In September 1961, Pat Quinlan, then aged 42 and Commandant of ‘A’ Company of the 35th Irish Battalion, looked out on the small mining town of Jadotville in the Congo.
He and the 156 men under his command were part of a U.N. peace-keeping mission.
The U.N. had tasked Quinlan with offering protection to the Jadotville population from local Baluba tribesmen, thought to be armed with bows and arrows and sympathetic to separatist Kantanga forces.
But something wasn’t right.
On their arrival at Jadotville, few if any of the town’s people had come out to welcome them. His men, mostly in their teens and 20s were inexperienced and to add to Quinlan’s growing concern, field communication with HQ was intermittent.
Quinlan ordered his men to dig trenches and take up defensive positions on the town’s perimeter. He also insisted that his men fill every available receptacle with water, even though he was told to expect reinforcements later that day.
What Quinlan didn’t know was that a large force of between 3000 and 5000 men, comprising Baluba warriors and regular French, Belgian, Rhodesian and South African mercenaries had gathered outside the town.
The Belgian Government had lured the Irishmen had into a trap as part of a broader play for control and influence in the Congo.
‘A’ Company was at Mass on the morning of the 13th September when the sound of guns began crackling all around them. In a surprise attack, Jeeps carrying mounted machine-gun and foot soldiers bore down across 600 metres of open ground toward the sentries Quinlan had posted.
The young men in these positions sent warning fire over the heads of the advancing troops bringing Quinlan and his men tumbling out of the church to take up their positions.
Quinlan quickly realised the attackers had blocked the road into Jadotville, preventing any prospect of immediate relief.
‘A’ Company’s situation was dire. Cut off, surrounded and confronted by an overwhelming superior force, both in number and fire-power.
They beat off the initial attack in a first taste of live action. Within minutes Quinlan observed approximately 600 men advancing towards their flank, where he had positioned No 1 Platoon. Mortar fire was being directed at them and there was heavy in-coming machine gun fire.
‘A’ Company fought back with the mainly light, personal weapons they had. They managed once again to repulse the enemy, so setting the pattern for the next several days.
‘A’ Company hung on, grimly countering wave after wave of attacks.
During this time Quinlan was highly visible to his men, constantly working to maintain morale and urging them to hold on for the expected relief.
We can see a glimpse of the tone he set in a radio report he sent at the height of the siege:
The promised relief never came and after four days of constant fighting, desperate and low on water and food, Quinlan acted to protect his men. He negotiated a ceasefire, but he was betrayed and then forced to surrender.
At the end of hostilities, astonishingly, all of Quinlan’s men were alive. Some 300 of the Kantaganese were killed, with reports of up to 1000 injured.
Quinlan and his men were taken into captivity and held prisoner for over a month before their release.
As Rose Doyle, Quinlan’s niece, wrote many years later:
No-one celebrated ‘A’ Company’s exploits. In fact, the military conspired with the media to spin it to look like an embarrassing and humiliating failure.
Pat Quinlan died in 1997, his reputation diminished, except in the eyes of the men he led.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Irish Government, officially honoured the 70 surviving men of ‘A’ Company, following a long campaign from among others Liam Donnelly, a surviving member of ‘A’ Company.
At an emotional ceremony officially recognising the heroism which ‘A’ Company displayed, the U.N. military commander in Katanga, Brigadier Kas Raja said:
Pat Quinlan never got to hear those words.
What You Can Learn From Pat Quinlan's Story
The events which took place at Jadotville and their depressing aftermath, suggest that your finest achievements as a leader may go unacknowledged.
Pat Quinlan’s consolation was knowing he did the right thing. The men he led knew that too, and they owed their lives to his courage and decisive leadership.
In cynically undermining his achievements, the military wanted another version of events to take hold.
If Quinlan’s story reads like a parable, what then is the moral?
C. S. Lewis, himself a soldier in the First World War said:
If true, the test of your character is what you do when your actions are unnoticed, the outcome neither praised nor lauded.
Under such circumstances, will you do what’s best, no matter the cost?
As Lolly Daskal notes, ‘leadership is often lonely, but you will know you are on the right path when you can look yourself in the mirror, confident you are doing the right thing’.
It is as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: