60 years on: Why nine peacekeeping Irish soldiers were murdered in the Congo

Far from being a mystery, as the Irish government claimed at the time, the Irish troops were seen by rebels as upholding the colonial interests of Belgium, responsible for mass atrocities in the region, writes Sean O'Riordan
60 years on: Why nine peacekeeping Irish soldiers were murdered in the Congo

The Niemba ambush in Congo, 1960. The scene at the bridge shortly before the first bodies were recovered. 

Sixty years after the greatest loss of Irish soldiers, on a UN mission in the then Belgian Congo, an expert on insurgencies and terrorism says contrary to Irish government claims at the time, there was no mystery as to why they were attacked.

Dr Edward Burke, director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism and Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham, who had a relative who was at Niemba in the days after the attack, has extensively researched the background to the incident and said the soldiers of the Defence Forces had been placed in a precarious political situation in the Congo. There was no peace to keep — and Irish troops were unfortunately seen as upholding the colonial economic interests of Belgium in the region.

It's well-documented that Belgium had committed mass atrocities in the region in previous years.

Burke's granduncle, James Burke, who came from Paul Street, Cork, was the Irish army's senior medical officer in the area, and treated the wounded from all sides during the conflict  — as did many other Irish soldiers.

Incidentally, Edward's great-granduncle, Seamus Fitzgerald, was the man who led Cobh town council to change the name of the town from Queenstown, named after Queen Victoria, to an Irish name, which caused huge repercussions and led to many councillors going on the run after the British became furious by the "insult".


A patrol of 11 Irish UN peacekeepers was attacked by 'Baluba' tribesmen near the small town of Niemba in Katanga, a province in south-east Congo. Nine soldiers died. Half a million people later lined the streets of Dublin during the soldiers’ funerals.

The scene of the Niemba river crossing ambush.
The scene of the Niemba river crossing ambush.

The word ‘Baluba’ or ‘Balubas’ entered the Irish lexicon; according to the journalist Cathal O’Shannon, the name became “a very byword for savagery and evil”. On the early afternoon of November 8, Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson went with 10 men in a Land Rover and a pick-up truck to a destroyed bridge on the Niemba-Manono road. They were armed with two Bren guns, four Gustav M-45 submachine guns and four Mark 4 Lee Enfield rifles. They did not carry any radios, which were in short supply.

Gleeson’s mission was to see if they could reopen the road.

On approaching the bridge, Gleeson saw a party of Baluba armed with clubs, spears, bows and arrows and bicycle chains on the other side of the broken bridge. A Baluba warrior fired an arrow at Gleeson. He, in turn, gave the order to fire back.

It was too late, as the war party crossed the stream and rushed the Irish soldiers within seconds.

According to a survivor, Private Tom Kenny, four of the Irish soldiers were unarmed; Sergeant Hugh Gaynor and the two Bren gunners had left their weapons in the vehicles. The medical orderly also did not have a weapon.

Some of the soldiers succeeded in making it to the surrounding thick scrub and forest. Pt Kenny remembered the Baluba successively locating and stabbing or beating to death individual Irish soldiers.

“Soon it was his turn. Struck in the neck by an arrow and clubbed repeatedly on the head, Kenny waited to die. His life was saved by Trooper Anthony Browne, who opened fire on the Baluba tribesmen, drawing them away from Kenny,” Dr Burke said.

Browne was later posthumously awarded the Bonn Míleata Calmachta, the highest Irish military award for bravery.

Private Joseph Fitzpatrick was found alive the next morning after another patrol was sent out to try to locate the missing men. Kenny was found on November 10.

The following day, Colonel Harry Byrne cancelled the joint Irish-Ethiopian patrol that planned to search for “the body” of Trooper Browne, who had still not been located.

The garrison at Niemba was also withdrawn. During the 48 hours since the attack, two Irish soldiers were accidentally shot — one fatally — by nervous Irish sentries.

Anthony Browne may not have been dead. Irish officers who returned to the area to search for Browne’s remains in 1962 were told that, “… some days after the ambush, wounded, exhausted and starving, he had called some women at the outskirts of a village and asked them for food and directions to the railway line, offering them 200 Francs”. Local Baluba warriors were informed and a party of them later found and killed Browne.

Why were Lt Gleeson and his men attacked?

Motivations a mystery

According to the commanding officer of 33rd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Bunworth, the motivations for the ambush on his soldiers were “a mystery”. The minister for defence, Kevin Boland, claimed that there was, “… no reason to believe that an attack like this might happen”. Media coverage focused on the savage nature of the tribesmen, their belief in witchcraft, and use of narcotics. Ireland’s soldiers of peace had been inexplicably cut down.

Dr Edward Burke, an expert on insurgencies and terrorism, has extensively researched the murder of Irish soldiers in the Belgian Congo in 1960.
Dr Edward Burke, an expert on insurgencies and terrorism, has extensively researched the murder of Irish soldiers in the Belgian Congo in 1960.

“Far from being a mystery, the reasons for the attack at Niemba are self-evident. In August 1960, the United Nations had made a number of concessions in Katanga that benefited the Baluba’s main political rivals in the province. The Baluba had originally been part of the Conakat Movement (Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga), a loose association of tribes in the province,” Dr Burke said.

The Baluba later left the Conakat and moved closer to the national liberation movement headed by Patrice Lumumba, a socialist with ties to the Soviet Union.

Dr Burke said the Conakat party, led by Moïse Tshombe and dominated by tribes in the south of the province, aligned itself with Belgian interests, both before and after Congolese independence on June 30, 1960.

Katanga produced 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt and was the principal source of uranium used for the United States’ nuclear programme.

A speech by King Baudouin on the eve of independence, in which the Belgian monarch praised the civilising “genius” of his predecessor Leopold II — responsible for about 10 million deaths during the colonisation of the Congo — led to political unrest, including the mutiny of Congolese soldiers in the white-officered army.

Katanga, under the leadership of the Conakat movement, unilaterally seceded, with varying degrees of Belgian, British, French and American support.

Dr Burke pointed out that a Belgian intelligence officer, Colonel Frédéric Vandewalle, later boasted that when the heads of the Belgian Technical Mission met, “all the grey matter ruling Katanga was gathered together”. Dr Burke said the Katangan gendarmerie were mostly led by Belgian or other European mercenary officers and they unleashed a systematic campaign of murder and arson against the Baluba population, killing thousands.

UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo

By mid-August 1960, eight African countries had sent contingents to serve as part of the hastily mandated UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo. These, such as Ghana and Tunisia, were generally sympathetic to the anti-colonial sentiments of the Congo’s new prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and wanted to immediately end Katanga’s secession — if necessary, by force.

Sir John Nicholls, British ambassador to Belgium, was at the forefront of Anglo-Belgian cooperation to protect both countries’ interests in Katanga during the summer of 1960.

Nicholls advised his government to insist on only using “white troops” in Katanga. British diplomats believed that UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, would resist Lumumba’s demands to end Katanga’s secession by force.

Hammarskjold told a British diplomat at the UN that Lumumba was  “a communist stooge”. Britain saw Hammarskjold’s decision to send troops from his native Sweden to Katanga as a personal guarantee of non-interference in the province, at least while Lumumba was in office.

“But Hammarskjold needed another European country to send troops to Katanga. Ireland, a country without colonial baggage but with strong ties to Belgium, was a good fit,” Dr Burke said.

'Campaign of atrocity'

At the end of 1961, the then Irish UN representative in Katanga, Conor Cruise O’Brien, would move to end the secession of Katanga by force.

But in the summer of 1960, Irish diplomats took a hostile view of the Congolese government. Thus attitude changed after Patrice Lumumba was removed from office in a Western-backed coup (he was later transferred to Katanga where he was murdered in January 1961).

On August 22, 1960, Eamon Kennedy, a diplomat at the Irish mission to the UN in New York, prepared a memorandum for Con Cremin, Ireland’s most senior diplomat. In it, Kennedy observed that, “The n____r in the wood-pile is the government itself, which means Lumumba. No one here seriously doubts this.” King Baudouin later passed on his appreciation to the Irish government on the deployment and performance of Irish troops in the province.

The Belgians had good reason to be pleased with the Irish presence in Katanga in 1960.

Col Harry Byrne’s directive on August 22 to his Irish and Swedish troops recognised the primacy of the Katangan gendarmerie in policing the province, and also noted that the Katangan authorities could request operational assistance from the UN.

Byrne went on to state that, apart from UN officials and peacekeepers, “United Nations troops may not in any way interfere with police control of all other persons and property”. The UN agreed to coordinate patrols with the Belgian-officered gendarmerie in order to avoid “unnecessary duplication”.

“UN observer units were briefly attached to mobile units of the gendarmerie but these did little to inhibit abuse and murder on the part of the Belgian or mercenary-commanded forces while giving the impression of UN complicity or, at best, helplessness,” Dr Burke said.

In August, Patrice Lumumba wrote to Hammarskjold demanding the withdrawal of Irish and Swedish troops from Katanga and their replacement with African contingents.

He said it was incomprehensible to him that Hammarskjold should have sent only Swedish and Irish troops to Katanga, systematically excluding troops from the African States. African UN troops were later sent to Katanga. But most of these arrived only after Lumumba was ousted as prime minister on Sept 5.

“Irish officers had to stand by and watch as the Katangan gendarmerie continued their campaign of atrocity. UN medical officers treated civilians, including children, for extreme burns as a result of the actions of the gendarmerie and air strikes,” Dr Burke said.

“The UN later tried to set up neutral zones, including agreeing to protect Western-owned mines in the place of the gendarmerie in north Katanga. The Katangan government nominally agreed but, in reality, the gendarmerie paid little heed to UN zones when it suited them,” he added.

Joe Fitzpatrick, from Cabra, at a parade ceremony, in celebration of 50 years of Defence Forces Peacekeeping, in McKee Barracks, Dublin, in 2008. Picture: Kenneth O'Halloran/PA Wire
Joe Fitzpatrick, from Cabra, at a parade ceremony, in celebration of 50 years of Defence Forces Peacekeeping, in McKee Barracks, Dublin, in 2008. Picture: Kenneth O'Halloran/PA Wire

In early October, two months after the deployment of Irish troops to Katanga, the British Special Branch in neighbouring colonial Uganda met with an Irish military intelligence officer, Commandant Fleming.

Fleming wanted information on a Haitian UN official he suspected of having “communist leanings”. The Special Branch report of the meeting noted that, "morale is allegedly low amongst the Irish troops, this being attributed to lack of activity and their somewhat negative role. This consists of what may be best be considered as police patrol work and they have little or no authority to intervene in incidents."

Fleming also complained of a lack of equipment and troops to cover large areas in both the provinces of Kivu and Katanga.

Dr Burke pointed out that Kevin Boland later claimed not to have “any information” that Irish troops were under-resourced in Katanga, even though shortages of vehicles, weapons and radios are recurring themes in Irish military reports of the period. No armoured vehicles were deployed to the Congo until January 1961.

Following a series of violent incidents near Niemba in early October, the Katangan gendarmerie threatened to occupy the town if Irish soldiers did not deploy a garrison there.

Col Bunworth led a large-scale movement into the town, maintaining radio contact with the Katangan aircraft as they did so.

Upon arrival in the town, they met a group of Belgian officers and Katangan gendarmes, who were hosted to a meal by Col Bunworth. Soon afterwards, the same Belgian-led unit shot and killed a Baluba and wounded another who they claimed were about to attack the Irish soldiers.

Bunworth and his men then withdrew, leaving Lit Gleeson in charge of the small UN garrison at Niemba from October 8 until his death a month later.

'Results were disastrous'

Gleeson, a military engineer, concentrated on clearing roadblocks around Niemba. The local Baluba had put these up to prevent the Katangan gendarmerie from using the road to burn their villages.

On October 22, Gleeson’s men removed tools left at a roadblock by a party of Baluba.

“It is not difficult to see why Baluba tribesmen came to resent the Irish presence in the area. After the attack at Niemba, the Katangan secessionist leader, Moïse Tshombe, urged the Irish to show the Baluba “who is the boss”. In response, Col Bunworth assured Mr Tshombe his troops would do all in their power to restore order to the strife-torn North,” Dr Burke said.

Niemba ambush in Congo, 1960. Cork man Dr. Beckett assisting an injured Baluba warrior from the plane in Albertville.
Niemba ambush in Congo, 1960. Cork man Dr. Beckett assisting an injured Baluba warrior from the plane in Albertville.

George Evans, the British consul-general in the Katangan city of Elisabethville, reported a change in posture on the part of Irish soldiers after the Niemba incident. Evans said UN troops do not hesitate to take reprisals against the Baluba.

Dr Burke said Evans reported that Berendsen (the UN political representative to Katanga) knows this goes on all the time.

"But I do not think he [Berendsen] reports it. I overheard instructions being given to an Irish officer joining the Battalion at Albertville: ‘As soon as you see an African on patrol, shoot it at once. On no account talk first'," Evans wrote.

Other accounts also noted a more aggressive Irish approach after Niemba, even if the types of reprisals alluded to by Evans were strongly denied in my interviews with Irish soldiers who served in Katanga in 1960

“An officer recalled that, when approaching a Baluba area, Irish soldiers used “reconnaissance by fire” tactics to draw out any warriors who may have been planning an attack,” he said.

Col Bunworth believed his men were fulfilling the UN’s mission to ensure the “protection of the permanent assets of the Congo”, most notably the infrastructure and industry of Katanga.

“The Baluba saw things very differently. The Irish were helping to keep the Belgian-dominated secessionist state of Katanga viable. The results were disastrous,” Dr Burke said.

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