The Simba rebellion of 1963–65, also known as the Orientale Revolt, was a rebellion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which took place within the wider context of the Congo Crisis and the Cold War. The rebellion, located in the east of the country, was led by the followers of Patrice Lumumba, who had been ousted from power in 1960 by Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu and subsequently killed in January 1961 in Katanga. The rebellion was contemporaneous with the Kwilu Rebellion led by fellow Lumumbist Pierre Mulele in central Congo.
The Simba rebels were initially successful and captured much of eastern Congo, proclaiming a "people's republic" at Stanleyville. However, the insurgency suffered from a lack of organization and coherence, as well as tensions between the rebel leadership and its international allies of the Eastern Bloc. When the Congolese government launched a number of major counter-offensives from late 1964, spearheaded by battle-hardened mercenaries and backed by Western powers, the rebels suffered several major defeats and disintegrated. By November 1965, the Simba rebellion was effectively defeated, though holdouts of the rebels continued their insurgency until the 1990s.
The causes of the Simba Rebellion should be viewed as part of the wider struggle for power within the Republic of the Congo following independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960 as well as within the context of other Cold War interventions in Africa by the West and the Soviet Union. The rebellion can be immediately traced back to the assassination of the first Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961. Political infighting and intrigue followed, resulting in the ascendancy of Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu in Kinshasa at the expense of politicians who had supported Lumumba such as Antoine Gizenga, Christophe Gbenye and Gaston Soumialot.
In 1961, this change in power led Antoine Gizenga to declare the creation of a rebel government in Stanleyville. This new state, dubbed the Free Republic of the Congo, received support from the Soviet Union and China as they positioned themselves as being "socialists" opposed to American intervention in the Congo and involvement in the death of Lumumba although, as with Lumumba, there is some dispute over the true political inclinations of the Lumumbists. However, in August 1961, Gizenga dissolved the government in Stanleyville with the intention of taking part in the United Nations sponsored talks at Lovanium University. These talks ultimately did not deliver the Lumumbist government that had been intended, Gizenga was arrested and imprisoned on Balu-Bemba and many of the Lumumbists went into exile.
It was in exile that the rebellion began to take shape. In 1963, the Conseil National de Libération (CNL) was founded by Gbenye and Soumialot in Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Republic of the Congo. However, whilst these plans for rebellion were being developed in exile, Pierre Mulele returned from his training in China to launch a revolution in his native province of Kwilu in 1963. Mulele proved to be a capable leader and scored a number of early successes, although these would remain localised to Kwilu. With the country again seeming to be in open rebellion of the government in Kinshasa, the CNL launched its rebellion in their political heartland of eastern Congo.
Simba forces and ideology
Gbenye's forces were organized as the "Armée Populaire de Libération" (APL), though were generally nicknamed "Simbas", meaning a lion or big lion in Swahili. They were recruited from ANC mutineers, tribesmen, and youth militants (jeunesse). In general, the Armée Populaire de Libération was divided into regular units which were organized like the ANC (namely the unités d'operations and unités de garnison), and units which were more akin to irregular militias (barriéres). Although they were on average well motivated, the Simbas lacked discipline and their command as well as control were often chaotic.
The majority of the Simbas were young men and teens although children were not unheard of in the conflict. The rebels were led by Gaston Soumialot and Christophe Gbenye, who had been members of Gizenga's Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA), and Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had been a member of the Lumumba aligned Association générale des Baluba du Katanga (BALUBAKAT).
Because of the range of political beliefs amongst the Simba rebels, attributing an ideology to the rebellion is very complex. Whilst the leaders claimed to be influenced by Chinese Maoist ideas, the Cuban military advisor Che Guevara wrote that the majority of the fighters did not hold these views. The fighters also practised a system of traditional beliefs which held that correct behaviour and the regular reapplying of dawa (water ritually applied by a medicine man) would leave the fighters impervious to bullets.
Early rebel expansion, late 1963 – July 1964
As the Kwilu Rebellion spread and escalated, Soumialot obtained the support of the government of Burundi in recruiting thousands of troops along the Burundian-Congolese border. With these forces, he invaded South Kivu in late 1963. After taking control of most of the province, Soumialot's army overran the last local government holdouts at Uvira on 15 May 1964, followed by Fizi shortly after. Pro-Simba forces successfully revolted in the important harbor town of Albertville in late May, capturing Jason Sendwe, President of North Katanga Province. On 30 May 1964, a small ANC detachment led by Louis Bobozo retook the town, rescuing Sendwe and killing about 250 rebels. The government troops soon alienated the locals due to their brutal behavior. When another rebellion broke out in the town on 19 June 1964, Soumialot's forces expoited the resulting chaos and captured Albertville. The government forces fled, though left Sendwe behind; he was subsequently murdered by Simba rebels under unclear circumstances.
Meanwhile, Christophe Gbenye and Nicholas Olenga rose in revolt in northeastern Congo, quickly expanding their army and territories. By June 1964, they held North Kivu, and southern Orientale Province. They did not coordinate their operations with Soumialot who distrusted Gbenye. A third rebel force, independent of Soumialot, Gbenye, and Olenga, rebelled in northern Katanga in early June. These insurgents considered themselves "true" Communists, and were led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila and Ildéphonse Massengo. They had no real connections to the other Simba factions. Kabila and Massengo's troops conquered the entire western shore of Lake Tanganyika, including Moba by late June. They then advanced into the Province of Maniema, and captured its strategically important capital Kindu on 22 July. The local Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) garrisons reacted with brutal counter-insurgency actions that failed to defeat the Simbas, but alienated the population of the eastern provinces. Furthermore, the Simba rebels often managed to intimidate well-equipped ANC units into retreating or defecting without a fight, thereby capturing much-needed weaponry for the insurgency.
As the Simba rebellion in eastern Congo spread, the states of the Eastern Bloc took increasing interest. The Soviet Union implored neighboring nationalistic governments to aid the rebels. The Soviet leadership promised that it would replace all weaponry given to the Simbas in given time, but rarely did so. In order to supply the rebels, the Soviet Union transported equipment via cargo planes to Juba in allied Sudan. From there, the Sudanese brought the weapons to Congo  This operation backfired, however, as southern Sudan was engulfed in its own civil war. The Sudanese Anyanya insurgents consequently ambushed the Soviet-Sudanese supply convoies, and took the weapons for themselves. When the CIA learned of these attacks, it allied with the Anyanya; the latter consequently helped the Western/Congolese air forces to locate Simba rebel camps and supply routes, and destroy them. In return, the Sudanese rebels were given weapons for their own war. Angered by the Soviet support for the insurgents, the Congolese government expelled the Soviet embassy's personnel from the country in July 1964; the Soviet leadership responded by increasing its aid for the Simbas.
Meanwhile, the Simbas continued to advance. By late July 1964, the insurgents controlled about half of the Congo. Utterly demoralized by repeated defeats, many ANC soldiers believed that the Simba rebels had become invincible thanks to magical rituals performed by insurgent shamans. Amid these rebel successes, the United States government pressured President Kasa-Vubu to dismiss Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula, and install a new government led by Moïse Tshombe. The U.S. and Belgian leadership believed that Tshombe was supportive of their interests as well as a more effective leader, thereby being the ideal person to lead the Congo in the conflict against the Left-leaning Sinba rebels. With few options left, Kasa-Vubu agreed and Tshombe returned from exile as new Prime Minister on 30 July 1964.
Moïse Tshombe assumes power and government forces regain initiative, July – August 1964
Tshombe reorganized the Congolese war effort, circumventing other political and military leaders such as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu. He asked the Western nations for military assistance, recruited White mercenaries, and brought his exiled loyalist troops (the Katangese Gendarmerie) back into the country. The mercenary-led forces gradually arrived at the frontlines from July 1964. Tshombe's rise to power caused considerable displeasure in the Congo and other African countries. The government of Uganda, which felt that the newly installed Tshombe government was beholden to Western interests, promptly offered covert aid to Gbenye. This included the use of government forces to train the rebels as well as the allowance for Ugandan territory to be used as a resupply route. Some Ugandan troops served alongside the rebels in combat, and the Congolese ANC and the Uganda Army's 1st Battalion directly clashed along the border of the two countries at some point in 1964.
By August 1964, they had captured Stanleyville where a 1,500-man ANC force fled leaving behind weapons and vehicles which the Simba rebels captured. The attack consisted of a charge, led by shamans, with forty Simba warriors. No shots were fired by the Simba rebels. As the rebel movement spread, acts of violence and terror increased. Thousands of Congolese were executed in systematic purged by the Simbas, including government officials, political leaders of opposition parties, provincial and local police, school teachers, and others believed to have been Westernized. Many of the executions were carried out with extreme cruelty, in front of a monument to Patrice Lumumba in Stanleyville.
With much of Northern Congo and the Congolese upcountry under control, the Simba rebels moved south against Kasai Province. Kasai had rich mining concerns but was also a strategic key to more lasting control of Congo. If the rebels could capture Kasai Province up to the Angola border they could cut the government forces in half, isolating Katanga Province and severely overstretching ANC lines. In August 1964 unknown thousands of Simbas moved down out of the hills and began the conquest of Kasai. As before ANC forces retreated with little fight by either throwing down arms completely or defecting to the rebels.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Tshombe acted decisively against the new threat. Using contacts he had made while exiled in Spain, Tshombe was able to organize an airlift of his former soldiers currently exiled in rural Angola. The airlift was enacted by the United States and facilitated by the Portuguese as both feared a Soviet influenced socialist state in the middle of Africa. Tshombe's forces were composed primarily of Belgian trained Katangese Gendarmes who had previously served the Belgian Colonial Authority. They were a highly disciplined and well equipped force who had only just barely lost a bid for independence in the previous conflict. In addition the force was accompanied by Jerry Puren and a score of mercenary pilots flying Second World War surplus training planes fitted with machine guns.
The combined force marched on Kasai Province and encountered Simba forces near Luluabourg. Its mercenary pilots strafed nearby Simba columns which lacked any anti-aircraft equipment. At the behest of accompanying shamans, many Simba warriors had even discarded their firearms as a way of purifying themselves from "Western" corruption.
The engagement began in a shallow, long valley with Simba forces attacking in an irregular mixture of infantry and motorized forces, which charged directly at the ANC force. In response, the ANC troops also advanced directly, led by jeeps and trucks. The Simba rebels encountered heavy losses because of ANC machine-gun fire. It was a decisive defeat and the Simba rebels were forced to abandon their attacks in Kasai.
Success in Kasai justified Tshombe's decision to bring in Western mercenaries to augment well-trained Katangese formations. Two hundred mercenaries from France, South Africa, West Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, and Angola arrived in Katanga Province over the next month. The largely white mercenaries provided the ANC with a highly trained and experienced force that was unaffected by the indiscipline and social tensions within the ANC. They provided an expertise that could not be matched. Ironically, their presence also strengthened the recruitment efforts of the Simba rebels who could portray the ANC as a Western puppet.
Once the mercenaries were concentrated they spearheaded a combined offensive against Albertville. Once captured, Albertville would give the ANC access to Lake Tanganyika and serve as a staging base for future offensives to relieve Government enclaves in the North. Simba forces were deployed in several large mobs around Albertville in expectation for an attack by ANC infantry and the motorized Gendarmes.
Mike Hoare, a white mercenary commander, led three boats of mercenaries around the Simba rebel flank to attack Albertville from the rear in a night attack. The move made good progress but was diverted when it ran across a Catholic Priest who convinced the mercenaries to rescue 60 clergy currently being held by Simba troops. The mercenaries failed to either rescue the priests or capture the Albertville's airport. The next day ANC infantry and the motorized Gendarmes re-captured the city, overwhelming poorly armed Simba resistance. Together with the success in Kasai the victory at Albertville stabilized the government southern flank. The abuse of the clergy also increased Western support for the Tshombe Government.
The rebels started taking hostages from the local white population in areas under their control. Several hundred hostages were taken to Stanleyville and placed under guard in the Victoria Hotel. A group of Belgian and Italian nuns were taken hostage by rebel leader Gaston Soumaliot. The nuns were forced into hard labor and numerous atrocities were reported by news agencies all over the world. Uvira, near the border with Burundi was a supply route for the rebellions. On October 7, 1964 the nuns were liberated. From Uvira they escaped by road to Bukavu from where they returned to Belgium by airplane.
Rebel collapse, August 1964 – November 1965
As aid from the Soviet Union was received by the Simba military establishment, the Simba force made one final push against the government capital of Leopoldville. The advance made some headway but was stopped cold when several hundred mercenaries were airlifted North and attacked the flank of the Simba pincer. The mercenaries were then able to capture the key town of Boende. After this success, more mercenaries were hired and dispatched to every province in Congo.
Once that the final Simba offensives were checked, the ANC began to squeeze Simba-controlled territory from all sides. ANC commanders formed a loose perimeter around rebel areas, pushing in with a variety of shallow and deep pincers. With mercenaries acting as shock contingent for ANC forces, the Congolese government used aircraft to transport mercenaries to hotspots or rebel strongholds. Mercenary forces became adept at outflanking and then reducing Simba positions with enfilade fire.
Though war was turning in favor of the ANC, problems remained for the Congolese government. Most notably, the rebels still held numerous hostages and important towns in eastern Congo. In response, the Congolese government turned to Belgium and the United States for help. The Belgian Army sent a task force to Léopoldville, airlifted by the U.S. 322d Airlift Division. The Belgian and American governments tried to come up with a rescue plan. Several ideas were considered and discarded, while attempts at negotiating with the Simba force failed.
The Congolese government and its Western allies finally decided to launch a multi-pronged campaign. ANC troops led by mercenary columns would advance from the west, southwest, southeast (Albertville) and east (Bukavu). The mercenaries were well equipped for the campaign, and given access to jeeps, trucks, mortars and armoured fighting vehicles. In addition, the ANC was provided with foreign advisors, including about 200 Cuban CIA agents who operated on the ground and also flew for the Congolese Air Force. The ground forces which were coming from the west and attacking Bas-Uele were also supported by armoured trains. While these ground offensives were going on, an international task force was prepared for airborne attacks on the urban centers of the rebels.
Though the initial ground attacks met with some success, the Simbas still managed to offer significant resistance, and even retook some areas amid counter-attacks soon after the campaign's beginning. The first airborne assault was carried out on 24 November. Organized by Belgian Colonel Charles Laurent, the attack was code-named Dragon Rouge and targeted Stanleyville. Five US Air Force C-130 transports dropped 350 Belgian paratroopers of the Para-Commando Regiment onto Simi-Simi Airport on the western outskirts of Stanleyville. Once the paratroopers had secured the airfield and cleared the runway they made their way to the Victoria Hotel, prevented Simba rebels from killing most of the 60 hostages, and evacuated them via the airfield. Over the next two days over 1,800 Americans and Europeans were evacuated, as well as around 400 Congolese. However, almost 200 foreigners and thousands of Congolese were executed by the Simbas. Among them were several missionaries such as the American Dr. Paul Carlson or the Belgian Dox brothers. While the Belgians were securing Stanleyville, the ANC's columns "Lima I" and "Lima II" broke through the Simba defenses and arrived at Stanleyville on the same day. On 26 November, a second mission (Dragon Noir) was flown by the Belgians and captured Isiro. The Belgians withdrew most of their forces from the Congo after the successful conclusion of Dragon Rouge and Dragon Noir. The fall of Stanleyville and Isiro "broke the back of the eastern insurrection, which never recovered." The Simba leadership fled into exile while descending into disarray and severe disagreements; Gbenye was shot in the shoulder by one of his generals after dismissing him.
Final rebel strongholds
Though the main rebel forces had been dispersed, large areas in eastern Congo remained under Simba control. As Uganda continued to support the rebels, the Congolese government retaliated by bombing the two villages of Paidha and Goli in Uganda's West Nile District on 13 February 1965. The bombings caused minimal damage, but resulted in a public outcry in Uganda whose government promptly expanded the military to defend its borders. In March 1965, around 100 Afro-Cuban volunteers under Che Guevara arrived to train the remaining Simba forces in eastern Congo. There were also plans to send trainers from other Communist countries to Congo as well. Instead, however, international support for the Simbas declined. This resulted from growing conflicts within and among the Socialist states, most notably the 1965 Algerian coup d'état and the Sino-Soviet split. Furthermore, the Maoist leadership of the Simbas disagreed with the Cubans over ideology, resulting in tensions that undermined any military cooperation.
The ANC launched two major campaigns in 1965 against the two last major Simba strongholds which were located along the Ugandan and Sudanese borders as well as at Fizi-Baraka in South Kivu. By summer 1965, the Simbas had lost a majority of their territory and were being abandoned by the Soviets and Cubans. The final Simba stronghold near Bukavu held out for a month. It was captured only after the Simba force had killed several thousand civilians. In November 1965, the Communist Cubans left the Congo. At this point, the rebellion was effectively defeated.
Though the Simba rebellion had been crushed, rebel remnants continued to be active. Weak and no real threat to the Congolese government, they waged a low-level guerrilla war from bases in remote frontier regions. Of the rebel leadership, Kabila and Soumialot continued to support the remaining insurgents from their exile in Tanzania. In contrast, Gbenye and Olenga initially became businessmen in Sudan and Uganda. They made peace with Mobutu and returned to the Congo in 1971. Soumialot was probably killed by his own troops while waging an insurgency in the Fizi-Baraka area of the Congo in the late 1960s. Notable Simba holdouts were located in the western Virunga Mountains (these forces eventually became the Parti de Libération Congolais) and in South Kivu (Kabila's People's Revolution Party). Some of the Simba holdouts continued to be active until the First Congo War in 1996/97 when Kabila became President of the Congo.
Despite successfully defeating the Simbas, Tshombe's prestige was damaged by the joint Belgian–US operation which saw white mercenaries and western forces intervene once again in the Congo.
The decision to aid the Simbas divided the Ugandan government, as it strained relations with the Congolese government and with the United States. A Ugandan Member of Parliament later accused Colonel Idi Amin of taking advantage of the situation to embezzle funds allocated for aid to Gbenye and smuggling gold, coffee, and ivory from the Congo, triggering the Gold Scandal. Several ex-Simba rebels were eventually enlisted in the Uganda Army after Idi Amin seized power in Uganda in 1971.
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