Cyprus 1961-64

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This was the first posting that we had travelled overseas as a family and  we moved into quarters at Berengaria village. Initially I was a Flight Commander on No.34 Light Anti-aircraft Squadron and my first commanding officer was Squadron Leader Peter Robinson later followed by Mike Bentley, a fellow Corkonian.  Later I became the Wing Training Officer. 

Our first offices at RAF Akrotiri were old caravans, minus their wheels, and later we moved into newly-constructed buildings.  The first eighteen months were not particularly demanding with time for airfield, air and ground defence training and exercises, sport (hockey and rugby), and swimming at Ladies Mile Beach with the family.  I was in charge of the Wing Competition Shooting Team and we often were pitted against British, Greek and Turkish Army teams at International Rifle meetings.  Once when I was the Adjudicator at a meeting which had Greeks and Turks competing against each other in a final, a dubious score by the Greeks was disallowed and victory given to the Turkish element - my life was in danger for some half-hour or so.  A crossed-rifle trophy on my bookshelf reminds me of the incident.

Six months after arriving in Cyprus I completed a Parachutist course and joined the RAF Regiment Parachute Team.  At almost 37 years of age it was strenuous competing with airmen in their late teens and early twenties. The physical demands were tough - twenty mile hikes with heavy packs, fast marching-running were part of our fitness programs including running up and down cliffs along beach fronts.  We had our scary moments - other parachutists ‘floating’ in under one meant air was ‘stolen’ from one’s chute causing it to collapse and some choice words to the parachutist below helped!  Once I had to walk across the chute of the fellow below me in order to stop my chute collapsing at low level.  I later became C.O. of this Unit.  Financially it meant an extra eleven shillings a day (big deal!). 

We performed our normal duties in addition to parachuting which meant leaving home about 3 am to drive to the Base, briefing, donning parachute gear and then drawing our chutes, and emplaning at 5 am for our drop about 6 am at one of the three dropping zones on Cyprus.  We did one or two jumps before returning to base, changed out of our ‘jump gear’ and into normal uniform to start our normal day’s duties on the Wing.  We had one jump on a WW II battle area some 13 miles east of El Adem in Tunisia.  That was fraught with danger because the ground round the Drop Zone was still scattered with anti-personnel mines. 

The RAF Regiment’s Parachute Unit had a special purpose - in 1961 an RAF aircraft, carrying nuclear stores to the Atomic Test Centre at Maralinga in South Australia, crashed in a rugged part of Turkey and it took an RAF Mountain Rescue Team some two weeks to reach the scene.  The Ministry of Defence (Air) decided a better system was needed to deal with such incidents and gave the role to the RAF Regiment.

Cyprus, for us, was a very pleasant place to live however, one was aware always of the barely-hidden animosity between the Greek and Turkish communities.  This came to the boil at the end of 1963 when our contentment was shattered on Christmas Day when the Cypriot Government called in the RAF Regiment to give aid to the Civil Power at the request of Archbishop Makarios.  I had just sat down to my Christmas Meal when I was told to report to base with enough kit for a month - which turned into more than 4 months! 

Nicosia was the main area of conflict and three squadrons of our Wing were rushed to RAF Nicosia where we were briefed and allocated areas of responsibilty for peace-keeping.  Geoff Rochester (a close friend then and now) and I were given the job of setting up a Wing Headquarters, Operations, Briefing and Intelligence Unit, in a mobile caravan which was parked on a street in our area of Nicosia - in quiet times we slept in the caravan on the floor or in times of stand-down from a hectic spell of duty, under the caravan.  Bathing, meals and other necessities were on a ‘catch as catch can’ basis. 

Often we were called on to go out and man roads, keeping Greeks and Turks apart, literally.  It came close to physical encounters between them and while arms were evident, thank God, they were not used while we were on duty.  One shot would have sparked wholesale shooting, with us between the protagonists. Once we were called to a house where Greeks had killed a mother and her two young children - dumping them in the bath - it was a grim sight! 

On another occasion, at the request of the Turkish Vice-President of Cyprus, we had to send some eight vehicles, drivers and escorts, to a remote Turkish village which had been levelled to the ground by Greek elements using tractors and other heavy, armour-plated vehicles.  The bodies of those killed were brought back and handed over to the Vice President in the Turkish part of walled Nicosia.  Numerous reports of missing persons came into our Operations Room but it was not our task to be deeply involved in any location exercise.  Our patrolling took us out as far as Kyrenia and it was on this road that an Army Major friend, with his jeep and driver, disappeared.

Some relief came when we were taken off the street and moved into accommodation at the Ledra Palace Hotel (now the H.Q. of United Nations Forces) which was on the line dividing Turk and Greek and is now known as ‘the Green Line’.   After six weeks I got 4 hours leave to go to Limassol to see the family and the next break was a 48 hour pass in February 1964 to see the family who were being evacuated to England and for me to prepare our Married Quarter for handing over.

After a sorrowful farewell to the family, I returned to Nicosia where  inter-racial fighting continued and also broke out in other parts of the island.  We continued our peace-keeping and ‘intimidation to peace’ in our allotted area.  One incident I recall with amusement (there was little to laugh at in those days) was when the Manager of the Ledra Palace Hotel, where we now had our Operations Room (and the airmen were sleeping on the floor of the Ballroom), came to see me and handed me bills for our accommodation and rations.  I took the wad of paper, looked at it and found it totalled some £8000, and then put the papers back in his hands and said, ‘We were brought into this conflict at the request of Archbishop Makarios to aid the Civil Power - give the bills to him with my compliments.’  That was the last we heard.

Incidents, and rumours of same, abounded but major confrontation was restrained at the time.  When the United Nations Peace-keeping Force (supplemented by some British Army units already there) eventually arrived in Cyprus in April 1964, the RAF Regiment pulled back to Akrotiri.  The Officers’ Mess had burned down prior to Christmas when struck by lightning  (no conductors were fitted to the building) and we had to get meals where we could.  Soon after I left Cyprus and rejoined my family in the UK, where they were staying with friends from Aden days, in North Harrow. 

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