United Nations Operation in Congo

July 1960 — June 1964

July 27th 1960 marked a watershed when the first element of 32 Inf Bn, the first complete unit from the Defence Forces to serve overseas, took off from Dublin bound for the Congo. After gaining independence from Belgium the previous month the Congo descended into something approaching anarchy.

With Belgian nationals being subjected to random attacks the Belgian government sent troops to their former colony and refused to remove them until the safety of their nationals could be guaranteed. Prime Minister Patrice Lamumba emerged as de facto leader but failed to unite the country. The army mutinied and Katanga province took the opportunity to declare its independence. This led to civil war in Katanga, between the secessionists, led by Moise Tshombe, and the supporters of Lamumba, mainly Baluba tribesmen.

 

32nd Battalion Congo Airlift from Baldonnel

Lamumba successfully appealed to the UN for intervention and on July 13th Ireland was one of the countries requested to provide troops to the proposed ONUC mission. The Irish government passed the enabling legislation on July 19th and a new battalion designated 32 Inf Bn (31 Inf Bn had existed in the Defence Forces until 1946) was activated for deployment. 

Eight days later the first chalk, comprising the battalion commander, Lt Col M J Buckley, and 60 members of the unit, flew out of Dublin, to be followed shortly after by the remainder of the 635-strong battalion. 

Initially deployed in Kivu province the Irish unit was joined by 33 Inf Bn in August, bringing the Irish contingent to over 1,000 troops. Their main tasks were restoring essential services, reassuring the public, and overseeing the resumption of local trade. In November the Irish contingent were redeployed to Katanga, a much more dangerous area of operations where vicious inter-tribal warfare was taking place between the Balubas, the Conekats, and the Pygmies. War parties were rampaging through the countryside, burning villages and attacking trains. 

Shortly after moving into the area the tragic Niemba ambush took place on November 9th when nine of an 11-man Irish patrol were killed by Baluba tribesmen.

In early 1961, during the tour of duty of 35 Inf Bn and 1 Inf Gp, Katanga erupted in violence and the Irish Contingent sustained casualties in battles with the Katanga Gendarmerie.

On Friday the 15th of September 1961 Trooper Patrick Mullins., who was a member of the 35th Infantry Battalion, died as a result of hostile action in Elizabethville in the Republic of Congo. In 2011 the Defence Forces commorated the 50th Anniversary of his death.

Read more about the Commemoration Ceremony

In December 36 Inf Bn arrived in the country and within two weeks they were involved in the Battle of the Tunnel, in Elizabethville, during which three members of the unit were killed. The exploits of the Irish troops in taking the Tunnel were recognised by the 14 Distinguished Service medals awarded to ‘A’ Coy personnel.

The next few years saw the decline of the secessionists and eventually Tshombe went into exile in 1963. By 1964 the Congolese government felt secure enough to let Tshombe return to the country as part of an overall agreement. Although the country was still politically and economically unstable it was felt that the danger from a military viewpoint had passed and the UN’s military mission was wound up. In June of that year 2 Inf Gp flew home to Ireland, ending the Defence Forces’ four-year commitment.

During the ONUC mission the Defence Forces came of age and took its place on the international stage. It had been a difficult and traumatic mission (one MMG and 65 DSMs were awarded over the four years) in which the Irish troops’ performance and even-handedness in dealing with all parties had earned them a new respect within the UN. Even before the last troops had left the Congo Ireland had been requested to supply a contingent to a new UN mission in Cyprus. Little did anyone imagine at the time that the Congo had been the beginning of over 50 years of unbroken service on UN missions for the Irish Defence Forces.

CONGO Video

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Operation Details
Duration

28 July 1960 — 30 June 1964

Operation Type

UN led Peacekeeping Operations (Troop deployment) 

Committment

6191 cumulative missions

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