|Part of the Congo Crisis|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Kevin Gleeson †||Unknown|
|11 men||100 men|
|Casualties and losses|
The Niemba Ambush took place on 8 November 1960, when an Irish Army platoon in the Congo was ambushed and all of its men killed or forced to flee by Baluba tribesmen, the first time being embroiled in battle against a foreign nation's army since the Irish war of Independence. Ireland had deployed troops as United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) peacekeepers.
The notoriety of the attack, and the allegations of mutilation and cannibalism that circulated in the Irish popular press in its aftermath, led to the word "baluba" becoming in Ireland for a period a synonym for any "untrustworthy and barbaric" individual. This ambush and the Siege of Jadotville in September 1961 marked the only engagements of the peacekeeping mission to involve Irish troops.
After the Belgian Congo became independent (as Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville)) in 1960, a civil war broke out in Katanga, the area occupied by the Baluba (or Luba) people. A separatist movement was fuelled by conflicts between various factions and tribes. United Nations peacekeeping troops were invited to help restore order. Ireland supplied troops as part of the UN force.
The area around the railway station at Niemba suffered several raids by both Baluba and local Pygmy tribes. On 4 October, it was looted by Katangan police and many Baluba were massacred. Most surrounding villages has been deserted by their inhabitants. Irish troops were sent to the area to secure it and encourage local people to return. A search of the area identified a damaged bridge, which a patrol was sent to, with a mission to effect repairs if possible.
On 8 November, an eleven-man platoon from the Irish 33rd Battalion arrived at the bridge over the Luweyeye River. They were forced to leave their vehicles when they encountered a blockade on the road. While clearing it, they were surrounded by about 100 Baluba tribesmen armed with bows, poison-tipped arrows, spears and clubs, as well as some guns. The patrol attempted to greet them peacefully, but was hit with a barrage of poison-tipped arrows.
The platoon leader, Lt. Kevin Gleeson, was overtaken and beaten to death while covering the retreat of his men. The Irish soldiers retreated behind trees on either side of the road and laid down withering fire on the tribesmen with their Gustav submachine guns, Lee–Enfield rifles and Bren light machine guns. The Baluba advanced on them, and the Irish were cut off from their vehicles. Despite taking heavy losses, the Baluba overran the Irish position and fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out, during which most of the Irish troops were killed.
The surviving Irish troops regrouped by a ridge but were surrounded by the Baluba, and fought to hold them off, but their position was rapidly overrun, and all but three of them were killed. The three survivors managed to escape. One of them, Anthony Browne, reached a nearby village and gave all the money he had to the village women, hoping they would get him help, but was instead mobbed and beaten to death by the village men. His body was recovered two years later. The two surviving soldiers managed to hide and were found by other UN troops the following day.
A total of nine Irish soldiers died: Lt. Kevin Gleeson of Carlow, Sgt. Hugh Gaynor of Leixlip, Cpl. Peter Kelly of Templeogue, Cpl. Liam Dougan of Cabra, Pt. Matthew Farrell of Jamestown, Dublin, Tpr. Thomas Fennell of Donnycarney, Tpr. Anthony Browne of Rialto, Pte. Michael McGuinn of Carlow, and Pte. Gerard Killeen of Rathmines. Some 25 Baluba tribesmen were also killed.
The bodies of the Irish dead were flown to Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, where they lay in state. Lt. Kevin Gleeson's coffin was placed on a gun carriage, while those of the rest were placed on army trucks. Following a funeral procession through Dublin, they were buried at Glasnevin Cemetery. For his conduct during the ambush, 19-year-old Trooper Browne was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry, Ireland's highest military award. He was the first recipient of the award. The citation read: "He endeavoured to create an opportunity to allow an injured comrade to escape by firing his Gustaf thereby drawing attention to his own position which he must have been aware would endanger his life. He had a reasonable opportunity to escape because he was not wounded but chose to remain with an injured comrade." At the time it was assumed that Browne had been killed at the scene. It was only later discovered that he had survived for two days before being killed in a separate attack.
Thomas Kenny, one of the survivors, believes that the real circumstances of Anthony's Browne's death were misrepresented by the army, because they wished to have a hero to offer to the public. The wording of the citation implied that Browne had died trying to protect the wounded Kenny, by moving into the open and drawing fire on himself, letting an opportunity to escape pass. In fact he did escape into the forest.
Effects in Ireland
Fionn Rogan argues that the massacre had a devastating effect in Ireland, where there had been strong support for the Congo expedition:
The effect of the Niemba ambush on Irish society’s perception of the army was massive. The attack punctured the swelling pride that was emboldening the nation. The professionalism of our soldiers was called into question, which wasn’t received well in Ireland. It presented a stumbling block to the development of the Irish military and Ireland’s position as an international force. However Ireland managed to regain its composure. Ireland’s position in future UN peacekeeping operations was preserved due to an impressive handling of the siege at Jadotville the following September.
The Baluba has long been associated with acts of cannibalism. Lurid stories circulated in the Irish popular press that the bodies of the victims had been mutilated and that their hearts had been removed to be eaten by the Baluba. As a result, "baluba" became a synonym for "barbarian".
- Fionn Rogan, "Niemba – The Birth of an Army", University Times, Jan 10, 2014.
- "Letters from Niemba: Irish troops in the Congo, 1960", History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Volume 18.
- Clark, John, Gallantry Medals & Decorations of the World, Pen and Sword, 200, p.54.
- "RTÉ Television - War Stories".
- "Congo massacre survivor: Army must tell real story", Irish Independent, 5, November, 2000.
- Michael B. Lentakis, Ethiopia: A View from Within, Janus, 2005, p.306.
- Prendeville, Tom, "Congo Hell Cannibals Killed My Comrades ..And Ate Every One; Irish Soldier Who Survived Jungle Horror...And Still Waits For Medal", 30 May 2004, The People, London.