The Katangese Air Force

Text by Divan Muller
Africa’s second largest country has an interesting but tragic history. This is a brief look at an unlikely air force which was formed in dire circumstances.
T-6s in Katanga

The events surrounding the independence of Belgian Congo played out like a geopolitical thriller, filled with intrigue, drama, politics and controversy, with the Cold War as a backdrop. It was also filled with destruction, atrocities and tragedy, with 100 000 killed in about five years. During the late 1950s, Belgium announced its intention to grant independence to its Africa colony, known as the Belgian Congo. As political pressure intensified, Belgium expedited the process of turning the Congo into an independent African country. On 30 June 1960, during a visit to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), Belgian King Leopold II officially declared the independence of what had become the Republic of the Congo. The withdrawal of the Belgians plunged the country into chaos, as dozens of factions struggled to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Europeans. Initially, Patrice Lumumba, the country’s new prime minister and leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) faction, held the most power and influence. Mutinies within the army (Armée Nationale Congolaise – ANC) and widespread violence emerged as features of what became known as the ‘Congo Crisis’. Meanwhile, in the southeast of the country, Moïse Tshombe’s party had won local elections in the Katanga Province. Tshombe was known as a pro-West, anti-Communist, Christian businessman. As the Congo descended into turmoil, Tshombe declared the secession of Katanga, famously saying, “We are seceding from chaos.”

Lumumba responded by requesting Soviet assistance, a move which was resisted by Congolese President Joseph Kasavabu. This dispute soon became irrelevant, when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, head of the ANC, launched a coup and gained control of the country’s central government.

As the Congo Crisis developed, a United Nations’ (UN) peacekeeping force grew stronger and increasingly aggressive toward Katanga. By the time the UN ordered the withdrawal of Belgian troops, who were tasked with protecting Belgian civilians, Tshombe had already begun hiring mercenaries from Belgium, France, Britain, South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
Jan Zumbach
The Katangese Air Force

Jan Zumbach was a Polish fighter pilot who served with Poland and France’s air forces during the early months of World War II, which lasted from 1939-1945. In June 1940, he sailed to England, where he helped form the Royal Air Force’s well-known No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron. Zumbach flew Hurricanes and Spitfires in the Battle of Britain and by the end of the war, he had shot down twelve enemy aircraft. After the Second World War, he continued flying, apparently earning a living by smuggling diamonds and other gemstones by air. When the Katangese secession took place, Zumbach was contacted to organise and lead the Katangese Air Force, also known simply as ‘Avikat’.

Katanga’s air force began with aircraft that had been left behind by the Belgian Air Force, along with a few civil aircraft. These included eight North American T-6 Texans (Harvards), five De Havilland Doves, one De Havilland Heron and one Piper L-18 Super Cub. In terms of helicopters, Avikat had an Aerospatiale Alouette II and a Sikorsky S-55. Tshombe ordered nine Fouga CM.170 Magisters, to be used as ground attack aircraft, from France, but only three were delivered. These were in addition to five Dornier Do.28s he had ordered from West Germany. These aircraft were supplemented by five Piper Caribbeans (Tri-Pacers) from South Africa. Katangese forces were also supported by an Air Katanga Douglas DC-3, which had previously been in service with the South African Air Force. Later on, Katanga acquired a few more seemingly miscellaneous aircraft, including two Cessna 310s and a Lockheed Lodestar, primarily via South Africa.
Fouga Magister - Alan Wilson
Aircraft used in combat

In addition to the T-6 Texans inherited from the Belgian Air Force, Katanga ordered several additional examples from a company in Belgium. These were shipped to Angola, at the time a Portuguese colony, where they were assembled by Portuguese Air Force technicians. Unlike most Texans, which saw service only as trainers, these aircraft were camouflaged and armed with Browning .303 machine guns. They also had underwing hardpoints for light bombs. From Angola, the T-6s were flown to Katanga by Belgian, French, Polish and South African pilots. Once in the Congo, T-6s were used extensively as ground attack aircraft. On one occasion in 1962, an odd combination of four Texans, an armed Piper Comanche and a De Havilland Dove airliner, armed with a machine gun and light bombs, were used to attack the local ANC headquarters.

The Fouga CM.170 Magister was a jet trainer developed in France during the early 1950s. The examples ordered by Katanga were manufactured by Potez, which later became part of Sud Aviation. As mentioned, Tshombe ordered nine examples, but six of these were confiscated en route to Katanga as a result of a UN arms embargo.
In terms of combat, Magisters were undoubtedly the most capable aircraft in Avikat’s arsenal. In September 1961, Magisters, armed with underwing guns and locally made light bombs, attacked UN positions and destroyed two DC-4s and one DC-6 on the ground. A Magister also supported the siege of Jadotville, which resulted in the capture of more than 150 Irish soldiers. This event was a huge embarrassment to the UN.
C-124 - USAF
UN Aircraft

The UN’s mission in the Congo was supported by several countries. In terms of airpower, the UN relied heavily on the strike ability of Indian Air Force Canberra bombers, which proved to be highly effective in strike missions. Sweden supplied Saab J-29 fighters and S-29 reconnaissance aircraft, whilst Ethiopia, the Philippines and Iran provided F-86 Sabre fighters. For the most part, the UN relied on the US Air Force (USAF) to meet its airlift requirements, mostly with the use of C-119 Flying Boxcars, C-124 Globemasters and C-130 Hercules.

During the initial stages of the Congo Crisis, these American transport aircraft were used in rescue missions, primarily to evacuate American citizens. At the time, the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, which did not support UN operations, also worked hard, using its DC-3s to evacuate civilians to Salisbury (Harare).

To UN pilots working with the central government, the biggest threat was not always from Katangese forces. Congolese soldiers falsely accused Italian airmen of supplying arms to Katanga. The Italians were then assaulted, shot and cut into pieces by an angry crowd. On another occasion, a USAF C-124 crew was severely beaten by the local population in Stanleyville (Kisangani), with some suffering from fractured skulls and broken limbs. According to a 2001 research paper by the USAF Air University, “The exact motive for the attack was never found.”

In the end, Katanga’s attempt at seceding only lasted until January 1963, when the province was overrun by UN forces. By 1965, the Congo Crisis was over. At this point, I wish I could say that everyone lived happily ever after in unity, but the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it has been named, has become virtually synonymous with wars, claiming millions of lives. As one can imagine, there is so much more to the story than has been covered here, but the purpose of this article is simply to shed light on the unique, short-lived Katangese Air Force, which, despite its small size, put up a fierce fight against overwhelming forces.