Cyprus in 1958 (Part 2)
recalled by Clive Williams OBE
of the Welch Regiment
Introduction by Margaret Sheard….
The last article we published about Clive’s escapades whilst serving with the Welch Regiment in Cyprus in 1958/59 was very well received and has resulted in him casting his mind back to those early days and remembering more amusing episodes which he would like to share.
There was a photograph in the first article of Clive with Graham Cann standing together in front of the old Officers’ Mess at Akrades Camp (now the site of the Fire Brigade in Yesilkoy) and he had contact again with Graham for the first time since Cyprus a couple of years ago through his brother who lives in Monmouthshire and is a friend of Graham, on the occasion of a wedding anniversary celebration to which Clive and Graham were both invited.
Cyprus in 1958 – Part 2
By Clive Williams OBE
I arrived in Cyprus in October 1957 and was posted to Aberdeen camp near Xeros, the site of the infamous patch of green-painted grass.
One of our tasks was to guard the copper mines of the Anglo-American Mining Corporation. One Saturday evening I went into the Mess and Pug Roberts, the 2-I-C asked me what I was doing that evening. It was a strange question, as there was absolutely nothing to do in Aberdeen camp but either read a book in your tent or down a drink or two or three in the Mess. You certainly couldn’t go out on the town! So I answered ‘Nothing much’ and he said that in that case I was on the Quiz team, that was due to do battle that evening with a team from the Mining Company. Pug was chairing the team, Captain Bob Smith was a member and I and another National Service Subaltern, Dai Davies made up the team.
We went along to the Mining Company’s Social Hall at Xeros and it was packed with their staff and wives. To our concern we discovered that the local Greek District Commissioner, who had no time for the Army, was the question master and had set the questions! When he announced that the first round was on minerals, we realized that we had been set up to look like idiots. I think the score at the end of that round was Anglo-American Mines Corporation 8 – Welch Regt 0. The second round was on geology and we did not do much better – the score was now Anglo-American Mines Corporation 16 – Welch Regt 2 .Desperate measures were called for. We persuaded Pug not to try to answer any questions at all , but to refer them to Dai or myself – that way we might at least salvage a few points. Bob Smith had kept answering 7 to every question, which eventually got us maximum points on the number of hills in Rome but not otherwise, so he was persuaded to pass most of the time as well. Dai had a Science degree from the University of Wales. I was quite good on History, Geography and Music, which eventually featured and where our mining opponents then proved as woefully ignorant as we were on minerals. So at the end of a gruelling evening we eventually ran out winners, much to the fury of the question-master, who congratulated us with gritted teeth. But at least we had saved the honour of the Regiment.
Another memory relates to our Commanding Officer, Lt Col John Traherne. When not getting me to paint his grass green, he came up with other bright ideas for disturbing my serious efforts to acquire a sun tan. Just in case there might be a riot, each platoon in our Regt took it in turn to be stand-by platoon. We just waited for action but it never came. I and my platoon were on stand-by one hot Sunday afternoon. We were sun-bathing as normal and then the alarm went. So we hastily dressed, piled into our three-tonner and drove to the Command Centre, where the Colonel told us that it was a test. He had visitors and wanted to show the mettle of his men. As usual he had supped deep of the cup, which had much to do with what followed. We had resumed sun-bathing when the alarm went again. Same procedure as before and same result – test. The alarm went again, and again and again – test, test, test. On the sixth occasion, we simply got in the truck, drove out of camp and then drove back again. I was then called to the Command Centre, where the CO was livid, because this time he had decided to send us out on a mission.
We were told to go to Vouni palace, a beautiful spot up in the hills about 10 miles from our camp overlooking the sea, and to search the area for arms or ammunition dumps. When we arrived we found some ruins and a number of caves or holes in the ground. But we had no rope and so we resumed our sun-bathing. At 5.0pm as the sun started its descent I phoned Dicky Randall, my Company Commander, explained the position and he agreed that it was time to bring my platoon back to base. In the evening I went into the mess and there was the Colonel, all affability. ‘Ah there you are, Williams’ he said ‘I have been looking for you – where have you been?’
I was still at Aberdeen camp, when top brass decided that the different arms of our Forces should co-operate more with each other. I don’t know if the RAF were included in this new bonhomie but in our case we were invited to spend a day on board a destroyer that had arrived in Xeros Harbour. It was great fun; we were shown round the ship and allowed to fire some of its guns. Then we made a full frontal assault on its very well stocked mess bar.
The next day we reciprocated by inviting the tars to go on patrol with us. Twenty arrived, all armed from the ship’s armoury, and what a collection of weapons they had. I don’t think there was a brown bess but they had everything else. Patrols were generally no more than 6 men – any more did away with the element of surprise. So this would not be a patrol – more like a walk in the park. I decided that I would lead it and just have a sergeant at the rear. I briefed the tars and off we went.
About a mile from the camp I was going up a slope when I heard an ominous click behind me. I turned round to find that the sailor behind me had managed to undo his safety catch, put a round up the spout and had his finger on the trigger, pointing his gun straight at my back. I quickly carried out a risk assessment and came to the view that the chances of running into EOKA were about -10% whereas the chances of being killed by ‘friendly fire’ from the Navy were around 90%. So I disarmed my patrol and loaded down my sergeant with all their ammunition. We then went on our way without mishap.
There was the time we had to stake out a house because the mother of an escaped EOKA man lived there. However, we staked out the wrong house so we never caught him, but our stakeout house was surrounded by an orange grove – I say no more!
On another occasion I was sent off on a long patrol for three days and two nights – intelligence gathering. You quickly found out where EOKA were hiding out, on account of the Greek Cypriot advance warning system. This was low tech but highly effective. In those days tractors were a rarity and most ploughing was done with horse drawn ploughs. If EOKA were around and a ploughman saw you, he would go into overdrive and start yelling at his horse. Then surprise, surprise, the next ploughman up the valley would do the same and the commotion would travel as far as the village, which was hiding the EOKA fighter. He would then make his getaway. If nothing happened when you passed the workers in the field, then you knew no EOKA men were around.
The problem was making use of this intelligence. We had a radio, so could contact our camp but the Army needed to be able to call up a helicopter in double quick time to get to any village, which was harbouring a fighter and this was beyond them. The Army did initially have helicopters – one spoilt my beautifully painted green grass – but I believe that so many crashed in the steep sided Cypriot valleys that they were eventually withdrawn. So the reality was that these intelligence gathering patrols were a waste of time but were nevertheless a delightful way of exploring Cyprus and seeing some magnificent scenery.
On the patrol in question there were just four of us and one member of the patrol was Private Kane of Cardiff, aged 20 – I was 19. I am a Cardiff boy myself but Cardiff is a town divided by accent. Working class Cardiff speaks Keeerdiff, a very nasal seaport twang reminiscent of Scouse. Middle-class Cardiff has more of a Welsh lilt. I knew that Kane had a bit of a past but didn’t know the details. At night I divided the patrol into 4 watches and each of us stayed awake and on guard for one watch. It so happened that it was my turn to relieve Kane at 2.0am. We sat side by side for a while on our peaceful hill top and I will always remember Kane’s next words, uttered in his very strong Keerdiff accent. ‘Sir’, he said, ‘ I done 2 years in Wormwood Scrubs and 1 year in the Army. Give me the Scrubs every time. At least yer gets yer kip.’
The mismatch between intelligence gathering and translation into action was brought home to me even more forcefully when my Company moved to the Panhandle. In 1958 Cyprus’s beaches and air quality were superb. There was no litter of any description on the beaches and when one went to the top of the Kyrenia range you had a magnificent view of Mount Olympus. Returning in 1994 I discovered to my deep regret that the beaches were beginning to attract the plastic litter harvest that assails UK beaches. Even more surprising and saddening was that I could no longer see Mount Olympus from the Kyrenia range – just a haze and it wasn’t a heat haze. As Cyprus has no heavy industry of which I am aware the haze must have resulted from vehicle pollution. I saw the same phenomenon once in California. In the San Bernadino valley stands the 7,000ft high Moro rock, with an easily accessible summit. At the summit they display a photograph of the view in 1948, when you could see the whole valley. Nowadays you can barely see 3 miles for the haze and many of the trees are dying.
But when we were patrolling round the Panhandle in 1958 we sometimes came across polythene sheeting lying on a beach. It was thought that weapon smuggling was taking place from Greece to Cyprus – it was even suggested that Greek Navy vessels were bringing out arms, which were stored in polythene sheets and then handing them over to Cypriot fishing vessels. Mission accomplished the polythene sheeting was then discarded. But this was supposition – what was needed was firm evidence and I suggested to my Company Commander, Dicky Randell, that I and one other should set up an observation post and stick it out for a week to see what if anything was happening. Dicky agreed it was worth a try and the suggestion went up the line. How far it went I have no idea but I never heard another word.
Up in the Panhandle on an isolated hill stood a Signals detachment – a mast, a couple of buildings and the whole area surrounded by barbed wire. The detachment comprised a National Service Subaltern, a sergeant and 10 signalmen. I don’t know how often they were relieved, if at all, but being stationed there must have been monotonously dull and soul-destroying. The subaltern, in particular, felt very isolated. The first time my patrol chanced upon this post, we could not get away and we were begged to drop by each time we were in the vicinity. I did this but noticed that each time the Signals Officer was becoming odder and odder in his behaviour. I had joked that he was King of his Hill and he seemed to take me literally because he began to behave more and more like an Eastern potentate. He had his men make him a sedan chair and the last time I visited he was being carried round the camp by his men in his sedan chair! Then they took him away to the funny farm.
The fate that befell that Signals Officer was symptomatic of the fact that the Army had made no arrangements for R&R (Rest and Recreation) for its Cypriot forces. If it did have arrangements no-one told me! So after a few months one was faced with the problem that one was entitled to leave but no-where to take it. We used to organize swimming parties but you always had to post armed guards and you were still mixing with the same comrades at arms you met every other day. Taking leave to be able to forget about the Army for a few days was not an option.
However, there was a Roman Catholic padre on the island, who came up with the perfect wheeze for overcoming the problem. He arranged a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for 5 days. Both Graham Cann and myself applied to go and were accepted. Ever afterwards I was known in the Regiment as Hadji Williams.
We flew with Arab Airways and the flight was an experience in itself. It was a propeller plane and flew around 10,000 feet. The flight path took us across Lebanon to Damascus, requiring us to fly between Mount Carmel and Mount Hermon, both of which are 9,000 feet high. We then followed the old camel road south to the Dead Sea and then flew west to Jerusalem airport.
Jerusalem was then a divided city – old Jerusalem lay in Jordan and New Jerusalem in Israel. We, of course, were staying in Old Jerusalem in a monastery. So we saw the sights of old Jerusalem – the Wailing Wall; Pool of Siloh; Gethsemane. The church of ‘Dominus Flevit (Jesus wept) made a particularly strong impression. It has been built on the Mount of Olives and there is a picture window above the altar giving a stunning panoramic view of the Walled City. For good measure they display the Lord’s Prayer translated into 58 languages, including Welsh.
One day we went to Jericho, the Dead Sea and the Jordan river. It was rather strange to be driving down a mountain and half way down to pass a road sign saying ‘Sea Level’. We duly floated in the Dead Sea, read a paper while floating and then paid a fortune for a shower to wash off the salt. The Jordan was a disappointment – small and scarcely flowing. Outside Jericho there were vast refugee camps, looking totally soulless – brown and dusty. I remember thinking that there will be trouble if they don’t give those refugees something to do. They didn’t and of course there was and still is.
My final reminiscence also has a religious theme. We were approaching Easter and I was told to take a patrol into a Greek village, where it was thought Enosis leaflets would be handed out on Easter morning, and apprehend those responsible. I thought that this was mission impossible as every time we approached any Greek Cypriot village, day or night, the dozens of stray dogs that seemed to hang around every village would start barking and the village would then shut down. Everyone would retreat indoors and shutters would be closed. Within 15 minutes you would be faced with a seemingly dead and deserted village.
So at dusk on the eve of Easter Day 1958, I hid my three tonner in a wood about half a mile from the village and I and my men set off for the village, whose name I cannot now recall, but it lay between Nicosia and Kyrenia. All was silent and this was the one night that the dogs did not bark – why I know not. We then managed to sneak into the heart of the village without being seen. There was a square opposite the Church flanked by a shop, a coffee house and a one storey house. The house had an enclosed garden and I realized that it would be possible to get on the garden wall and then climb onto the roof of the house, so as to be able to overlook the square. If any leaflet distribution then took place, we would be bound to see it. Whether we could catch the perpetrators was another matter but I decided to cross that bridge if I came to it.
By 10.0pm my men and I were all on the roof of the house. We could hear the house residents chatting away below us, blissfully unaware of our presence. But nothing happened. However, I decided to stay put and at 3.0am on Easter morn, the village came to life. Doors opened and the village population sallied forth. It looked as though the entire village came to church and most were carrying lighted candles.
Then we saw the Priest walking to the Church behind a wicker frame, carried by two of his parishioners. Tied to the wicker frame was a newly slaughtered Lamb.
With the Lamb at the front, followed by their priest, the whole congregation then marched round their church three times before disappearing inside for the Easter morn service. It was a remarkable sight and I was very moved by it – it is the nearest I have ever come to having a mystical or religious experience. Once the service was over the congregation dispersed to their homes and the village then went back to sleep. It was still dark and as there had been no sign of any leaflet distribution, we quietly slid down from the roof and left the village. The dogs remained silent and no-one knew we had ever been there.
20th January 2016
To read Part 1 of Clive’s memories of Cyprus 1958 click here