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Battle of the Tunnel (The Congo Mission)

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  • Rhodes
    Magnificent A Company: Battle in the Congo

    Ronan Abayawickrema on the Battle of the Tunnel, which made one Irish company the most decorated in the history of the Defence Forces

    As the plane came in to land, the soldiers onboard could hear a strange 'pinging' sound.

    At first, they didn't know what it was. Then, the chilling realisation dawned -- it was the sound of bullets piercing the aircraft's fuselage.

    The men rushed to take evasive action -- some spread-eagled themselves against the sides of the plane.

    "I sat on my helmet," says Dubliner Tony Confrey, who was then a 19-year-old private in the Irish Defence Forces.

    "The bullets were coming up (through the floor of the aircraft), so it was the handiest thing to do."

    The plane was a huge US Globemaster, carrying the men of A Company, 36th Infantry Battalion, to Elizabethville in the Congo in December 1961.

    A Company's deployment, which ended 50 years ago this May, was part of Ireland's contribution to the UN peacekeeping mission to the war-torn African country, which had only gained independence from Belgium the previous year.

    "Over the years, Niemba (where nine Irish peacekeepers were killed in an ambush in November 1960) and Jadotville (where an Irish company was besieged by rebel troops) have been adequately covered, and rightly so, but we feel the achievements of A Company have been overlooked," says Jim 'Nobby' Clarke, from Dublin, also then a 19-year-old private and a company driver.

    On arriving in the Congolese capital Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) following a 24-hour flight, A Company found that the situation in the country was deteriorating rapidly, and its mission had been altered.

    "At the transit camp, a muster parade was called and we were informed we were going into a war-like situation, and our destination was changed from Nyunzu (in the north of the country) to Elizabethville," says Jim.

    "It was obvious that things were changing -- fast."

    Now known as Lubumbashi, Elizabethville was the Congo's second city and capital of the resource-rich Katanga province, which had seceded from the rest of the country.

    Katangese leader Moise Tshombe had broken away from the central government and set up his own administration. Tshombe had mustered a considerable military force, made up of the province's gendarmarie, backed by Western mercenaries.

    The UN's mandate was to return control of Katanga to the central government. "We went out as peacekeepers, and overnight became peace enforcers," adds Jim.

    The men of A Company were in no doubt about the perilous nature of their new mission. "While we were in Leopoldville, (chaplain) Fr Matthews actually gave anyone who wanted it absolution, because we were going into a dangerous situation," says Tony Confrey.

    Just how dangerous things were in Elizabethville was confirmed as A Company's plane came under fire from Katangese forces as it approached the city's airport.

    The US crew safely landed the aircraft, but it had been riddled with bullets. "They discovered 40 puncture holes in the fuselage," says Jim.

    "As a result, there was fuel flying out around the tarmac and the biggest fear the Americans had was that our hobnailed boots would cause sparks on the ground and ignite the fuel. There would have been an inferno."

    The journey from the airport to the Leopold Farm UN base was no less fraught.

    "(It) was quite frightening, because you could hear the gunfire from all directions, and you could also see the tracer bullets flying overhead," says Tony.

    "From the time we got to the Farm, we had to dig in -- we lived in the trenches, we ate in the trenches," he adds.

    Conditions were grim. At first, the soldiers had only the regular 'bull's wool' Irish Army uniforms in the stifling heat; tropical clothing didn't arrive until later.

    What's more, it was the rainy season and the area was wracked by tropical storms. However, waterlogged trenches were the least of A Company's problems, says John Woolley, from Co Cavan.

    Then an 18-year-old private, he was on his second tour in the Congo.

    "When someone fires a shot at you, you'll dive into a sewer, it's as simple as that," he adds wryly.

    Tony sums it up: "All in all, it was a war situation... there were snipers, there were mortar bombs falling, there was all kinds of chaos going on." Many of the company were young men who had never been outside Ireland before, let alone seen action, but now they found themselves in the middle of a vicious internecine war.

    The company suffered casualties just two days after arriving in the Congo, and on December 8, Corporal Mick Fallon was killed by mortar fire at Leopold Farm.

    "I was quite close to him when he was hit," remembers Tony, quietly, "and I actually didn't think there was anything wrong with him, because I didn't see any blood. I think he got a shrapnel wound straight into the heart."

    Four days later, A Company fought the Battle of the Tunnel. Their objective was to take 'the Tunnel', the railway that was the main link in and out of Elizabethville.

    "We were the first Irish troops to be ordered into battle," says Jim, "and, indeed (the only ones) since then."

    They achieved their objective, but at high cost -- two of A Company were killed in the battle and many more were wounded.

    The Katangese troops they faced were a formidable foe; John Woolley notes that they were well armed, with automatic weapons, and were supported by three Fouga jets.

    And they were backed by Western mercenaries from a host of countries -- including Germany, Britain, South Africa and Belgium -- led by the Irish-born 'Mad' Mike Hoare.

    As a result of the bravery shown by A Company in the action, it garnered 14 of the 25 Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs) awarded to the 36th Infantry Battalion, making it the most decorated company in the history of the Defence Forces.

    "We feel perhaps it could have been more (DSMs)," says Jim. "For example, Pte Andy Wickham, who was killed alongside his platoon commander, Lt Paddy Riordan -- he was his radio operator."

    Tony was wounded in the battle, being hit by mortar shrapnel in the left hip.

    He was treated in the field hospital, and was able to serve the rest of his tour, but he still had two pieces of shrapnel in his leg, which were only discovered and removed after he visited the doctor in pain some 15 years later.

    And he has high praise for his platoon sergeant, Jim Sexton, who took command of the platoon after Lt Riordan had been killed.

    "He was a fantastic sergeant -- we were all very young, he was the senior man, and he looked after us like we were his own family."

    Sgt Sexton survived the battle.

    After the UN's victory in the Battle of the Tunnel, the situation improved and the peacekeepers were now able to enter Elizabethville, although there were still some skirmishes.

    A Company was even able to celebrate Christmas, cobbling together enough provisions for Christmas dinner by bartering with other contingents. The menu reveals the gallows humour that sustained the soldiers in the grim conditions -- dishes include Sniper Soup and Turkey a la Tunnel.

    After Christmas, A Company moved from the Leopold Farm camp to billets in villas abandoned by Belgian settlers.

    Tony remembers that there were still meals on the tables in some of these homes, so quickly did their owners have to flee the fighting.

    The Congo was largely peaceful when A Company returned home in May 1962, says John, but the country, now known as The Democratic Republic of Congo, has had a turbulent history since then.

    Millions died in renewed conflict between 1998 and 2003, and the east of the nation remains unstable today.

    "You have to ask yourself what's been achieved really," says Tony.

    But if the UN mission of the 1960s failed to bring lasting peace to the Congo, it was the beginning of Ireland's contribution to international peacekeeping, which continues today, 50 years later, and has won the Defence Forces worldwide respect.

    "The mere fact that 25 DSMs were given shows that we were up to the task," says Tony, "and any Irish troops sent on peacekeeping missions after that have lived up to the Irish name."

    Tony Confrey left the Defence Forces in the 1960s, while John Woolley served another peacekeeping tour, this time in Cyprus, before leaving in the 1970s.

    Jim Clarke stayed in the army, retiring in 2002 with the rank of Company Quartermaster Sergeant after 43 years' service.

    Yet all three men clearly still feel a strong connection to the country in which they served as peacekeepers for six months half a century ago and to the five fallen comrades who didn't return.

    "I've been to lots of places since then," says Tony, "but it's the Congo that stays in your heart."

    Thanks to the Irish United

    Nations Veterans Association (IUNVA),,

    for the use of its facilities

    - Ronan Abayawickrema

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  • Rhodes
    Ceremonies held to honour Congo peacekeepers

    Ceremonies have taken place in Dublin to honour Irish peacekeepers who served in the Congo 50 years ago.

    The 36th Infantry Battalion, which took part in fierce fighting, is the most decorated unit of the Defence Forces.

    Wreaths were laid at the United Nations Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery early this morning by survivors of the 150-strong battalion, which lost five colleagues in Africa half a century ago.

    Relatives of the dead soldiers also laid wreaths.

    Within two weeks of their arrival in Congo in December 1961, the battalion suffered four fatalities.

    After only two days Cpl Mick Fallon was killed.

    A few days later Sgt Paddy Mulcahy, Lt Paddy Riordan and Pte Andy Wickham died in the famous 'Battle of the Tunnel' in Elizabethville.

    Cpl John Power died later from natural causes.

    Memories are still fresh of the tough battle to seize the railway tunnel from mercenaries and Katanganese gendarmerie on 16 December 1961.

    The tunnel was a crucial approach to Elizabethville and the battle to seize and hold it is described as "sharp and bloody."

    The Irish troops, under a UN mandate, went on the offensive. Fatalities were both inflicted and suffered.

    Following the hostilities of December 1961, 14 Irish peacekeepers were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, including two posthumously.

    This morning, Congo veteran Colonel Sean Norton (retired) said a lot of bravery was displayed and many more peacekeepers should have been honoured.

    The widow of Pte Andy Wickham, Mrs Eleanor Gray, said the commemoration was a sad occasion, and she recalled the sorrow of being widowed with five young children.

    Company Quartermaster Sergeant (retired) Jim Clarke said veterans of the Battle of the Tunnel were pleased that their actions were now being fittingly recorded.

    A serving Army officer, Commandant Dan Harvey, has recently published a book about The Battle of the Tunnel.

    26 Irish peacekeepers lost their lives over four years in the Congo

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    Has not been kind, what an understatement. unfortunately Belgians began to understand the errors of their ways to late as the wind of change was blowing, needed another 50 yrs of European Rule then maybe it might have had a chance but then again.. africa..

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  • Victor
    UN leader's death still contentious 50 years on

    UN leader's death still contentious 50 years on

    UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold, who died in unexplained circumstances, made Congo a global issue and spooked US and UK, writes ALANNA O'MALLEY

    IT APPEARED as a burning wreckage in a small copse of trees near the airfield in Ndola, a town in what is now Zambia.

    This was no ordinary debris, however, but the remains of the plane that had been carrying United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold.

    His death in the Congo would set alarm bells ringing in Washington, Moscow and London at the height of the Cold War.

    Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Hammarskjold’s death. An official inquiry conducted by the United Nations concluded that the plane crashed en route to Ndola, where he was to negotiate a peace settlement between warring factions in the southeast of the country.

    However, speculation abounds that the plane was in fact shot down, as Hammarskjold’s operation in the Congo had been a source of continual irritation for Britain and the United States.

    While his passing has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue, it is important to mark the anniversary of one of the most interventionist and intrepid peacemakers of our time.

    The crisis in the Congo, a country the size of western Europe, erupted in July 1960, less than a week after the country gained its independence from Belgium.

    The lower ranks of the army, know as the Force Publiqu e, rebelled against their Belgian officers and began rioting and attacking European targets.

    In addition, the southeastern province of Katanga announced its secession, taking with it 60 per cent of Congolese revenue.

    Crucially, it was the response of the Belgians in sending in their paratroopers, as though the Congo were still a colony, to this ambush of what they viewed as their stabilising influence over the burgeoning nation that induced the catastrophe and caused prime minister Patrice Lumumba to appeal to the United Nations for international assistance to protect the sovereignty of the Congo. This catapulted the Congo crisis onto the international stage.

    From the outset, the secretary general adopted a hands-on approach to the crisis, evoking formally – and for the first time – article 99 of the UN Charter in response to Lumumba’s appeal on July 13th, 1960. Article 19 grants the secretary general the power to bring to the UN Security Council any issue that may threaten international peace and security.

    By using it, Hammarskjold put the crisis in the Congo on the global security agenda.

    In his opening statement to the security council on July 13th, 1960, he recommended that the United Nations accede to the request from the government of the Congo for military assistance in defending its independence following the dispatch of Belgian troops to quell the mutiny in the Force Publique .

    This, as the Economist noted at the time, was a task that had no precedent. Never before had the UN been asked to intervene in a sovereign country to protect its independence.

    By invoking article 99, Hammarskjold marked his tenure as secretary general as being interventionist and activist.

    In addition, the unanimous agreement of the members of the security council was extraordinary as it transcended the usual division between the West and the communists.

    However, Hammarskjold’s interpretation of his position unsettled some. This level of activism was unprecedented and worried the United States and Britain, as the organisation they had created to serve their own aims began to slip from their control.

    Hammarskjold’s interpretation of the UN Charter had the effect of upholding the status quo but through applying innovative procedures.

    The growing prominence of the Afro-Asian bloc in the general assembly was a direct manifestation of a shifting world order.

    For his part, Hammarskjold’s approach was to advocate the tenets of international law in all areas of multilateral action through the United Nations, in order to safeguard the sovereignty of these newly independent nations in particular.

    Given the context of escalating danger to international peace posed by deteriorating stability in the heart of Africa, the notion of a moral guardian for the world held particular appeal for newly-independent nations, who soon began to look to Hammarskjold as the custodian of their independence, a counterweight to the world powers, many of which they viewed as former colonial oppressors.

    The growing empathy with these ideals and the responsibility of the general assembly to execute them, led to a sense of brotherhood between the secretary general and the small nations of the general assembly.

    Rather than being dictated to from an ivory tower, for the first time burgeoning countries had their voices heard on the world stage, producing an alternative to the rhetoric of the Cold War.

    The effect of Hammarskjold’s stance was to bolster a change to the balance of power within the institution.

    His efforts to ensure that the Congo did not become “a gaping wound in the side of every independent state on the continent” reflected his vision for the role of the UN, and his dynamic interpretation of the charter was to prove politically important in terms of the relationship between the UN and the West, and Britain and America in particular.

    As the crisis evolved through 1961, tensions mounted. For Washington, the Congo was part of the wider Cold War with the Soviet Union, and keeping Russian communist influence out of Africa was a priority.

    For Britain, the dissolution of her empire and her plan for decolonisation was threatened by UN policy.

    In addition, her significant economic investments in Katanga were under threat from the UN operation there.

    Events came to a head in September 1961 when the UN launched Operation Morthor, a military effort aimed at rounding up foreign mercenaries and arresting the leaders of breakaway Katanga.

    Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien was Hammarskjold’s special representative in Katanga. The operation descended into open warfare between UN troops and militia from Katanga.

    Having come under considerable pressure from London and Washington, Hammarskjold flew to Africa to negotiate a peace settlement personally with the leader of the secessionist province.

    Mystery surrounds exactly what happened next. New evidence suggests that his plane was shot down as it flew towards the airfield. Certainly, there is a contradiction in the official reports, the first recording one survivor and the second recording no survivors.

    Suggestions that Britain and the United States may have orchestrated the death of the UN secretary-general may seem far-fetched now but suspicions remain.

    The UN was the focal point for the clash of the superpowers in the Congo, and Hammarskjold’s role was centrally important in the struggle by Britain and the United States to retain control over what was transpiring.

    The decades intervening since Hammarskjold’s death have not been kind to the Congo.

    Had he succeeded, the last half-century might have been kinder to that country.

    Alanna O’Malley is a doctoral researcher in the department of history and civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy

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  • Captain Edmund Blackadder
    Thanks for posting that up. There are other articles from that paper from the weeks previous dealing with the ONUC deployment. Very interesting ones covering the Siege of Jadotville and the Niemba ambush as far as I remember. Great company for a bowl of cornflakes on a Wednesday morning.

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  • Victor
    started a topic Battle of the Tunnel (The Congo Mission)

    Battle of the Tunnel (The Congo Mission)

    Battle of the Tunnel (The Congo Mission)

    Written by William Henry
    Wednesday, 18 August 2010

    On 17 September 1961, the same day as the Jadotville ceasefire terms were agreed, Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations Secretary General was killed under suspicious circumstances in an air disaster near Ndola in Zambia. Many believed that he was murdered and sabotage still has not been ruled out. He was in the process of trying to restore peace between UN and Katangans troops.

    Dag Hammarskjold was replaced by U Thant of Burma. However, nothing changed and operations in Katanga proved as dangerous as ever with vicious inter-tribal warfare taking place between Balubas, Conekats and Pygmies. Various war parties were rampaging throughout the countryside, burning villages and attacking trains. In December 1961, the 36th Infantry Battalion arrived in the country and within two days they were involved in the Battle of the Tunnel, in Elizabethville.

    'The Tunnel' was an actual railway tunnel, which was a vital artery for access to the Katangan capital and the link to Jadotville by rail. The Katangans occupied the tunnel, which was virtually bomb-proof and also the carriages stationed on the railway line above which provided cover from them. From this position, they also controlled the road to the Swedish and Irish Camps. Because of the tunnel's bomb 'defences' it would have to be an infantry assault and the 'honour' fell to the Irish to bear the brunt of the attack. One of the most dangerous men that the Irish troops faced in the Congo was 'Mad' Mike Hoare. He was leading the mercenary at the Tunnel. He was an ex-British army officer and was now taking a leading role in the rebel army.

    Following a Mortar Barrage on the morning of Saturday 16 December, the Tunnel was stormed by Irish troops of A and C Companies of the 36th Infantry Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mick Hogan. The Irish faced two companies of heavily-armed entrenched Katangans, and were well aware of the difficulty and danger of their objective. They had to cross open sodden ground in driving rain under fire from a merciless enemy. The Katangans took full advantage of their superior positions and kept up a continuous flow of mortar and machine-gun fire on the Irish Battalions sent to clear the tunnel. Against this storm of fire, the Irish pushed forward, risking all without question, simply following orders under this unforgiving African sky. The vast majority of these young soldiers had never seen action before, and this was to be their baptism of fire.

    The leading platoon engaged the enemy, taking casualties as their Commander, Lieutenant Paddy Riordan fell mortally wounded. Nevertheless, nothing was going to stop the Irish at this stage and they pressed home their attack, dislodging the Katangans from the Tunnel and also driving them from the railway carriages above. However, the victory came with a price tag; they lost two more soldiers - Sergeant Paddy Mulcahy and Private Andrew Wickham - in the attack. A short time later, the Katangans re-grouped and launched an unsuccessful counter attack against the Irish, who stood firm on their hard-won ground.

    The achievement of the 36th Battalion in capturing this vital communications link to the capital also meant that the Katangans had no hope of bringing in re-enforcement's from the north. It was a fierce encounter and a major success for the Irish troops, who won international acclaim. The exploits of the Irish troops in taking the Tunnel was recognised by the fact that 14 Distinguished Service medals were awarded.

    The Battle of the Tunnel is another example of the courage of Irishmen and also of how easily their achievements were forgotten, remembered only by those who fought and bled on this harsh soil. One of the men involved in the action at the Tunnel was Private Liam Forde, now living in Renmore.

    During the assault, Liam stumbled on the bodies of his comrades covered in their ground sheets, a sight he has never forgotten. All of these survivors are very unassuming; one could meet them and leave their company totally unaware of what they witnessed.

    There were many Galwegians who served in the Congo, among them, father and son, Mairtin and Paddy O'Flaherty. Mairtin O'Flaherty served in the first tour of duty in 1960, while his son, Paddy served with the last unit in 1963.

    Paddy, who is now living in the Claddagh, was only 15 years of age when he enlisted. A year later, he found himself in the Congo. He was still under-age for the army and, when this was discovered after six weeks, he was sent home. However, Paddy was not deterred and re-enlisted when he turned 17.

    Coleman Naughton of Bohermore also served in the Congo and returned with some 'trophy' bow and arrows. Another man who served in the Congo was the late Alfie Hannon of Ceannt Avenue, Old Mervue. Lieutenant Jim Fives was the platoon commander of C Company 32nd Battalion and served in the Congo until January 1961. Jim was promoted to Captain during his tour of duty in Africa. Jim is also noted for his hurling skills, being one of Galway's greatest mid-fielders.

    It is tribute to the calibre, discipline and professionalism of the Irish soldiers serving in the Congo that more of them weren't killed. Patrolling 'dirt roads' through hostile jungle always provided an opportunity for an ambush and Niemba had proved how dangerous this could be. A patrol usually consisted of an officer, two NCOs and six soldiers; sometime the manpower was less. Some patrols were away from their base for many days, camping in unfamiliar, uncomfortable and hostile surroundings.

    Johnny Gavin from Renmore recorded his experiences in a note book, 'On 12 August 1960, we were up early and travelled all day through very dusty high country until we reached a Congolese village called Wallinkawlly.' They were immediately surrounded and not allowed to leave the village and ordered to hand over their arms. Their commander, Lieutenant Jack Kissane, refused. It was a long night and the men were unable to make contact with headquarters. However, early the following morning, they managed to leave the village and return to base. The nights brought the unnerving sound of the tom-tom drums beating out a hum that kept soldiers alert. Given that the Irish troops received no formal training in jungle survival techniques and combat, the level of dedication to duty and endurance is nothing short of remarkable. They were also sensitive to the suffering of the people of the Congo and provided whatever help they could from their own rations and supplies. In some areas, the Irish even played soccer matches against the locals. Johnny Gavin recorded going to a match on 14 August 1960, in which the Irish defeated the 'Natives' 7 – 4.

    By 1964, the main objective of the UN mission had been achieved and, with the danger from a military viewpoint over, it was time to go home. By the time Operation Sarsfield ended in May 1964, the Irish troops had proved that they were an effective military force, and had played a significant role in ensuring that the Congo remained united. They were acclaimed by United Nation leadership and established themselves of the world stage as reliable and confident troops.

    The Congolese National Army under Joseph Mobutu suppressed a rising by Moise Tshombe. Mobutu seized power in 1965 and was later elected president. In 1971, the country was renamed Zaire. Mobutu turned out to be as ruthless a dictator as King Leopold almost 100 years earlier. Regardless of his outrages, he still received support from 'Western' countries. He was overthrown in 1997. Eventually, in 1988, the UN troops were awarded the Nobel 1 Peace Prize for their humanitarian mission. © William Henry.

    Sincere thanks to the following Congo Veterans for their support and help with this series of articles: Johnny Gavin; Pat O'Flaherty; Walter Hegarty; John Bartley, Liam Forde, Walter Raftery, Paddy O'Flaherty and Jim Fives. Thanks also to the members of IUNVA who were extremely supportive of these articles.