The Siege of Jadotville is one of the most remarkable stories in Irish military history. Between 13-17 September 1961, 156 inexperienced United Nations 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.
Against all the odds no member of A Company was killed while 300-400 of their attackers became fatalities and approximately 1,000 were wounded. However, the remarkable efforts of the Irish soldiers led by Commandant Patrick “Pat” Quinlan were not fully supported by the UN high command and the garrison was eventually surrounded and forced into a tense captivity by the Katangans before they were eventually released in late October 1961.
A Company’s bravery was not just confined to Jadotville (now Likasi) and after they were released from captivity approximately 95-100 members of the company came under attack in the Katangan capital of Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) before they were scheduled to return to Ireland in December 1961.
Known as the “Second Battle of Katanga” this fierce fight was the UN attempt to clear rebel gendarmeries and mercenaries from enemy roadblocks around Elisabethville Airport and restore freedom of movement. 58 members of A Company had already flown home on 28 November so it was left to the remnants of the Jadotville veterans to inflict vengeance on their attackers.
Working with Swedish and Indian peacekeepers, A Company led the vanguard and once again inflicted many casualties under Pat Quinlan’s command without losing a single man. Along with substantial UN air support the mercenaries and gendarmeries were comprehensively defeated with many surrendering. The remainder of A Company finally returned home just before Christmas in 1961.
For many years the bravery of A Company in 1961 was deliberately forgotten by the UN and the Irish Army because of their own failings in neglecting to adequately support their own soldiers during the siege at Jadotville. However, after 56 years and decades of campaigning for justice the veterans of Jadotville be finally presented with a specially commissioned medal to commemorate their courage.
Known as ‘An Bonn Jadotville’ (‘The Jadotville Medal’) the medal will be presented to all 156 members of A Company (including surviving veterans and family representatives of deceased members) in a special ceremony by the Irish Minister of Defence Paul Kehoe on 2 December 2017 in Custume Barracks, Athlone. The design of the medal contains the word ‘Jadotville’ on the clasp with the ribbon combining the colours of the Irish tricolour and the United Nations Operation in the Congo mission (OUNC).
One veteran who will be attending the ceremony on 2 December is Tony Dykes who fought at the siege and the subsequent fighting in Elisabethville. Dykes was only 19 years old when he was deployed to the Congo as a private and he spoke to History of War about the gritty but forgotten story of how A Company finally inflicted a satisfying revenge on their formidable foes.
A PEACEKEEPING “POLICEMAN”
When did you join the Irish Army?
I joined as an ordinary recruit. A neighbour of mine joined called Frank MacManus who was at Jadotville with me said one day, “Come on, we’re off!” I went to Custume Barracks at Athlone with him and he was supposed to get £10 for any person that he bought up to Custume Barracks. I’m still waiting on that £10 and that was in 1959!
What did your training consist of?
It was mundane. It was just training and more training for six months and then we were allocated at Custume Barracks to what companies we were going to go into.
We were square-bashing and had the Lee Enfield .303 rifle, would it you believe it! That’s what we went out to the Congo with. I also learned the Bren gun, a mortar and the Gustav, which was a short close-fighting gun.
I was a three-star soldier and that was as far as I went. It meant that you’d passed the test in assembling and disassembling your weapons including the Bren and the mortar. I spent six months doing that and the subsequent Curragh [camp] was a lovely place. I had a cushy job there as the barman and it was a lovely place for a walking, running and training with wide open spaces.
What did you know about the Congo before you were deployed?
Absolutely nothing. We knew that were Irish battalions out there before but knew nothing. When I was at Curragh, I volunteered to go to the Congo because the job I was doing was getting a bit mundane. I had to keep saluting every officer I met and was getting a bit peed off with that so I volunteered. Luckily enough I was selected to go so it was off with the kitbag and back to Custume Barracks.
We then did some training with Commandant Pat Quinlan. He was a good, brilliant officer: we admired him and I hope he admired us as well. We got training and he had an eye like a hawk. I remember we were marching around Custume Barracks as a company and all of a sudden I heard this voice saying, “Dykes! Swing your arms!” That was in front of 150 of us and he was able to spot that little item. He was a good disciplinarian but he looked after us and later saved our lives.
Were you given specific information about the Congo?
We had medical injections but the only thing I took into my head was that we weren’t going out as soldiers but as policemen. We were told that we weren’t going out into a war or anything like that, we were going to placate the civilians out there.
How did it feel to be a UN peacekeeper?
I felt good because we were going out there as raw recruits and we were only young. I was 19 and to be a “policeman” held some power in the sense that we had a little bit of responsibility.
No, because at the time we didn’t know how much turmoil there was in Africa and we didn’t know about its politics. We didn’t know what the UN policy was apart from one which was, “We’re going out there as peacekeepers and policemen” and I rest my case on that one.
BESEIGED AT JADOTVILLE
What were the circumstances that led A Company to being sent to Jadotville?
I’m glad you asked that question because that one will live with me for the rest of my life. We were camped at Elisabethville airport. I remember going to a place called Kamina and we had to put bars across the runway because the Russians were trying to see if they would come and interfere with whatever the UN was doing.
B Company of the 35th Battalion plus Swedish troop carriers and a small platoon of their soldiers first went to Jadotville. Within 24-48 hours they came back and the word filtered down to us that the people of Jadotville didn’t want them out there. Don’t forget it was a full Irish company plus Swedes and they came back. Rumour had it that the people in Jadotville and the major wanted them to go. What we didn’t know (and it was the most vital information) was that there was a bridge between Jadotville and Elisabethville at Lufira and we were never told about it. All we were told was, “Pack your kitbags, we going out to Jadotville.” We didn’t go with heavy mortars or anything like that, nothing to tell us whether we’d be in trouble out there.
That was it, we were sent out there in lieu of a full company who probably had a lot of heavy gear with them as well and Swedes. That was important because the Swedish transport was out of this world compared to the Irish transport. We saw the bridge [at Lufira] for the first time and little red lights came up in my mind. I thought, “We were never told about this” and in we went to Jadotville.
We got into where we were billeted-we had some bungalows that were given to us through the UN-and that was it.
You went in as a depleted force even though your predecessors had been given a hostile reception?
Absolutely right. It wasn’t hostile in that B Company and the Swedish lads didn’t come across any gunfire but the feeling was definitely there while they were negotiating with the mayor. That wasn’t told to us as far as I can remember.
Did you feel uneasy?
Very much so. As a matter of fact I wrote a letter to my parents at Elisabethville Airport and told them we were going to this place and said I felt uneasy about it. But luckily enough I never posted the letter.
Was there any sense that trouble was going to break out?
Yes, you definately felt it.
What preparations were you involved in before the siege began?
We were told to dig in and dig trenches-“foxholes” I called them. Digging a trench was hard work. We dug various foxholes and me and the lads I was with were in near Jadotville off the road. We were in there digging but it turned out to be a marvellous decision.
Afterwards, there was no atheism in those foxholes. We were all Catholics and when we were fired on we were in our trenches. After four or five days we were thinking, “I wish this was over.”
How did the siege begin for you?
We were at Mass and we left our rifles outside. Sergeant John Monaghan was outside shaving and the next thing was he heard the gendarmerie coming up and I think they fired at us. They must have timed it because the majority of us were at Mass. They must have been watching us but John Monaghan jumped into a foxhole and gave it them back while they shot at us.
We were with our officers and sergeants but I must admit we were only young. I was only 19 but the elder sergeants were brilliant. They looked after us and we looked up to them. They calmed us down and placated us and we jumped into our foxholes.
How did it feel to be going into combat for the first time at that moment?
It was the first time that anyone had fired a shot in anger. We heard them whizzing across but I felt confident because we knew we were in good hands with our superior NCOs and officers.
Where were you positioned during the siege?
We weren’t in the town itself, which was a couple of miles away. These were bungalows. We had one armoured car facing Elisabethville and one facing the other way and we were in between. I was opposite the Purfina petrol garage. We were lucky because we had this little jet flying over and this road all had craters in it. Thank God that they landed there.
How many would be in a foxhole with you?
There were two. We were scattered all over but without Commandant Pat Quinlan’s decision to dig in God knows what would have happened to us. It was pretty open ground in a small area and the Purfina Garage was pockmarked with bullets.
How effective were your personal weapons?
We were using the FN rifles. They were automatic and single shot and there were only five or six rounds in it. It was alright but this was the time when the senior NCOs were out of this world in looking after us. The CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Jack Prendergast would come out under fire with ammunition.
What instances from the siege stick out in your mind?
There were lots of things: a lack of food (the cook [Corporal] Bobby Allen did his best), a lack of water and most important of all sleep. We couldn’t sleep for four or five days but Commandant Quinlan said, “We’re going to be in trouble. Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”
This jet fighter would also come over and knocked it out of us for a while. The garage and the officers were lucky because if he had hit the garage or the right side going into Jadotville my friends and I would have gone. We were very lucky. We’re were rattling off at him, shooting our rifles and doing anything. Rumour had it that we put the jet off for two days but the bugger came back. When he came back he flew higher and out of the range of our little rifles. At some point I believe he had been hit by rifle fire, somebody was a good shot!
We had a radio and I remember listening to it because this was around the time we were taken prisoner. Rhodesia was to the south of Jadotville and its prime minister was a guy called Roy Welensky. He wanted to come in and take the Belgian civilians out and luckily enough Harold MacMillan wouldn’t allow it. He then threatened to come up and bomb us from his military spot in Rhodesia. We were not just threated inside Katanga but Welensky’s Rhodesia as well.
Also, during the fighting Pat Quinlan came up to my foxhole and said to me, “You, out!” It wasn’t quite like that but I jumped out and had to escort him around under fire so he could make sure that everyone was okay. He wanted to see what was happening.
After we’d come back to the foxhole he had his headquarters at the Purfina Garage and on the side of it were wooden steps going up to the top rooms. When we got halfway up Quinlan was going back into his office but he stopped and said, “I didn’t realise there was another crater down at the bottom steps.” They were full of water and he said, “Two mortar bombs came over there. One has caused that and the other is up here. The other one ‘went in’ but luckily enough it didn’t go off” That bomb had been a dud and he said, “Dykes, if that thing had gone off, I wouldn’t be here anymore.” So he was lucky.
What were conditions like in the defence perimeter?
It was pretty grim all round because we didn’t know what was happening. There was a company of Irish troops on the Elisabethville side of the Lufira bridge and we could hear them pounding. We were shouting “Yeah!” because we were only young, “They’ll soon be here, we’ll be alright.” But they were beaten back twice and that caused a lot of havoc with Quinlan. He said that it “wasn’t on” or words to that effect. The disappointment then of not being relieved was rock bottom.
Was there constant firing or lulls during the siege?
There were lulls in the fighting but it was intense. Sometimes the gendarmerie would take it into their heads to have a go at us but we gave back as good as we got. But we were dependant on the people on the bridge and there was heavy pounding and mortar fire there. There was a couple of Gurkhas killed on that bridge trying to get through to us.
What happened when the UN sent a relief helicopter to the garrison?
They were brave men who flew that helicopter. It came down just at the back of us with water but we couldn’t drink it because it was contaminated. Those two brave Swedish pilots did it all for nothing and they were dragged into the siege as well and taken prisoners. Throughout the whole siege that was the only thing that came from Elisabethville so that was very disheartening. You wouldn’t believe it, these two guys should have been given medals because they risked their lives across the bridge and through Jadotville. They were flown in for nothing.
Was there any point at which you thought you wouldn’t survive?
Funnily enough I always thought we’d make it. We always knew that peace would come but the only time that I personally thought that we wouldn’t make it was that when we were captured and taken out of Jadotville.
How did the siege end for you?
I must say that we didn’t surrender: it was a ceasefire. We were supposed to come out of our trenches and patrol Jadotville with gendarme guards as well but that didn’t happen unfortunately. As soon as we got out of our trenches that was it, we had to lay down our rifles. They then came along and were looking for our dead. I’ve got to take my hat off to Quinlan and the other officers, they were brilliant.
We come out of our trenches and we were relieved when we came out. We were mentally relieved to have it done and dusted or so we thought. [Private] Butch Brennan was a great guy and we were all marching up the Elisabethville end of Jadotville when he started whistling “Colonel Bogey” so that put a grin on our faces!
We had to hand our rifles in etc and we were relieved until we got put into coaches and buses and had to go through this huge gendarme military base. That’s where I thought we’d had our chips. The women and men came out gesticulating with knives. We were sitting on the back of wagons and I remember sitting on kitbags and they were gesticulating what they were going to do with us with knives on top and down below. That was scary because we missed our friend the rifle and there was nothing we could do.
What was your opinion of the Katangese gendarmerie and mercenaries fighting ability?
They were alright, they were more well-armed than us by far. They had more modern weapons than we had and they were well dressed for it. We weren’t well dressed, we probably still had our wool clothing on but they were like WWI uniforms! We were definately underequipped.
What is your opinion of the UN high command and Irish Army’s actions regarding Jadotville?
I don’t understand the mentality of the people that were in charge of us i.e. Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Irish general McKeown. We were armed but we weren’t qualified to go out there to Jadotville. When I say “qualified” we weren’t in a state of military readiness or anything like that. To this day I don’t know who made that decision or why and nobody’s told us.
O’Brien was a civilian politician. He couldn’t have the ability to make a military decision to send us out to dry out there and we were sent out to dry. I hold O’Brien largely responsible and whoever was the Irish general in charge. They must have left their brains back in the cadet school at the Curragh camp, it definitely wasn’t a military decision. They left their brains in the military school in Curragh.
What was your opinion of Commandant Pat Quinlan?
He was a hard man but a good man. He was genuine and he saved our lives by digging the foxholes. He was the same in captivity and never stopped being boss. He never said, “Sorry lads” or anything like that, he continued being a military man no matter what happened to him. He put that across to me very strongly that we were just carrying on doing our duty. I must say all the officers were good and they were all tough-they had to be.
We all worked as one number in A Company but the outstanding man to me was Jack Prendergast. He placated us and was out there handing ammunition to us under fire, he was a very brave man. I believe many years later back in Ireland they made a collection and got a special medal struck for him and presented it to him in Custume Barracks. He deserved it.
What were conditions like in captivity?
The conditions were alright but with Moise Tshombe (president of secessionist Katanga) it was best to keep your head down in a situation like that. You kept your head down first of all, it didn’t matter where you slept or anything like that. I remember Tshombe came out and Pat Quinlan was talking to him and I was very close by. Rumour has it that Tshombe said he’d just come out to see we were safe and sound and that he wasn’t going to talk politics. That was what came out of that particular meeting, Tshombe reassured us near enough that we were going to be safe. If it was true or not I don’t know. He spared our lives and we all walked up to have a look but he had armed people all around us. It wasn’t very nice.
How long were you in captivity for?
It felt like a long time but we were kept busy. We had guards and in Kolwezi we stopped in a huge building of flats and Quinlan had us training on physical self-defence. He was good, all we could see was these guys with rifles on the other side looking at us and we thought, “These guys might get cross”.
What happened when you were released from captivity?
We were told that we were going to be released on a certain day and we were all pulled into trucks and coaches to what I believe was the outskirts of Elisabethville. But talks went awry and we were taken back to Kolwezi.
That was disappointing and then on the second time that we were going to be released Pat Quinlan made sure that behind each driver there were two senior men. If we weren’t going to be released they were going to throw the main driver and his assistant out. We wouldn’t have stood a chance to be honest but Quinlan had those people on each coach because we weren’t going to go back to Kolwezi. That was a bit scary but we didn’t know and the senior people were brilliant. They never worried us about what was possibly going to happen but luckily enough we were released.
If you look at it sensibly what chance would we have had to get off the coaches? We had no arms but the gendarmes did and we were deep in enemy territory.
However, it was good to be released. We were taken back to airport area around Elisabethville. That was a relief but all of a sudden word of repatriation was coming down that the whole company should be repatriated but unfortunately only half the company was repatriated. They left three or four weeks before us and we were supposed to be going on the next flight but unfortunately hell broke loose again in Elisabethville.
VICTORY IN ELISABETHVILLE
What happened when fighting broke out around Elisabethville Airport in December 1961?
It was more foxholes and this time it was wet weather and we were swimming in it. We were manning these foxholes and all hell broke loose there day and night. It was a monsoon and we got all wet. That’s where I first got close to being shot. There were two of us in this foxhole and all I could hear was this “Splatter, splatter” fire. I knew what it was but luckily it was well away from me on my left side. These snipers were coming in and you could hear them rattling through leaves and brush 20-30 yards away. You could hear the bullets rattling in from the gendarmeries and mercenaries.
The 36th Irish Battalion were coming in to Elisabethville at the time at the time I was there. We were under fire and they passed our lines. They were told on the American plane to get into battledress because they were properly kitted out. It must have been terrible for them because they knew they were landing in the airport under fire and I believe the plane got a couple of shots.
They got off the plane and ran across our lines. They were coming in in their pristine uniforms and there was us in trenches slopping water but I did pity them.
They crossed our lines and we tried to warn them by shouting but they were given orders to rush through the bush, down the tunnel and onto a railway where they were going. I read afterwards that three or four of them were shot and didn’t come back and that will live with me.
What was it like fighting with UN Gurkhas from the Indian Army?
It was a pleasure to say that I fought with those people. We were on a particular patrol in the evening and the next thing was all we could see at the bottom airport where there was an enemy machine gun position. The tracers started coming across and I turned around to the lad next to me and said, “What’s that?” He said they were tracers and you could fry eggs on them because they were so constant. Luckily enough they went high but one of the officers came up and said, “Get down low!”
The Gurkhas were to my left and they were well armed. It was getting dark but the officers in charge of us decided, “We can’t be lying down here all night long” and they sent the Gurkhas in and that was that, it was all over. It was a sigh of relief: there were only a dozen or so Gurkhas but they came back with smiles on their faces. I remember to my dying day that one of them had three or four watches on his arm and was smiling. I was embarrassed because I was six-foot tall but these guys were smaller and genuine soldiers. It was an honour to see that and to serve with them.
What happened when you guarded captured mercenaries?
There was another kerfuffle in Elisabethville and we had to go in early to take over the telephone exchange, post office and all the other important places. When myself and a chap called (Private) Bobby Bradley got to the transports to take us into Elisabethville an NCO shouted, “We haven’t got our box of ammunition with us. Dykes! Bradley! Go back and get that box.”
A box of ammunition is heavy so we ran back, got the ammunition but when we came back the rest of our company had gone into Elisabethville, they couldn’t wait. Bobby said to me, “What are we going to do Tony?” and I said, “We’d better report to the officers and bring the ammunition with us.” There were one or two officers left in charge so we went up to them, explained the situation and asked what they wanted us to do. He said, “Stand on guard here until I decide what to do with you.”
There was a piece of brush and wood not far away and when the officer came out he said, “We’ve got mercenaries down there. The two of you go down and keep and eye on them.” We had to guard captured mercenaries. That was scary because these guys were built like brick shithouses and were tall! I was tall but I was like a wisp.
There were at least half of dozen of them so they outnumbered us quite a bit and they had probably fought against us at Jadotville or in Elisabethville itself. I was there with my rifle but I said, “These guys will knock the hell out of us”. Luckily they were more relieved than anybody else because they were put on a plane afterwards and sent straight to Rhodesia.
How did it feel to comprehensively defeat the gendarmeries and mercenaries before you returned to Ireland?
The UN did a great job and Pat Quinlan was there with us the whole time, he wouldn’t leave any of us behind. It was a sigh of relief to see that we could see the little light at the end of the tunnel. It was memorable and we got our own back.
During that period of time in Elisabethville the UN were permitted to have their own jet fighters and it gave me great pleasure. Two or three days before Christmas 1961 the little prop planes that were taking us up to Leopoldville were at Elisabethville Airport and it was in a mess with skeleton planes, the lot. But the pleasure I got was before any plane took off the Indian UN jets would come in and strafe the bottom of the runway in case anyone was there waiting. If anybody was there trying to shoot at us these guys would come in and knock them out.
When we finally left for home there were no seats on the plane, we were in our uniforms with mucky boots, I don’t know if I had my kitbag and my dogtags were gone. All I remember was a lovely view of Elisabethville, a canopy of jungle underneath and I said, “Bye bye, you’re on your own!”
Why do you think the bravery of A Company was deliberately forgotten by the Irish and UN authorities?
To this day I really don’t know. I must admit I felt a bit ashamed because we were captured. I must re-empathise that we didn’t surrender, it was a ceasefire. I heard rumours later that there were a lot of arguments going on in the Irish Army at that time at Curragh and Galway especially.
I don’t know whether the government was embarrassed to send any battalion out there in wool and hobnail boots with .303 rifles to one of the most modern conflicts. Elisabethville was one of the most modern cities and the roads and infrastructure were unbelievable compared to what I was used to in Ireland. I’ve no idea why they’ve covered it up for so long.
I’ve been angry for years and I was probably ashamed to tell my family about it. We were called cowards, some military rumour went around saying that we left waving our white shirts back in Jadotville.
Did your experiences in the Congo inform your permanent move to England soon afterwards?
It did. I could not find work where I came from on the west coast of Ireland. I left the Irish Army because I was in turmoil, I couldn’t face signing on for another three or four years. I got a good reference from the army but I left the army in April-May 1962 and moved over to England.
I blotted it all out and wanted to make a new, decent life for myself after all that. I met my wife not long after I moved over to England but I never told her what had happened. My brother-in-law was in the Royal Navy and he would often tell us about his escapades but I would just sit and never said a word about mine.
How does it feel to be belatedly honoured decades after the siege took place?
Bittersweet is the word because three quarters of the lads are not here. We should have been recognised at least a year or two after we came back but I don’t know why they ignored us for all that time. The government of the day just brushed it under as though it didn’t happen and I blame Conor Cruise O’Brien (the UN representative in the Congo) and General McKeown. When O’Brien got back to Ireland from his time in the Congo he got a gold medal. He didn’t deserve it and like I told you before they must have left their brains in the cadet school.
Pat Quinlan did volunteer for some officers and NCOs to get medals but they refused and I would love to know who was on the committee. They couldn’t have been military men and if they were they didn’t what it was like to fire a rifle in anger. It’s a sad situation where officers and men had to make a collection for a medal for Jack Prendergast.
However, I’m so pleased that you’re taking up the cudgel for us on this side of the border, its brilliant.
What is your opinion of the 2016 Netflix film The Siege of Jadotville?
It had it right in some sense but the main thing it did was bring Jadotville out into more public awareness. It wasn’t a bad film.
In your opinion, what more needs to be done for the Jadotville veterans in 2017?
It’s a great question. West Meath county council put on a do for us and they gave us a certificate. Down in Kerry where Pat Quinlan came from they also put on a do for us with certificates. In my opinion every Irish county council should recognise us. The lads in A Company came from all over the country so every council in the republic should honour us so that all Ireland knows about it.
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 Tony Dykes and Leo Quinlan
Tom Garner is the Senior Staff Writer on History of War. You can subscribe for as little as £10.50 to catch his next article.