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United Nations peacekeeping foces of Iran, Philippines and Sweden in Kamina Air Base - January 1963

Opération des Nations unies au Congo, abbreviated ONUC (English: The United Nations Organization in the Congo), was a United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo that was established after United Nations Security Council Resolution 143 of July 14, 1960. From 1963 the name changed to Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, keeping the same abbreviation. To generalise, the mission was a response to the Congo Crisis.

ONUC was the UN’s first peacekeeping mission with muscle. Dispatched to the Belgian Congo, ONUC has been described as a “pyrrhic victory at best.”[1]

Congo became independent in 30 June 1960, but the Belgian commander, Lieutenant General Émile Janssens, refused to "Africanize" the officers' corps of the Force Publique (the army) resulting in disorder and mutinies. While the President and the Prime Minister were trying to negotiate with the mutineers, the Belgian government decided to intervene to protect Belgians that remained in the country at the request of Moïse Tshombé, who advocated independence for Katanga, one of the richest provinces in the country due to an abundance of minerals.

On July 10, Belgian troops were sent to Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga, to control the situation and protect Belgian civilians. With the help of the Belgians, Tshombé proclaimed the independence of the province. On 12 July, the President and the Prime Minister asked for help of the UN. The Secretary-General addressed the Security Council at a night meeting on 13 July and asked the Council to act "with utmost speed" on the request.

At the same meeting, the Security Council adopted resolution 143 (1960), by which it called upon the Government of Belgium to withdraw its troops from the territory of the Congo. The resolution authorized the United Nations Secretary-General to facilitate the withdrawal of Belgian troops, maintain law and order, and help to establish and legitimize the post-colonial government. This mandate was extended to maintain the territorial integrity of Congo, through particularly the removal of the foreign mercenaries supporting the secession of Katanga. ONUC's intention was an unprecedented role for a UN peacekeeping force, as it was not self-evidently peacekeeping in nature.[2]

Following Security Council actions, the United Nations Force in the Congo (ONUC) was established. To carry out these tasks, the Secretary-General set up a United Nations Force, which at its peak strength numbered nearly 20,000.[3] The UN Force stayed in the Congo between 1960 and 1964, and underwent a transition from a peacekeeping presence to a military force.

ONUC’s main goals stayed consistent from the first to fifth resolution. It featured the double purpose of withdrawing Belgian military personnel (later expanding to mercenaries) and providing military assistance to ensure internal stability. The successive Security Council resolutions added to and elaborated on the initial mandate but did not fundamentally change the operation’s objectives. These were especially significant because Belgium’s invasion violated the norm of sovereignty, and the second objective was set to prevent the country from becoming a Cold War proxy state.[4]

The first troops reached Congo on 15 July, many airlifted in by the United States Air Force.

Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, dissatisfied with Dag Hammarskjöld's refusal to use UN troops to subdue the insurrection in Katanga, decided to attempt an invasion of Katanga on his own and turned to the Soviet Union for help. The invasion attempt never reached Katanga but led to dissension within the Central Government, the collapse of the Central Government, and eventually to Patrice Lumumba's arrest in December.

In February 1961, the legally elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba was killed, and only then did the United Nations Security Council explicitly authorize the use of force for purposes beyond self-defense.

Operation Morthor

In September the most obvious example of the transition from peacekeeping to peace enforcement occurred when the local ONUC leadership launched “Operation Morthor,” which led to a serious eight-day military engagement between ONUC and the Katangese forces. Seven UN troops were killed, as well as 200 Katangese civilians and troops. Operation Morthor was executed without full approval by several member countries of the UN, particularly the UK, France, and US. Also, the USSR at this time was angrily accusing the US of supporting the assassination of Lumumba, as he was a Soviet ally, and installing the American ally Mobutu as president. The Soviet state interpreted ONUC to now be acting as a proxy for the US rather than supporting the interests of the entire Security Council.[5]

Operation Morthor illustrated a disconnect between decision-making in the field and decision-making from UN headquarters due to poor communication during a series of crises, which occurred again in the tragic intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. The incident of Operation Morthor undermined both the credibility and impartiality of the entire ONUC operation.

After the withdrawal of the Belgians, the troops remained until 1964, to help the government to maintain the peace and consolidate the independence of the country. In the end, Katanga was reintegrated back into the Congo.

By autumn 1963 plans were underway to remove the United Nations force from the Congo after the reincorporation of Katanga.[6] At that time six battalions of UN troops were stationed in Katanga, one battalion was at Luluabourg, one at Force Headquarters, and administration personnel were at Leopoldville. In May 1964 troops began to withdraw, beginning with the Irish unit in Kolwezi on May 11, and ending with units in Leopoldville in June.

UN Reflections on ONUC

The UN endeavor in Congo demonstrated that forceful intervention, when not planned properly, could turn the situation into an unstable civil war. Not only was the UN force ineffectual in alleviating the dispute, but also the Member States were divided on how the operation ought to be executed and what level of force should be used to carry out the mandate. Several peacekeeping contingents suffered casualties during the mission and the debt incurred from operations nearly bankrupted the UN. Once ONUC had departed, fighting resumed again. Until the end of the Cold War, the memories of the Congo haunted the UN as well as convinced the international organization that peacekeeping should remain consensual and non-threatening in nature, an attitude it maintained for almost three decades.

Irish Army Involvement

The Irish Army's first large deployment to the Congo was in 1960. The 32nd Infantry Battalion was the first deployment of Irish troops overseas and they were woefully ill-equipped. The standard uniform was a heavy bullswool tunic and trousers and the service rifle was the .303 Lee-Enfield. Issues with kit were eventually solved, new lightweight uniforms were issued and the FN FAL rifle replaced the Lee Enfield. The Irish Battalions had a huge area to patrol and not much transport to patrol it with. Most patrols consisted of a couple of Land Rovers or Willys CJ3As, carrying soldiers armed with rifles, Gustav M45 submachineguns and Bren Guns. One such patrol was ambushed at Niemba on 8 November 1960 by Baluba tribesmen. Of the 11 Irish soldiers, 9 were killed and only 2 escaped, while 25 Baluba were also killed in the battle. Trooper Anthony Browne was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry (the highest Irish military award) for giving his life to save his comrade.[7] It is the only time this medal has been awarded. As a result of the ambush, the army equipped its contingent with 8 Ford armoured cars. These had been constructed in Ireland during the Second World War as a stop-gap armoured vehicle. Armament consisted of a single turret-mounted Vickers HMG. Modifications included extra ammunition storage, a searchlight and a cooling fan.

The most famous Irish action of the operation was the Siege of Jadotville where 150 Irish troops held out against a much larger force of Katanganese. The Irish fought until their ammunition ran out, inflicting hundreds of casualties on their opponents while suffering only several wounded. However, an attempt by Irish and Swedish reinforcements to relieve them failed, and in the end, the besieged Irish troops were forced to surrender.

A total of 6,000 Irish soldiers served in the Congo from 1960 until 1964, taking 26 casualties in that time. The Congo deployment resulted in greater investment by the government in personal kit and eventually, armoured personnel carriers.

Canadian Army Involvement

Canadian soldiers had been a part of every UN Peacekeeping mission from its founding to 1989. The Congo Crisis was one of the earliest and most important UN missions ever. In many ways the UN mission to the Congo would set a precedent for all subsequent UN peacekeeping missions. When violence erupted in the Congo so too did support for a United Nations mission to the Congo among the Canadian public. On 12 July, the Globe asked “where are the UN Police?” in an editorial that called for the dispatch of a UN armed force. In July 1960 Canadians were asked in a poll “of all the trouble spots in the world — Russia, China, Cuba or the Congo, which do you think is most critical?” After Russia the Congo was identified as the next most critical trouble spot. Support for a UN mission was not only strong among the Canadian public but was also strong in Parliament. In the House of Commons, Liberal critic Paul Martin asked the Progressive Conservative of John Diefenbaker “to inform the secretary General of the United Nations that if United Nations police forces are required and requested for the preservation of order in the new Congo state, a Canadian contingent is ready, trained and available to be moved by air transport immediately.” At the time Canada had set aside an infantry brigade especially for the use of the United Nations. JW MacNaughton, the Director of Military Operations and Plans, stated that “he considered it unlikely that peacekeepers would get used in any combat capacity, so he expected the UN would ask for military advisers and not the standby battalion Canada had readily available for UN service.” When Dag Hammarskjold received the offer to send the Canadian Brigade to the Congo he refused stating that “If outside help was required to resolve the developing crisis, they preferred non-African states to be used as a last resort.” The United Nations did not wish to turn the Congo Crisis into a Cold War proxy war and so tried to pick peacekeepers from neutral countries. Hammarskjold hoped that if a military force was necessary “the force would consist of three or four fully equipped units, which he hoped to obtain from several neutral African and Asian countries and from a trans-Atlantic French-speaking country.” This trans-Atlantic French–speaking country would be Canada, even though as Dr. Spooner put it “Canada: [was] Just West of Neutral.” Canadian forces were perfectly suited for a peacekeeping mission in the Congo because they were bilingual, this allowed them to communicate with the mostly English speaking UN troops as well as the French-speaking Belgian and Congolese forces. They could also communicate with the Congolese people.

All of this occurred prior to there being an official request for assistance from the Congo. The first request for assistance from the Congo requested that the United Nations send technical assistance to support the Force Publique, the armed forces of the Congo. In response, “the secretary general suggested the dispatch of UN technical personnel to the Congo to assist in restoring order and discipline within the armed forces.” Canadian National Defence assumed that the United Nations would ask for French-speaking military advisers, the army maintained a standby list of one hundred officers, including many who were bilingual and could be posted abroad on short notice.” Before Hammarskjold could put his plan into action, however, a second Congolese request arrived, sent directly to the secretary general from President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Joseph Lumumba, “the Congolese leaders asked for UN military forces to counter the violent Belgian intervention.” Again Canada offered combat troops stating that if the need arose for Canadian military intervention in the Congo Canada could also “deploy one of three French speaking battalions made ready for UN Service.” The offer for combat troops was again refused, though Hammarskjold officially accepted the Canadian French-speaking officers.

It was during this time that the first formal request for troops in the support of the UN mission was given to Canada, the request included Canadian signals and logistics personnel be sent to the Congo. From Canada the UN needed specifically signals personnel as well as quartermaster and maintenance personnel. “Once cabinet decided to send signallers, the army moved quickly to complete the necessary arrangements for their departure. Two units were formed: Canadian HQ, ONUC and no. 57 Signals Squadron.” To supply these Canada approved “the purchase of thirteen tropicalized AN/GRC-26D heavy wireless sets from the United States.” The Canadian Signallers were to be used to send communication from the front to the headquarters and vice-versa. They were stationed both at ONUC HQ as well as in 10 static signals stations spread throughout the country. Canada also sent a Provost Unit which attempted to promote law and order in the capital.“At any one time there were more Canadians serving at ONUC HQ than of any other nationality.” In addition to the Signals Squadron, Canada also sent an advanced reconnaissance party consisting of six officers from the United Nations Military Observer Group in India. “These men were instructed to determine personnel and equipment requirements, as well as the organization requirements at HQ.” The reconnaissance party found that “ONUC HQ personnel did not carry weapons and were able to move about freely without any trouble.” The Canadian government, however, was scared that their French-speaking peacekeepers could get mistaken for Belgian paratroops, and so “peacekeepers were given small arms training... depending on rank the troops were issued either Browning automatic pistols or C1 submachine guns, weapons the non-combatant peacekeepers carried for personal defence only.”

It soon became clear that these fears were not unwarranted, Canadian peacekeepers were attacked by Congolese troops on several occasions. “The first incident of serious violence that occurred between Congolese and Canadians occurred at N’Djili airport, and demonstrated how vulnerable the Canadians could be. Two groups of peacekeepers were waiting to depart on reconnaissance missions, when those destined for Luluabourg were delayed on the tarmac. A patrol of about ten to twelve Congolese soldiers suddenly rushed them... the Congolese forced them facedown onto the tarmac, arms extended and then they kicked them.” The commanding officer was then knocked out and the remaining Canadian soldiers were herded onto a truck. After about ten minutes the Canadians were rescued by a Danish officer and Ghanain troops. The UN as well as Canada reacted in outrage to this senseless attack against Canadian troops. In turn they praised the Canadian officer for not escalating the situation and responding in due discretion. It was recognized by all parties that the Canadian soldiers were capable of firing on the Congolese troops in self-defence but they did not.

Even though Canada wasn’t in the Congo in a combat capacity their involvement came under scrutiny from the USSR. The Soviets began to attack Canadian involvement directly, “they objected to the use of Canadian peacekeepers because Canada was one of Belgium’s NATO allies.” The Soviets even went so far as to demand “the withdrawal of armed groups from Canada.” According to Scarnecchia, the Soviets “accused the RCAF of supplying weapons and armoured steel to Tshombe’s forces in secessionist Katanga, they believed that this RCAF support was in line with Western Interests.” Though these allegations were never proven in response the secretary-general of the UN transferred the RCAF contingent from performing airlift duties in support of the UN mission to a Pisa-Leopoldville airlift of food and aid. This transfer served to somewhat satisfy the Russians and any further scrutiny was mild in comparison. Instead of arguing against UN involvement in the Congo the Soviets began to provide aid to Prime Minister Lumumba in Leopoldville. This as well as the assassination of Lumumba and the death of Secretary-General Hammarskjold would lead to the UN allowing the use of force by UN troops in the Congo.” In 1961, UN troops under aggressive commanders pushed into Katanga, and began routing Tshombe’s armed forces. As clashes between Tshombe and UN forces grew more frequent, the UN grew more aggressive and eventually took control of key parts of the province.”

One of the most famous Canadian peacekeepers that served in the Congo was General Jacques Dextraze. Dextraze was sent to the Congo in 1963, to serve as Chief of Staff of the UN force, effectively making him second in command of the entire mission. Dextraze was a daring leader, he made a name for himself by “undertaking a number of risky rescues, he once landed his personal helicopter to pick up four missionaries and was forced to keep the rebels at bay until escape was possible. General Dextraze went on to become the Chief of Defence Staff in Canada.” Canadians would play an important role in nearly every aspect of the UN mission in the Congo. From their detachment at Command HQ to the RCAF Pisa-Leopoldville Airlift on to the Signals Personnel stationed throughout the Congo, each level of Canadian involvement would play a crucial role in the mission. Though Canadian involvement came under Soviet attack the Canadian commitment to the mission did not waver and Canadian soldiers stayed in the Congo until the end of the mission in 1964. Canadian forces proved themselves admirably in tough situations when they were attacked by Congolese forces and responded with discipline and tact by not firing on their

The greatest strength which the Canadian Contingent in the Congo reached was 461, though 1,900 Canadian soldiers would serve there from 1960–64. There were no casualties except the bruises and cuts given to the Canadian Forces by Congolese troops at N’Djili Airport.

During the ensuing Congo Crisis, about 1,800 Canadians from 1960 to 1964 served among the 93,000 predominantly African peacekeepers with the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC), working chiefly as communications signallers and delivering via the Royal Canadian Air Force humanitarian food shipments and logistical support.[8] The Canadian participation stemmed more from overwhelming public opinion, and not decisive action on the part of the Diefenbaker government, according to historians Norman Hillmer and Jack Granatstein.[9] However, Diefenbaker reportedly refused to comply with numerous public calls for Canada to provide humanitarian relief to 230,000 Congolese famine victims in South Kasai in 1961 ostensibly because "surplus foodstuffs should be distributed to unemployed persons in Canada" as a first priority.[10][11] Two Canadians died from non-conflict-related causes, and, out of the 33 Canadians injured in the conflict, twelve received "severe beatings" by the Congolese forces.[8] Although Patrice Lumumba dismissed the first incidences of these beatings, on August 18, 1960, as "unimportant" and "blown out of all proportion" in order for the UN to "influence public opinion", he attributed them a day later to the Armée Nationale Congolaise's "excess of zeal".[12] Historians have described these incidents as cases of mistaken identity under chaotic circumstances, in which Canadian personnel were confused by Congolese soldiers with Belgian paratroopers, or mercenaries working for the Katanga secession.[8][9] Only a quarter of Canada's signallers extended their six-month tours of duty to a full year, and Canadian forces reportedly found the Congolese to be "illiterate, very volatile, superstitious and easily influenced", including an instance where a Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel successfully persuaded Kivu Province's Prime Minister to accept a relief contingent from Malaysia by explaining to him that the Malaysians were capable of diverting bullets in flight away from their intended path.[8] A recent study concluded that while the Canadian government "demonstrated a greater willingness to accommodate the Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba than other Western nations" and publicly did not side with either faction, it "[p]rivately [...] favoured the more Western oriented [President] Kasavubu".[13] however financial assistance was turned down by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Canada's troops earned the trust of Joseph Mobutu, the latter visiting Canada in 1964 as President of Zaire, during which he acknowledged Canada's support in maintaining his country's territorial integrity.[8]

Force commanders of the ONUC

  • General Carl Carlsson von Horn, Sweden, July 1960 – December 1960 (transferred from UNTSO)
  • Lieutenant-General Sean MacEoin, Ireland, January 1961 – March 1962
  • Lieutenant-General Kebbede Guebre, Ethiopia, April 1962 – July 1963
  • Major-General Christian Roy Kaldager, Norway, August 1963 – December 1963
  • Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria, January 1964 – June 1964


  1. Morrison, Alex, James Kiras, and Douglas A. Fraser. Peacekeeping with Muscle: The Use of Force in International Conflict Resolution. Clementsport, N.S.: Canadian Peacekeeping, 1997, ix.
  2. Morrison, Alex, James Kiras, and Douglas A. Fraser. Peacekeeping with Muscle: The Use of Force in International Conflict Resolution. Clementsport, N.S.: Canadian Peacekeeping, 1997, 60.
  3. "DPKO". UN. 
  4. Boulden, Jane. Peace Enforcement: The United Nations Experience in Congo, Somalia, and Bosnia. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
  5. Bellamy, Alex J., Paul Williams, and Stuart Griffin. Understanding Peacekeeping. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.
  6. Arthur House, The UN in the Congo: The Civilian Operations, University Press of America, 1978, 166.
  7. Southern Command (1966). An Cosantóir. 26. Ireland: Army Authorities. p. 254. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Gaffen, Fred. 1987. In the Eye of the Storm: A history of Canadian peackeeping, Toronto: Deneau & Wayne, p. 217-239.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Hillmer, Norman; Granatstein, J.L. 1994. Empire to umpire: Canada and the world to the 1990s, Toronto : Copp Clark Longman, p. 255-256.
  10. Spooner, Kevin A. 2009. "Canada, the Congo crisis, and UN peacekeeping, 1960-64", Vancouver, UBC Press, p. 13-16, 128-130, 224 n.13.
  11. McCullough, Colin. 2011. "Canada, the Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960–64. Kevin Spooner", review, The Canadian Historical Review, 92(1) (March 2011): 210-212.
  12. Granatstein, J.L. 1968. "Canada: Peacekeeper. A survey of Canada's participation in peacekeeping operations", in: Peacekeeping: International Challenge and Response, [Toronto]: The Canadian Institute of International Affairs, p. 161.
  13. Spooner, Kevin A. 2009. "Just West of Neutral: Canadian "Objectivity" and Peacekeeping during the Congo Crisis, 1960-61", Canadian Journal of African Studies, 43(2):303-336.

Further reading

  • "To Katanga and Back". .
  • Abi-Saab, Georges (1978). "The United Nations Operation in the Congo, 1960–1964". Oxford University Press. pp. 1–20. .
  • Beauregard, JPRE (Summer 1989). "UN Operations in the Congo, 1960–1964". p. 27. .
  • Bloomfield, Lincoln P (Spring 1963). "Headquarters-Field Relations: Some Notes on the Beginning and End of ONUC". pp. 377–89. .
  • Chakravorty, B (1976). "The Congo Operation, 1960–63". In Prasad, SN. Historical Section, Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India. . Controller of Publications, PDD.37(N)/500.
  • Dorn, A Walter; Bell, David JH. "Intelligence and Peacekeeping: The UN Operation in the Congo 1960–64". .
  • "The Biggest Single Effort Under United Nations Colors". August 1960. pp. 6–7, 45–50. .

Non utilised sources

  • Lyman, Princeton M (2004). "Ralph Bunche's International Legacy: The Middle East, Congo, and United Nations Peacekeeping". p. 163. .
  • Scarnacchia, Timothy. "The Congo, Crisis, The United Nations, and Zimbabwean Nationalism: 1960–63". .
  • Spooner, Kevin A (2009a). "Canada, the Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960–64". UBC Press. .
  • Spooner, Kevin A (2009b). "Canada: Just West of Neutral". .
  • "Archives". CBC. .

External links

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