The battle known as the Siege of Jadotville, is an almost unbelievable story of grit, leadership, of unwavering loyalty and courage, of calm, and of extraordinary strategy and tactics; especially in the face of deceit, death, incompetence and betrayal.
If you haven’t watched the 2016 movie by the same name, you should.
Prior to 1959, Belgium held control of the Congo, with exclusive rights on Copper mining, and probably diamond and other mining interests, by way of UMHK, a mining company.
In 1959, Belgium announced its plan to grant independence to the Congo by June 1960 (as per an old agreement).
In the months prior to the independence, Belgian and British companies and unions operating in the region got concerned about losing their business interests. They bribed one Moïse Tshombe, a Congolese businessman and leader of a political party in the region, so that policies post independence would be in their favour. Right after independence, Tshombe created the breakaway state called the Republic of Katanga.
Congolese politician and independence leader, Patrice Lumumba won the democratically held election, becoming the first Prime Minister of newly independent Republic of the Congo. His vision was to remove all parasitic foreign presence from the region, to give it and its locals a chance to thrive. This made the local Belgians uncomfortable. Through the UMHK, they further financed Tshombe.
A few months later, Lumumba was wrongfully arrested, detained, and for the next month and a half, he was tortured, taken to the Republic of Katanga by Katangan and Belgian officers, and eventually killed and his body gotten rid of. This is despite Soviet pressure on the United Nations to intervene and immediately negotiate his release, the UN lacked the intent to intervene, arguably because individual member countries’ concerns of Lumumba’s increasingly communist views. This surely reminds one of Einsteins thoughts on the infiniteness of human stupidity, where the UN’s inaction traded an opportunity for the region to thrive on its own, in return for continued chaos.
The Belgians then cited unrest in the region, and requested the UN to intervene. This was part of their ploy, with the plan of taking hostage, the UN Peacekeeping party that would be sent. They intended to then trade their release for a way to retain their business interest in the region.
Of course, the past few hundred years have probably seen enough such events, with parties driven purely by self-serving interests, irrespective of the costs. This one also included a morally weak and incompetent Irish UN representative, Conor Cruise O’Brien. The UN chose an Irish military company to be sent as the UN Peacekeeping forces.
This 155-strong Irish ‘A’ Company had never seen combat before; its youngest soldiers probably in their late teens. It was led by 42-year old Commandant Pat Quinlan. The main UN base was in a place called Elizabethville. Yet, oddly, this Irish ‘A’ Company, was asked to create base in a place near a Belgian settlement called Jadotville. The base was in a highly vulnerable location, an open field with little topographical advantage to the A Company. The Belgian settlers were obviously not welcoming, and the Company had limited supplies, and were provided old (WW-II worthy) weapons.
Commandant Quinlan informed his superiors at Elizabethville of the presence of French mercenaries, the lack of supplies, and the high risk of an attack by the local rebels, but was not taken seriously by them. Soon, an unprovoked offensive by another UN Peacekeeping party that took over a Katangese-held radio station in Elizabethville, triggered the larger plot from Tshombe (and his local Katangese rebel forces, funded by the Belgians, and supported by French mercenaries). And strangely, UN representative Conor O’Brien did not even inform Comm. Quinlan of a possible attack in response to the radio station offensive.
So, early on September 13th, 1961, when the Irish troops of A Company were praying in a makeshift church, Tshombe’s men and French mercenaries attacked their base at Jadotville.
Any average combatant might have surrendered on that day, given the overwhelming odds of the attacks, and the fact that Katangan rebels had blocked off all routes that could bring additional troops, weapons and ration for these brave 155 soldiers. But not this Company of Pat Quinlan’s. This Company did not have any average combatants.
Being a great strategist, Commandant Quinlan had anticipated the risks, and had earlier had his troops dig trenches across the base.
Over the next 5 days, countless waves of a total of over 3000 Belgian, French and Rhodesian led Katangan mercenaries attacked the base. And Pat Quinlan and his men defended it, simply because those were his orders. Apart from initial orders from Conor O’Brien to continue to defend the base and the inability to bring in supplies for them, over the next few days, Conor and others at the UN were not even responding to Pat Quinlan’s request for support.
Wave after incessant wave of Katangese rebels, French mercenaries, and others, attacked Commandant Quinlan’s base, which he and his men continued to defend. Amidst quickly exhausting food, water, and ammo. Somewhere during those 5 days, a low-flying enemy aircraft was also strafing their base. And all these 155 soldiers had, were old guns and one transport jeep.
On the fifth day, Pat Quinlan had to make the tough decision of whether his Company dies here fighting, or to take the rebel’s offer to surrender. Seeing that it was meaningless for his Peacekeeping troops to get meaninglessly slaughtered, and with the UN headquarters still unreachable, Pat Quinlan agreed to an offer to surrender.
In those 5 days that A Company defended the Jadotville base against over 3000 mercenaries and rebel fighters, this young Irish Peacekeeping troops defended their base, killed over 300 of the enemy and probably injured over a 1000; while themselves suffering no casualties but only 5 injured soldiers during the entire siege. Such was the brilliance of the strategy, the tactics, and the grit of Commandant Pat Quinlan.
Post the surrender, they were imprisoned for a month, before being released.
It turned out that a Swedish UN officer had submitted a report to the UN asking them to either send backup or supplies as they were at very high risk of being attacked. This was 12 days before the actual attack. And during that entire duration, the Irish representative at the UN did absolutely nothing to act on the precautionary warning.
And if you thought the nightmare of being stuck between the greedy and devious Belgian settlers, shameless French mercenaries, a gutless Irish UN representative, and a dangerous rebel fighters ended there; you are mistaken. It had only begun. The worst came once they were safe back home in Ireland.
Their government and army refused to bestow medals for their superhuman courage. And worse, they were shunned by the army and public alike. The people believed they had brought disgrace to them and the country by surrendering.
What average mortals did not see or understand, was that this was a devious geo-political issue, and that the A Company was sent on a poorly equipped ‘Peacekeeping’ mission (with emphasis on ‘Peace’), and not as a regular army company. And that the A-Company wasn’t hung out to dry, they were hung out to die, and then ostracized simply because they didn’t.
While the late Colonel Pat Quinlan and some of the 155 soldiers were not alive to watch the 2016 movie, or their government creating a small memorial to the siege; the greatness of Pat Quinlan and his soldiers is not dependent on the support, vote of confidence or approval of lesser mortals who were incapable of seeing the situation they were put in, and how they emerged out of, by taking the absolute best path that was humanly possible.
If you would like to read more about the happenings surrounding the Siege of Jadotville, try these two books:
Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers’ Story – written by Pat Quinlan’s son (Leo) and niece (Rose Doyle)!
Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle – by Declan Power