“Irish troops found themselves besieged at Jadotville because Conor Cruise O’Brien ordered UN troops to seize Katangan positions in Elisabethville.”
In September 1961 Noel Carey was a 24-year-old lieutenant, Gorman a wide-eyed 17-year-old private, part of an Irish contingent of United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to stop the country descending into chaos. Even at a distance of 55 years, their voices crack with emotion as they recall how their mission turned into a battle for survival in what was Ireland’s first ever international military deployment.
What unfolded over five days in Jadotville is a little-known but astonishing story of heroism and against-all-odds soldiering, a feat of indefatigable courage.
The Congo, like many African countries in the years after the Second World War, had turned against its European ruler, Belgium, and declared independence in 1960. The new government was ill-prepared for its new role and the UN Security Council set up the UN Operation in the Congo to support it. Amid the chaos, Moise Tshombe, a Christian and anti-communist politician, supported by some Europeans, declared the resource-rich province of Katanga independent of the DRC. The UN forces found themselves party to a civil war between the central government and Katanga, which was also supported by Rhodesia and South Africa.
As part of the UN mission, Noel Carey and John Gorman’s “A” Company of the Irish Army’s 35th Infantry Battalion was dispatched to Jadotville, a strategic, mineral-rich town in Katanga, with orders to protect the mainly Belgian settlers.
The UN forces were largely based in the provincial capital of Elisabethville, 80 miles south-east of Jadotville, and initially the Irish were deployed to that city’s airport. In a move that has never been explained, two companies of UN peacekeepers—one Swedish and one Irish—had been hastily withdrawn from Jadotville, days before “A” Company was sent in.
What seemed like a simple mission, ended up in a desperate life or death fight, pitting the Irish against a well-armed enemy, which consisted of Katangan troops supported by European mercenaries and settlers who outnumbered them 20 to one.
Commandant Pat Quinlan, the wily, blunt, pipe-smoking officer in charge of “A” Company noted the deep levels of hostility to his men in Jadotville and began to organise a robust defensive perimeter around their base. The 42-year-old officer ordered his men to dig 1.5-metre-deep trenches, stockpile water and carry their guns at all times.
His instincts were correct; while most of his men were at mass on 13 September, the Katangans attacked, probably with the aim of taking the Irish as prisoners and using them as leverage in negotiations with the UN.
The Katangans attacked after other UN forces seized Katangan positions in Elisabethville, a planned operation, which had inexplicably been kept secret from Quinlan by the UN command. The Katangans had also taken a key river crossing that meant the Irish were completely trapped. The Irish were lightly armed, with 60mm mortars, Vickers machine guns, shoulder-fired anti-tank guns and Bren light machine guns. They had one truck, two jeeps and only intermittent radio communications. The Katangans had artillery and air support in a single Fouga Magister training jet.
The Irish were hit by mortars and heavy machine gunfire and strafed by the Fouga jet. The same airplane later dropped bombs, damaging the Irish vehicles and buildings. The Katangans attacked and were driven back again and again but they were getting closer to the Irish positions, but Pat Quinlan was a master tactician.
Quinlan negotiated a series of ceasefires with the Belgian mayor of Jadotville to create time for the arrival of reinforcements or supplies. A Norwegian pilot flew his helicopter in with water, which turned out to be contaminated but that was the UN’s last attempt to help the Irish. The Katangans continued to breach the ceasefire and without water and ammunition, the Irish had no choice but to surrender. They had killed 300 of their attackers and five Irish soldiers were wounded. The Irish feared for their lives after the damage they had done to their enemy but they were only held for five weeks before the UN could negotiate their release, and returned home in December.
There was to be no hero’s welcome. The surrender of “A” Company was seen by some as a national embarrassment which overshadowed the men’s courage and competence. The treatment of the Jadotville troops infuriated the soldiers and their families and led to a decades-long fight to recognise the importance of the battle. Jadotville was swept under the carpet. Anyone who was there was made to feel like they couldn’t talk about it. There was shame associated with it. The men should have been heroes, instead they were subject to humiliation and in some cases abuse for their involvement.
Quinlan, from Waterville, Co Kerry, died in 1997, aged 78, with his achievement still unrecognised. In Jadotville, he was supported by a close-knit group of officers and NCOs who ensured that “A” Company stuck together during the siege.
A commemorative stone recognising the soldiers of “A” Company was erected on the grounds of Custume Barracks in Athlone in 2005. A commissioned portrait of Quinlan was installed in the Congo Room of the Irish Defence Forces’ UN School.
In October 2017 a plaque commemorating Quinlan was unveiled in his native County Kerry, by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The decision of the state to honour the soldiers of Jadotville or their next of kin was one of the last decisions taken by Enda Kenny before he retired as Taoiseach in June 2017. On 2 December 2017, the soldiers and families of deceased members of the infantry were presented with special medals in Athlone. Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe presented An Bonn Jadotville to members of the ‘A Company’. The word ‘Jadotville’ is depicted on the clasp of the medal and the medal ribbon represents a combination of an Irish tricolour and the United Nations Operation in Congo mission medal. The word ‘Jadotville’ is depicted on the clasp of the medal and the medal ribbon represents a combination of an Irish tricolour and the United Nations Operation in Congo mission medal. Speaking in relation to the medal design, Kehoe said, “I would like to draw your attention to the words on the medal that you will soon receive. The words state ‘cosaint chalma’ (which means “valiant defence”) and ‘misneach’ (which means ‘courage’).
Declan Power’s history, The Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle (2005), was adapted as the film, The Siege of Jadotville (2016). The cast includes Jamie Dornan and Mark Strong, and the movie had a “well received” premier at the 2016 Galway Film Festival. It had a limited cinematic release in September 2016, and worldwide release on Netflix, on 7 October 2016. Michael Kennedy, a military and diplomatic historian and author of Ireland, the United Nations and the Congo, provided some historical guidance for the movie’s script. He says: “Quinlan and his men helped to shape Ireland’s reputation today for providing well-trained, respected and, above all, resilient United Nations peacekeepers. At Jadotville, the Irish, with a small unit under very competent leadership, resisted a much larger, battle-hardened force and showed their ability and professionalism in Ireland’s first ever peacekeeping mission.
Featured Image | Comdt. Pat Quinlan in Jadotville, just days before the siege began, on 10 Sept 1961, Courtesy of Leo Quinlan
Image | Comdt. Pat Quinlan, far left, poses with soldiers of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, in Elisabethville, before the siege | Courtesy of Leo Quinlan
Image | An Bonn Jadotville | Courtesy of Richard Chambers