The Crisis in the Congo – The Flying Barrel goes to War

On June 30th 1960 the Congo, which had been a Belgian colony, gained its independence. However internecine fighting started immediately on the same day, as the province of Katanga wanted its own independence as the State of Katanga. The degree of disquiet caused the new Congolese government to request the United Nations to send in UN troops to try to end the fighting.

Katanga had assembled a small air force of motley types of aircraft, but as the central Congolese government did not have any aircraft of its own, and the the Katanga aircraft were armed, they posed a threat to the United Nations forces.

At that time the General Secretary of the United Nations was Dag Hammarskjöld, and this probably led to the decision by the Swedish Government to place a small force of Swedish J29 fighter jets at the disposal of the UN. On the 4th of October 1961 the first four of these aircraft landed at Leopoldville in the Congo.

Together with other aircraft initially arriving from India and Ethiopia, which were later replaced by aircraft from Iran and the Philippines, the United Nations Fighter Wing was built up. The detachment from Sweden came to be called UN Fighter Squadron Number 22, also known in Sweden as F22. In all, ten J29B aircraft and two type S29C reconnaissance aircraft served in the Congo.

The conflict in the Congo deteriorated to become very complicated, with many different groups involved. Belgium also intervened militarily in its former colony and Katanga would recruit many mercenary soldiers into what it called its police force (gendarmerie) which in practice was actually an army.

Sweden also sent an infantry battalion to support the UN in the Congo, and a total of over 6,999 Swedes eventually served there, of which 19 were killed in the fighting and 40 were wounded. In the beginning fighting took place against rebels from the Congolese Baluba tribe, who among other things attacked trains that were being escorted by Swedish soldiers. However after Prime Minister Lumumba had been murdered there were demands that the United Nations should make a more direct intervention, and not least remove the Belgian forces and associated mercenaries who were supporting the seceding Katanga “government”.

On September 9th 1961 the UN tried once more to disarm the Katanga forces but met severe resistance. An Irish UN company was besieged at Jadotville and forced to surrender after running out of water and ammunition. A Fouga Magister jet aircraft of the Katanga air force had helped with its machine guns and underwing bombs to force the Irish troops to keep their heads down, as they had no protection against air attack. This made it necessary for the UN to request help in the form of fighter jets.

Their initial task had been to escort United Nations transport aircraft and protect against airborne attacks by Katanga. However the UN gradually realized that in order to perform its job and disarm Katangese troops, not least its mercenaries, it would have to put the Katanga air forces out of action. Hence Swedish J29s and Indian Canberra bombers attacked the airfields in Kolwezi and Jadotville on 9th December 1961, destroying much of the Katangese aviation assets and leading to the UN gaining temporary air supremacy.

However there would be more battles, in which the Flying Barrels were ordered to attack ground targets. The fiercest battles for F22 took place in December 1962, when the fighter jets provided support for UN ground troops and once again attacked with rockets the air bases at Kolwezi and Jadotville, as Katanga had managed to rebuild its air force.

Once the capital of Katanga province, Elizabethville, had been captured in January 1963, this marked the end of the intervention of F22. The squadron was disbanded in the following April and two J29s and the two S29s flew back home to Sweden. The remaining aircraft were destroyed on site. as it would have been too expensive to fly them home and they were no longer needed by the Swedish Air Force. New types of aircraft were being introduced, to take the place of the Flying Barrels.