It is one of the most remarkable but forgotten episodes of the Cold War. Between 13-17 September 1961, 156-158 inexperienced, under-equipped UN peacekeepers of ‘A’ Company, 35th Irish Infantry Battalion fought a heroic defence in the Congo against 2,000-4,000 secessionist armed Katangese gendarmeries and mercenaries. The incident became known as the “Siege of Jadotville” and has since become infamous for the subsequent shocking treatment of the brave soldiers of A Company.
Although the chances of survival were stacked against them, every member of A Company survived the siege while their attackers suffered 300-400 fatalities and approximately 1,000 wounded. This was an extraordinary feat of arms that was largely achieved by the brilliant tactical leadership of Commandant Patrick “Pat” Quinlan but A Company’s heroism was not fully supported both during the siege and for decades afterwards.
During the siege the UN failed to provide adequate reinforcements or supplies and after five days of intense fighting Quinlan was forced into a reluctant ceasefire and eventual surrender when all of his supplies, including ammunition, ran out. A Company then spent weeks in a tense captivity at the hands of their attackers before they were eventually released.
For many years afterwards the heroic actions of A Company in 1961 was deliberately forgotten by the UN and Irish Army authorities because of their own failings in neglecting to adequately support their soldiers at Jadotville. It took the lone campaigning of one veteran called John Gorman for the official silence surrounding the siege to be lifted and the story to become more widely known. Since the early 2000s the events of September 1961 have been steadily publicised and commemorated with the unveiling of monuments, the awarding of a Presidential Unit Citation and the release of a major Netflix film called “The Siege of Jadotville”. However, for the veterans, and Gorman in particular, the controversy surrounding the siege could not be closed until A Company was officially recognised with a medal for bravery. Happily, this has now happened.
On Saturday 2 December 2017, the valiant defence of A Company was finally recognised when surviving veterans and family representatives of deceased members were presented with a specially commissioned medal by the Irish government at Custume Barracks in Athlone, County Westmeath.
Known as ‘An Bonn Jadotville’ (‘The Jadotville Medal’), the decoration is unique in that it can only be issued to the members of A Company who fought during the siege in 1961. The medal depicts a Celtic warrior and the shoulder badge that was worn by all Irish UN soldiers in the Congo. It is also contains the Gaelic words ‘cosaint chalma’ (“valiant defence”) and ‘misneach’ (‘courage’) as well as a clasp with the word ‘Jadotville’. The ribbon represents both the Irish tricolour and the United Nations Operation in the Congo mission.
The commissioning of the medal was ordered on 13 June 2016 by then Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny and the Minister of Defence Paul Kehoe. It was Kehoe who presented the medal to A Company on 2 December and he told the veterans and family representatives that, “the retelling of the events at Jadotville does not and cannot reflect the incredible reality of what happened during the siege and its aftermath.It can only briefly suggest the courage you showed in your willingness to act and the bravery displayed in your every actions. Despite the overwhelming numbers opposing them, the men of A Company retained their resolve and remained unshaken during the attack.”
It is a fitting tribute to A Company and an award that is long overdue but the last word on the medal belongs to the man largely responsible for its creation: John Gorman. Speaking to History of War in October 2017 Gorman is delighted that his long campaign has resulted in such success,”We were branded as cowards, which we weren’t and it’s just a marvellous time now for me. Nobody ever, ever gave us a chance of this ever happening but determination is a great thing. For me, the medal is the icing on the cake.”
The IUNVA is the association for serving and ex-service members of the Irish Defence Forces and Gardaí (Republic of Ireland Police Force). It is open to anyone from these organisations that have served at least 90 days service on a UN mission in a foreign country. The IUNVA’s primary role is to provide support and events for members and their families who have been affected by overseas service.
For more information visit: www.iunva.ie
Images courtesy of Paul Clarke