Niemba Ambush Anniversary

ONUC – Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo

1960 saw the beginning of the Irish Defence Force’s four-year commitment to service in the Congo. Between 1960 and 1964, over 6,000 Irishmen served there. During this period of service 26 Irish soldiers lost their lives, 9 of which were killed during the Niemba Ambush 8 November 1960. The United Nations Operation in the Congo (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo) known as ONUC was established by Security Council resolution 143 on 14 July 1960. This was a result of the Congolese government requesting military assistance from the UN to maintain territorial integrity. ONUC was originally established to ensure the withdrawal of Belgian forces, to assist the Government in maintaining law and order, and to provide technical assistance. This was subsequently modified to include maintaining the territorial integrity and political independence of the Congo, preventing the occurrence of Civil War, and securing the removal of all foreign military, paramilitary and advisory personnel not under UN command, as well as all mercenaries.

Deployment of the 33rd Infantry Battalion

The 33rd Battalion was the second Irish contingent to serve overseas following the United Nations’ request for Ireland to provide troops to the proposed peacekeeping mission. They served in the Congo between August 1960 and January 1961. The codename given to the airlift of 33rd Battalion personnel was Operation Sarsfield.

Below we can see eight members of the Niemba patrol in No.2 Platoon, A Company assigned to chalk No. 7. Chalks 5 to 10 were scheduled to move to Republic of the Congo on 18 August 1960. Of the three men not listed here, Tpr. Browne and Pte. Killeen were under HQ Company (A Company) and Pte. Farrell was with No.1 Platoon (A Company).

OS-ONUC-33INFBN-01-04: Allotment of personnel to aircraft
OS-ONUC-33INFBN-01-04: Allotment of personnel to aircraft

The Ambush

Niemba is a small village in the province of Katanga. The village was occupied on 6 October 1960 by Sgt. Guthrie’s party and on 8 October, Lt. Gleeson and part of his platoon took over. He was subsequently joined by the rest of his men. During their time here, Lt. Gleeson’s platoon carried out numerous patrols. One of the incidents of note was their rescue of Father Peeters from Nyunzu. At the beginning of November there were some concerns surrounding the number of road blocks they were finding around Niemba. The Battalion Commander decided to mount two simultaneous patrols to clear one of the roads. The two patrols were to begin 7 November 1960. The patrol south to the bridge on the River Luwuyeye was led by Comdt. P. D. Hogan and was reinforced by Lt. Gleeson and twenty of his platoon. Throughout the day they cleared numerous road blocks. After arriving at the damaged bridge, it was clear that the repair would take hours. It was decided that Lt. Gleeson’s patrol would do the same route the following day, 8 November 1960. The mission was to continue the patrol along the route travelled by Comdt. Hogan to see if they could, in time, move as far as Kinsukulu (for more details of the mission as a whole, view the full 33rd Battalion Unit History

DOPS TEMP 4886 005 page 001
DOPS TEMP 4886 005 page 001

At approximately 13:30 on Tuesday 8 November, Lt. Gleeson and his patrol made their way south towards Kinsukulu. They were mounted on a Land Rover and a Volkswagen pick-up and the patrol comprised of the following personnel:

  • O.7500 Lt. Kevin Gleeson
  • 804359 Sgt. Hugh Gaynor
  • 804234 Cpl. Liam Dougan
  • 809839 Cpl. Peter Kelly
  • 806115 Tpr. Anthony Browne
  • 808548 Pte. Thomas Fennell
  • 810242 Pte. Gerard Killeen
  • 804536 Pte. Matthew Farrell
  • 802900 Pte. Michael McGuinn
  • 808214 Pte. Joseph Fitzpatrick
  • 808457 Pte. Thomas Kenny

"The Patrol passed a number of roadblocks."

11th November 1960. The destroyed bridge can be seen in front of the truck and the place of attack is marked with an ‘X’.
11th November 1960. The destroyed bridge can be seen in front of the truck and the place of attack is marked with an ‘X’.

After travelling on the road for approximately an hour and a half, the patrol stopped at the broken bridge they had seen the previous day. Lt. Gleeson ordered the men to dismount the vehicles. Lt. Gleeson, along with Sgt. Gaynor and Pte. Kenny went to inspect the bridge. Pte. Fitzpatrick who, along with Tpr. Browne was on guard at the back of the second vehicle, reported seeing a number of Balubas moving all around the bush. Lt. Gleeson took 3 members of the patrol and went further down the road to check if there were any other obstacles. They returned, informing the rest of the patrol that there was a large group of Balubas on the road approaching their position. He ordered them to turn the vehicles around. However, it was at this point that the Balubas began to run towards the patrol. They were armed with bows and arrows, and clubs. It was widely known that the Balubas carried poisoned arrows. Lt. Gleeson tried to call out to the Balubas. According to the two survivors of the ambush, Pte. Fitzpatrick and Pte. Kenny, Lt. Gleeson ordered the party to hold their fire until he gave the order. They were to wait until they were fired upon first. The order was given to open fire and we know from the search patrol’s reports, that a number of Balubas were injured and killed.

"Overcome by sheer numbers, the order was given for the patrol to take cover."

PRCN-01-62: Scene of attack. This photo was taken from the first truck shown in the first photo.
PRCN-01-62: Scene of attack. This photo was taken from the first truck shown in the first photo.

Pte. Fitzpatrick, along with some others ran and were followed by Balubas. As the bush was so dense, it was difficult to keep together. Fitzpatrick took cover in some hedgerow, near Pte. Killeen who had been hit by an arrow and was now being beaten. Pte. Fitzpatrick opened fire and Killeen managed to make it to his position, but died soon after this. Fitzpatrick was able to remain hidden. The next day after some effort, he found the search patrol. Pte. Kenny was hit with two arrows as he ran toward the bush. Found by the Balubas, Kenny was hit with another arrow and badly beaten. According to Pte. Kenny’s statement, a Gustaf opened fire and the Balubas backed away leaving him injured. It was believed to be Tpr. Browne who opened fire. Pte. Kenny has since said that this wasn’t exactly how it happened. He said that he gave an initial statement that was lost and that this version of events took precedence. Pte. Kenny remained hidden for some time. When he managed to get up and move, he was delirious. Nearly two days later, he was able to find the search patrol. Due to the chaos of the ambush and the fact that there was only two survivors, it is difficult to say exactly what happened to each man during the ambush. It is clear from medical reports that the victims were badly beaten.
At approximately 20:35 that night, an urgent message came from Niemba saying that Lt. Gleeson’s patrol were overdue by two and a half hours. A search patrol was organised at Battalion Headquarters of two Officers, two NCOs, six men, one interpreter and three vehicles.

The Search

PRCN-01-62: The helicopter leaving for Albertville carrying Pte. Kenny
PRCN-01-62: The helicopter leaving for Albertville carrying Pte. Kenny

The search patrol left Albertville and a message was sent to Niemba with orders that two NCOs and ten men be ready to join the patrol. The reinforced search patrol left Niemba at 04:30 along the route taken by Lt. Gleeson and his men. At approximately 06:30 on the morning of 9 November the search patrol arrived at the bridge that Comdt. Hogan’s patrol had stopped at on 7 November. One of the medical officers who accompanied the search patrol, Comdt. Heaney, describes seeing a number of empty casings and clubs scattered on the road. In the bush area, approximately 40 yards in from the road, four bodies were discovered. During this initial search, Pte. Fitzpatrick came out of the bush on to the road. He was in shock but told the group that he was a member of Lt. Gleeson’s patrol. The group had to return to Niemba but returned later that day with a reinforced patrol led by Comdt. Hogan. Later on, approximately 30 yards further into the bush a fifth body was found. These five bodies were later identified as Lt. Gleeson, Sgt. Gaynor, Cpl. Dougan, Cpl. Kelly and Pte. McGuinn.

On the morning of 10 November a wounded Pte. Kenny was seen by the patrol, a few miles north of Kamanda. After he was treated, a helicopter was called and Pte. Kenny was brought to the hospital at Albertville. Following a rendezvous at the village of Tondula, the patrol pushed on to the ambush site. According to Capt. Crowley (A Company), a search party consisting of Irish and Ethiopian troops was organised. Capt. Crowley and Comdt. Hogan consulted a sketch prepared by Pte. Fitzpatrick. Having advanced approximately 600 yards from the bridge, three further bodies were found. They were identified as Pte. Farrell, Pte. Killeen and Pte. Fennell.

When the patrol returned to Niemba, Comdt. Heaney was called to attend to a wounded Pte. Hughes. At the same time there was an alert when a rooftop post opened fire on some movement observed in the bush. There were bursts of fire from several other posts. Comdt. Heaney was then called to attend to a wounded Pte. Shields who had been accidentally shot by a ricochet bullet. Later that night there was another alert and fire once again broke out. Pte. Davis, who had been manning the Bren gun on the veranda of one of the bungalows was accidentally shot. He was immediately attended to by Medical Officer Comdt. Burke. Pte. Davis was brought to Albertville but died before reaching the hospital. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery alongside the victims of the Niemba Ambush.

Comdt. Hogan was informed by Col. Byrne that he intended to evacuate the post at Niemba on Friday 11th November. He also told Comdt. Hogan that a large search party was to be sent from Albertville on Saturday 12th to resume the search for Tpr. Browne, who was missing, presumed dead. Tpr. Browne’s remains were not to be found until almost 2 years after the date of the ambush, 7 November 1962. On 6 October 1962, Officer Commanding 37th Battalion Lt. Col. O’Broin wrote to Plans and Operations, Army HQ informing them of a report stating that the remains of Tpr. Browne were known to be in the bush near the village of Tundula.

Army HQ responded with directions to form a party to recover the remains. Details of this location were given by M. de Bruyn who was, at the time of the ambush, State Prosecutor in Albertville.

The following party proceeded to Albertville tasked with finding Tpr. Browne’s remains: Comdt. Gallagher (37th Battalion), Comdt. McMahon (ex-Legal Officer, 33rd Battalion, sent out especially from Ireland), Comdt. Heaney and Capt. Lavery (both part of the advance party of 38th Battalion, who had been part of A Company 33rd Battalion). The search began with hostility from some villagers and an administrator from Niemba who was annoyed that he hadn’t been informed about the mission. He denied that the remains of an Irish soldier were there.

However, after being informed that the party knew the remains were there and that they intended to stay until they were found, the administrator agreed to speak to the Chef de Village. The next morning, Wednesday 7 November, the party returned to the search area with the administrator. The party agreed to attend a meeting with the Chef de Village. After a lot of discussion, the villagers agreed to show the search party the location where the heaviest fighting took place.

The party began to search the heavy bush and after following the administrator, they found Tpr. Browne’s remains. According to the search party’s report, the remains were found approximately two miles from the scene of the ambush. Tpr. Anthony Browne’s remains were flown home along with the remains of Cpl. Michael Nolan. Nolan was killed in Elizabethville in September 1961 and subsequently buried there. Tpr. Browne was posthumously awarded the first Military Medal for Gallantry (An Bonn Míleata Calmachta). He is buried beside his comrades in the Congo plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Operation Shamrock

The day after the Ambush, an Irish patrol from B Company were tasked with patrolling the Manono-Niemba road. Approximately 20km from Manono they intercepted a truck moving south from the ambush area. The truck contained 10 wounded Baluba who were being taken to hospital. According to Capt. Condron’s (B Company) patrol report, the tribesmen denied that any UN troops were involved in the ambush but said that it was a ‘Gendarmie patrol’ who had attacked them. No further information was given and they were allowed to proceed. Later, at a conference at Battalion Headquarters, it was decided once the Balubas were medically well enough to move that a party would remove them from Manono and give them into the custody of the Katangese Government for trial. An air operation was decided upon and the codename ‘Operation Shamrock’ was given.

Comdt. Beckett (B Company) remained in Manono in order to maintain contact with the hospital. He received updates periodically and sent reports in Irish to Battalion HQ. On 30 November 1960 Comdt. Beckett sent the following message to HQ: “Tá na n-eanullamh an nead a fhágaint”, indicating that the tribesmen were now able to be moved. The operation was due to take place at first light on December 2nd. Comdt. Barry, who had spent 4 months in Manono was chosen to command the party who were tasked with taking the Balubas from hospital. Along with those from B Company who made up the party, Comdt. Barry asked that Battalion Headquarters have some representation in the group as well as someone from A Company, where the victims of the ambush had been from. Comdt. Beckett had arranged with a Belgian Doctor that the bed cards of the wounded would be marked with a red ‘X’. Because the wounded might have spread across 5 wards, it was decided to seek reinforcements so that the group could split into 5 raiding groups and the wards could be searched simultaneously. Maj. Edge suggested that his Nigerian troops participate in the raid. It was decided that some Nigerian troops stationed in Niemba would accompany the party. The Moroccan troops were to secure the airstrip until the party had returned with the prisoners and the plane had taken off for Albertville.

Operation Shamrock-object of which was to capture the Baluba tribesmen injured in the Niemba Ambush from Manono Hospital
Operation Shamrock-object of which was to capture the Baluba tribesmen injured in the Niemba Ambush from Manono Hospital

The raiding groups entered the hospital and searched their designated wards. Seven out of the ten Balubas were located and removed from the hospital. The party returned to the airstrip without incident and took off for Albertville. Here, they waited at the old town airstrip for the police of the local administration who arrived and took custody of the prisoners. Two of the wounded taken from the hospital who, at the time of capture stated that they were not part of the ambush, were later released. The other five prisoners were Michel Kabeke, Alexis Mukalayi, Stanislas Mwamba, Mufabule Banza, and Kamatshala Senga. They stood accused of three charges, (1) of being ‘perpetrators or co-perpetrators in a crime the object of which was to bring devastation, massacre or pillage’, (2) ‘having killed nine UN soldiers with premeditation and attempted to kill two UN soldiers’, and (3) having ‘carried arms, plainly or hidden, in an insurrectional movement’. The five accused denied having personally delivered any wounds or blows to the victims but acknowledged that they were part of the group who on 8 November 1960 lay armed in ambush near the barricades erected near the demobilised bridge on the Luweyeye River. The Court declared that it was not established that the accused had been directly involved in the criminal offence of bringing devastation, massacre and pillage. They also declared that it was established in the minds of the five accused the ‘the crime of murder and the attempt to murder, without premeditation, as well as the offence of carrying arms in an insurrectional movement’. Following the trial, the accused were sentenced at the Elizabethville District Court Penal Sitting, Open Court of Monday 13 November 1963 as follows:

  • M. Kabeke – three years capital penal servitude
  • A. Mukalayi – two years capital penal servitude
  • S. Mwamba – three years capital penal servitude
  • M. Banza – two years capital penal servitude
  • K. Senga – two years capital penal servitude
Layout of Area of Operations – Manono Hospital
Layout of Area of Operations – Manono Hospital

Impact of the Ambush in Ireland

The Niemba Ambush was a devastating shock not only to the people of Ireland, but to those around the world who heard the news and especially to those who were serving or about to serve with the United Nations. On Friday 18 November 1960 a full Battalion parade was held at Albertville Airport in advance of the victim’s repatriation home.

In the days after their return home, tens of thousands of people visited the hangar at Baldonnel where the bodies were lying in state. The funeral took place on Tuesday 22 November. Thousands gathered on the streets in Dublin to watch the funeral cortege led by Capt. Crowley and his party. The men were laid to rest at Glasnevin Cemetery. Hundreds of Mass cards and letters were sent from all over Ireland and abroad to the Defence Forces and the 33rd Battalion offering sympathy for those who died at Niemba. Sympathies were offered from other battalions, sports groups, schools, nurses and doctors, businesses, county councils and more. The ambush remains the single biggest loss of life in the Defence Force’s history. The aim of this exhibition is to remember and acknowledge all members of the patrol, 60 years on.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha uaisle.

Mounted black and white photograph of the funeral cortege of the Niemba victims on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery
Mounted black and white photograph of the funeral cortege of the Niemba victims on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery

Click below to listen to part of an interview of Colonel Peter Feely (Retd.), concerning how the news of the ambush filtered through to the other Irish Defence Forces personnel serving in the Congo at the time.

Col. Feely speaks about receiving news of the ambush

Col. Feely speaks about how the Niemba Ambush

*Material used for this exhibition comes from the following collections: United Nations Operations in Congo Collection (view the summary and download the full collection catalogue), United Nations Unit Histories (view uploaded unit histories), Military Archives Photo Box Collection, Brother Allen Collection, Oral History Collection (view our Oral History webpage), Director of Operations collection, and the private collections of Comdt. Hogan and Lt. Gen. MacEoin.