Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 May 2013

A Very Irish Victory

There is an old saying that if you want to find an Irishman, look for the nearest fight.

A bit unfair really as I remember Ireland as the most peaceful and safe place I've ever lived.

However the Irish do fight. Mostly though they fight abroad.

The Wild Geese were a unit of Irish mercenaries that fought for various European monarchs after the Battle of the Boyne. Rather less romantic were the Blueshirts sent to Spain to fight for Franco and who seem to have spent their time drinking and occasionally shooting their own side.

Rather more Irish though served in the British Army, mainly the Royal Irish Rangers, a unit of which burnt the White House in the War of 1812, and which more recently served in Oman and Bosnia.

Those who choose not to go abroad could join the Irish Army. Not usually considered one of the world's elite units, it can however say that whilst it has only ever fought one war, this was against the IRA and they won a clear victory, something the British Army never achieved.

Funnily enough they don't actually like to boast much about fighting other Irishmen, and instead like to talk about their record of UN Peacekeeping missions. This is a pretty impressive and has included service in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, East Timur, Liberia and Chad.

Most of these have been fairly routine blue hat duty, but things did a bit hairy on occasion in Lebanon and Somalia, and in Liberia the Irish Army Rangers got to do a spot of SAS-style hostage rescue.

However their first major UN mission, to the Congo in 1960, was even more dramatic.

The Irish soldiers found themselves plunged into the middle of the chaos of Congo's independence. Having elected the nice guy Patrice Lumumba to be Prime Minister the country was then ripped apart by civil war. A cabal of Belgian mining companies clubbed together to create the breakaway province of Katanga, which was guarded by Belgian soldiers and white mercenaries. Within seven months of independence Lumumba was dead, having been kidnapped, tortured and killed by Katangan soldiers under Belgian officers.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
The United Nations Security Council met amidst a seething anti-colonial feelings and passed Resolution 143, demanding the removal of Belgian troops and authorising a UN force to bring stability to Katanga. Britain, France and Taiwan abstained. The next day 1200 soldiers from 24 countries arrived in the Congo.

Amongst them were the Irish. They were blessed by the Archbishop as they boarded giant US transport planes at Casement Aerodrome. Most had no idea where the Congo was. In all about 700 flew out in the first wave, heading for the tropics wearing woollen tunics. Hastily armed with new rifles, they were off to patrol an area several times the size of Ireland.

The United Nations organisation was totally unsuited to what was to become a small war.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
Nine Irish soldiers were killed in a village called Niemba after they were sent out on patrol with inadequate intelligence and no back up. Meanwhile 156 of their colleagues, under the command of Commandant Pat Quinlan from Kerry, found themselves in a place then called Jadotville, now Likasi, where they waited for the chaotic logistics system to bring up supplies and heavy weapons.

However the Katangan puppet state was not going to allow the UN time to sort itself out. They counter attacked with their army of native gendarmes, tribesmen and European mercenaries led by another Irishman, Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare.

I once tried to read this man's terrible book about his service in the Congo. The only bit of any interest was his evident revulsion when, after advertising for a bunch of butch soldiers to join him in an all-male barracks in the middle of nowhere, he found a large number of those applying were gay.

So anyway Quinlan and his men - whose sexually is not recorded - where out there in the middle of Africa at the end of a long, precarious and somewhat shambolic supply line. Local Belgian settlers - the people the UN were supposed to be there to protect - tipped off Hoare's men that the Irish attended Mass every Sunday morning. The Katangans then planned a surprise attack on the UN soldiers with a force of at least 3000 men.

But it didn't go to plan.

Instead of rounding up the Irish whilst they were tucking into their communion wafers, the attackers ran into Sergeant John Monaghan from Offally with a Vickers machine gun. He'd just finished shaving and was returning to his trench when saw vehicles approaching rapidly. John Gorman from Westmeath, then a seventeen year old private remembers “We were always drilled about not commencing hostilities first. We were there as UN, to keep the peace and to avoid causing conflict. ‘Don’t be the first to fire,’ we were always told." Ignoring the etiquette of peacekeeping, Monahan quickly grabbed the old weapon and opened fire.

His quick thinking probably saved the unit.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
Unfortunately for the Irish this was their only heavy weapon. Soon they found themselves under fire from 81mm mortars and 75mm artillery with only 60mm mortars to defend return fire with. They were also deficient in experience. The Irish were mostly young and untested, whilst Hoare's mercenaries were veterans of World War Two and France's colonial wars.

However the Irish were up to the job. Quinlan, a man you didn't argue with, had ordered his men to dig when they arrived in the village, and from their positions they mowed down the attackers whilst their mortar teams amazingly managed to silence the enemy guns.

The battle went on for four days. When the UN asked how they were doing they received the classic reply "We will hold out until our last bullet is spent. Could do with some whiskey".

But Quinlan knew his men were trapped. An attempt to relieve the position by Swedish troops was stopped by the Katanagan air force, which had also destroyed the Irish transport.

The Irish has beaten off every attack. At least 300 Katangans and 30 mercenaries were dead and more Katangans were killed by their white allies when they refused to attack again. But Quinlan knew his men were trapped. Seven had been wounded but none killed, however their luck couldn't last.

Quinlan opted to surrender.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
I'm sure nobody reading this has any doubt that he did the right thing. His men had fought bravely but they had no more ammunition, no more food, no more water and no more hope of rescue. They did not deserve to die for nothing.

Quinlan waved the white flag and became one of the very few officers to have gone to war and brought all his men home again.

But that was not how it was seen back in Ireland.

The whole business was regarded as a humiliation and hushed up. Whilst the soldiers who had died in the Niemba ambush were honoured for their (very real) courage annually, the veterans of Jadotville were forgotten.

No medals were awarded and the battle was removed from the official history. Quinlan never served abroad again and the men who served under him soon learnt that if the wanted to get on with their careers it was best to pretend they'd been elsewhere at the time.

Not for the first time, it seems Ireland preferred dead heroes to living ones. No Irish actually died in Jadotville, but a dozen are believed to have committed suicide after returning home to be ignored by their superiors and taunted by their colleagues.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
The situation was only changed thanks to the tireless campaigning of veteran John Gorman, but he was the other side of 60 before he managed to get the army to look again at the siege. In the end they concluded Quinlan had done the right thing and in 2006 the battle received the recognition it deserved, but by then though the Kerry man had been in his grave for nine years.

Jadotville was far and away the fiercest and most skilful battle the army of the Irish Republic has ever fought, and it was fought not for the country's own benefit but for an African nation thousands of miles away.

Yet the nation chose to forget it for more than forty years.


Mark D. said...

Interesting story, i enjoyed reading it.

Martin Porter said...