charge demonstrated authority, but a hesitant mention of President Tshombe, whose picture hung on the wall (as on every wall) proved an open sesame.
On the steps
Finally we reached the camp, not the prison camp, but a hotel in the middle of the town which was ringed off with barbed wire and blocks across the road. Across the street from the hotel, sitting at tables in a pavement café, were Katangese gendarmerie, while others were at the road blocks.
There, sitting on the steps of the verandah of the hotel, were the Irish prisoners. When they saw us they could hardly believe we were Irish too. Then we greeted them and they were all around us, smiling and laughing.
Soon we were swapping news — we giving them the latest from the free world while they told us about their heroic four-day stand and how they felt about being prisoners. On one point they reassured us — and through us the people at home — that they are being treated very well indeed.
Best of food
They get the best of food. They also get a fry for breakfast and also have a light lunch and a good dinner. On the menu is meat, soup, cheese, vegetables, fruit and jam.
The gendarmerie do the shopping for them in the town. While it is true that they are confined to the hotel, the building is large and airy. They do physical exercises on the roof and “play games of cards, chess and so on”.
The chaplain, Father Fagan, said: “The boys also do a lot of praying”.
The uppermost thought in everyman’s mind is — “when will I be free?” We were able to assure them that the peace talks are going well and that there should be good news for them soon. Our own observation showed us what seemed to be genuine co-operation between the Irish prisoners and the gendarmerie.
The spirit of goodwill between the Katangans and the Irish prisoners was expressed to us in another way by our guard on the way home. “Irish, our friends,” he said. “During the fighting we could have wiped them out altogether but we bore them no (ill-will)”.
The only civilian in the camp is the interpreter with the 35th Battalion, Mike Nolan. He is a great help to the prisoners because he understands French, Swahili and other African dialects.
The medical officer, Commandant J.J. Clune, said that he examined all the men and they were in the best of form. The wounded were not seriously injured and they were all responding well to treatment.
The men crowded round us for the full hour we were allowed to stay there, telling us about themselves, recording interviews and being photographed for papers, television and army records.
Of the many battles in which the Irish distinguished themselves in the Katanga fighting, none was more heroic in the face of overwhelming odds than the Jadotville garrison, and we can bear this out after our visit here. (NOTE THIS PARAGRAPH IN PARTICULAR)
Most of the men were at Mass and those manning trenches found their positions there being rushed, and the shooting started.
Commandant Quinlan thought at first that it was a local incident and told the men not to use maximum fire, though they could have mown down the gendarmerie who were moving up. For four days the Irish were under heavy attack.
First came heavy mortar barrage and Irish mortar replied with good effect. As positions spread out, Commandant Quinlan decided to withdraw after dark to stronger positions astride the main road about a mile from the town.
The men holding the forward positions fought with great courage under fire while new positions were being dug. All the troops fell back safely to the new strong positions, but they were completely surrounded on all sides. It is estimated that the gendarmerie had 3,000 in the area.
The Irish were being fire at from the front, rear and sides. They had laid in water supplies when the fighting started but this became putrid. They could not leave the trenches during those four days of fierce fighting.
There were flies all over the place. The jet plane joined in the attacks and bombs fell very near the trenches where the Irish were. The jet also machine-gunned them. The Irish fired back with small arms and the jet did not come in as low afterwards.
More jet attacks followed on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday and there was also heavy mortar fire. Propaganda warfare too.
A man purporting to be from the Red Cross rang up the Irish to say that tribesmen were coming in to attack them and would eat them. Commandant Quinlan replied “If you come and try and eat us, we will give you indigestion.”
Commandant Quinlan warned too that if there were any more mob attacks the Irish would mow them down mercilessly. Convoys were heard at night moving on to Lufira Bridge to meet the breakthrough attempt by the first relief column.
Commandant Quinlan told me of the ceasefire arranged on Saturday evening, a condition that the jet would be grounded and that the men would get water and hold their positions.
But the jet came over again on Sunday morning and the water was still not turned on. Commandant Quinlan protested about the jet and he was assured it would not happen again.
After the big breakthrough attempt at Lufira Bridge had been repulsed on Saturday — and Irish and Indians withdrew to Elizabethville — Katangans pulled back paracommando elite troops from the bridge to Jadotville for an all-out final attack on the Irish.
Gendarmeries were now infiltrating Irish positions on all sides and a big force was massed.
“My men were now utterly exhausted,” Commandant Quinlan said. On Sunday, he said, they played a delaying game, holding out for a ceasefire and hoping against hope that reinforcements would get through.
“When I finally realised there was no hope of relief and that if I continued the fight all my men would be massacred by vastly superior forces, I decided to save the lives of the men by parleying with Munongo, Minister of the Interior, who arrived in the late afternoon,” said Commandant Quinlan.
The terms signed by Commandant Quinlan were as follows “I, Commandant Patrick Quinlan, Officer Commanding Irish United Nations Troops in Jadotville, do hereby agree to the terms of surrender of Minister Munongo because the Irish force is here on a peaceful police role and any further action would result in the loss of African and Irish lives.
“I also wish to state that my troops fought only in self-defence having been fired on while attending Mass on the morning of 13th September 1961. It is also agreed that the Irish troops will have their arms stored.”
Thus ended the glorious stand which would otherwise have surely resulted in heavy loss of life on the Irish side.
As we left Jadotville after the short hour with the prisoners they gave us three rousing cheers and sang cheerfully, though rather wistfully, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”