In 1960, the Congolese government asked the United Nations (UN) for assistance when the newly independent nation erupted into violence. This large operation was the first UN peacekeeping mission with significant military capabilities. Australia provided Army staff officers and medical teams through the International Red Cross.
Congo in crisis
Belgian Congo was a large nation in Central Africa. On 30 June 1960, Belgian Congo became independent from its colonial ruler. Belgium had ruled the Congo since 1885.
It was only a matter of days before the newly independent Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) fell into crisis. Mutiny broke out in the army, with soldiers seeking higher pay and greater opportunity and authority. Violence erupted between black and white civilians. Thousands of Europeans, mainly Belgians, fled the country. Stories of atrocities, mainly against white people, began appearing in the world's media.
On 11 July 1960, the province of Katanga broke away from Congo altogether and declared itself an independent country. Congo was threatening to break apart.
Amidst this chaos, and worried about its commercial interests, Belgium sent troops to intervene. They did so without seeking permission from the Congolese president, Joseph Kasavubu, or prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
In response, the Congolese government turned to the UN for military and technical support. It asked for UN troops to remove the Belgian troops.
On 13 July 1960, the UN created an intervention force. By 17 July, those troops were already in the country.
Events developed so quickly that Australian diplomats adopted a fitting motto to describe the Congo crisis: 'If you're not confused, you don't understand the situation.'
[Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations]
United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC)
The United Nations Operation in the Congo was known as ONUC (from the French Opération des Nations Unies au Congo).
The initial goals for the operation were to:
- restore law and order
- prevent the crisis from affecting neighbouring countries
- build Congo's economy
- bring about stability.
ONUC was the UN's first peacekeeping mission with significant military capabilities. It was one of the largest UN operations ever undertaken. At its peak, the force comprised nearly 20,000 military personnel from more than 24 countries. India, Ireland and Sweden largely led the mission.
The Congo crisis did not directly threaten Australia or its interests. However, the Australian Government wanted to play a part in helping the international community restore law and order in Congo.
The UN wanted African countries to comprise the bulk of the troops involved. This was to avoid any criticism that the West was attempting to recolonise Congo. Australia was not asked to provide large numbers of troops for the mission.
To help ONUC's headquarters with logistics and planning, Australia loaned 2 Army staff officers. Major Alexander Lofts and Major Frederick Gardner had been observers with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) in the Middle East.
After overcoming various administrative, diplomatic and personal hurdles to begin service in Congo, Major Gardner was challenged by local authorities. In late August 1960, Gardner was arrested north of the capital, Léopoldville, with other 'unwelcome foreign intruders'. He was released the next day.
The Congo force didn't need Lofts and Gardner for a long period, and they returned to their previous duties in the Middle East.
Australian-born UN diplomat George Ivan Smith was also sent to Congo. He was to work on easing tensions between Katangese and UN forces. Smith was kidnapped by mercenaries and savagely beaten but survived after a US diplomat intervened. He served in Congo throughout the UN operation.
Australian Red Cross Society Congo Medical Unit
The Australian Government also dispatched a team of 4 medical personnel. The team comprised an Army doctor and nurse, a Navy surgeon and a medical orderly from the Royal Australian Air Force.
The team was seconded to the International Red Cross through the Australian Red Cross, which recruited a second team of 2 civilian doctors. One of these was an Army reservist. The other had recently left the Royal Air Force Reserve. They arrived in Congo on 23 August 1960. Because the preference was for people not to wear military uniforms, all Australian personnel wore Red Cross uniforms.
The crisis laid bare
Once in Congo, the Australian medical teams were soon deployed to Bakwanga (now Mbuji-Mayi), the capital of Kasai province. There, they met with chaos. Poorly supplied refugee camps held thousands of people from a tribal group, the Bubula, who had been displaced from their homes during the fighting.
The local security organisation, Force Publique, attacked a local Catholic mission not long after the Australians arrived. They used machine guns, mortars and bayonets against unarmed men, women and children. Afterwards, the Australian medical team had the confronting task of collecting about 60 bodies from a school and burying them.
The Australians found themselves in a dangerous situation.
The UN Security Council could not provide adequate security with their resources. The Force Publique did not understand or respect the neutrality of the Red Cross. Kasai rebels were also sceptical of Australia's presence.
Surgeon Commander Samuel Haughton said:
We were under constant threat by both sides and trusted by neither, in spite of what we tried to do.
[Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations.]
After the Australians had spent 2 hard weeks in Bakwanga, the local Tunisian commander ordered them out because he could not provide adequate security. By then, the Force Publique roamed the countryside, destroying crops and livestock. International aid was being flown in, with famine looming.
The Australians moved west to Luluabourg (now Kananga) and were based at the Kasai Base Hospital. There was superb equipment, but it was in disrepair. State-of-the-art radiology equipment had failed, and doctors had only a dentist's X-ray set to use.
Haughton was in charge of the hospital and the maternity and gynaecology wards. Dr Francis Willis took on the paediatrics wards, and Flight Sergeant Antony Thompson worked in the operating theatre.
Meanwhile, other team members moved south to Luiza, a town near the Katanga border. They found a large, deserted hospital with no medical equipment. They treated almost 1,000 people as hospital admissions and many more as outpatients. Two of the team stayed at the hospital until February 1961.
District health care
Both Australian teams ventured into outlying areas and offered health care in tribal districts and refugee camps. They contended with deadly infections and diseases, including:
- meningococcal meningitis.
The 6 Australian medical personnel were awarded the Red Cross Medal for Meritorious Service in recognition of their medical work in Congo. They had provided excellent health care under extreme duress.
The situation in Congo worsened as famine took hold of the population, crops were abandoned, and 300,000 people were displaced. Some 200 people were dying every day from starvation.
Early in 1961, Prime Minister Lumumba was captured by Katangan authorities and executed by a firing squad. This drew the UN further into the turmoil. However, Australia's involvement ended in mid-1962.
The UN eventually brought some stability to Congo in 1964.
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Australian War Memorial (undated), 'United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) 1960 - 1964', accessed 19 August 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500122
- displaced person