Directed by Richie Smyth, based on the true story “Siege at Jadotville” (Maverick House) by Declan Power
As a small boy growing up in the wilds of West Waterford, I occasionally heard my late father speak of this place in the Congo called ‘Jadotville’. An Irish army unit was surrounded and held out for six nights against a superior force. Sure, I had heard of the Niemba Ambush and massacre (in November 1960, nine Irish soldiers were slaughtered while on patrol serving with 33 Battalion ONUC – Ireland’s first UN fatalities), and I wondered: what was this ‘Jadotville’ thing? In 1997, I was given the book “Tough at the Bottom” by Captain Mick O’Farrell. The final two chapter of Captain O’Farrell’s memoirs were an account of this battle at Jadotville in September 1961. When I finished reading his account, I remember thinking “there should be a film made about this!” Nineteen years later, I get the privilege of covering the Red Carpet event for the Irish Premiere.
Part of the role of the 35th Battalion ONUC (Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo) was to restore peace and stability in the country. In September 1961, the UN established Operation Morthor in an attempt to eradicate and expatriate European mercenary elements from the Congo. Under the command of Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan), ‘A’ Company was tasked to provide protection to the white inhabitants in the small mining town of Jadotville, in the province of Katanga. Quinlan commanded a mere 156 men. These white settlers turned on their UN protectors and sided with the Katangese insurgents and all hell effectively broke loose. Miraculously, some would think, not one Irish soldier was killed in the onslaught – even after being strafed a number of times by a Fouga Magister jet, and surviving wave after wave of attack by a ground force of between 3,000 and 5,000. The attacking force was primarily comprised of Baluba warriors armed with European weapons and under command of Belgian and French Mercenary Officers. Some of the mercenaries had served in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion and simply headed to the Congo for the highest bidder after the French began to withdraw from Algeria. These officers had seen plenty combat action between the end of WWII, Indo-China, Vietnam, and Korea. In other words, they were well capable of fighting.
‘A’ Company, on the other hand, were considered ‘battle virgins’. To the Mercenary officers, he was an inexperienced battlefield commander, yet even Quinlan understands Rommel’s famous quote: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. Add into this pot; poor intelligence from UNHQ in Elisabethville; a poor communications system; and no resupply resources, including no clean water and only a two day ration pack – this was a disaster waiting to happen. There is a palpable impression that while the UN Supremo Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien is covering his own ass, he allows A/35 to be sent out for slaughter. This is indeed highlighted throughout the movie.
In 2003, Declan Power began researching the archives and memories of veterans of A/35, and found out that upon their return home they were ostracised by their peers, regarded as cowards by General Headquarters and shut up by successive governments. The film is an outstanding adaptation of a well-researched book by Mr Power, and it was set to document the bravery of these men in the aftermath of their war. For many years, few even spoke of their involvement in Jadotville to their own families, yet defended their good name to a public that neither cared nor knew what had happened. I asked Director Richie Smyth about the feedback from the veterans – so far, it had been positive. The veterans believed they had been portrayed well, and were mostly happy to see the fifty-five year wait for recognition come to a close.
This is Richie’s film debut and he has set a strong precedent, providing a magnificent portrayal of A/35. The camerawork takes the viewer right into the thick of battle, much as we are accustomed to in war commentary nowadays. The strange part is that you recognise you’re watching a typical war movie – loud bangs, bright explosions, shouting – but it’s all with Irish accents. There is a wealth of homegrown talent providing excellent performances; Jason O’Mara (Sgt Jack Prendergast), Michael McElhatten (Maj Gen McEntee), and Sam Keeley (Bill); Ronan Rafferty (Pte John Gorman), Charlie Kelly (Sgt Wally Hegarty), and Conor MacNeill (Quinlan’s Radio Operator).
As war movies go, The Siege of Jadotville keeps you gripped, especially as I was in the audience with actual Jadotville veterans and many of the cast – occasionally hearing an outburst from someone of “Jaysus, that was me!”
Overall I really enjoyed it, the vets enjoyed it, Declan Power was pleased that his diligence has paid off and the veterans are being recognised for their heroism despite overwhelming odds (they were outnumbered twenty-to-one at one point). Richie Smyth and Kevin Brodkin (Producer & screenwriter) can be proud of their achievement and I look forward to their next project. Naturally, everyone is going to notice the small film nuances; they’re not worth mentioning, because the film did what it needed to do. It recognised the heroism and leadership of Quinlan and his men, and they can finally close that sad chapter after fifty-five years.
Sadly, Pat Quinlan didn’t live to see his name cleared and honoured for his leadership, and the fact that his decisions saved the lives of 156 Irish sons. He died in 1997, and the veterans who spoke of him still hold him in exceptionally high esteem – “He was a phenomenal officer. He scared the bejaysus out of us young lads, but all he cared about was keeping us safe. We really admired him. He was the reason we knew we could survive it.” Veteran Tom Gunn from Mullingar said “There wasn’t a hope of the enemy hitting us. We were too well dug in. Quinlan ordered us to dig trenches in the melting heat and watch our arcs of fire. By the time the first assault came, we were well dug in and we responded in kind; but at night time, you would barely want to blink in case they were coming. But the great thing was the food after we were taken prisoner: Spuds in their jackets, fresh vegetables and real butter. When we went back to Elisabethville we were back eating that disgusting margarine!” Indeed, as prisoners of war, Mr Gunn recounts how they were permitted to keep their hurleys, and one day decided to play a ten-a-side game. “I looked over at the gendarme guarding us and he was watching the game, lads flakin’ the sugar out of each other. The guard says ‘what are they doing? I says ‘That’s our national sport; it’s called hurling.’ The guard looks down and says ‘If we saw ye playing that before we’d probably never have attacked ye in the first place!’”
Would I recommend it? Well, it’s seeing limited cinema release and it’s on Netflix from October 7th, and yes, it is worth it. It is a true story involving Irish men who fought a superior enemy on foreign soil, but spent the next fifty-five years fighting a silent one at home attempting to get recognition and closure.