The Niemba ambush takes place on November 8, 1960, when an Irish Army platoon in Congo-Léopoldville is ambushed, the first time the Irish Army is embroiled in battle since the founding of the Irish state in 1922. The Republic of Ireland had deployed troops as United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) peacekeepers.
After the Belgian Congo becomes independent (as Republic of the Congo) in 1960, a civil war breaks out in Katanga, the southern, mineral-rich province of the Congo. A local political leader, Moïse Tshombe, declares Katanga an independent state. United Nations peacekeeping troops are invited to help restore order and to end the Katanga secession.
The Luba people or “Baluba” ethnic group do not support the Katangese secession. As a result they come under attack from pro-Katangese and allied forces. On October 4, several villages are attacked by Katangese gendarmes and European mercenaries and many Baluba are massacred. This leaves them suspicious of and hostile to any white European troops. Irish troops are sent to the area to secure it and encourage local people to return.
On November 8, 1960 an eleven-man section from the Irish Army’s 33rd Battalion arrives at the bridge over the Luweyeye River. They are forced to leave their vehicles when they encounter a blockade on the road. While clearing it, they encounter about 100 Luba militiamen armed with bows, poison-tipped arrows, spears and clubs, as well as some guns. While the Irish troops had arrived to protect the Baluba, the militia undoubtedly mistakes them for Katangese mercenaries. Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson, advancing unarmed with his platoon sergeant, Hugh Gaynor, attempt to greet them peacefully, but is hit with a barrage of poison-tipped arrows.
Gleeson and Gaynor are overtaken, beaten and hacked to death. The surprised Irish soldiers, who had not been deployed in a defensive formation after dismounting from their vehicles, retreat behind trees on either side of the road and open fire on the tribesmen with their Gustav submachine guns, Lee–Enfield rifles and Bren light machine guns. The Baluba however advance on them, and the Irish are cut off from their vehicles. Despite taking heavy losses, the Baluba overrun the Irish soldiers and fierce hand-to-hand fighting breaks out, during which most of the Irish troops are killed.
The surviving Irish troops regroup by a ridge but are surrounded by the Baluba. They fight to hold them off but their position is rapidly overrun and all but three of them are killed. The three survivors manage to escape. One of them, Anthony Browne, reaches a nearby village and gives all the money he has to the village women, hoping they will get him help, but is instead mobbed and beaten to death by the village men. His body is recovered two years later. The two surviving soldiers manage to hide and are found by other UN troops the following day.
A total of nine Irish soldiers die: Lt. Kevin Gleeson of Carlow, Sgt. Hugh Gaynor of Blanchardstown, 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 are also killed.
The bodies of the Irish dead are flown to Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, where they lay in state. Lt. Kevin Gleeson’s coffin is placed on a gun carriage, while those of the rest are placed on army trucks. Following a funeral procession through Dublin, they are buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.
A stone commemorating Lt. Gleeson can be found in his hometown of Carlow while a plaque commemorating Sgt. Hugh Gaynor can be found in his hometown of Blanchardstown.
The notoriety of the attack, and the allegations of mutilation and cannibalism that circulate in the Irish popular press in its aftermath, lead to the word “baluba” (sometimes spelled “balooba”) becoming a synonym for any “untrustworthy and barbaric” individual in certain parts of Ireland.
(Pictured: Baluba militiamen in 1962)