In 1961, 158 Irish soldiers with no combat experience came under determined attack from 3,000-5,000 African rebels and European mercenaries, surviving five days of airstrikes, mortar barrages, and frontal assaults while on a U.N. peacekeeping mission that went horribly wrong.
An Irish soldier on duty in the Congo in 1960.
(Irish Defence Forces CC BY 2.0)
The men of Company A were sent to the Republic of the Congo shortly after the country received independence from Belgium in June 1960. A wave of violence had swept the country in the weeks and months following independence, and a local politician and businessman saw serious potential.
See, Congo is rich in natural resources, but a lot of those resources are concentrated in the Katanga region in the country’s southeast. Moise Tshombe thought he could cobble together a coalition of local forces from Katanga and mercenaries supported by European companies, and so he got Katanga to secede from the DRC.
Suddenly, the country’s racial and political unrest was a full-on civil war, and the young United Nations resolved to keep the peace. Troops were dispatched, and Congolese leaders were so happy with the first wave of troops that they asked for more, leading to the Irish deployment.
Irish soldiers manning a position in the Republic of the Congo in 1960.
(Irish Defence Forces CC BY 2.0)
Company A was comprised of 158 Irish soldiers equipped largely with leftover weapons from World War II like Vickers machine guns, mortars, and a Bren light machine gun. If this doesn’t sound like enough firepower to take on 3,000 men with air support, trust me, the Irish knew that.
The men weren’t expected to take that heavy of contact, but the political situation in Katanga continued to degrade and local opinion was strongly against the Irishmen. The Irish commander, Commandant Pat Quinlan, saw what was coming and ordered his men to dig deep trenches around the Jadotville compound, an otherwise abandoned group of buildings that the men were stationed within.
On September 13, the attack came. A sergeant finishing up his shave that Sunday morning while most of the unit was at mass looked across the grass outside the compound and saw armed Kantangan rebels and their mercenaries coming towards them. He jumped on the gun and started sending rounds downrange, calling the rest of the men to action.
As the Irish got their major weapons systems into operations, they were surprised by an enemy mortar round that shook the buildings. That was when they knew they were outgunned, and it would quickly become apparent that they were outnumbered. There were between 3,000 and 5,000 men attacking the 158 defenders.
A Fouga jet, the French two-seat jet trainer that Katanga rebels used to fire on Irish troops.
(Philippe DULAC, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Quinlan had ordered his men to stockpile water before the attack, but as the fighting dragged on day after day, it became clear that there wasn’t enough water and ammunition to sustain the defense. And the rebels had taken control of a nearby river crossing, cutting off potential reinforcements or resupply.
One brave helicopter pilot did manage to fly in some water, but it turned out to be contaminated.
So, from Sept. 13-17, the Irish suffered strafing attacks with limited ability to defend themselves, but wreaked havoc on their enemies on the ground, killing 300 of the attackers while suffering zero deaths and only five major injuries.
Yes, outgunned, vastly outnumbered, and under concerted attack, the Irish held their own for five days. But, by Sept. 17, out of water and ammunition, it was clear to Quinlan that the compound was lost. He could order is men to resist with knives as their enemy attacked with machine guns and mortars, or he could surrender.
And so, the Irishmen surrendered and were taken as hostages by the rebels who tried to use them as a bargaining chip with the U.N. in a bid for independence. But the rebels ended up releasing all 158 soldiers just five weeks later.
For decades, the men were treated as cowards and embarrassments, but a 2016 movie named The Siege of Jadotville about the battle treated the men as heroes and has helped cast a light on the men’s heroism. Before the premiere of the movie, the Irish government agreed with lobbying by Quinlan’s son to award a unit citation for Company A and individuals were awarded Jadotville medals until 1917.