Invaders for Covert Operations in the Congo

Last revised September 30, 2015


On June 30, 1960, the Congo became independent of Belgium, officially being renamed the Republic of the Congo. Since the Belgians had done very little to prepare the country for independence, utter chaos immediately broke out. Within a month after independence, tribal warfare had broken out, the army had mutinied, and the province of Katanga had declared its independence under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. It was followed in August by the secession of the Kasai Province.

The government of the Congo appealed to the United Nations for help, and some peacekeeping troops soon began to arrive in the country. Unfortunately, both the United States and the Soviet Union made the Congo situation an extension of the Cold War, and a series of elaborate plottings and maneuverings took place.

The crisis was further complicated by a personal struggle between President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as premier on September 5, and Lumumba sought to block this action through parliamentary action. Because of the impasse, Lumumba's chief of staff Joseph-Desire Mobutu staged a military coup on September 14. On his own authority (but with United States backing), Mobutu installed an interim government which replaced the parliament for six months in 1960-61. Patrice Lumumba was captured and murdered by Katangan secessionists in January of 1961.

The Katangese succession was finally defeated by January 1963, and Moise Tshombe went into exile. However, it was soon replaced by another even more serious rebellion which first began in the Kwilu province in January of 1964 but quickly spread elsewhere. The rebellion was initially sparked by Pierre Mulele, formerly Minister of Education and Fine Arts. Mulele had traveled widely in Eastern Europe, and had received training in guerilla warfare in China. The central figure behind the eastern rebellion was Gaston Soumialot, who, in January 1964, was sent to Burundi by the Conseil National de Liberation (CNL), a left-wing political movement based in the former French Congo, with the mission of organizing the rebellion. Soumialot was able to recruit thousands of dedicated supporters in eastern Kivu, along the border with Burundi. The rebellion was fueled by a general popular dissatisfaction with the brutality, corruption, and incompetence of the central Congolese government. Many of the rebels clung to ancient animist religious patterns, and many of them generally believed that "magic water" dispensed by witch doctors could make a warrior immune to government bullets, transforming the warrior into a "Simba" (Swahili for Lion). Consequently, the Congolese rebellion came to be known under the name of Simba.

The Simba rebellion quickly gained ground. In north Katanga, Baudoinville (later Virungu, now Moba) fell on July 19; Kindu, in Maniema was taken on July 24; and in early August the Soumialot forces, now calling themselves the National Liberation Army (Armée Nationale de Libération--ANL), captured the Lumumbist stronghold of Stanleyville. Equipped with armaments left by the routed Congolese National Army units, the Simbas pushed on north and west of Stanleyville, eventually penetrating as far west as Lisala on the Congo River. By September 5, with the proclamation of a revolutionary government in Stanleyville, almost half of the Congo and seven local capitals out of twenty-one were in rebel hands. However, as the rebel movement spread, discipline became more difficult to maintain, and acts of violence and terror increased. Thousands of Congolese were massacred, including government officials, political leaders of opposition parties, provincial and local police, school teachers, and others believed to have been Westernized.

In its rivalry with the Soviet Union, the United States had committed itself to the support of the central Congolese government, and the CIA began to organize a small air force to support the Congolese ground forces in their war against the Simba rebellion. At first, a few T-6 trainers were obtained, armed with gun pods and rocket launchers. Since the Congolese government had no trained pilots to fly these planes, they were flown by ex-Cuban exiles who had been with the Bay of Pigs operation of 1961. The T-6s were soon replaced by more modern and more capable T-28s.

Despite the CIA assistance to the central government, the Simba rebellion rapidly spread further and further. In a move of desperation, in June of 1964 the Congolese government recalled Moise Tshombe from exile and made him Prime Minister (replacing Adoula) in an attempt to provide some sort of a unifying force. The US government agreed to help Tshombe raise a force of mercenaries to fight against the Simba rebellion, and decided to expand its air strike unit.

The B-26 was thought to be an ideal aircraft for this sort of operation, but by this time virtually all of the B-26Bs and Cs had been grounded due to fatigue problems. In addition, only one B-26K conversion had been completed by On Mark. As an interim measure, four Invaders previously having served in Vietnam with Farm Gate but now languishing in the boneyards at Clark Field were diverted to the CIA for Congo service.

The first three B-26Ks were diverted to the CIA, being delivered by On Mark to Florida on August 13, 1964 and left the next day for Africa. The Cuban exile pilots began to train on them immediately. The first combat mission was flown on August 21. The refurbished B-26Bs from Clark were sent shortly thereafter. However, it seems that only two of them actually ever got to the Congo, and both of these planes were deemed to be unsafe to fly by their Cuban crews. They stayed on the ground most of the time and were used as sources of spare parts for the B-26Ks.

In order to recruit and pay ground crews to service the B-26Ks, the CIA set up a front organization known as Anstalt Wigmo, based in Lichtenstein. The Wigmo organization also performed some major modifications on the B-26Ks, including the strengthening of the wing spars and the installation of extra-large carburetor air intakes over the engine nacelles to improve performance in the hot climate of the Congo. The B-26K aircraft (along with the T-28s) were officially part of the Congolese air force, but the Congolese had little or no influence on their use. All of the B-26Ks that went to the Congo remained officially on USAF charge, and their record cards listed them as having been in storage at Hill AFB all the time that they were in the Congo.

The missions were scheduled by CIA case officers under the guidance of the American embassy. During operational missions, no internal weapons load was carried by the B-26Ks, and a long-range fuel tank was permanently installed in the bomb bay. The B-26Ks were quite effective in their attacks, imposing heavy casualties among the Simba rebels. The Simbas had no antiaircraft guns or aircraft to oppose these attacks, and the effectiveness of the B-26Ks and the T-28s was aided by the general incompetence and indiscipline of the Simba forces

As he set about the task of quashing the rebellions, Tshombe could rely on the Katangan gendarmes, recalled from exile in Angola, and a few hundred battle-hardened white mercenaries. The former were immediately integrated into the Congolese National Army, with the latter providing the much-needed leadership for the conduct of military operations against rebel forces. Supported by air strikes, these units spearheaded attacks against rebel strongholds. As the white mercenaries took the offensive and, with their technical superiority and discipline, began to recapture rebel strongholds, the fighting grew progressively more brutal, and numerous atrocities were committed by all of those involved. Mercenary elements played a decisive role in retaking Lisala on September 15, Boende on October 24, and Kindu on November 6. By then, the revolutionary government in Stanleyville had decided to hold local European residents hostage, in the hope of using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the central authorities. Their action resulted in the joint Belgian-American parachute rescue operation (code-named Dragon Rouge, or Red Dragon) on Stanleyville, on November 24, scheduled to coincide with the arrival of Congolese National Army and mercenary units in the vicinity of the provincial capital. The capture of Stanleyville dealt a devastating blow to the eastern rebellion. The two key rebel leaders, Gbenye and Soumialot, went into exile in Cairo. Demoralization quickly set in among the Simbas, and by the end of the year, the eastern rebellion was reduced to isolated pockets of resistance.

Two more B-26Ks were delivered to the Congo in January of 1965. By the end of 1965, the Simba rebellion was essentially over, although some mopping-up actions continued for over a year afterward. The CIA withdrew all of its B-26Ks in late 1966 and early 1967. All of them were later to serve in Southeast Asia after being refitted at McClellan AFB. The B-26Bs that had made it to the Congo were scrapped at Leopoldville (by now renamed Kinshasa). There were no B-26s left in the Congo by the time of the mercenary revolt of July 5, 1967.

Despite his success in quelling the Simba revolt, Moise Tshombe did not last very long as prime minister. He got involved in a power struggle with President Joseph Kasavubu, which lead to a constitutional deadlock. Joseph-Desire Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), a military officer who had seized power earlier in the 1960s and who had exericized control from the background, seized power once again in a coup on November 25, 1965, and became supreme head of state. The new regime received considerable initial approval from other African states and from the United States

In October of 1971, the country was renamed the Republic of Zaire. Following Mobuto's seizure of power, the state became a single-party dictatorship, and foreign assets were nationalized. Weakened by the end of American support after the end of the Cold War, Mobuto was forced to declare a new republic in 1990. Mobutu's rule became characterized by widespread cronyism, corruption, and economic mismagement. Laurent-Desire Kabila, the head of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, led a popular movement against the central government. In 1997, Mobuto fled the country, leaving Kabila's forces in charge. Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997. Laurent Kabila's son, Joseph, is currently the president of the DRC.

Sources:


  1. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  2. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume I, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1988.

  3. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  4. Foreign Invaders--The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, Dan Hagendorn and Leif Hellstrom, Midland Publishing, 1994.

  5. US Library of Congress Country Study--Zaire

  6. E-mail from Vahe Demirjian on leadership changes in Congo.

  7. Zaire, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaire