From the Limerick Leader archives: Congo mission better paid than equipped

Guns arrived long before ammo, soldier sweltered in woolen uniforms and drilled in their lighter pyjamas

Grainne Keays


Grainne Keays

From the Limerick Leader archives: Congo mission better paid than equipped

Pictures of Irish soldiers serving as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 1963

THERE has been a great response to our recent feature on the Irish Army’s exploits in the Congo in the early 1960s and this week we bring you further memories from that remarkable period in Irish military history with further photographs from our archive which we hope you will enjoy.

The 32nd battalion was the first group to head for the Congo. One veteran of that battalion spoke to us and reminisced about his experiences. Like the veteran we spoke to for the last feature, this gentleman is a little shy and does not wish to be named.

With incredible recall of facts and figures, he tells us that he left for the Congo with the 32nd battalion on July 27, 1960 at 3pm. He was a single man then, aged 20 years.

Remarkably, he was no novice, having already served six years in the army. He went on to serve 33 years in total. He, like everyone else who went to the Congo, was a volunteer although he says that if everyone who volunteered was selected to go there would have been no one left at home.

As we mentioned two weeks ago, the potential for increased earnings was the reason so many wanted to make the journey into the unknown. Our veteran explains the pay structure.

He, as a single man and a Corporal, was earning £3-19-6 a week before he was deployed. He received no increase in wages from the Irish army for going to the Congo but he was paid this amount all the time he was there. In addition, when in the Congo, he received a payment of 360 Congolese francs per fortnight (“or maybe it was weekly, I’m not sure” he adds).

After they returned home, the soldiers were paid an “overseas allowance,” £10 of which was paid in cash on arrival in Baldonnell and the remainder was posted by cheque to their homes.

The “overseas allowance” was “a small fortune:” 15 shillings per day for a single private, 17/6 for a single Corporal and £1 per day for a Sergeant or higher.

This means that our Corporal received approximately £160 when he came home after six months, plus his normal wage which had been accumulating while he was away.

Much to our interviewee’s bemusement, married men were paid more: 25 shillings per day for a private, 27/6 shillings for a Corporal and 30 shillings for a Sergeant or higher rank.

“I don’t know why,” he laments, “Married or single, we were all doing the same job.”

When asked if he enjoyed the Congo, he said, “I did - well I did after a rough start.” He went on to explain that the soldiers had been advised to take their entire army kit with them, so the unfortunate men headed off to an equatorial climate dressed in “bull’s wool” uniforms, complete with overcoats!

Needless to remark, they nearly expired from the heat for the first few days until they were issued with “light U.N. greens.”

He set off, a young adventurer with his battalion from Baldonnel Aerodrome, with a stopover at a US Air Force base in France and then on to Tripoli.

They stayed overnight in Tripoli, were fed and given a bed. It was incredibly warm. The soldiers were issued with pyjamas in honour of the Congolese mission (Irish soldiers had never previously been issued with pyjamas) and were mightily glad to divest themselves of their woolen uniforms. They slept in the pyjamas with only a sheet over them.

“We didn’t really need the sheets but used them to try to keep the mosquitos off.”

The pyjamas were not uniform but were instead all the colours of the rainbow. Next morning, reluctant to insulate themselves in their woollen garments again, most of the soldiers stayed in the pajamas and were “a sight to behold” drilling and exercising in their garish colours before the set off again.

“We had a right laugh,” the former soldier recalls.

From Tripoli, they flew on to Kano in Nigeria and from there on to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo and eventually made their way to their base for the next six months at Goma on the banks of Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. Our veteran was part of HQ Company and were stationed with “C” Company.

When they arrived, they were loaded with weapons but not ammunition - “not so much as a single bullet.” The ammunition arrived with the fourth flight.

Luckily, there was no trouble in the intervening period and no need of ammunition.

“What were we going to do if there was?” quippped our veteran, “Shout ‘bang! bang!’”

Unlike our veteran from last week, this man had no great difficulties with the mail. He and his comrades got nothing for the first month or so but then it all arrived together and, according to our man, “everyone got a hatful at once.”

Presents were few and far between although they were sent Time beer (in bottles) and cigarettes. John Player used to send the soldiers round tins of cigarettes (50 cigarettes to the tin) with a slip of paper inside the lid saying “A present to an Irish Soldier from John Players.” However, the soldiers were never given these. Somehow the tins appeared for sale in the canteen instead.

When asked about active engagement, our veteran turns sombre.

“No shots were fired in anger when I was with the 32nd battalion,” he says but sadly, when he was with the 36th battalion, on his second tour of duty, he lost three comrades, with 16 or 17 wounded in the famous ‘Battle of the Tunnel’ which was fought in an attempt to re-open UN communications via a railway bridge into Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi).

The men who died were Corporal Mick Fallon, Private Andy Wickham and platoon commander, Lieutenant Paddy Riordan.

Understandably, our veteran did not want to relive this experience by talking further about it. He simply said, “We were there. It happened.”

Clearly, it is still very raw for him all these years later.