The Congo had been granted independence from Belgium in June 1960. The
Belgian government sent troops to their former colony to protect Belgian nationals from attack. Belgium refused to remove its troops until the safety of Belgian citizens could be guaranteed.
On July 13 of that year, the UN secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, obtained approval for the dispatch of a UN military force to the area. Ireland, a member of the UN for only five years, was asked to contribute troops.
The Irish government agreed and enabling legislation was passed in the Dail on July 19. A battalion was activated and designated 32nd Infantry Battalion. The new battalion had a total strength of 685 under the command of Lt. Col. M.J. Buckley.
Initially the Irish battalion was deployed in Kivu province. Two of the companies were located at Goma and Bukavu. They were joined in August by the 33rd Infantry Battalion from Ireland. The troops’ main tasks were to restore essential services, reassure the local population, oversee the resumption of local trade and operate airstrips. The most difficult and dangerous task, however, was the rounding up and reorganizing of local military units.
By November, the Irish contingent had moved to Katanga province, which was in foment at this time due to intertribal warfare between the Balubas, Conekats, and Pygmies. War parties were on the rampage, burning villages and attacking trains. Then, on Nov. 8, the tragic Niemba ambush took place when nine Irish soldiers in an 11-man patrol from the 33rd were killed by Balubas tribesman, the bloodiest single engagement in the modern Irish Army’s history.
January 1961 saw the arrival of 34th Infantry Battalion to replace 32nd and 33rd. In September, during the tour of duty of 35th Infantry Battalion and 1st
Infantry Group, Katanga erupted in violence and the Irish contingent sustained casualties in battles with the Katanga Gendarmerie. In December of that year 36th Infantry Battalion arrived from Ireland and within two weeks were involved in the Battle of the Tunnel, in Elizabethville. Three members were killed in action on Dec. 16 during the battle.
The exploits of the Irish troops during the Battle of the Tunnel were recognized by an unsurpassed number of gallantry medals being awarded during that action.
The next couple of years saw the gradual decline of the secessionists —
Moise Tshombe went into exile in 1963. By 1964, the Congolese government was secure enough to allow Tshombe’s return as part of an overall agreement. Accordingly, the UN military operation came to an end and in June 1964 and Ireland thus ended its four-year commitment to the Congo.
The Irish Army currently has two officers deployed in the DRC. They are part of a United Nations group charged with monitoring the implementation of a cease-fire agreement. They are based in Kisangani and Kindu.