60th Anniversary of the Niemba Ambush

At approximately 1330 hours on 8th November 1960 an eleven-man patrol from Number 2 Platoon, A Company, 33 Infantry Battalion left their base at Niemba.  Niemba was one hundred and forty kilometres from the Battalion HQ at Albertville in the Province of Katanga and personnel from the platoon had occupied the post since 8th October.  The composition of the patrol was one officer, three NCOs and seven men, they were armed with two Bren light machine guns, four Gustaf sub-machine guns, four Lee-Enfield Mk4 rifles, the medical orderly was unarmed.  They travelled in a land rover and a VW Pick-up truck.  Their mission was to carry out reconnaissance on the route to the south from Niemba village towards Kiamba and Manono to check the state of the track and to clear obstacles if possible.

At approximately 1500 hours the patrol arrived at a crossing point some twenty kilometres from Niemba, where the road southward from Niemba crosses the Luweyeye River.  The patrol halted as the bridge had been destroyed, they dismounted from the vehicles and moved forward to see if the bridge could be repaired.   Within a short space of time, they were surrounded by a large number of Baluba tribesmen on both banks of the river.  The Balubas attacked without warning and the patrol commander ordered the men to disperse and to try to escape. They were overcome by sheer weight of numbers.    Nine of the patrol died, eight at the ambush scene and one was killed a few days later.  Two miraculously manage to escape from the killing zone.  The nine fatalities were the first operational casualties suffered by the Defence Forces since the Civil War in 1922-23.

The nine men who were killed in what became known as the Niemba Ambush were: Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson, Sergeant Hugh Gaynor, Corporal Liam Dougan, Corporal Peter Kelly, Trooper Anthony Browne, Private Matthew Farrell, Trooper Thomas Fennell, Private Gerard Killeen and Private Michael McGuinn.  The two members of the patrol who survived the attack were Private Joseph Fitzpatrick and Private Thomas Kenny.  During the follow-up operation to recover the missing and to retrieve the bodies, Private Patrick Davis died after he was shot accidentally during an alert at Niemba post on the night of 10th November 1960.

In the two days following the ambush eight of the nine bodies were recovered and it was almost two years to the day before Trooper Browne’s body was recovered from the bush near the village of Tundula.    Four officers, Commandant Jack Gallagher Operations Officer 37 Infantry Battalion and three officers from 38 Infantry Battalion Captain James Lavery Armoured Car Group, Commandant Thomas McMahon Legal Officer and Commandant Brendan Heaney Medical Officer escorted by a platoon from the Malayan contingent located skeletal remains near Tundula on 7th November 1962.  The remains were transported by road to Albertville and on the following day to Elizabethville where an anthropologist at Ruasi University identified the remains.

On 13th November 1961, one year after the killings, five men from the Niemba area were tried at Elisabeth District Court Penal Sitting for their part in the ambush.  Two received sentences of three years and three received two-year terms of penal servitude.