Sometimes while I am working I like to throw in my wireless headphones and either listen to music or watch movies on my non-exploding Samsung Note 5 Android. Most of the time, I am content with really just listening while I work, even to movies, if I have seen them before. (I am on my 10th listening of Batman vs. Superman—don’t judge me.) But every now and then a movie or book captures my attention so intently that I have to put down what I am doing and focus on it, or at least think about it all day until I can get back to it. Every now and then, that book or movie (or conversation, quotation, etc.) has made an impact that almost forces me to research it and the history behind it. The “Siege of Jadotville,” just released on Netflix on October 7, is one such work.
In September of 1961, the world was in the midst of rebuilding from World War II, watching as Vietnam crept into the headlines and our social conscience, and practicing “duck and cover,” waiting for the inevitable nuclear first strike that their governments told them was coming. But in a small, dusty-but-beautiful corner of the African continent, this new “Cold War” had made itself known in a big way. Like many other African nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, had only recently declared its independence from colonial Belgium (1960), and had found that it was on shaky ground when it came to establishing its own government.
In an effort to help ease the transition, the United Nations under Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold agreed to set up and run the U.N. operation in the Congo. During the run up to the operation, civil war erupted between the central government and the province of Katanga, known for its natural resources and led by ultra-Christian and staunch anti-communist Moise Tshombe. As the fighting erupted, the U.N. peacekeepers found themselves caught off guard and in the middle.
Front and center to both the fighting and the U.N mission was the nation of Ireland, which had only joined the U.N. some six years before. As part of the U.N. mission, the Irish government dispatched A Company of the Army’s 35th Infantry Battalion, which was sent to the small town of Jadotville with orders to protect the predominately Belgian settlers. The unit was led by Commandant Pat Quinlan, who, like the rest of his men, had never seen combat, but was nonetheless well respected by those under his charge. Despite the open hostility of both the local population and Belgian settlers (many of whom were anti-U.N. and pro-Katangese) the soldiers dug in and prepared to carry out their mission as ordered.
On the morning of 13 September, 1961, as the rest of the unit attended open-air mass, a lone sentry, Sergeant Billy Ready, stood watching a large open area nearby and distant wooded patches. Suddenly he spotted the approach of a large group of military vehicles and men with weapons. Unable to reach anyone by shouting, Ready fired a warning shot, which both alerted his unit to the approaching danger as well as touched off a coordinated attack by an estimated mixed force of between 3,000 and 5,000 local Luba warriors, settlers, and most unsettling, Belgian, French, and Rhodesian mercenaries hired to direct the attack. The Irish, as a peacekeeping force, were lightly armed with vintage rifles, water-cooled Vickers machine guns, and a few 60mm mortars. The attackers had both light and heavy arms, and even a light military trainer jet outfitted with bomb racks and machine guns for CAS (close air support).
The battle would rage on and off for five days, and would result in the Irish troops displaying immense tenacity and bravery against odds that rivaled similar battles, such as the defense of Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus in 1879 and the 300 Spartans who faced Xerxes’s army at Thermopylae. Thousands armed to the teeth against a few hundred with antiques to defend themselves.
This looks like a good place to stop this review because I don’t want to spoil the movie or the ending, but know that if you don’t know the story, and not many do, the ending will surprise you. “The Siege of Jadotville” is a great military movie for the action, but more than that, it showcases a momentous (and for some, a painful) yet largely unknown moment in Irish military history that is well worth learning about.