Introduction by Margaret Sheard ….
Here is another lovely story from a Cyprus veteran who was with REME and served in Cyprus 1958 to 1959. At cyprussene.com we think it is so important to keep these stories and memories alive so we asked Mike Peel to relate some of his memories of his time in Cyprus and following is his story.
Cyprus remembered by Mike Peel ex-REME
I was born on 28th August 1934 and have lived all my life in the same place, apart from my two years National Service, my wife and I married in October 1959 so this year we will be celebrating our 58th wedding anniversary. I was called up for National Service in July 1957 and was posted to Honiton Camp in Devon to do six weeks square bashing and was then posted to Arborfield, near Reading, to train as a radar mechanic. After some weeks the army finally realised my electrical knowledge was limited to changing a light bulb so I was then posted to Bordon, in Hampshire, to train as a gun fitter and I passed out there and in May 1958 was posted to the Command Workshop at West Derby, Liverpool.
Six weeks after I arrived there I came home for the Saturday night and told my wife-to-be and my mum and dad that I didn’t expect to get home the following weekend as I was due for guard duty that weekend. Back at camp, on the Monday morning, the Adjutant sent for me and told me to get my kit packed as I was being posted abroad and by early afternoon I was on a train to Reading and then to the REME depot at Arborfield. On Tuesday we were kitted out and on the Wednesday off to RAF Hendon transit camp, which is now the RAF Museum, and at some unearthly hour of the Thursday morning 23rd July 1958 I was in a coach to Blackbushe Airport and then on a Hermes aircraft which took us to Luqua RAF base airport in Malta where after a brief stop we continued the journey to Nicosia Airport in Cyprus. When we arrived we were then taken by truck to Kermia Camp, just off the Kyrenia road and here I stayed until 23rd. June 1959.
I served in Cyprus as a gun fitter with REME based at Kermia Camp but as we were attached to 43 Royal Artillery LAA these guns were no good against terrorists so we did guard duties such as guarding Ormophita police station, security patrols by Land Rover and on foot in and around Nicosia, and on standby in Luna Park on Greek and Turkish religious days.
We got called out one morning to a village outside Nicosia as an RAF sergeant had been killed taking his son to school so we had to guard the males of the village in the local open air cinema whilst other troops searched their houses. I wouldn’t have done it by choice but it certainly made you grow up and be worldly wise.
While we were guarding these people the sun got higher in the sky and we sweated on the stage and the people we were guarding pulled sheets over the framework where the audience sat so they were in reasonably cool conditions!
In the warmer months we used to work from 07.00 to 13.00 each day, then had our lunch and a truck was laid on and we went in the afternoon to a guarded beach near Kyrenia – I believe we called it “6 Mile Beach” – to the east of Kyrenia and we could swim or just laze in the sun. I wouldn’t have done what I did by choice as I had just finished my apprenticeship and would have been earning some decent money but it toughened you up and made a man of you.
I suppose even at that time it was unusual for personnel on active service having their wives and families with them and on a couple of occasions I stayed at the bungalow of a staff sergeant from Saturday morning until the Sunday morning and baby sat their two young daughters on the Saturday evening while their parents went out for the evening. They treated me very well and it got me out of camp.
In October 1958 our commanding officer, in his wisdom, decided we should have a weekend exercise in the Kyrenia Hills so we set off in a couple of 3 ton trucks together with a few Catering Corps lads and found a site which was fairly level and looked ideal and set up camp there. The Catering Corps lads set up a field kitchen and everything was fine until the middle of the night when the heavens opened – it bucketed down with rain with thunder and lightning – and that was when we realised we had pitched camp in a dried up river bed! For the rest of that night and the following night we had to sleep as best we could in the trucks and a few choice words were said!
I believe it was our commanding officer who had the bright idea of holding Bingo Evenings on Thursdays in the Mess Hall of the camp and he got the Catering Corps lads to provide a fish and chip supper – don’t know what fish it was but it was OK. He needed someone to sell the bingo tickets so I volunteered and did it with a Lieutenant Forshaw who was in charge of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps unit which were with us at our workshop – we got on fine together and he bought me my fish and chip supper. These bingo sessions did well as we had army people and wives from all round Nicosia taking part which brought money into our funds and I believe that I got paid a little bit as well which helped when I was granted 7 days leave from 20th to 27th December 1958 and went towards the cost of my airfare when I flew home to the UK to spend Xmas with my family and wife to be.
On the morning we were flying home I was taken to Nicosia airport to wait for our plane which was coming from Heathrow – unfortunately when we got there we found Heathrow was fogbound! After a while we were taken to a small hotel in Nicosia and given a meal and waited there until we were told that the fog had lifted and the plane was on its way to us, so we were taken back to the airport to await its arrival. By the time we boarded and set off it was late evening and we had a short stop at Athens airport before we flew on – coming over Northern Italy we were told that Heathrow was again fogbound so we had to land somewhere for the rest of the night – we flew over Turin and Milan and then to Rome airport and were taken into Rome for what remained of the rest of the night at the “Grand Hotel Roma” – it certainly was grand with a marble staircase! After a continental breakfast our coach picked us up and the person in charge told us the plane would be leaving in two hours time so they would take us on a tour of Rome and I can recall seeing the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain and other sights of interest which I can’t now recall so at least I got my one and only sight of Rome. We landed at Heathrow in the late afternoon and it was then by train to my home for Xmas – I don’t know how I got a message to my family in those pre-mobile phone and pre-internet days to let them know I was delayed. Fortunately there were no problems with my return journey.
We had fairly regular football matches on our pitch in the camp – there was not a blade of grass on it and you could suffer more injuries from falling on it than by being tackled! I played on it once or twice but sometimes refereed – nobody would take any notice of my decisions and after every match I vowed and declared I wouldn’t do it again – the next time there was a match they’d come to our tent and ask me to referee and off I’d go again and do it!
We were very fortunate that Kermia Camp was well appointed – there was a WVS building, a cínema, a NAAFI for our fags and something to eat, though most of us used the “Pakki Wallahs” for an “Egg Banjo” or similar. We also had a couple of Salvation Army ladies who came on the camp regularly and, apart from buying things, you could arrange for flowers and similar to be sent to friends and relatives at home – since then I have always supported the “War Cry” sellers. One evening we had a “Command Services Entertainment” group come to the camp to entertain us – I don’t know if it was coincidence but it just turned out to be on the night when our REME lads were on guard duty so many couldn’t get to it!
Even in the situation we were in there was humour as well – we had a company clerk called Taff Parry – he was a Welshman of course! – and I’d heard he was going back to the UK for demob so I asked him who was coming out to replace him- he said no one so just as a joke I said to him I’d like to have his job. I didn’t think anything more about it until a couple of days later when I was told the Sergeant Major wanted to see me. I wondered what I’d done wrong this time – it turned out that Taff had said to him that I’d volunteered to do the job when he left the island and the Sergeant Major asked me if I had clerical experience, which I hadn’t though I thought I’d got enough savvy to do the job. The Sergeant Major said I could have the job when Taff left which I did until I left the island – the reason I volunteered for this was because I knew Taff didn’t do any guard duties so I’d get a good night’s sleep – all he did was the occasional duty clerk in the evening in the office so I was able to go in and write my letters home. I had a desk in our CO’s office and when I left the army he gave me a brilliant reference. I only did one more guard duty which was at Wayne’s Keep transit camp the last night I was on the island as I fell foul of the camp’s Sergeant Major!
The reason I had to do guard duty at Wayne’s Keep was because we had taken all the office equipment with us to Wayne’s Keep and our Major had told me to keep an eye on it and make sure it didn’t disappear so I stayed with it. Then the camp’s Sergeant Major came up and told me he’d got a job for me and to follow him but I told him I’d been told by our Major to keep an eye on the office stuff and couldn’t leave it – he asked me the same thing again and I told him the same thing. Later that afternoon someone came into our tent and asked for me – when I told him who I was, he said I was on guard duty that night so I said “Fancy that!” (or something like that!) – he said did I know why – and I said it was because I ignored his Sergeant Major’s order but if I’d left the stuff and it had gone missing I would have got it more in the neck from a Major rather than a WO1!
After hostilities finished, which I think was in April, 1959, we could visit places on the island when we were in civvies and one Sunday one of our young 2nd Lieutenants arranged a visit to Kantara Castle on the “Panhandle” and we all piled into the back of a 3 ton truck whilst he got in the cab with the driver. When we were passing the Officers Mess he asked the driver to stop and he went in and came out with two crates of beer which he put in the back of the truck! As you will know the castle is approached by a steep, rough road (unless they’ve improved it!) with a sheer drop on one side and a sheer cliff on the other side and two of the lads hung over the tailboard in case we went over the edge! Anyway everything went OK and in the afternoon we visited Salamis before we went back to camp.
As I say we could then go out of camp in civvies and I had a pal called Ken Harding from South Wigston, near Leicester, who was a railway enthusiast, as I’ve always been, and we went looking for traces of the former Cyprus Government Railway, which closed in the 1940’s and we found a former railway bridge near our camp. We also discovered that the Nicosia Customs House had been Nicosia Station and the road to it, Railway Road, had been the railway line.
We did find out some time later that we were originally going to Libya but by the time we got to Cyprus that had blown over so the War Office left us in Cyprus. In April 1959 things quietened down in Cyprus so we were able to get out and about and see the island and we left there on the troopship “Devonshire” from Limassol on 23rd June 1959, calling for a few hours at Malta and Gibraltar and sailing into Southampton on 2nd July 1959 with the Royal Artillery band playing on the quayside. Then it was off back to the REME depot at Arborfield until the Friday afternoon and then 72 hours leave before we returned on the Tuesday morning and were demobbed on the Wednesday morning.
When I left the army I went back into engineering for a few months which didn’t work out so I left and worked in my dad’s painting and decorating business through the 1960’s then when that closed did an office job for three years and then that company closed – places I worked at seemed to have a habit of closing! I then went to work in the offices at British Rail and this is where I stayed for nearly 23 years, finishing on my wife’s 60th birthday on 18th March 1994.