Book review: Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers’ Story

Des Breen reads an account of 156 Irish UN troops who battled impossible odds in the Congo, only for their courage to be airbrushed from history.

Rose Doyle

New Island, €15.95

TWO things saved the lives of the men of A-Company: a merciful God and an abrasive Kerryman. 

God, they decided after the battle, had been on their side; while their commander, Commandant Pat Quinlan from Waterville, had possessed an iron discipline which protected his men against impossible odds.

Rose Doyle’s Heroes of Jadotville is an account, told through soldiers’ letters and diaries, of an incident in The Congo in September 1961, when 156 Irish UN soldiers armed only with small arms, WWI machine guns, and a few mortars, used textbook tactics to hold out for five days against 3,000 fighters equipped with modern weapons and a ground-attack jet. Her book is also an exposé of heroism denied.

The background to the siege, a story worthy of John Le Carré, lies in the murky politics of post-colonial Africa. 

The Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960, but encouraged by foreign mining interests the province of Katanga, rich in copper, gold, and diamonds, seceded, starting a vicious civil war. 

Congolese president Patrice Lumumba asked for, and got, the help of United Nations peacekeepers. 

The UN intervention, however, was an ill-thought-out mission which saw international troops, including young Irishmen with an average age of 19, thrown into combat against Katangan forces and the mercenaries paid to lead them.

A-Company was ordered to Jadotville at the request of the Belgians to ‘protect’ white settlers. 

Expecting to be welcomed, they faced only hostility — water was cut off, shops refused to serve them, and exit roads blocked. 

Captain Liam Donnelly from Dublin recalls Commdt Quinlan’s orders: “Every man in this company will dig trenches”.

As officers and men worked in the searing heat, Quinlan surveyed the terrain, recording every hollow, every tree, even every anthill for firing points that could be used against them. 

He also watched the Katangan soldiers and their white commanders gathering in force.

Triggered by the UN commencing operations against Katanga, fighting at Jadotville began on the morning of Wednesday, September 13, when most of A-Company were at daily Mass.

The opening firefight was chaotic. Quinlan’s diary records: “A group of Katangans, about 30 strong, rushed our forward positions in jeeps and on foot. They started shooting and a sentry, Private Albert Dell, brought his Gustav rifle to his shoulder and returned fire”. 

As the Irish dived for their trenches, Sgt John Monaghan grabbed a machine gun and shot at a second group of enemy approaching through the bush. 

The skirmish lasted 10 minutes before the attackers broke ranks and fled — their plan to drive through the Irish camp and cut them down had failed, and the siege began.

Over the next five days a relentless mortar barrage rained down on the Irish position, but they retaliated with a sustained accuracy which devastated the enemy.

Rose Doyle’s book provides an insight into the professionalism of the soldiers involved. 

The Commandant wrote: “Enemy mortar position was located at the bus garage and with prompt and accurate firing Sgt Kelly silenced them” while Galway man Sgt Walter Hegarty laconically recalled: “their bombardment stopped halfway through ours”. 

A South African mercenary later told Quinlan the Irish fire had been so accurate that their shells were falling into the barrels of Katangan mortars.

At times the Irish had some luck — on one occasion a shell crashed between two soldiers and failed to explode, but at other times problems not of their own making threatened to undermine them. 

Orders from HQ were indecisive, while reinforcements became bogged down in savage fighting at Lufira bridge, 18 miles away.

Despite the bombardment they held, day after day, even as a jet fighter strafed their positions and water supplies dried up. Caked in mud and sweat, they survived on corned beef, beans and dog biscuits. 

According to Hegarty, “Commdt Quinlan grew to giant size in every man’s eyes,” as he constantly confused the enemy by moving defensive positions.

But water, food, and ammunition were running out.

Radio messages suggested peace talks were underway involving UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, and, after much soul-searching, Quinlan took the opportunity to accept a ceasefire. 

He agreed joint patrols with Katangan forces and, crucially, that the Irish would store their weapons away. 

He radioed HQ: “It was a cause of heartbreak for me but there was no other way, except death by fighting and disease. What is the political and military situation now?”

At 10.11pm Hammarskjold’s plane skimmed the treetops at Ndola Airfield, turned over, and exploded. The UN Secretary General was dead. With talks stalled, the Irish found their ceasefire had suddenly become a surrender.

Apart from their youth, Rose Doyle makes a number of points about A-Company. They were men from a time before Ireland changed — genuinely God-fearing and from poor rural backgrounds in the West. 

However, they were also proud soldiers who were now prisoners. Lt Noel Carey from Limerick recalls “a dreadful feeling of nausea in my stomach.”

They were held until late October, the subject of worldwide media attention. 

It emerged they had killed more than 300 enemy soldiers; no Irish had died and injuries were minor. British tabloids — with apparently no knowledge of African wildlife — referred to them as the ‘Tigers of Jadotville’.

Initially housed at a derelict hotel with no bedding, little food, and limited water, they were transported to various locations where some were beaten by their guards. 

Despite the conditions, Quinlan continued drilling and, secretly, unarmed combat training. They even managed to manufacture Molotov cocktails to be used if it appeared they were to be shot.

On Wednesday, October 25, they were released into UN custody. They returned to duty, guarding hospitals and UN villas, becoming increasingly aware that talk of the ‘Jado’ incident was out of bounds. 

Pat Quinlan became incensed by a view held in parts of the Irish Army that they should have fought to the death. 

He wrote to his wife: “There is a deliberate policy now to decry the action at Jado.” 

Forces came into play to airbrush the battle from history — Quinlan’s log of their radio contacts with HQ disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

The soldiers arrived in Dublin in December. From the start, in the words of soldier Michael Shannon, “the personnel of A-Company were non-grata because of the surrender”. 

Over the following years there were rows with other soldiers. Quinlan recommended medals for his men that were denied, and he regularly received the silent treatment from fellow officers. 

“We were hung out to dry by our own, by the army,” wrote one of them.

It took decades of campaigning by UN veterans to change attitudes. A plaque commemorating A-Company was unveiled at Custume Barracks in 2005 and a portrait of Commdt Quinlan now hangs at the UN Training School in The Curragh. 

A film drama recreating the siege will be released later this year. For Quinlan, recognition came too late, he died in 1997, only aware that the courage of his men had been written out of history.

Rose Doyle’s book is an impressive vindication of soldiers who fought not only bravely in battle, but also to defend their honour.


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