A film version of the forgotten story of 156 soldiers who held a 3,000 strong force at bay during a battle in the Congo fifty-five years ago is to be released by US media giant Netflix next month.
The lead character will be played by Jamie Dornan, the Co. Down born star of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and Belfast set thriller ‘The Fall’.
However, behind the glitz of the Hollywood sheen placed on this story lies the shameful post-conflict treatment of the Irish combatants by Irish Army top brass after they returned from Africa.
The battle which took place in September, 1961 has drawn comparison in its scale with the British defence of Rourke’s Drift - an event of course immortalised in the film ‘Zulu’.
And, as always seems to be the case with conflicts down the historical ladder of the centuries, whether by accident or by design, a Derry man was in thick of the action in the Congo.
The story goes as follows.
On September 13, 1961, the United Nations (UN) gave permission for its forces to launch a military offensive, code named Operation Morthor, against mainly mercenary military units working for the State of Katanga which had broken away from Congo-Leopoldville the previous year.
Under UN rules, its force in the Congo was to remain strictly impartial in the conflict.
Yet, the Katangese political leadership believed that the UN had broken its mandate and was siding with its opponents-the central Congolese Government. Soon after the launch of Operation Morthor, the Katangese led an attack on an isolated UN military unit based at the mining town of Jadotville.
The 156 strong contingent of Irish troops under the auspices of the UN were stationed at Jadotville.
I am fearful of looking at it too. It will be extremely emotional-Kathleen LaffertyGod, my men were fine.Ireland never reared better sons-Cmdt Pat Quinlan
Their leader was Commandant Pat Quinlan.
The positioning of the Irish men had come about after an angry phone call from the Belgian Foreign Minister to the UN Secretary General complaining that Belgian settlers within the local population had been left unprotected and open to attack from the anti-colonialist Kantagese.
Yet, when the Irish troops arrived it transpired that they were not welcome and there was in fact strong support for the insurgents.
The initial attack took place whilst the Irish men were at an open air Mass.
Expecting to take full advantage of the element of surprise, the attackers were however seen by an Irish sentry. His warning shot alerted the members of the 35th Irish battalion and the battle had begun.
A combined force of between 3,000-5,000 Belgian, French and Rhodesian mercenaries with local Luba tribesmen spearheaded the assault carrying light and heavy weaponry and they also used a Fouga Meister fighter jet carrying underwing bombs and machine guns.
The Irish men carried only light weapons and antiquated Vickers machine guns.
When the battle commenced the Irish radioed their headquarters. The message said: “We will hold out until our last bullet is spent. Could do with some whiskey.”
Astonishingly, whilst the Katangese attacked in 600 strong waves, having previously bombarded the area with heavy mortar fire, the Irish lost no men in the five day long siege. Instead, only five men were reported injured.
In return the attackers suffered an estimated death toll of around 300 and an indeterminate number of them were wounded. This has always been attributed to the tenacity of the Irish soldiers but also was due in great part to the brilliant tactical capability of Commandant Pat Quinlan.
However, whilst Pat Quinlan retired a full Colonel in the Irish Defence Forces he was never to serve overseas again.
Eventually, after running out of ammunition, water and food the Irish had no choice but to surrender. Despite the fact they had outfought a vastly numerically superior force, their surrender rankled with the Irish Army hierarchy.
The soldiers who fought at Jadotville regarded Quinlan as an exceptional leader who saved their lives. Eventually in 2004, then Minister of Defence Willie O’Dea held an inquiry that cleared Pat Quinlan and A Company of any notion of misconduct.
A commemorative stone honouring the soldiers was erected in Athlone Barracks in 2005 and a portrait of Comdt Quinlan now hangs in the Congo Room of the Irish Army UN School.
Born in 1921, John McAnaney hailed from Derry’s Bishop Street.
On joining the Irish Army he was initially stationed in Athlone before being shifted to the now defunct Collins Barracks in Mullingar where he later married Pauline O’Mahony. They had five children.
By the time the Irish Army reached the Congo in 1961 John had attained the rank of Corporal.
John’s daughter Kathleen Lafferty still lives in Mullingar told the ‘Journal’: “When he came home from the Congo, I was only about two-and-a-half years old, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember being handed up to this man on the back of a lorry. I didn’t have a clue who he was. I thought I was being given away and remember saying ‘I promise, I’ll be good!’.
Whilst Kathleen says that her father wasn’t one to talk in detail about what happened in the Congo she does recall that he spoke about what happened during his time in captivity,
“He said that while they were being held, the local women were worse than the men as they would poke them through the compound wire with sticks. As well as that, my father and a Private Peppard were singled out for particularly bad beatings by their captors.”
Whilst letters were sent home from the Congo by her dad, Kathleen says that what happened and what will be seen in the film are worlds apart in terms of what her father wrote.
“Of course, nothing was ever wrong and everything was always fine in the letters.
“Another memory I have is sitting on the floor watching ‘Jackanory’ on TV with my brother and mum was making dinner. when a big breadknife was thrust between both of us and pointed at the TV and mum shouted: ‘There’s your father on the news!’
“That’s how we knew he was home.”
The subsequent shoddy treatment of the men who fought so valiantly at Jadotville by the Irish Army hierarchy who unspokenly ‘frowned’ upon the fact that the men had surrendered - even thought they had no choice - still rankles with the families of many of the men.
Kathleen Lafferty said:“It was heart wrenching and stomach churning. It grew with me. Now, I have the greatest respect for the the Army lads on the ground. It was those upstairs in the top brass that I had the problem with.
“It was awful to grow up as a daughter thinking that my father was treated like that. He was a very proud man. He walked upright with his shoulders back. We still have the morals he gave us to this day.
“He loved Derry so much. I still remember sitting on his knee on the bus to Derry and him singing about the town even as we neared it. I am very proud of what these men did-all of them.”
Despite the treatment received by her father and his comrades by the upper echelons of the Irish Defence Forces it not deter Kathleen Lafferty’s brothers, Tony, Martin and Paul McAnaney following their father into military service. All of them also saw overseas service during their careers in both Cyprus and the Lebanon.
Sadly, John McAnaney passed away suddenly in 1967 at the age of 45.
The shock of this and the fact that her mother was left to raise five children alone caused great distress.
“Dad was buried with full military honours, but after he died there was no contact from the Army-no support at all,” she said.
Asked if she is looking forward to watching the Netflix film ‘The Siege of Jadotville’ next month, Kathleen told the ‘Journal’: “I am, but I am fearful of looking at it too. It will be extremely emotional.
“I remember my dad as a wonderful, loving father. One thing I do remember was that Army overcoat cast over the chair at home. Chocolate was a rare treat in those days, but he always had a Kit-Kat or something in it.
“The game was that he’d leave it there to see if my friends and I could find it hidden somewhere in the coat without him seeing us.
“There was no central heating in those days and that coat would also be put around us at night over the top of the Army blankets. The coat was so big and so heavy.
“Imagine being sent out to Africa with this type of clothes.”
‘The Siege of Jadotville’ is a feature length movie that will be available for viewing on Nextflix in September.
For details go to the Netflix website.
After their surrender, the Irish contingent were held for around a month. It is believed that their captivity lasted so long because the Katangese used them as a bargaining tool to improve their political bargaining power.
The ‘Derry Journal’ reported on the situation in the Congo on Tuesday, September 19, 1961.
Under the headline ‘Jadotville Garrison is being treated well’, the report said: “Reports on the situation in the Congo continue to be confused, but an Irish Government announcement yesterday stated that Irish troops at Jadotville, which had been overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, were being treated well by their captors and that there were no further casualties among them.
A statement issued by the Government Information Bureau in Dublin yesterday afternoon said that the message was received from Leopoldville at 1.20pm from the Commander of the 35th Irish Battalion: “All ranks of the battalion in Elizabethville fit and well. Morale tip-top. We now have two channels of communication through another source.”
“The Jadotville garrison is reported to be well housed and it appears they are being well treated.
“They have been allowed to retain their light arms without ammunition.
“There are no more casualties than they have already reported. It is still three wounded and two shell-shocked. But, my men are showing the signs of the strain that they have been through since they went to Jadotville.”