In Memoriam: 45th Anniversary of the Niemba Ambush

Discussion in 'Ireland (ie. Irish Defence Force)' started by gallowglass, Nov 8, 2005.

Welcome to the Army Rumour Service, ARRSE

The UK's largest and busiest UNofficial military website.

The heart of the site is the forum area, including:

  1. Just a short note to mark the 45th Anniversary of the Niemba Ambush in which nine Irish soldiers (of a eleven man patrol) were killed whilst on UN service in the Congo.
  2. The details of the ambush:

    An eleven man Irish Army patrol, part of the UN force involved in what was then the Congolese Civil War which had closely followed independence from Belgium in 1960, was conducting a routine patrol in the southern province of Katanga - the succession of which was one of the causes of the civil war. The local tribe - the Balubas - were prone to erect roadblocks to cause problems for the local UN forces, and it was such an obstruction which the Irish patrol encountered on the afternoon of 8th November 1960 (the Irish contingent had been in the Congo since August of that year).

    Private Joe Fitzpatrick, one of the two survivors, gave the following account of the ambush from his hospital bed in Albertville:

    "We were on a routine patrol. It was normal to go down the road leading south from Niemba and find a roadblock that had to be cleared.
    Balubas were always doing this and we used to curse them almost good-naturedly while, in the hot sun, pulling down their handiwork - usually heavy logs piled across the road.

    But this time they had done a more thorough job. They had pulled to pieces a wooden bridge across a small river, and it was taking us a lot more time than usual to put it right. We had noticed lately that the parties of Baluba we met were getting more sullen and hostile. We never had more trouble than an odd arrow shot our way and we had always managed to bring about a peaceful end to our meetings with them.

    So we were not at all expecting what happened this time. There we were, working away at that bridge with our platoon commander, Lt. Kevin Gleeson, and Sergeant Gaynor supervising, when someone called out there were Balubas coming down the road behind us. I looked up and there were about a hundred of them carrying bows and arrows, spears, panga knives and clubs.

    Lt. Gleeson told us to stop working and be on alert with our weapons. Even then we did not expect trouble. We thought it would be
    another parley and then they would go away.

    Lt. Gleeson walked towards them alone, holding up his right arm in sign of peace. They called out "Jambo" which is an African word meaning "I greet you in peace".

    I looked away for just a moment for some reason or other and heard a shout from the lads. Then I saw Lt.Gleeson staggering with an arrow in his shoulder. I heard him yell, "Take cover, lads get behind the trees!"

    We did just that and withdrew into the trees on each side of the road. Most of the boys took cover on the opposite side of the road that I did - that is really how my life was saved, because the major Baluba attack went that way.

    The air was suddenly black with a shower of arrows, and the Buluba let out blood-curdling yells that sounded like a war cry and rushed down the road like madmen, jumping in the air and waving their weapons.

    I don't know who give the order to shoot, but we seemed suddenly all to be shooting. I saw Lt. Gleeson killed. He didn't really get off the road. He fired into the Baluba with his sub-machine gun, covering us, looking quickly back over his shoulder to make sure we had taken cover. Then he turned and ran for the trees himself. But they overtook him and ran him down. Some had outflanked him and cut off his attempt to get to cover. A lot of them reached him at the same time and they were howling like animals. Our officer went down under a hail of blows from knives and clubs.

    I don't know what I was thinking at the time but I have plenty of time to think since and that sight was the most awful memory of it all. Lt. Gleeson was a wonderful man and we loved him- we all loved him.

    From that moment it all became very confused. The fight spread out among the trees. I could not see most of it. But there was a terrible noise, shouts, shooting and screaming.

    The Baluba seemed to be everywhere, crushing through the bushes and giving their sort of high pitched battle-cry.

    I heard our lads yelling, too. I heard one of them swearing. I remember I recognised his voice and I called out his name.

    I heard another Irish voice say! Oh my God! and it ended in a sort of sob.

    I saw about twelve Baluba in a hand-to-hand fight with one of our lads, who was using his rifle like a club. I feared to shoot for hitting him. Then I realised he was going to be killed anyway if I did not shoot and I fired two long bursts and saw three Buluba fall.

    The rest of the Baluba ran away and I went to the lad who was my friend. He was still alive but could not answer when I spoke to him.
    He had three arrows in his body and was terribly cut with knives or spear wounds.

    I tried gently to pull the arrows out of him but they would not come away because they were barbed. I stayed with him till he died ten minutes later.

    I could still hear the Baluba about me but there was no more shooting.

    I started to move through the bush, knowing that if they found me they would kill me.

    Suddenly there was a crashing to my right. I threw myself on the ground, rolled under a bush so that I was covered. I heard Baluba voices almost right above me - I think they were so close I could have touched the speakers. For one terrible moment I waited for the spear-thrust I felt sure must come. But then they moved away. They had not seen me. I lay there without moving for three hours till it became dark. Ants and other insects crawled over me. After it was dark I got up and moved towards the road but in such a way that I would miss the scene of the fight. I found the road and moved along it, keeping close to the trees. I felt ice cold and my teeth were chattering although I knew the night was sticky and warm. I wondered if I had malaria or fever, or something. I walked cautiously with my gun at the ready. The night was pitch black and I could just see the pale blur of the road. I began to tremble violently.

    I was jumping at every sound. I began to feel that I was being watched and followed. I stepped on a dry twig, which snapped, and my heart jumped at the sound. Suddenly I heard a distant singing. I came to a native village at the roadside where there was singing and shouting and I saw fires burning. They sounded terribly drunk. I felt certain that it was the people who had attacked us. For a moment I had a wild impulse to creep up on them and let them have it with every bullet left in my gun. Instead I moved back into the jungle on the opposite side of the road. I was getting terribly exhausted and several times fell over roots and things and collided with tree branches in the dark.

    I could hear frightening sounds and rustlings of animals about me, but I was past caring. I stumbled and put my hand on the branch of a tree to steady myself and yelled out aloud in pain and fright. The branch seemed alive with crawling insects. Something had stung my hand.

    I staggered a few more yards and sank to the ground. I felt dazed and my thoughts began to wander. I thought of my mother, and the coolness of Ireland, of the rain in the streets of Dublin and how peaceful it was there. I wished so much that I could get out of this God-forsaken country of filth, sweat and heat and savages. I think I prayed it might be so. I think I dozed or fell into a stupor or something then because suddenly it was getting light.

    Pulling myself to my feet I wandered slowly through the jungle again. Suddenly I heard the sound of a truck and heard Irish voices. I shouted and ran towards the lovely sound of it. I fell but got up and kept on going and came out on the road. It was a truck full of some of the boys from Albertville.

    I fell into their arms".

    A Irish patrol that later went out to search found all the missing bodies (they had been mutiliated and hung in trees) with the exception of Trooper Anthony Browne. An intensive search proved fruitless and he was officially posted "missing", presumed dead". It was not until a year later almost to the date that Trooper Browne's body was found; he had drawn away the attacking Balubas from the other members of the patrol as he withdrew into the bush and was killed standing over a fallen comrade; the Balubas had been attracted by the sound of his Gustav sub-machine gun - he was one of three men thus armed, the others being armed with Lee-Enfield No.4s; unfortunately for the patrol, its principal firepower, two Bren guns, had been left in their truck, from which they were cut off at the outset of the ambush. Trooper Browne was later posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry - with the following citation: "He had a reasonable opportunity of escaping because he was not wounded but chose to remain with an injured comrade".

    "Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends"

    "Do not weep because they left us,
    Do not murmur cause they are gone,
    For they bravely did their duty,
    And their spirit will live on."
  3. In memory:

    Lt Kevin Gleeson
    Sgt Hugh Gaynor
    Cpl Liam Duggan
    Cpl Peter Kelly
    Pte Matthew Farrell
    Tpr Thomas Fennell
    Tpr Anthony Browne (BMC)
    Pte Michael McGuinn
    Pte Gerard Kileen

    Tpr Browne was first ever recipient of An Bonn Mileata Calmachta (the Military Medal for Gallantry). He received a 2nd class medal, only 5 have been awarded since (up until 1991).
  4. Brave men. RIP.
  5. Outstanding soldiers, RIP. Seems so much longer than 45 years ago.

    Incidentally is the Military Medal the Irish Army's highest award for gallantry and is it awarded to all ranks?

    The MMG is awarded under three classes- Honour, Distinction, Merit (pre 1984 1st, 2nd and 3rd). With Honour (First class) has never been issued. From what I can gather the MMG, 1st Class is the highest award.

    Edit : Eight, not seven MMGs have been issued, seven during service abroad: had details of six of the UN awards. The most recent award was in 1997:


    Trooper Browne citation here:

    From the list on the above site it looks like the MMG is issued to all ranks
  7. A Irish patrol that later went out to search found all the missing bodies (they had been mutiliated and hung in trees) with the exception of Trooper Anthony Browne. An intensive search proved fruitless and he was officially posted "missing", presumed dead". It was not until a year later almost to the date that Trooper Browne's body was found; he had drawn away the attacking Balubas from the other members of the patrol as he withdrew into the bush and was killed standing over a fallen comrade.

    Does this mean that two bodies were missing, as he was killed standing over one?

    Who was the other survivor?
  8. Trooper Thomas Kenny (18 years old at the time) was the other survivor - when discovered by an Irish patrol just after 7am on 10th November and asked who he was, he replied "57 Kenny, Sir, reporting". It was believed at the time that Browne had moved some distance away from the main ambush position, and therefore from his other colleagues. Lapsing into the vernacular, it would appear that Browne was the only member of the patrol who 'kept the head' and reacted instantaneously to the initial Baluba assault. Substantial numbers of Balubas were drawn to him because of the distinctive and sustained noise his Gustav SMG was making. Browne had stayed with the badly wounded Kenny and then drew the Balubas away from his fallen comrade. The testimonies of the two survivors seemed to agree as to the role Browne played. Almost certainly his body was moved after he was killed.

    My father was an artillery officer at the time back in Ireland, and he and others have often expressed the feeling that Lt. Gleeson - an infantryman - could well have faced a court-martial had he survived as the leaving of the two Bren guns in the truck (which could have ended the ambush in seconds) was seen as an unpardonable mistake. That said, he was undoubtedly a brave man whose immediate concern was for his men.
  9. I have just read a very brief account of the battle in:

    Duggan, J.P. (1991): A History of the Irish Army, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan.

    I am still unclear how his body was missing if he was killed standing over another. Are we suggesting that the body was moved after?

    There fought bravely and we can all respect them. In fact I did think of them today at the Service, but I am still intreagued about the missiong body and how it came about.
  10. A definite fix as to the what and the how of Trooper Browne's death will probably never be ultimately established. For example, one of the survivors recently questioned Browne's right to his BMC, which, coming some 45 years after the event is just a little bit rich (and quite frankly dishonourable in my opinion).

    What can be said with a certin degree of accuracy is that most of the bodies of the slain were moved by the Balubas after the ambush. Trooper Browne's body was not found until a year later, in the vicinity, though not at the Niemba ambush site. Four of the bodies (Lt. Gleeson, Sgt. Gaynor, Pte. McGuinn and Pte. Dougan) were found by an Irish patrol (along with one of the survivors, Fitzpatrick) at about 4am local time on 9th November, and that of Cpl. Kelly was found later on 9th November; the bodies of Killeen, Farrell and Fennell were found on 10th November. My own personal take is that one or both of the survivors saw Browne with a fallen comrade - he certainly drew Balubas away from Kenny - and may have seen him fall wounded, and consequently assumed he was dead. I stand to be corrected, but I do not beieve that a definitive account of the ambsuh has ever been written. I attended a history conference in Trinity College, Dublin over a year ago at which a paper was given on the Irish in the Congo, but rather annoyingly the speaker seemed to believe that the Irish were armed with FN FALs. However, apart from that, his paper was good.
  11. Many thanks for that Gallowglass. The survivors account is quite thought provoking, and a good indication of what could have happend to the R IRISH patrol captured in SL.
  12. I can still vaguely remember the funerals of the dead men in Dublin and a year or so later the funeral of Tpr.Browne, I was interested as my uncle was also serving in the Congo at the time. Even then,if IIRC, there was some controversy about Lt.Gleeson's responsibility for the incident, obvously the matter of the Brens being left in the transport was of concern at the time. I suspect media speculation was discouraged out of respect and sympathy for the dead mens families not to mention embarrassment within the Army itself. I was told by a friend when I was serving that when he'd been in one of our other Bn's. there were one or two Irish Congo veterans and one had a brother who had been killed there, possiblyat Niemba since there weren't many other fatal casualties amongst the Irish there. Apparently he wasn't too well disposed to his black comrades as a result! (though none were Congolese, much less Balubas!)
  13. Somewhere in the region of 30 Irish were killed in fighting in the Congo - I will verify that figure, but I am certain that there were certainly men killed during the fighting for the Tunnel at Elizabethville in 1961 - at least one friend of my father's was 'cut in two' (his words) by a Katangan MG at the Tunnel.

    The attitude to the Niemba ambush was later reflected in that to the surrender of the Irish garrison at Jadotville - thankfully, this has recently changed with the highlighting of how well the garrison fought against vastly superior odds.
  14. have you got any links about both events ? i would be very interested to read them as there is not many stories or information on Irish Soldier in battle, its usually IRAs we usually hear about, so it makes a change to hear Irish Soldiers doing a proffesional job in difficult circumstances also i haven't met any Irish Republic Soldier to have a chat with, the ones i have spoken to are usually Irish in British Army but no Irish Army experience.

    unless next time i go over to Dublin some Irish squadies here can spare the time to chat with me :)
  15. Theres a few of us here but mainly reservists :?