Operation Dragon Rouge – The Stanleyville Hostage Rescue Operation

Following the Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 and encouraged by the competition between the West and the Soviet Union, a large portion of the eastern Congo was conquered by the Soviet-backed Conseil National de Libération(CNL), better known by their nickname “Simbas”. Routing the government forces in a series of offensives from January 1964, the Simba victory was short-lived. By August 1964, the Simba forces were starting to face effective counterattacks and loss of territory to Government Forces. Desperate to force the government into a negotiated settlement and limit the involvement of the United States, the Simbas decided to use the white population as hostages. The fate of the hostages was becoming more uncertain as negotiations faltered. Concerned, the United States and Belgium planned and conducted a series of joint operations from 24 to 26 November 1964 to secure, rescue and evacuate over 1800 European and 400 Congolese civilians. This essay will provide background on the conflict and examine ‘Operation Dragon Rouge’ the rescue of hostages at Stanleyville, and how this operation demonstrated how hurriedly improvised combined forces of well-trained troops could conduct successful operations over large distances under adverse conditions.

Congo Crisis. (2022, November 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Crisis

The speed of decolonisation of the Belgium Congo in 1960 resulted in a system unprepared to govern effectively.[1] The post-colonial government was beset by corruption and struggles by economic, political and tribal factions competing for dominance, fueled by the need to control the considerable natural resources within the Congo[2]. Caught between economic and geopolitical manipulations of Belgium, who had a strong desire to retain mining rights, and the United States, who wished to remove communist sympathisers from the region[3], the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai declared succession from the Congo. The United Nations eventually stabilised the confusing and chaotic situation between 1960 and 1964 and undertook a complex peacekeeping mission to stabilise the Congo[4].

Shortly after the bulk of the United Nations Forces withdrew in 1964, the CNL, Backed by the Soviet Union and China, launched its rebellion from their political heartland of the western Congo[5]. Known as “Simbas”, the CNL troops were a mixture of young men, teenagers and children supposedly inspired by Maoist ideas.[6]

In reality, the political Ideology of the Simbas was much more complex. As noted by the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, most Simba fighters were not inspired by Maoist ideas but instead motivated by traditional beliefs and were often observed to be under the influence of illicit substances[7]. Many Simbas believed that magic water called “Dawa” applied by a Shaman left them impervious to bullets[8]. The Simba’s astounding early successes encouraged this belief, often forcing the opposing Armée Nationale Congolaise(ANC) soldiers to retreat without a fight. By August 1964, the Simbas had much of the eastern Congo under their control, including the provincial capital Stanleyville, where they had ejected a large government garrison without a fight, obtaining a large amount of modern war material. The Simba’s success soon degraded with a loss of discipline, resulting in acts of violence becoming common with thousands of Congolese who were considered westernised, executed with extreme cruelty[9].

ANC forces backed by CIA Aircraft and western mercenaries soon counterattacked, resulting in the Simba defeats and much of the territory they had recently gained lost.[10] By August 1964, concerned by the Simba reversals, the Soviet Union and Cuba took a more active role by trucking supplies from Tanzania and attempting to train the Simba’s in small unit tactics[11]. Fearing defeat, the Simbas chose to use the remaining westerners trapped in their territories as hostages and bargaining chips in the ongoing negotiations with the government, broadcasting over Stanleyville Radio that the lives of western citizens could no longer be guaranteed if the ANC advance on Stanleyville continued.[12]  These threats, matched by emerging horror stories of Simba atrocities by witnesses, forced Belgium and the United States to act.[13]

From August 1964, the United States and Belgium had been working on several plans to enable the release of the hostages, and Operation Dragon Rouge was authorised on 10 November 1964 as OPLAN 319/64 Dragon Rouge. [14]  The concept of the plan was for a joint United States/Belgium operation, utilising United States Air Force (USAF) C130 Hercules aircraft to insert a Belgium Para Commando force directly into Stanleyville. [15]

On 18 November, the Dragon Force assembled on Ascension Island. Intelligence reports necessitated planning for follow-on hostage rescue operations for Bunia, Paulis and Watsa, and to leverage maximum effect; the operation was to be timed to coincide with an ANC/mercenary ground and air offensive operation[16]. Dragon Force deployed to Kamina airfield in the Congo on 22 November, confirmation of the approval for the conduct of Operation Dragon Rouge was received, and the mission was set to go on 23 November.

Airborne at 0045 hours, five C130s carrying the first chalk of 320 Belgium Para Commandos arrived at the drop zone ten minutes before daylight at 0400 hours. On the receiving end of ineffective rifle and machinegun fire, the airfield was secured within 32 minutes, obstacles cleared within 45 minutes, allowing the first aircraft to land at 0540 Hours with the remainder of the force. During the operations to secure the airfield objectives, the chance answering of a telephone provided timely intelligence confirming that the hostages were at the Victoria Hotel[17]. Acting on this intelligence, the Belgians rushed towards the town in armoured jeeps and motorised tricycles, quickly pushing aside any resistance.

Belgian Paras ride in a FN AS 24 tricycle during Operation Dragon Rouge. Stanleyville, Congo-Léopoldville, November 1964.

As the Belgium troops were within a block of the hotel, gunfire was heard. The Simbas had gathered 400 to 600 of the hostages in the square outside the hotel and opened fire, killing twenty-eight hostages before running away[18]. Within three hours of the initial jump, the first rescued hostages had been moved to the airfield and evacuated to safe areas, with the evacuations continuing for two days. The Belgium troops cleared the city, rescuing more hostages and whites that had been hiding, sustaining three minor casualties in firefights with the few remaining Simbas.

U.S. Air Force photos. Some of the hostages after the terrible shooting by the rebels.
http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/odom/odom.asp

By 1100 hours, the lead elements of the ANC mercenary forces linked up with the Belgium troops taking over responsibility for the city, allowing the Belgians to withdraw from the city. After conducting one more jump into Paulis, the Dragon Operations were concluded, and the Belgium troops returned to Belgium within five days. With their will to fight broken by the sudden and decisive action of the Belgium forces, the Simba’s melted away and within six months, their Soviet and Cuban supporters moved on to more reliable clients.[19] With little or no local support, the Simba leadership snuck across the borders into exile, and the rebellion was effectively finished[20].

Congo Crisis. (2022, November 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Crisis

The Simba rebellion initially successfully conquered a large portion of the eastern Congo and routed the government forces, often with no resistance. Success brought overconfidence, and the new order soon degraded into an orgy of killing as acts of violence became common with thousands of Congolese who had been considered westernised were executed with extreme cruelty, and it was only a matter of time before the orgy of killing extended into the remaining western citizens. Although the United States and Belgium had differing strategic objectives, the need to rescue the western hostages became paramount. The United States and Belgium military planners demonstrated how a hurriedly improvised combined force of professional and well-trained troops could conduct successful operations over large distances under adverse conditions.


[1] Lt Col W. H. Glasgow, “Operation Dragon Rouge,” Historical Office of United States Army in Europe, https://history.army.mil/documents/glasgow/glas-fm.htm.

[2] Erik Davis, “The United States and the Congo, 1960-1965: Containment, Minerals and Strategic Location” (University of Kentucky, 2013).

[3] Thomas Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute., 1988).

[4] Henry Longstreet, Congo Rescue, vol. 8, The Elite (London: Orbis Publishing, 1986).

[5] F.R. Villafana, Cold War in the Congo: The Confrontation of Cuban Military Forces, 1960-1967 (Transaction Publishers, 2011).

[6] The Swahili word for Lion in the African Great Lakes region from where the majority of fighters were recruited: Godfrey Mwakikagile, Congo in the Sixties (Da es Salaam, Tanzania: New Africa Press, 2014).

[7] Ernesto Che Guevara, Congo Diary: The Story of Che Guevara’s “Lost” Year in Africa (Centro De Estudios Che Guevara) (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2011); William E. Schaufele, “Operation Dragon Rouge,”  http://adst.org/2012/09/operation-dragon-rouge/.

[8] Richard Petraitis, “From Simbas to Ninjas: Congo’s Magic Warriors,”  https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_petraitis/simbas-ninjas.html.

[9] Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965.

[10] Lt Col W. H. Glasgow, “Operation Dragon Rouge”.

[11] Ernesto Che Guevara, Congo Diary: The Story of Che Guevara’s “Lost” Year in Africa (Centro De Estudios Che Guevara) (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2011).

[12] Robert Krott, “Airborne Rescue Mission to Stanleyville,” Military History 21, no. 7 (2005).

[13] Fred Wagoner, Dragon Rouge: The Rescue of Hostages in the Congo ( Washington, DC National Defense University Research Directorate, 1980).

[14] Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965.

[15] Lt Col W. H. Glasgow, “Operation Dragon Rouge”.

[16] Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965.

[17] Lt Col W. H. Glasgow, “Operation Dragon Rouge”.

[18] Wagoner, Dragon Rouge: The Rescue of Hostages in the Congo.

[19] Villafana, Cold War in the Congo: The Confrontation of Cuban Military Forces, 1960-1967.

[20] Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965.

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