Fifty years ago this week, Athlone resident Kerry Sloane was completing a shift as duty officer at the 33rd Battalion Headquarters of the Irish peacekeeping force in the Congo. In the early hours of the morning, he received an ominous message.
“I got a message from signallers at Niemba to say Lt Kevin Gleeson had gone out with a patrol and hadn’t come back,” he said.
“That was how we found out. I immediately went to the Commanding Officer to tell him. Lt Gerry Enright went out to Niemba that night and when he got there he found bodies straight away.”
Nine Irish peacekeeping soldiers had been killed by Baluba tribesmen in a tragedy which stunned the nation and which remains Ireland’s single largest loss of life on a UN mission.
Kerry, who lives with his wife Maire in Shancurragh, Coosan, met with the Westmeath Independent this week to pay tribute to those killed in the Niemba Ambush and reflect on the mission to Congo.
A native of Bishopstown in Cork, he served in the Army from 1953 to 1973, becoming a technical officer in the Army Ordinance Corps. He was based in the Curragh before being stationed at Athlone’s Custume Barracks from 1955 onwards.
The United Nations mission to Congo in 1960, the first armed peacekeeping mission, was made necessary by the chaos which followed Belgium’s withdrawal as the controlling power over the African nation.
Kerry stated that Irish Army members couldn’t be sent overseas on the peacekeeping mission but they could volunteer to go. This was an option which proved very popular.
“Nearly everybody in the army volunteered. There was absolute euphoria at the barracks, with people volunteering, trying to get going, and wives protesting that they didn’t want their husbands to go,” he recalled.
While he didn’t know exactly how many Athlone-based troops served in the Congo at that time, he stated that four officers and a good number of soldiers from Custume Barracks had participated in the mission.
The first Irish Battalion to depart for Congo, the 32nd Battalion, left in late July, 1960. Kerry was part of the next Battalion to take part in the mission, the 33rd Battalion, which departed for Africa in mid-August.
“We drew the short straw,” he said. “The 32nd Battalion got a peaceful area. We got an area where there was mayhem. We went out full of the joys of life, for the sake of world peace and all the rest. We didn’t go out there to die, but some of us did die.
“We set up shop in Katanga province and our one Battalion was given an area to cover that was as big as Ireland. It was mission impossible in many ways. We did the best we could but the whole place was boiling over.”
Katanga province was led by Moise Tshombe, who had set up an army, the Gendarmerie, which Kerry described as “killers... highly dangerous. It was their job to deal with the Balubas (a local tribe).”
The Irish peacekeepers were instructed to protect the Baluba tribe from Tshombe’s Gendarmerie, but they were met with suspicion and hostility from both sides in the conflict.
From an early stage in the mission, Kerry sensed that there would be bloodshed. Sadly, this proved to be correct on November 8, 1960.
Around that time the Balubas had been improvising their own defences against the Gendarmerie by blocking roads with trees and other materials. This was causing problems for the Irish troops, who were unable to transport their men and supplies as needed.
“We asked the UN if they would make arrangements to fly supplies over the blocked roads. We got the reply: 'You’re soldiers, open up the road yourselves.’ That was a fatal order. The Balubas had blocked the roads for a purpose and we were undoing what they had done. We were looking for trouble.”
Kerry was part of a 40-strong patrol which started clearing a road at Niemba on November 7. The following day another patrol of 11 soldiers, led by Lt Kevin Gleeson, went out to continue the work. The men were ambushed.
Though they were overwhelmed by an estimated 150 Baluba tribesmen, the Irish soldiers fought valiantly. Kerry saw the bodies afterwards and he believes that some 35 or 36 Baluba tribesmen were killed. However, only two of eleven Irish soldiers survived the battle.
“They overwhelmed our patrol with their sheer weight of numbers. They feared nothing and were well hyped up. We never had a chance,” he said. Asked about the mood among the Irish soldiers after the ambush, he paused, before replying: “I can understand atrocities in war. We were absolutely shocked but our blood was up. We wanted revenge. It’s an awful sight to see a mutilated body come in of a fella who’s wearing the same uniform as you; a man that you had been talking to the previous day.
“There was one fella, Pte Gerard Killeen, a cook, who was among the dead. After we had gone to Niemba the previous day to work on the dirt roads we pulled up outside the cookhouse.
We were full of muck and our mouths were full of dust. Killeen came out to us with a big pot of tea. The next time I saw him I was picking up his body.
“We knew that it could have been any of us (among the dead). It was a very emotional and traumatic time. It came as a shock to the country and it was twice the shock to the families, wives and mothers of the people who were out there.” After six months’ service in the Congo, Kerry returned home. He later served overseas in Cyprus, but said that mission was “a holiday camp” compared to the one in Congo.
After retiring from the Army in 1973, he operated a River Shannon boat cruising business.
Kerry concluded by paying tribute to those who died in the Congo and expressing his pride in the Irish mission there. “It was a pioneering thing. It had never been done before in history, to send soldiers to keep the peace, and it happened that the Irish, by our nature, became experts at it,” he said.