Plop, plop went the mortar rounds as they left their barrels only to erupt as a shroud of shrapnel around the Irish positions.
It was September 1961 in the rebel province of Katanga, located in the very bowels of the Congo.
157 men from the Irish 35th Battalion’s A Company had been sent to a mining town called Jadotville to protect the largely white Belgian inhabitants from massacre by marauding tribal groups.
But within a very short space of time the troops were to find the settlers had turned on them and were attacking the Irish positions with an overwhelming mercenary-led rebel force.
With the publication of Siege at Jadotville, the lid was lifted on one of the most controversial episodes in Ireland’s UN service.
Through first hand accounts and previously classified documents, the book uncovered a hidden history of Ireland’s first involvement in peacekeeping and shows what happens when UN civilian leaders ignore military reality.
In September, 1961 during the Congo peacekeeping operation, 150 Irish troops were left by the UN to fight it out against 3000 mercenary-led troops.
Irish people today were shocked to learn how the soldiers were deployed to an isolated area by UN authorities against the advice of senior military advisors only to be attacked by the very people they were sent to protect.
The book details Ireland’s involvement in the UN’s first large-scale peacekeeping operation in the Congo in the early 60s. It reveals how the ineptitude of arrogant and naïve UN civilian administrators caused the deaths of the international troops sent to keep the peace, including the Irishmen who were killed at Niemba.
The book focuses on A Company of the 35th Battalion, the Irish soldiers who were almost massacred when besieged at a mining town called Jadotville in a province called Katanga in the south of the Congo.
When the troubles in the former Belgian colony were at their height, A Company, under their commanding officer, Kerryman, Comdt Pat Quinlan, were sent to Jadotville to protect the white settler community there.
However, when the troops arrived they found the settlers to be hostile and sympathetic to the mercenary-led forces of Katanga, a mineral-rich province causing chaos by trying to break away from the newly independent Congo.
Similar to the Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica in 1995, the small Irish contingent was denied any air or artillery support to aid them against overwhelming odds.
But even though under aerial bombardment, the Irish dug in and fought to hold their ground against a force that outnumbered them 20 to one. Yet for over 40 years both Ireland and the world turned their backs on the Jadotville veterans.
This book explains why this episode, though widely reported at the time, was allowed to fade into the background of Irish military history.
It catalogues the series of errors, ineptitude and naivety foisted onto Irish troops and their UN allies as they attempted deal with rapidly escalating violence.
All the while the UN authorities in New York kept changing mandates on paper but not giving the troops on the ground the equipment and support needed to contain the violence.
Much of the book is told from the perspective of the men who fought there. They tell how they regularly rounded up mercenaries and disarmed them only to have the UN order return of the arms and to have those same weapons turned on them at Jadotville.
There are tragic-comic moments too, like when a madcap Norwegian pilot was the only one who volunteered to fly helicopter with water supplies to the besieged Irish.
Having landed under fire with his aircraft destroyed it turned out the water supplies were unusable having been put in jerrycans that previously stored petrol. This was the only attempt made by the UN to resupply the troops while they fought it out for a week.
Young soldiers at the time, men such as Pte John Gorman and Lt Noel Carey told of their terror of having to hand up their weapons and go into captivity under a force the Irish had inflicted 300 casualties on. Fear of reprisals was huge.
The book also tells of the enormous personal strain Comdt Quinlan was put under when he had to enter ceasefire negotiations without recourse to accurate information or direction from higher authority.
The UN kept telling him jets would be sent to support him but none came. Such was the strength of the mercenary-led force that they beat back two attempts by Irish and Indian forces to rescue the Jadotville men.
Declan Power is a former soldier who now works as security analyst and lecturer. He is also a consultant to UN peacekeeping missions on civil military coordination.