57 Signals Squadron in the UN Congo Operation



The following text is from the book, "History Of The Royal Canadian Corps Of Signals".

On 30 June 1960 the former Belgian colony of the Congo received its independence and became the Republic of the Congo. The new state inherited a bitter legacy of anti-Belgian and anti-white feeling from the nationalist disturbances in the months before independence. Its population, unprepared for the new responsibilities of freedom, were uneducated, a prey to a horde of ambitious local politicians, and torn into regional factions by deep-rooted tribal hatreds. On the first day after Independence the process of disintegration within the Republic became apparent as tribal warfare broke out and Congolese soldiers and civilians began to terrorize and maltreat Europeans. Belgian forces undertook immediate military measures to protect Belgian nationals and their property, whereupon the Republic asked for UN assistance in restoring order. The request to the UN, made on 10 July, was approved by the Security Council three days later, and on 15 July the first contingents of Ghanaian and Tunisian troops arrived in the capital, Leopoldville. when the Republic's Premier, Patrice Lumumba, threatened to seek the aid of the Soviet Union to red the country of Belgian troops, the UN intensified its efforts to remove those soldiers and thereby prevent the Congo crisis from becoming an extension of the Cold War.

Signal equipment for the Squadron was to be the American AN/GRC 26 Type D sets. These were obtained on short notice thanks to the full co-operation of the U.S. Signal Corps. On 11 August 13 sets were received at Vimy, almost at the same hour as the first party of the Squadron touched down in Leopoldville. Testing of the new equipment required less than two hours, and the sets were then moved to Trenton for shipment to the Congo in American "Globemaster" planes.

In Leopoldville the reconnaissance party of 57 Squadron was met by Col. A. Mendelsohn who was in charge of the Canadian Army Reconnaissance party, and it was determined that Headquarters ONUC and 57 Squadron would be lodged in a school, the Athene Royal. During the days that followed more parties of the Squadron and flights carrying their equipment continued to arrive in the Congo, while detachments of Signallers began to be deployed at the out-stations which were to provide communications for ONUC. On 18 August as the advance Signal parties prepared to leave Leopoldville for Coquilhatville and Luluabourg they were attacked by soldiers of the Congolese Army (A.N.C.) at the Ndjili Airport. A captain of The Royal 22e Regiment and his group of signallers were forced to lie on the tarmac and were beaten with rifles. The captain was struck in the face with a rifle butt and a Signals corporal was struck across the back with a rifle so hard that the butt broke. The second group of four men, already boarded their plane waiting to depart, were forced out, roughed up and kicked, and loaded into a truck with the captain's party. The weapons, vehicles and personal effects of the Signallers were seized by the Congolese soldiers at their headquarters. At this point Ghanaian troops intervened, taking the Canadians under their protection and placing the captain in hospital. The whole incident seemed to have no purpose, and simply reflected the native fear and distrust of all Europeans.

The next two incidents occurred at Stanleyville, and here there were reasons, if no excuses, for the mistreatment of the Canadians. On 22 August a captain and three other ranks were held and questioned for four hours after their arrival. The Congolese soldiers believed that Canadians were Belgian paratroopers and were suspicious of the tattoo marks on one Signalman. The Commander of the Ethiopian Brigade in Stanleyville came to their rescue, and after a visit to the Provincial President they were released. The situation in Stanleyville seemed sufficiently improved, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the Ethiopians, to send in the rest of the detachment. On 27 August two "Globemaster" planes bearing men and equipment from Trenton arrived at the Stanleyville airport where several thousand Congolese civilians, police and A.N.C. troops were awaiting the arrival of Premier Patrice Lumumba. The truck-mounted radio set had been unloaded from the first plane and the officer and his three men escorted to the Wagenia Hotel, the local UN headquarters, by the Ethiopians, when Congolese soldiers announced to the multitude at the airport that Belgian paratroopers were hiding in the hotel. The crowd was immediately transformed into an hysterical mob. Six jeep-loads of A.N.C. troops set up a machine-gun in front of the hotel, and then stormed in to arrest all the Canadians, including those of the newly-arrived party. At the airport, where Lumumba was expected momentarily, the second "Globemaster" had landed after some delay, and the mob attacked its American crew and the two Canadian passengers. When Lumumba arrived minutes later the beating of the men continued and the Premier made no protest.

The Ethiopian commander was away from the UN headquarters protesting the incident at the airport to the Congolese military officials when he heard of the attack on the hotel. He immediately demanded the release of these prisoners, which was done, but one crew member of the second plane was taken to the Congolese camp and Ethiopian troops sent to rescue him were stopped at gun-point. Eventually all the prisoners were released, and the Ethiopians gave medical treatment and considerate attention to the injured men. Two of these were evacuated from Stanleyville by air that same evening.

The incident at Stanleyville had been in part manufactured by local elements to show their loyalty to Lumumba, but the Canadians had arrived without being documented in Leopoldville, wearing uniforms and carrying weapons similar to those of the Belgian troops, and as in the previous incident in that city, no one from Movements Control had met them. In both cases the results might have been more tragic had it not been for the quick and forceful intervention of the Ethiopians. Thereafter, Canadians coming to The Congo were directed first to Leopoldville for documentation; steps were taken to avoid confusion because of the uniforms; and Movements Control personnel were always on had to ensure the safety of the Signallers.

Elsewhere the Signals detachments got mixed receptions from the Congolese, but no incidents of violence occurred. From the outset relations at the Elizabethville and Gemena posts were good. At both Coquilhatville and Luluabourg the advance parties encountered local unrest and found difficulty in obtaining suitable quarters. Within a few days of reaching their scattered posts, the Canadian Mission and the ONUC were established successfully. But the 57 Squadron had other duties in The Congo. At Leopoldville a 200-line board was being operated by Canadians, and cipher detachments were handling all traffic for the UN Mission, except at Stanleyville initially. By the end of September there were detachments of 57 Squadron in Elizabethville, Coquilhatville, Luluabourg, Kamina, Stanleyville, Gemena and Matadi. All stations were operating on C.W., with an R.T.T. circuit between Leopoldville and Luluabourg. Canadian Army personnel deployed in the Congo hinterland numbered 232, of whom 162 were from 57 Squadron, and a further 34 officers and men were stationed at the UN Canadian headquarters in Leopoldville. By that time too the political tension in The Congo was easing. The wild rumor-mongering had ceased; some A.N.C. troops had left for Kasai Province, and Premier Lumumba's power was waning as the more moderate Cpl. Joseph Mobutu had established military rule by a bloodless coup on 15 September.

With the communications system installed and operating, Canadian signallers now had time to size up their new surroundings. Working inside the pods of the AN/GRC 26 sets they found the tropical heat and humidity a terrible drain on stamina. Recreation facilities at most of the outstations were non-existent. A minimum of contact with the native population was desirable in most areas, and local curfews prevented the men from moving from their quarters if they did have an evening free of shift work. At Luluabourg the men had to do some of their own messing as well as shift work on communications. In Coquilhatville laundry facilities were lacking at first. Through the R.C.A.F. radio circuit to Trenton personnel were able to speak with relatives at home, but service in The Congo was literally no picnic. Some compensation for the difficult living conditions came with the announcement in February of a special "UN Congo" allowance, retroactive to 1 December, later made retroactive to August to cover all the Canadians who served in that area.

To simplify administration the Canadian Headquarters ONUC was disbanded on 27 October, 57 Signal Squadron became the Communications Squadron of 57 Canadian Signal Unit and all personnel were posted or attached to the unit. At the same time Col. P.D. Smith arrived from Canada to assume command of the Canadian Congo Contingent, and Maj. J.R. Connell was posted to The Congo as O.C. of the Communications Squadron, replacing Major Bindoff who had been promoted Lieutenant-Colonel and appointed C.S.O. at ONUC headquarters. During October, however, the situation in the Congo deteriorated once more as Colonel Mobutu appeared to be losing control of the government in the face of widespread and violent demonstrations in favour of Patrice Lumumba. In Leopoldville a scheme of defensive alerts was worked out for the personnel at UN headquarters to meet any armed threat. On 22 November, after Colonel Mobutu had ordered the evacuation of the Ghanaian ambassador, a battalion of the A.N.C. opened fire on the embassy's guard of 200 Tunisian soldiers. The Canadian officers' mess, 250 yards from the embassy, was struck by small arms fire and two cannon shells. Defence posts at the Athene Royal were manned throughout the night. The next day the body of the A.N.C. Chief of Staff, killed in the attack on the embassy, was paraded through the streets to incite the people. No further violence occurred at the time, but troops went armed when away from their base and vehicles travelled in pairs.

Elsewhere in The Congo conditions deteriorated as the result of the fall of Lumumba. On 1 December Lumumba was seized by Mobutu and on 13 February he was killed in Katanga by his captors. It was generally feared that this would touch off a new wave of terrorism but the reaction was not as violent as expected. In Stanleyville the airport and shops were closed and the Signals detachment was forced to use its emergency rations but at the other outstations nothing happened despite locally tense situations. In Leopoldville, however, on 27 February, two officers and two other ranks of 57 Canadian signal Unit were forced from their jeep by A.N.C. troops, relieved of their arms and personal valuable, beaten, kicked and pummelled, and forced to run barefoot more than half a mile over a dirt road. When civilians were attacked in the streets a full alert was called at the Athene Royal and all troops were confined to barracks. On 1 March all personnel were ordered to fire to protect their weapons. Not until the 9th were the troops able to stand down to a secondary alert status.

In the interval the Signals detachment at Matadi had been caught up in a local dispute between A.N.C. troops and the Sudanese soldiers guarding the signal office. After an altercation in the port area the preceding night, A.N.C. soldiers opened fire on the Sudanese guards at close range. The Sudanese retired after losing one killed and four wounded but the A.N.C. continued to fire small arms and light artillery intermittently for several hours into the signal office where the detachment was pinned down. Fortunately and surprisingly the signals detachment suffered no casualties and the men were flown out to Leopoldville the next day---all except their commanding officer who, after being reported missing, also arrived unharmed at Leopoldville a day later. The Congolese authorities, however, would not permit the detachment to return to Matadi, which with its seaport, Banana, remains outside the control of the UN Mission.

Recent changes in the communications system operated by 57 Signal Unit have been the installation of a tape relay from headquarters to Luluabourg, Elizabethville, and Nairobi in Kenya (this last link opened in November 1960), and the withdrawal of the Signal detachment and equipment from Gemena to Albertville. Although The Congo has generally been quiet since the death of Lumumba, a few other incidents involving Canadians have occurred in Leopoldville, and at Stanleyville where, on 2 May, Congolese grabbed walkie-talkie sets which they believed the Canadians were using to monitor secret political talks going on in the city. On 11 May the command of the Canadian contingent in ONUC passed to Col H.W.C. Stethem as Colonel Smith returned to Canada to become Director of Signals and in July Colonel Bindoff was replaced by Col. J.A. August at ONUC headquarters. The changes of command and rotation of personnel may bring new faces to the troubled Congo, Signals' job there remains the same, to supply the internal communications for ONUC as the UN tries to re-establish law, order and public administration in the complex political situation where violence, suppressed for a time, may at any moment burst forth again.