Royal Berkshire Regiment in Cyprus
By Margaret Sheard and Bob Scott ….
I seem to be drawn to stories about the experiences of British ex-National Servicemen who served in Cyprus in the 1950’s and early 1960’s and have enjoyed piecing together some wonderful memories of those young men, far from home, who probably wondered what had hit them when they arrived in Cyprus, probably the first time a lot of them had ever ventured out of the United Kingdom or even their home towns. I have enjoyed sharing these memories immensely and I now can share another great story from Bob Scott and his recollections of those sometimes happy, sometimes sad, experiences so many years ago.
On a trip to the UK in March 2015, we had an opportunity of meeting up with Bob and spent a few hours chatting with him over a nice meal. It is nice to be able to put a face to a name and it makes the whole process of writing about someone that much easier.
Bob joined the Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1956 and spent the last 2½ years of his service in Cyprus. On completing his service in 1960 he returned to England and settled in West Sussex, where he still lives.
The last year of his service he was on detachment from his Regiment to HQ 50 Independent Infantry Brigade at Kykko East, responsible for Internal security of the Nicosia district and at this time he shared the Suffolk Regiments dining facilities when back at base, but more often than not he was out guarding Senior Officers from Brigade or assisting UK. or Local Police in their duties often stationed in the Police HQ.
It was during this year that Bob says he grew up in the Army as he learnt so much outside that of an ordinary squaddie life in a Regiment.
He also remembers manning the machine. gun on top of the Post Office in Luna Park facing down Ledra Street in Nicosia whilst with his Regiment, it also brings home the taste of those salad rolls! Bob says – Can someone send me a fresh one! Also on the main thoroughfare outside the moat, there was a guy who sold kebabs from a portable handcart, wrapped in paper so you could eat going along the street, it was the little things like that which felt like a taste from heaven, egg and chips cooked in olive oil, we did not want much but it had to be good and tasty.
As a former British soldier at the time of the mid 1950’s I have always been interested in the history of Cyprus. As a young serviceman arriving in Cyprus for the very first time I found myself in a very ancient world and yet modern of the time, it took a while to comprehend this wonderful unique lifestyle, also the warmth of the people.
This brings to the point of an unusual friendship I struck up in 1958 whilst being attached to the Police Divisional HQ in the Turkish sector of Nicosia.
On the opposite side to the Police HQ. entrance was a typical Turkish coffee café. In the window sat a gentleman in full Turkish Military regalia, how or why I cannot remember but we became friends, he could speak very little English and I could not speak Turkish. No matter because every time I set out on business he asked the waiter at the door to hail me into the coffee shop to partake a traditional Turkish coffee, whether it was respect of one soldier for another I will never know.
But I wonder today if there is anyone who knows who this gentleman was, I believe someone might remember a retired Turkish General, always in uniform with all his medals on display, I have often wondered over the years who my lone friend was. He always sat in the same seat with his Hubble Bubble pipe, if I was to guess how old I would think he was about eighty years old and that was in 1958. I wonder if he was a family member of the coffee shop owners.
Whilst writing this article a lot has come to light about the mysterious military gentleman and with the help of Sermen Erdogan in Melbourne, Australia, who has done a great deal of research, the puzzle is slowly unravelling. We now have a name for this military gentleman, he was Ahmet Rasim, a well-known figure in Nicosia and Bob is over the moon to know a little about his friend. We think Ahmet died on 4th January 1963. As we feel that this will be a very interesting story, we intend to publish it separately when we have, hopefully, all of the facts. If anyone can contribute information about Ahmet Rasim we would be very grateful to receive it.
We are showing a photograph of Ahmet Rasim which has been sent to us by Altay Sayil and perhaps this may jog the memories of residents of Nicosia who may remember him.
Sermen himself, together with his brother and sister, have been a feature of an article on our website resulting in the success of finding his childhood friends from the Governor’s House in Nicosia where he spent his childhood. Sermen too remembers the military gentleman Ahmet Rasim. To see Sermen’s family story the link is at the end of this article.
We gave Bob the task of recalling some of his memories of his time in Cyprus and he has kindly put pen to paper and this is what he has written.
Arrival Cyprus 1956
We arrived at Limassol docks on 9th October 1956, our first camp was on the south coast in a Valley just down from RAF Episkopi, a dried river bed going out towards the sea, like a gully between with hills on either side covered in an abundance of vegetation.
After roughing it on a barren rocky outpost for two and a half months in Malta, on standby for the Suez crisis – washing and shaving from our mess cans in the sea, followed by tea made with sea water! Rotten eggs for breakfast dinner and tea due to no refrigeration, we had definitely had enough. We had hoped for something better after Malta, “Oh” sorry I forgot this is the Army with no expense spared and there would be no more creature comforts until demob.
So we bedded down in this dried up river bed, kit bag for pillow! And watching how you packed your boots or you could end up with a sore head in the morning, don’t forget about the creepy crawlies over you at night as well.
Night time guard duty was to man a searchlight half way up the hill mounted on top of an old sewage works… all night scanning the camp.
Apart from one or two Idiots messing around with guns, one causing someone to get shot in the arm, our first taste of things to come was the reporting of the death of Private George Baylis, a driver of a land rover killed in an ambush, the CO. and others managed to escape.
My first operation guard duty was the perimeter fence surrounding RAF. Akrotiri air base, at which I ended up in Dhekelia BMH with food poisoning after being feed bully beef by the RAF.
One amusing incident but could have been more serious! One evening a group had been invited to the camp cinema at RAF. Episkopi. After the film was over all were stood in the back of a Bedford three tonner holding on to the canopy bars as it was not far down the mountainside to camp.
We pulled up at the exit barrier to turn right down the hill, for some unexplainable reason the truck slide sideways in slow motion onto its side and came to rest over a three foot embankment, I was escort to the vehicle and jumped from the hatch of the cab, went to the rear of the truck where the guys were letting go of the canopy bars and walking out one by one all in slow motion just like a Laurel and Hardy film. Any further and it could have been a different story.
The second incident was having to jump clear from an overturned lorry on which I was riding escort though the top of the drivers cab. An Austin one tonner driven by a Tom Collins HQ Company driver. I even have the date of this event 27/3/ 1957. On the way up to Troodos, Tom was overtaking another parked vehicle when suddenly the road narrowed and he hit a boulder on the side of the road which caused the truck to flip on its side.
Primasole camp, this was January 1957, it was then the Regiment came under Three Brigade responsible for the security of the whole of the Island. The camp was west of Nicosia at the end of the runway opposite side of the Troodos road. Hunter jet aircraft were taking off on sorties over Suez and the Middle East. They were a nightmare taking off at some ungodly time of the morning, rising skywards over the camp, shattering all peace and quiet of a night’s sleep, with the tent’s flysheets flapping all over the place due to the downdraft of the aircraft.
Not a good memory but I feel I must mention the latrines! A massive deep burial pit! They were limed twice a day. They were drilled in the rock with a wooden tree perch, consisting of two Y forks one at each end and a tree trunk for a perch, no room for embarrassment here.
Of course there were work duties! These consisted of Patrols for stop and search. There were guard duties in and out of camp; 2hrs on – 4hrs off right through the night from 8pm until 8am. External duties could be a week or three weeks at a time, returning to camp for a weekend’s rest, before starting another one, maybe an Airfield or an Electrical substation, even a remote Police Station that might come under attack, Mines for explosives or Government House, one never knew what or why, most of the time we were on auto pilot.
Then for a change we would throw cordons around a village that was suspected of harbouring a terrorist, a unit of about up to twenty trucks would leave in convoy, and once hitting the main road there would be side lights only on the first and last trucks of the convoy, we would arrive at our destination about 2.30am, throw a cordon around a village in perfect quietness and have all secured by 3am.
Early in the morning announcements would be made for the villagers to move to a secure area, normally a school playground whilst the properties were searched, of course we had to proceed with caution in case a booby trap had been set.
We also had mountain patrols across the Troodos Mountains to try and flush out terrorists from their mountain hideaways, usually in caves. It was hard going? But someone had to do it.
We would set up camp with two men in bivouac tents, and two of us left behind to guard the encampment. On one hot and humid night I felt like a quick dip to cool off. Before the guys had left on their “recci” they had dammed a mountain stream just big enough for a few of us to cool off in, by day this was great and very refreshing!
On this particular night I ask the other guy on duty to keep an eye out whilst I took a quick dip, well I took the plunge and came out quicker than I went in. At night as the water flowed across the rocks from up on high, it had an extremely cooling effect on the flowing water, so it was one plunge never to be repeated.
Another task we were trained to perform was Helicopter descent from various heights! For forward movement required in an urgent situation. So off to Nicosia Airport for training? It was a Sycamore Helicopter for this purpose and besides the Pilot and Co–Pilot, these copters carried four passengers who sat on the floor space. The first thing to be mastered was jumping from a hovering copter at height three feet above the ground – followed by a rise to jump out at ten feet, always running clear to the front of the copter, so the pilot could count how many people were out of the copter.
Now a new task! Helicopter rising to thirty feet and to descend via a knotted rope to simulate being dropped into a forest area! A dangerous manoeuvre with the rope attached to the rear of the pilot’s seat, the rope had three knots contained, and the first two knots which were most important were placed evenly about the copter floor, one knot in the copter the other one outside. The first man legs over the side threw out the rope, tapped the pilot’s seat and he was ready to descend, now the most important part of the take hold of the rope via the lower knot outside the copter and make certain there was no slack in the rope that might cause a jolt and result in losing your grip with dire consequences, once ok it was hand over hand with the rope gripped between ones legs and down you go, out to the front of the Helicopter to be counted by Pilot.
The tough years of 1957/58
These were the most troublesome times when all units were stretched to the limits! Not only the nervous period behind us now but still up front in the memory, that of newspaper journalist/ reporter and active terrorist Nicos Sampson who turned Ledra Street into the notorious Murder Mile, leaving his office a couple of streets away shooting his target in the back, quickly disappearing only to return a few minutes later to report on the crime, he was the reason for the army to deploy a machine gun post on top of the old Post Office.
Samson had no qualms about whom he killed, husbands and wives, off duty Service personnel, policemen, even his own Greek people, truly a man of no conscience so it was no wonder, as we entered the next phase of operations, guys were more than jumpy not knowing where the next bullet or homemade explosive device was coming from.
Who did we trust! Truthfully many on all sides, why, because we had to get along with them living side by side, but this is not to say we were not cautious because we were! Very cautious, read a face, look for signs of nervousness or a sudden quick movement, we were not there to kill but to preserve life, thereby preserving our own.
So provocation led to a lot of the riots, mostly carried out by the Turkish Cypriots, Why? Mostly in provocation or revenge through some ghastly act, so whilst some regiments were on operation in the Troodos range, others were trying to keep the peace in the walled cities of Nicosia or Famagusta, which left many men in dangerous circumstances.
On one occasion vastly outnumbered and likely to be overrun at any moment, a young Second Lieutenant turned to us and said – in a moment I am going to give the order to fix bayonets then give the order to present bayonets, but no shots are to be fired, do you hear me, yes Sir. The order was given and we were ready to charge, gradually the crowd began to disperse his gamble had paid off, so we all lived for another day.
February 1957: Operation Green Dragon a Burma style operation where donkeys were used to carry essential kit such as radio sets, then back in camp for three days before the next Biggy – ten weeks in the Mountains operation Black Mac this is where notorious terrorist Afexentiou was killed and four others captured.
At the end of 1957. I was called into the CO’s office and told the Regiment from January 1958 would transfer from 3 Brigade to 50 Brigade so he would like me to go on an NCO’s Cadre or go on detachment to HQ’s 50 Independent Infantry Brigade. The Colonel said go away and think about it, I had recently met some guys from HQ and thought how smart they looked and said how much they enjoyed it, I did not want to be a career soldier so I did not see the point of becoming a Corporal, so at the beginning of January 1958 it was off to Brigade HQ.
Brigade HQ for General Guard of Honour HQ 50
Sir Roger Bar KBE. Head IND INF Brigade for
of MELF. Bob had to do a General Sir Roger Bar KBE
present arms at the gate! 18.04.1958
Then run and make up the
1957/58. Nicos Sampson and Ledra Street which he notoriously turned into the Murder mile was very much behind us now.
Two years of much of the same! Mountain operations and City Riot’s plus continued guard duties at important places all over the Island, that could be used for acts of terrorism, which resulted in the Regiment on Mountain operations and trying to control City riots from both sides, and trying and restore calm.
The Greek riots in Nicosia were mainly congregated at the bottom of Ledra Street where it meets the Mason Dixon line, the border between the two communities and very little room for the troops to manoeuvre and where rocks and boulders could be dropped from overhead balconies, so the order of the day was riot gear and steel helmets.
Turkish riots on the whole were easier to deal with, a couple of very large ones did take place and at times got a bit hairy, but mostly their format was mostly the same, relying on British fair play. Women and children at the rear, younger males in front of them and the main protesters in front of the rest.
So a plan had been devised to mount a dye spray using vegetable dye and compressed air on the back of a Land Rover, the theory was to drive up to close to the front of the protestors a quick spay, reverse and get out of there as quickly as possible. The idea being the protester at the front could be picked up later for questioning. Great in Theory?
The only time it was used as far as I know, was a riot outside the Turkish Bank just up the street from Police HQ. The bank had a massive pair of green doors with a very large pair of brass door knobs, hexagonal in shape one per door. The riot on this occasion was in front of the Bank, so at the height of the riot in went the Land Rover, only to be met by a parting of the waves right in front of the Bank doors, so instead of green doors they ended up bright orange.
Brigade HQ was the start of me growing up in Army terms, a whole different concept to what I had been used to in the Regiment, mixing with a few guys posted from other Regiments and Units, but more so with the top Military Brass, guards of Honour Escorts to Senior Officers, working with UK and local police out of the Divisional Police HQ in Ataturk Square, escorting local police with announcements of Curfew, sometimes announcing them myself in both Turkish and Greek taught to me by the local Police.
Now a puzzle for me! Whilst we did get some free time to go into town and visit the odd bar or two, I note some Regiments seemed to be spending a lot of time enjoying life, I don’t begrudge them one bit, but wonder how that could happen as quite often ours, when we had a chance, were curtailed by curfews. I spent almost two and a half years in Cyprus, and in that time I had ten days local leave in Kyrenia.
These British National Servicemen, so far from home had a real eye-opener when they were suddenly thrust into the Cyprus Emergency but there were some light-hearted moments and Bob has recalled some “quirks” which he looks back on with amusement.
Quirks of Servicemen serving in Cyprus! Such as favourite songs of the period. Green Door” by Frankie Vaughan – We had a stores tent with a painted green door so when anybody went past it they started singing – Green Door, who’s behind that green door
There was also Harry Belafonte – “This is my Island in the Sun” – very appropriate for where we were stationed.
There was a famous female singer – Ruby Murray. We had a Bob Murray, I named him Ruby and it became his nickname for the rest of his life.
The following “quirk” is my favourite, as I remember the Goon Show all those years ago and the “Ying Tong Song”. Bob found a recording of this song and we are reproducing it at the end of the story for those people old enough to remember this hilarious song. I hope it makes you smile as much as it did me.
Remembering this still makes me smile. Whilst on an operation in Troodos, the trucks were all lined up in an Indian wagon style train of a semicircle and parked opposite was the Signals communication box van, with two speakers on the roof, this was in the midst of a very large hailstone storm. All of a sudden there was a blare from the speakers and two Signallers started Spike Milligan’s Goon Show piece of the Ying Tong Song – Ying Tong, Ying Tong, Ying Tong, Ying Tong, Ying Tong, iddle I po. What a laugh we all had, a memorable moment. So you can imagine a couple of idiot Signallers in the middle of the Mountains singing this, as I recall they did a good job of it, still makes me smile just thinking about it.
At the end of 1958 just prior to going to Brigade HQ. I was on one of my last guard duties with the Regiment on Larnaca beach, a gravel crushing plant was a permanent structure on the beach, used for crushing large pebbles and boulders for road making, it was a Government run plant so fair game for the terrorist.
All lit up at night, on this occasion I was patrolling the beach when a machine gun started to fire at me close enough to feel the draught of the bullets, I dived seaside behind a pile of pebbles crawled on my stomach back to the compound, where the corporal of the guard was reaching up for the phone to call out reinforcements, the rest of the guards were laid flat on the floor.
I was coming to the end of my tour of duty in 1959. Returning from Nicosia to Brigade HQ. just past the General Hospital on the left approaching the bridge over the dried up river bed, I was waved down by Royal Military Police, and asking what was wrong was told they required my assistance as I had a Belgium FN. Rifle, I was told three EOKA youths had set fire to the Turkish Consulate car, the local police were in pursuit but only had pistols.
The two youths had crossed the river bed heading for a cemetery, the third had turn right towards the bridge we had just crossed, by now a crowd was beginning to gather, suddenly I was getting orders from behind to open fire which was very difficult running over rocks and boulders, any way I manage to let off three single shots, the third grazed his head, he stopped put his hands in the air and the local police arrested him.
So eventually my army service in Cyprus came to an end, there were good times and bad times but looking back it was a great experience with a great bunch of lads, and I must have had a guardian angel as I am still here to tell the tale. However, not all were so lucky and never to be forgotten is my old pal Ian Reginald Collins who was killed after only a few months in Cyprus in 1957. We were in the Cubs and Scouts together. He is always in my thoughts.