Opération des Nations unies au Congo (ONUC)

International Operation Name: Opération des Nations unies au Congo

International Operation Dates:  14 July 1960 – 30 June 1964

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name:  Africa

Location:  Congo

Canadian Operation Name: Opération des Nations unies au Congo (ONUC)

Canadian Operation Dates: 1960/08/09 – 1964/06/30

Mission Mandate: ONUC was established by Security Council resolution 143 of 14 July 1960. The initial mandate of ONUC was to ensure the withdrawal of Belgian forces from the Republic of the Congo, to assist the Government in maintaining law and order and to provide technical assistance. ONUC’s mandate was subsequently changed on two occasions. Resolution 161 (21 February 1961) urged the United Nations to "take immediately all appropriate measures to prevent the occurrence of civil war in the Congo, including arrangements for ceasefire, the halting of all military operations, the prevention of clashes, and the use of force, if necessary, in the last resort". Resolution 169 (24 November 1961) authorized the Secretary-General "to take vigorous action, including the use of the requisite measure of force, if necessary, for the immediate apprehension, detention pending legal action and/or deportation of all foreign military and paramilitary personnel and political advisers not under United Nations Command, and mercenaries", as laid down in the Security Council’s Resolution 161.

Mission Notes:

The Republic of the Congo had been a Belgian colony from 1885 until 30 June 1960 and was ill prepared for its independence. Belgium had not cultivated leadership cadres in the economic, military, or political realms; an indigenous middle or merchant class scarcely existed; and of a population of over twelve million, only 25,000 Congolese had any secondary school education. In essence, the 120,000 Belgians who lived in the Congo had run the colony, but few of them would retain their positions after independence.

Compounding this lack of societal, economic, and political infrastructure, regional and tribal rivalries weakened the moral (and practical) authority of the central government, as did its reliance on the former colonial power to provide the majority of its army officers – at least until Congolese officers were trained to replace them. Katanga province, moreover, remained practically an entity unto itself: it was the richest region of the new country, while its leader, Moise Tshombe, had close contacts with Belgian economic interests there and was prepared to employ Belgian troops to maintain order.

The situation fell apart very quickly. Tribal-related disorders broke out on 2 July 1960, two days after independence. The Congolese Army mutinied against its Belgian officers three days later; with nearly 100,000 Belgians now the object of attack, Belgium dispatched troops to protect its citizens shortly thereafter, worsening the crisis through the introduction of white troops; Katanga and the central province of Kasia under Albert Kalonji declared their independence on 11 July; and on July 12th, Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba called on the United States for help in removing foreign (i.e. Belgian) troops who they said “were threatening the peace.”

Armed with evidence that the Congolese might ask the Soviet Union for unilateral help in achieving the same objectives – and worried that this could introduce Cold War divisions into the heart of Africa -- UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold brought the matter before the Security Council on 13 July. The Security Council authorized the Secretary-General to assist the Congo in restoring order. Over the next weeks, Hammarskjold developed the ground rules for the force.

By 15 July, the first 1500 troops were on the ground, coming from Ghana and Tunisia. They quickly took over the task of maintaining order in Léopoldville, replacing the Belgian troops still there. Swedish Major-General Carl Von Horn , who had been head of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, was transferred to the Congo to become force commander, and under his leadership the Opération des Nations unies au Congo (ONUC) grew rapidly, with 14,000 personnel from 24 countries arriving within a month.

Although ONUC was organized relatively quickly, it could not keep pace with events. Belgian troops protecting Belgian citizens were not about to leave just because they had been asked to do so, especially not from the secessionist province of Katanga, whose government had asked that they stay. And the UN would not countenance the use of its contingents to force Katanga to return to the Congolese fold: it would not, at this stage, become involved in what was essentially a civil war. Unsatisfied in particular with the UN’s attitude to Katanga, Lumumba called upon the USSR for assistance and on the UN to withdraw, and with Soviet help flew the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) to Kasai where, for the moment, it ruthlessly put down the secessionist movement. But when the ANC tried next to move on Katanga, ONUC stepped in.

There was now a fundamental fracture in the Congolese leadership, and much to its distaste, the UN had to take sides. With UN and US encouragement, ANC's chief of staff, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, expelled Lumumba’s Czech and Soviet advisers and then, cooperating with President Kasavubu, saw to Lumumba’s departure from the capital. Flown to Elizabethville, Katanga, on 17 January 1961, President Lumumba and his aides were beaten by the ANC, Katangan gendarmes, and Belgian mercenaries before they eventually died while still in custody.

Lumumba’s death, publicly explained as the result of an escape attempt, provoked demonstrations throughout Europe and North America, and led Egypt, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, and other states to withdraw their troops from ONUC. Within the Congo, meanwhile, there developed four regionally and tribal-based factions and centres of power: the secessionist governments of Katanga and Kasai, and two national governments at Leopoldville and Stanleyville. The rivalry among them was intense, violence spread, and all, at times, provoked and assaulted UN troops trying to maintain order.

Unwilling to fail in its mandate to see a unified and stable regime for the whole of the Congo, ONUC responded. It launched a surprise attack into Katanga on 28 August 1961, which achieved initial success, but Katangan counter-attacks caused casualties among UN personnel and led to the capture of an Irish infantry company. Secretary-General Hammarskjold undertook to fly to Katanga to negociate with Tshombe, but died in a plane crash on 18 September. Soon thereafter, the UN was forced to accept a humiliating cease-fire, but it did not withdraw its troops from the province. Violence flared again in December. Now with its own small air force – the Katangans had one operational fighter-bomber aircraft of their own – the UN successfully took control of Elizabethville and caused the Katangan rebels to flee. But it had not stamped out secessionism altogether. That would not occur until December 1962-January 1963 when, after four days of constant harassment, ONUC launched a swift and highly successful attack, forced Tshombe to flee and, finally, to surrender, renounce secession, and demobilize his troops.

Having already settled the secessionist problem in Kasia, the UN had achieved important objectives in terms of its original mandate: the Congo was whole again. Yet it remained divided as well, with separatist factions rising again here and there with varying success until 1968, when now-General Mobutu had taken control and put an end to all opposition.

Canada’s participation in the Congo began on 18 July 1960 when RCAF North Star aircraft left Trenton to deliver food. Planning for the army contingent began at about the same time, but the formal UN request for a signals unit, food services personnel, and a provost section did not arrive until later in the month, and it was only on 9 August that the entire contingent was approved by the Minister of National Defence. They would move to the Congo as part of Operation MALLARD beginning that same day, with the entire group scheduled to be in theatre by 29 August.

As often happened, however, the first Canadians in the Congo were borrowed from other UN missions. Eight army officers came from UNTSO and UNEF, while eleven RCAF officers who arrived early were employed at ONUC headquarters. One, Air Commodore F. Carpenter, was the air advisor to Major General von Horn, the ONUC commander.

The first signallers of what would become 57 Canadian Signals Unit arrived on 12 August. The main body arrived over the next two months, bringing the total to 275 – a significant drain on the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. Of these, 215 were located at ONUC Headquarters in Leopoldville. The rest manned signals detachments in Albertville, Bukavu, Coquihatville, Elizabethville, Goma, Kamina, Kindu, Kongola, Luluabourg, Matadi, and Stanleyville. Far-flung and isolated, they depended on other UN contingents for their security. The RCAF, meanwhile, would conduct twice-weekly supply flights from Pisa, Italy to Leopoldville as well as twice-monthly support and personnel rotation flights for the Canadian Army. Paid for by Canada, the former were suspended in 1962 due to budget cuts. In theatre, the permanent air force contribution to ONUC settled down to seven officers and eight airmen at headquarters, with another eight airmen supporting the Canadian airlift. It would grow in September 1961 when the UN asked Canada for two C-119 Boxcars and a dozen air control technicians to assist with UN fighter operations against the Katangan rebels. That added seventy-three officers and men to the contingentfor a few weeks. Wherever Canadians served, given the Congo’s colonial past, French-speaking officers were at a premium, and by 1962 sixteen francophones held key positions in the UN hierarchy.

The threat of violence was everywhere. As early as 18 August 1960 four of the first Canadians to arrive had been manhandled by ANC troops and had to be rescued by Ghanains. A similar incident occurred five weeks later in Stanleyville. Then, in February 1961 two Canadian officers were beaten, kicked and robbed and their weapons taken. That led to a change in the mission’s Rules of Engagement on 2 March: henceforth, Canadians were authorized to shoot to defend themselves. Several days later the signals detachment at Matadi was attacked by ANC troops., After fierce fighting that lasted several hours, the Canadians surrendered, while the Sudanese troops protecting them fled. Fortunately, the Canadians were released the next day. In total, four Canadians received commendations for bravery.

Although the UN started to reduce its commitment to ONUC in 1963, the Canadian contingent did not reduce commensurately in size. By September 1963 about 8,000 UN personnel remained in the Congo, down from over 20,000 in June 1961, but since they were responsible for communications throughout the mission the UN asked that the Canadian signalers remain until the end. Accordingly, the last rotation of Canadian personnel occurred on 22 March 1964. RCAF flights on 27 May, 17, 27 and 30 June repatriated the last remaining Canadians.

In all, about 1800 Army and 110 RCAF personnel served in the Congo, with an average of about three hundred in the country at any one time.

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