CAMMY HARLEY discovers a remarkable true story about two Cork soldiers
THE date was December 2, 1960. The place was the Congo. And the man in the photograph above was a Cork doctor, Arthur Beckett, who had just played a key role in one of the most audacious episodes in Irish military history.
Called Operation Shamrock, the stunning military success by Irish United Nations peacekeepers on duty in the central African country has come to light in a book.
The book tells the amazing story of how a small group of Irish soldiers stormed a hospital in the Congo to snatch enemy casualties from a hospital — an operation co-ordinated by two Cork men, Beckett — an army Commandant — and Lieutenant Patrick Pearse Barry.
But the story begins a few weeks earlier…
ON November 8, 1960, one of the most infamous episodes in Irish military history occurred, when nine Irishmen were killed in the Niemba Ambush.
The 11-man patrol of UN peacekeepers were attacked by more than 100 Baluba tribesmen at a river crossing near the village of Niemba in the war-ravaged Congo.
Only two survived the ambush as the tribesmen fought with arrows, clubs and machetes, in what became the greatest loss of life for the Irish army in a single incident.
As an aside, the group had been led by Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson, a Carlow man. In his book, The Peacemakers Of Niemba, author Tom McCaughren recounts how Gleeson had once rallied his troops by singing the Cork song Johnny Jump Up, which he had learned as a boy when he visited his grandmother’s house in Maryville, Knockraha, Co.Cork. Gleeson, whose father Michael was born in Maryville, died in the ambush.
After the tragedy in Niemba, the UN — and particularly its Irish personnel — were in a state of shock and mourning, while word trickled back to Ireland of the disaster that had claimed nine of its people’s lives, plunging the nation into mourning.
The manoeuvres in Congo had been followed closely at home, as this was the Irish Army’s first foray onto the world’s military stage. When they first arrived in Africa, the men had no tropical uniform and were clad in bull-wool kits with hobnail boots. None of them spoke French, Swahili or the local Lingala and had to resort to sign language and interpreters.
Despite being heavily outnumbered at the Niemba ambush, the Irish peacekeepers — author McCaughren prefers the term ‘peacemakers’ — had fought valiantly, killing about 25 of their attackers and wounding many others before being overcome.
Ten of the injured Baluba tribesmen found their way to a hospital in nearby Manono, where it became apparent that once discharged, they would be free to disappear into the bush without retribution for the attack.
In this light, Operation Shamrock was hatched in order to capture the injured tribesmen from behind enemy lines and hand them over to the relevant authorities for sentencing for their attack on the UN soldiers.
The daring escapade was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Pearse Barry, who had been born in Cahirciveen but whose last known address was in College Road, Fermoy.
And in a remarkable coincidence, Lieut Col Barry would be helped by another Corkman who was actually working in the hospital in Manono at the time — Cmdt Beckett.
Barry was chosen to lead the mission as he had recently been promoted, in recognition of “courage and leadership of a high order” for rescuing 250 people — including European mining personnel, nuns, traders and wives and children of local police — from the war-torn region by offering them protection, securing an airstrip and evacuating them to safety.
Operation Shamrock was fraught with danger as the hospital was in enemy Baluba territory.
Comdt Beckett played a pivotal part in the operation as he was able to monitor and report on the injured tribesmen’s condition and recovery from within the hospital.
For security reasons, large tracts of the correspondence between him and the UN soldiers was done in Irish.
And so, on November 30, 1960, Comdt Beckett sent the message ‘ta na hein ulliamh an nead a fhagaint’ via Morse code, informing that ‘the birds are ready to leave the nest’ — the prisoners were about to be discharged.
Operation Shamrock was ready to roll.
A plane which had been dispatched from Albertville in south-east France landed at Manono on the pretence that it had a fuel shortage and so did not alert suspicion. The first phase of the plan had been successful.
Barry’s party had to come up with a ploy to enter the guarded hospital without arousing suspicion, so they dressed a man, Capt
Condron, as a casualty, bandaging his arm in a make-believe sling and wrapping red ink-stained bandages on his head.
With all the plans in place, all the soldiers had to do was wait until first light to carry out their daring lightning raid.
They ate a spartan meal of beans and soup and listened to Congo’s Radio Brazzaville — which by coincidence that night broadcast a recording of the funeral in Dublin of the ambush victims. How that must have girded the men’s loins as they prepared to take a semblance of revenge for the Niemba attack.
AT first light on December 2, the convoy approached the hospital in Comdt Beckett’s Chevrolet — inside were the doctor, an interpreter and the ‘injured’ captain. Behind the Chevrolet, with the headlights off, two trucks carrying the rest of the party followed.
At the hospital, the men were surprised to find the gate unguarded and were able to carry out Operation Shamrock successfully and leave with seven of the Baluba warriors.
By 7.10am, the plane had landed back in Albertville and the Baluba were handed over to the authorities for sentencing. Justice had been served for the fallen soldiers at Niemba.
Remarkably, when it emerged that some of the tribesmen they had captured had not taken part in the Niemba ambush, the UN arranged for them to be sent back to the hospital unharmed.
Comdt Beckett and Lieut Col Barry are now deceased and little is known about their surviving relatives, although the latter had a son called Seosamh.
If you are a relative of either man, contact the Evening Echo at [email protected] or call 021 4802162.
The Peacemakers Of Niemba was first published in 1966 and has been re-published by Somerville Press of Bantry.