National Service 60 years ago: (2) Cyprus


I ended my last blog on my National Service days just as my three-week posting to Tripoli came to an end. Only ten days after I arrived there we received a cable “Send Brooke to Cyprus soonest” because of a shortage of Movement Control officers on the island. We managed to delay things for another ten days, however, while the requests for my services at the other end of the Mediterranean got more and more peremptory. I have never gone back to Libya, and our British military bases there did not survive for very much longer.

It took ten hours to fly the 1,200 miles from Tripoli to Nicosia, with stops at Benghazi and the RAF base at El Adem on the way.   Libya had been relatively peaceful. In Cyprus there was the EOKA-inspired emergency. Those were the days when the British were beginning to divest themselves of their colonies, and although a junior minister in 1954 had said that we would never give independence to Cyprus, by the time I left the island in January 1957 the Government would have been reasonably happy to do so but for the understandable unwillingness of the Turkish minority population to accede to the Greek Cypriot call for ENOSIS – union with Greece. Archbishop Makarios, the Greek Cypriot leader, was in exile in the Seychelles throughout the time I was stationed on the island.

The terrorist organisation led by General Grivas operated largely in the mountains, particularly in the so-called Pan Handle in the north-east, but from time to time they got involved in anti-social activities in cities like Nicosia and Paphos. Indeed, one of the main streets within the walled city of Nicosia was known as “Murder Mile”.  On my only return visit to Cyprus – at the time of the Commonwealth Law Conference there in 1993 – General Grivas’s car (a Morris Minor, I think) was parked just outside the little museum which contains examples of the schoolwork done by young Cypriot boys in custody on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. The death penalty was still being enforced by the British – I cannot now remember the minimum qualifying age – although its existence appeared to have no deterrent effect at all.

Although I was issued with a revolver and five rounds of ammunition nobody ever taught me how to fire it, and my own life in Cyprus was a long way removed from the terrorist frontline, though I did sleep with my pistol under my pillow on a brief visit to Limassol in August.  The Waynes Keep transit camp, which was to be my home for the next seven months, was located two or three miles to the west of Nicosia among flat rolling grasslands, and we never felt the slightest bit at risk on our short workaday journeys, either to the headquarters offices just up the road, or to the airfield 3 miles away.

I could see no trace of any of these landmarks on my 1993 visit. I think my old stamping-grounds straddled the new border with Northern Cyprus, and the main airfield for Greek Cyprus is now at Larnaca, on the south coast. Nor did I see any sign of the old Ledra Palace Hotel, where many journalists made their base – or drank the idle hours away – during the Suez episode five months later. It is now in the UN buffer zone, which I did not penetrate.

Not many of my letters have survived from these final months of National Service, and I cannot now remember much of the detail. I was certainly a great deal busier, and the volume of inward traffic by air increased exponentially after Colonel Nasser seized the Suez Canal in July. Many hundreds of reservists were called up during August and were flown out to Cyprus as a precautionary measure – some of them had not seen military service since the end of World War II – and instead of an incoming flight every day or two, as in the last days in Egypt, 31 60-seater Hermes planes and 13 90-seater Britannias flew in at all times of the day and night during one seven-day period at the end of the month.

Although I was at first concerned only with handling flights at the airport (which usually involved a 4.30 am start to the day), after a while I was effectively in charge of the day-to-day management of Army personnel on all incoming and outgoing flights – a job usually held by an army captain – and for that purpose I was usually working in an office at headquarters, with less frequent outings to the airfield. Priority always had to be given to those on compassionate leave, or to families going home, or to National Service personnel at the end of their two years’ service, but subject to this I had a fairly wide discretion as to who should travel on which flight, a fact that may have accounted for my sudden popularity as a recipient of free drinks at the bar in the transit camp’s officers’ mess in December, when those who had been sent to Cyprus at the time of the Suez fiasco were keen to go home quickly after the adventure had ended in tears on the canal road just south of Port Said.

Because of the emergency I did not see as much of that beautiful island as I would have liked, a deficiency I made up for on my return in 1993 when the monasteries in the hills near Paphos and the walled city of Nicosia were no longer effectively out of bounds. But I did have the occasional outings to areas that were considered safe. Two families in particular befriended me, and they would take me to the seaside at weekends, either to a sandy beach at Famagusta, or up to Kyrenia or a sandy bay on the coastline nearby on the north coast. The road to Kyrenia took us through the mountains, past the ruins of St Hilarion (above), which were safe to scramble around, to the left of the road, and the road to Bellapais, which I never visited, to the right. This attractive village was where Lawrence Durrell made his home, as he describes in his absorbing book Bitter Lemons, in which he describes his time in Cyprus between 1953 and 1956,.  Some time later my friend Nicholas Phillips (later to become our lord chief justice) and his parents both bought houses there.

Kyrenia in those days was an enchanting place, with its curving harbour overlooked by the medieval castle on which a Bren gun was reassuringly sited (not that there were ever any incidents there so far as I can recall). For Greek Cypriots one of the saddest consequences of the partition of the island since 1974 has been their exile from these places. When I used to read the judgments of the Strasbourg court in cases in which a Greek Cypriot claimant complained that her home in North Cyprus had been requisitioned by the Turks without adequate compensation I could well understand how she felt. It is my fervent hope that the peace talks now in progress may lead, somehow or other, to the reunification of the island, which would be to the great benefit of both communities.

On another outing I went down to the port at Limassol (where I was pleased that an urgent request for my services was turned down), and then on to Akrotiri, high on a cliff-top and close to the place where long before the days of Botticelli Aphrodite – Venus, to the Romans – was said to have emerged from the waves. Both these British bases were then being enlarged, and when independence was granted to Cyprus in 1959 they were the two sovereign bases retained by the British, who still own them.

In October four of us drove up to the Troodos mountains for an overnight stay. Of that visit I remember a glorious view from Mount Olympus at the top, and the zig-zag road down to our hotel in Platres, which was used, Simla-like, as a holiday camp for British army families. My wife and I stayed there during our visit in 1993.

My friend Roger and I had hoped to spent two weeks at the end of July and the beginning of August exploring Jordan and Lebanon and the Crusader castles in Syria. Sadly, Colonel Nasser’s intervention – which put British military personnel at risk in some of these places – put an end to that dream, and although there was talk of making abbreviated visits to Jerusalem on the one hand, and to Amman and Petra on the other, nothing came of those ideas, either. In the end I went home for three weeks’ leave, although this was abruptly curtailed after a fortnight when I was summoned back to deal with the mounting volume of activity caused by the growing Suez crisis. While on leave I played a good deal of cricket, and I also remember watching on an antique television set Jim Laker taking some of his 19 wickets in the Fourth Test at Leeds against the Australian team we had welcomed to Port Said a few months earlier.

I did not go back to Egypt with the invasion force, and it was odd to think of British planes bombing Navy House at Port Said, which had been my home so very recently. My school friend Chris Hogg (later Chairman of both Reuter’s and the National Theatre) jumped into Egypt with 3 Para during the days before the invasion fleet arrived from Malta, and I remember seeing him on his return to Nicosia, but that was as close as I got to the hostilities.

Needless to say, it did not occur to any of us in Cyprus that the Anglo-French threat to intervene between the Israelis and the Egyptians was a put up job, although the whole episode left a nasty taste in the mouth, and the idea that the invading troops might turn west and try to topple Colonel Nasser from power seemed as ludicrous to me then as it did to our horrified Ambassador in Cairo, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan. I often thought of this in 2003 when the US-British coalition showed that they had very little idea about how to run an Arab country whose government they had overthrown by force.

One vague memory that lingered with me was that at the heart of the Suez crisis Mr Khrushchev, not content with invading Hungary, had threatened to fire rockets at us in Cyprus. I mentioned this years later to Peter Unwin, who had been on our embassy staff at Budapest at the time, and he confirmed that this threat had indeed been made, although Khrushchev very quickly had second thoughts.

One final memory. The Governor of Cyprus, Field-Marshal Lord Harding (the grandfather of Baroness Dido Harding, whose Talk-Talk company has been in the news recently) met my father, who was then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, on one of his visits to London, and after my father mentioned to him that one of his sons was serving in Cyprus I was astonished to receive out of the blue an invitation to lunch at Government House. Lord Harding and his wife were very kind hosts, and what with that and all the generous hospitality I received from three different families over Christmas, my days in Cyprus ended very happily.

Although I could have flown home, I opted to go by sea, and that is how I found myself in the troopship off Famagusta on 1st January 1957, the point at which these random memories began.

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