THE BATTLE OF JADOTVILLE: Irish Soldiers in Combat in the Congo 1961

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(Extract from book by Michael J Whelan)

(13th – 17th September 1961)

A few days prior to the commencement of Operation Morthor, “A” Company of the 35th Irish Infantry Battalion, composed of approximately 150 men drawn mostly from Custume barracks, Athlone, and from the Western Command, was posted to an area of Katanga known as Jadotville. At the time there was some controversy as to why they were moved there as some days earlier another larger United Nations force had been withdrawn from the area. The position occupied by the United Nations forces in Jadotville was not ideal defensively as it was located just outside the town, about ninety miles from the Irish headquarters along the main Elizabethville road. In addition, it was in the vicinity of the Union Minière mining company. The population of the area was very hostile to the United Nations and the gendarmerie had been reinforcing its positions and preparing itself for confrontation. However, the Irish peacekeepers had received orders to protect the white population who lived in the vicinity. They endeavoured to carry out these orders but to their dismay found that the white population did not need or want their protection. The Irish Company began to dig in and prepare defensive positions while at the same time reporting to headquarters on the situation at hand. They were ordered to remain in position.

Day 1 (Wednesday 13th September 1961)

At approximately 7.00am on Wednesday 13th September the Jadotville forces received a radio message from Battalion Headquarters informing them that Operation Morthor had been successfully accomplished. This was the first indication that “A”Company had of any operation or action planned for Elizabethville. At this time, all the men, except for those who were manning defensive positions, were assembling for Mass. A group of approximately thirty gendarmes and soldiers rushed the forward Irish positions on foot and in jeeps. The gendarmes were taken unawares when they found troops concealed in the trenches and at other defensive positions. The gendarmes opened fire. The Irish troops returned fire and after about ten minutes the gendarmes broke off and fled. In the words of Commandant Quinlan:

‘I am convinced that the gendarmerie received a telephone signal from the garage depot that we were assembled for Mass and they hoped to get us off guard. All our men who were attending Mass carried loaded weapons and were in action almost immediately’

For approximately two hours, there was a lull in the fighting. The Irish soldiers could see the gendarmes massing in great numbers into positions on their flanks. The Irish reported later that they could have inflicted heavy casualties at that point but the mortars and heavy machine-guns were ordered to hold fire in order to save lives. The news from Elizabethville was good and they hoped that the early morning action by the enemy was not a co-ordinated attempt. During the morning though, Commandant Quinlan had received intelligence that the enemy were expecting reinforcements and preparing to launch a major attack at 11.30am. Meanwhile, he ordered that all available containers be filled with water as he began to realise that they might be in for a long stay. Later that day the water supply was turned off by the gendarmerie. At 11.30am the attack opened with very heavy mortar and small arms (hand-held weapons) fire. The Irish returned fire and quickly destroyed the mortar position. Some of the fire must have hit the ammunition dump located close to the mortar as it burned all day and night. During the day, the Irish broke up a number of other attacks from different sectors at long range:

‘Our mortars, MMGs (mounted machine-guns), armoured cars and LAs (light arms) destroyed at least three enemy mortars and crews on this day’
By
Michael J Whelan

Book Published South Dublin Libraries (2006)
Copies available to purchase and digital version available to download from http://www.southdublinlibraries.ie/bookstore

Jadotville is one of the most tragic, controversial, and intriguing episodes in independent Ireland’s military history. Read the wikipedia article here.

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