The Avondhu - By The Fireside
34TH BATTALION JANUARY-JUNE 1961
The 34th Battalion commanded by Lt Col Eugene O’Neill departed in January 1961. This deployment was the first to have an armoured car group attached.
Known as the 1st armoured car group, it was made up of troops from the 1st Motor Squadron, Fermoy and also other cavalry units from the Curragh and Dublin.
The Fermoy based 1st Motor Squadron members were. Capt. H Costello, Sgt S O’Sullivan, Tpr M. Tryell, Cpl P O’Hara, Cpl W. O’Connell, Cpl M O’Mahony, Tpr E O’Sullivan, Tpr R Whealey, Tpr M Conway, Tpr W Walsh, Tpr M McNamara, Tpr D O’Keeffe, Tpr F O’Halloran, Tpr O Graham, Tpr P O’Driscoll, Tpr R Hanna, Tpr M O’Grady, Tpr W Quirke, Tpr J Magner, Tpr C Mahon, Tpr A Coughlan, Tpr (Bendix) O’Callaghan.
The 34th served in Katanga province in Kamina and Elizabethville. This was a quite tour of duty, with no major problems or fatalities. The battalion returned home in June 1961, its tour of duty being completed.
1ST INFANTRY GROUP MAY-NOVEMBER 1961
The 1st Infantry group commanded by Lt Col John O’Donovan departed in May and returned in November. This group served in South Kasi and later deployed to Kamina Air Base.
Its mission was to defend the airbase and keep it open for United Nations aircraft. During UN operations in August and September, Kamina came under attack from Katangese forces and also endured an air attack from a Katangese Fouga jet fighter. However, the base was strongly and successfully defended by the 1st Infantry.
Following the ceasefire, the group was deployed to Nyunzu and Niemba. The group moved back to Kamina in November, before departing for home with their tour of duty completed. 1st Infantry Group was the only Congo deployment that had no members drawn from the 1st Motor Squadron, Fermoy.
35TH BATTALION JUNE-DECEMBER 1961
Training for this deployment began in February and the author of this article, volunteered at this time, along with other members of the 1st Motor Squadron. We were going to make up 50% of the 2nd Armoured Car group of the 35th Battalion, along with troops from the Cavalry units in Dublin and the Curragh.
Training and selection of who was to travel was completed by early June.
The twenty-six Fermoy based members of the 2nd Armoured Car Group were: Capt. S. Hennessy, S/S D. Carroll; Sgts T. Carey, D. Morris, J. Flynn; Cpls P. White, M. Rowland; Tprs C. O’Leary, F. Sheedy, B. O’Callaghan, N. O’Regan, P.J. Quinn, J. McAuliffe, D. McManus, J. Walsh, G. Mallon, J. O’Mahony, P. Mullins, M. Collins, J. Harris, T. O’Keeffe, J. Llewellyn, D. Clancy, D. Keegan, J.J. O’Connor, M. Boyce.
Seven more members from Fermoy also deployed and served with B Company - Cpls P. Power, T. Mockler, J. Carey; Tprs T. O’Mahoney, K. Rockett. HQ Company - Tprs D. Barry and J. Llewellyn.
I was pleased to be chosen, along with my good friend Tpr Pat Mullins from Kilbehenny, County Limerick. We had become best friends since our training days in Command Training Depot in Cork the previous year and like me and several others, Pat had been posted to join the Motor Squadron in Fermoy in December of 1960.
By mid-June with our training completed, we were ready to depart. Those of us from Fermoy travelled to Collins Barracks, Cork to join members of the 4th Battalion, who were to form B Company of the 35th, for a parade and final farewell ceremony. Then, it was off to the Curragh with a quick stop off at the camp gate in Fermoy for a final goodbye from relatives and friends.
The time in the Curragh passed quickly as we had much to do getting ready for departure. We had our final parade in McKee Barracks, Dublin in the third week of June. The then Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, accompanied by high-ranking officers and other dignitaries, reviewed this parade.
The United States Airforce supplied the transport for the Congo missions. The aircraft were huge - Globemasters powered by 4 Pratt & Whitney engines and capable of not only carrying troops, but also jeeps and armoured cars, along with weapons, ammo and other supplies needed to keep a force in operation in the field.
After a delay the previous day due to bad weather over Tripoli in Libya, our first stop over, we finally got going on June 22nd. Our particular plane was listed as ‘chalk 6’.
This was a big moment for us, as most of the contingent had never set foot outside of Ireland before, we looked down on the English, French and Italian countryside with great interest as we headed towards the southeast over the Mediterranean, on course for Africa.
We were now on our way for what turned to be a very difficult and dangerous mission.
We reached our first stopover in Libya, touching down at Wheelus Field Air Base near Tripoli at about 7.30pm.
The blast of hot air that met us as we got off the plane was like putting one’s head inside a warm oven. We spent the night on the airbase sleeping in US Army billets and dining with United States Air Force (USAF) personnel. Wheelus airbase was huge and was run mostly by the Americans. This was only 16 years after the end of World War 2 and some of the greatest battles of the desert campaign were fought nearby.
The dining facilities and the quality of the food available were far superior to typical army fare dished out back home. Self-service (virtually unknown in Ireland at that time) and the wide choice of meals on offer, provided us with a whole new and tasty experience of the best the USAF had to offer.
Next day, we were back on board and heading out across the Sahara Desert for a refuelling stop at Kano, Nigeria. Here, we were allowed off the plane to stretch our legs and partake of some refreshments in the airport lounge. Then, it was on to Leopoldville, the capital city of the Congo.
We spent a couple of days here getting our tropical kit together and managed a visit to see the city sights. This part of the Congo was quiet and the locals seemed to go about their business as normal at this time.
The Irish contingent was part of a twenty thousand strong United Nations force, commanded by Irishman General Sean McKeown and tasked with keeping the peace between the Congo and the breakaway province of Katanga, while at the same time maintaining law and order. This force included Swedish, Indian, Ghurkha, Malayan, Pakistani, Norwegian and Austrian soldiers. It was a great experience to get to know and serve with all those troops from different countries.
The 35th Battalion was headed for Elizabethville, the capital city of Katanga about one thousand miles south of Leopoldville, with a stopover in Kamina air base about 500 miles to the south.
Here, we had to get off and after a good meal in the airport lounge, we changed from the Globemaster and boarded a smaller plane, a DC-3 for the final leg of the journey to Elizabethville. We arrived at about 10pm and after unloading our kit from the plane, we boarded trucks for a short journey to our billets.
Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) is the capital city of Katanga located in the southern part of Katanga, the most southern province of the Congo, just a few miles from the Rhodesian (now Zambia) border. This province had seceded from the rest of the country in July 1960 after the Congo was granted independence from Belgium.
Katanga had its own army (the Katangan Gendarmerie) and even its own currency, (the Katanga Franc) which was virtually useless outside of Katanga, under the then leadership of Moise Tshombe. Katanga has vast supplies of cobalt, copper, tin, uranium and diamonds. Without Katanga, the Congo would lose most of its mineral assets. Tshombe was seen, in general, as maintaining a puppet government controlled by Belgium and run for the benefit of the mining interests. However, not even Belgium recognised the new state, despite the fact it was providing it with military assistance. Therefore, the Congo (capital city Leopoldville) under Patrice Lumumba (who was murdered and replaced by Cyrille Adola in late 1960), wanted Katanga to reunite and were prepared to use force to achieve this objective.
This resulted in a complex and tense situation on the ground in Katanga and our job as part of the UN force was to keep the two sides apart until a satisfactory settlement could be reached. In other words, we were the meat in the sandwich.
The tour of duty for each battalion was 6 months; this meant that all going well, we should be home about mid-December. However, things did not work out as planned. Our departure was delayed by two weeks or so as heavy fighting was going on between UN troops and the Katangese army in early December; we had to hold our positions until relieved by the 36th Battalion, newly arrived from Ireland.
Most of our work at the beginning of the tour consisted of routine patrols, guard duty and stand to at the airport. In between, we managed to see some of the city of Elisabethville on the odd occasion when we were off duty. However, tension was building and becoming more and more evident with each passing week and came to a head about August, when things really hit boiling point as the Congolese government in Léopoldville and the UN, through Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, ramped up pressure on Katanga to reunite with the rest of the country.
Operation Rumpunch launched on August 28th - instructed the United Nations forces in Katanga to arrest and repatriate white Gendarmerie officers and mercenaries across the province. The UN believed this operation would remove Katanga’s means of maintaining its secession from the rest of the Congo.
However, this operation, though deemed successful at first and completed without loss of life, began to unravel soon afterwards as mercenaries drifted back into Katanga. Conor Cruise O’Brien from Ireland was the UN civilian representative in Katanga and was heavily involved in the planning and coordination of all activities in the province at this time.