From deployment in The Congo in the 1960s to present day operations in the Golan Heights Irish soldiers have found themselves in combat situations. Ryle Dwyer reads Dan Harvey’s book on our Blue Berets.
“A SOLIDER is a warrior, whose primary skill is in the taking of life,” Kevin Myers suggests in the forward to this book. Peacekeeping is only a secondary role, but it seems to have become the primary function of Irish soldiers, during nearly 60 years as peacekeepers with the United Nations.
Irish people can be immensely proud of that service rendered abroad by Irish soldiers. They have engaged in some 85,000 individual tours of duty in connection with over 70 UN-approved missions, during the course of which 86 Irish soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Our first peacekeeping involvement was in the Congo. The problem there began over mining rich Katanga, when its leader Moise Tshombe declared Katanga independent on July 9, 1960.
“Precious metals were at the heart of the madness,” Dan Harvey argues. “Katanga supplied a tenth of the world’s copper and over half of the world’s cobalt.” European commercial patronage was anxious that Katanga’s mineral wealth should not fall into the hands of Congolese nationalists.
Things took a serious turn on August 1960 when UN authorities organised Operation Rampunch to detain and repatriate all white mercenaries from Katanga. Over three-quarters of those mercenaries were arrested and repatriated, but they were flown back just as quickly by Tshombe, who bolstered them with the recruitment of many others.
The Irish soldiers received a veritable baptism of fire when an 11-man patrol was a attacked by Baluba tribesmen shortly after arriving in Niemba. The Balubas, a pygmy tribe, ambushed the unsuspecting Irish soldiers by racing out of surrounding elephant grass armed mainly with bows and arrows and spears.
Five of the Irish soldiers were quickly killed. The other six managed to holdout for a time in what developed into a running battle. The Irish soldiers tried to escape, but they became separated and were picked off one by one. Three of them managed to hide in the undergrowth.
Private Thomas Kenny was found, but he pretended to be dead. “Despite being badly beaten he did not betray his pretence and survived the ordeal,” according to the author.
He was rescued some 36 hours later, when he stumbled, delirious, from the bush into colleagues who were looking for him. Private Anthony Brown got away, but he was betrayed and killed the following day, when he sought the help of some native women. Private Joseph Fitzpatrick was found alive in hiding by colleagues.
The nine Irish soldiers killed was the biggest loss of life ever suffered by the Irish Army in any one incident overseas. Unfortunately, the coverage of the Niemba is rather superficial. The author does even bother to give the full names of those killed, or the survivors, and none are mentioned in the inadequate index.
The author seems to suggest it was ironic the Irish and Swedish UN troops later defended 40,000 Balubas in refugee camps during 1961-2. But the Balubas were always at loggerheads with Tshombe’s forces. The Niemba attack was essentially a case of “friendly fire” as the Balubas mistook the Irish soldiers for white mercenaries.
The Siege of Jadotville took place in September 1961 when 157 Irish soldiers, serving with the UN, were cut off and attacked by some 500 Katangan mercenaries. Led by Commandant Pat Quinlan, the lightly armed Irish soldiers bravely resisted for six days, until they were eventually forced to surrender, as their ammunition, food, and water supplies were exhausted.
“The Irish situation was perilous,” the author concludes. “They were starved, parched and exhausted.” Five Irish soldiers were wounded in the engagement, in which the attacking forces suffered heavy casualties. It was a magnificent performance, but it seems that the Irish Army was somewhat
embarrassed for a long time, because the men had eventually surrendered.
Their bravery was obviously overlooked out of a sense of ignorant embarrassment, but this was rectified with last year’s movie, The Siege of Jadotville. Lt. Col. Harvey provides real insight in his book into the boredom and confusion of this kind of service abroad.
The Irish troops faced many dangers in Africa, with real peril lurking in the inaccessible terrain, the extreme climate, and rampant disease. The soldiers would have known very little about the geography of the places to which they were sent, and they would have had little understanding of the underlying problems of ethnic and religious diversity in those areas.
In March 1978, a UN force was established to confirm withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and to “protect and render humanitarian aid to the local population.” The soldiers were saddled with an unenviable task.
Peacekeepers are frequently blamed “for the non-resolution of a situation which is, in fact, beyond their ability to influence,” according to the author. They are saddled with trying to keep the peace when there was no peace. This required exceptional restraint.
The Israelis used Major Saad Haddad as a useful ally by financing, arming and supplying his so-called De Facto Forces (DFF) in southern Lebanon. Irish troops were essentially deployed to control the DFF.
In April 1980, the DFF invaded the village of At-Tiri and sought to provoke the Irish soldiers to shoot into a crowd in the village, in order to inflict casualties on local people so that they would blame the Irish. The DFF tried to compel reluctant villagers to riot and overrun the Irish positions. When this failed, the DFF used the civilian population as human shields, as they sought to engage the Irish soldiers, who displayed extraordinary discipline in resolutely refusing to be provoked. After seven days of determined resistance the Irish troops prevailed.
The DFF retaliated the following week by seizing and murdering two Irish soldiers — Privates Thomas Barrett from Cork and Derek Smallhorne of Dublin. Although this clearly demonstrated the ill-disciplined and criminal nature of Major Haddad’s militia, the Israelis continued to support the DFF. A total of 44 Irish soldiers died in Lebanon.
After Serbian forces were compelled to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999, a UN force of some 46,000 troops was introduced, mainly to protect the Serbian minority living within Kosovo. The Irish soldiers were again tested, this time by Kossovars who sought to destabilise the situation for their own ends.
On St Patrick’s Day 2004, Irish soldiers were called to evacuate an endangered Serbian family from an apartment complex in Pristina. When the troops arrived, however, they found dozens of Serb families under threat from a rioting rabble.
The Irish troops promptly evacuated women and children and promised to return for the men. After the UN troops left some Kosovars began slaughtering the Serb men. But the Irish troops returned and were acknowledged to have contributed significantly towards defusing the situation.
The irrational hatred between the mainly Christian Serbs and Muslim Kosovars seems hard to understand until one considers the bitterness and division in Northern Ireland, where both sides profess to be Christian. There is no glorification of war in this book, but it is a sobering reminder that — in the midst of mindless violence — soldiers can be put to much better use than gratuitous killing.
Into Action, 1960-2014 Irish Peacekeepers Under Fire
Merrion Press, €18.99
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