Introduction by Margaret Sheard …..
We are now receiving many stories from Cyprus veterans who served in Cyprus in the 1950s and 1960s. Some feel they are not able to write their story but it is surprising that, with a little encouragement, once the memories come flooding back it is so easy to write them down and we are able to do the rest.
However there are some Cyprus veterans who have been able to recall their time in Cyprus in the form of a published book and we were delighted to receive an extract from “A Varied Life” written by Barry E Thorne, which came to us via Les Smith who runs the Cyprus Veterans website. We are sure our readers will enjoy reading Barry’s account of his time in Cyprus as much as I did. Following the extract there is a short synopsis of Barry’s life as a soldier, colonial policeman, diplomat and businessman, and details of his book “A Varied Life”.
Barry E Thorne
Having successfully completed a 3-inch mortar course at the Support Weapons Wing of the School of Infantry, Netheravon, I returned to the 1st Battalion, which in 1957 was stationed in Cyprus. I was welcomed back as an expert in the 3-inch mortar by being appointed Battalion Intelligence Sergeant!
Cyprus in 1957 was still in the throes of the EOKA terrorist insurgency, led by the elusive Colonel Grivas, an expert in the art of guerrilla warfare taught to him by the British during the German occupation of Greece in World War II. EOKA was the terrorist wing of the Enosis movement, whose aim was to unite the island with Greece, a move not only opposed by Britain, but more particularly by Turkey. The ethnic population of Cyprus comprised some seventy five percent Greeks, with the remainder Turks, though much of the way of life on the island was very different from that in either Greece or Turkey.
Many of the terrorists were hiding out in the mountains and forests but we also faced serious urban terrorism, especially in the capital Nicosia, where many British soldiers had been murdered by the likes of Nikos Samson, whose preferred method of killing was a bullet in the back of the head of an off-duty soldier. He escaped detection for years, and being a well-known journalist, would often appear soon after a murder (which he himself had committed), most of which took place in Ledra Street, which soon became known as ‘murder mile’. He would shoot, then drop the weapon into the handbag of a female accomplice, who would quickly leave the scene, while he would casually sit drinking coffee at a nearby café, until after the police and military had arrived. He would then re-appear on the scene as a newspaper reporter, a ruse he got away with for almost two years, but was caught eventually and put on trial for murder. The trial was held at the Central Criminal Court, situated in the heart of the city, during which time he was ‘accommodated’ in a specially built cell, isolated from the court building and any other cells. Regiments took turn in mounting guard at the court, a role which was anything but ceremonial. To ensure that no attempt was made to rescue this high profile prisoner, light machine guns were mounted on the roof of the court, overlooking the small, square building where Samson was held, with guards both inside and on its roof, as well as patrolling the area in and around the court grounds. The court complex was surrounded by two metre high iron railings, topped with barbed wire, access through the single entrance being strictly controlled.
Samson made no attempt to deny the killings, and was proud of the fact that he had murdered some thirty British soldiers. This did not add to his popularity among those guarding him, some of whom had served with his victims. Strict discipline ensured that the soldiers could not have any personal contact with him, thus avoiding any ‘revenge’ occurring, but no opportunity was missed to make life uncomfortable for him by making as much noise as possible when patrolling around the building at night, or by simply stamping up and down on the roof of his cell.
Duty at the court did have its lighter moments, most of which were provided from the street running parallel to one side of the court complex, which housed a number of small brothels. These were regularly visited by locals and were particularly busy on Sundays and seemed to be treated by men of all ages in much the same way as the pre-lunch drink ‘down the pub’ was in the U.K. These brothels were strictly ‘out of bounds’ to the soldiers and to ensure this, were patrolled regularly by the military police. This didn’t prevent our men calling out to the prostitutes standing in their doorways soliciting business, and throwing money through the railings with shouts of ‘shufti zubrik’, Egyptian Arabic for ‘show your private parts’, which clearly was understood by the women, who were only too happy to oblige!
Samson’s luck held to the end, as not long after his capture, independence negotiations got under way and in order to agree an orderly hand-over to civilian rule and an end to terrorism, an amnesty was announced for all terrorists, whether active or hiding in the mountains or the city, or indeed held prisoner, resulting in a stay of execution for Samson, and his release when full independence was granted. A further consequence of the amnesty occurred in 1974, when Samson led an attempted coup aimed at his long sought after Enosis, but which resulted in the invasion by the Turkish army, and the splitting of the island into two separate ‘states’, a situation that remains to this day.
My role as Intelligence Sergeant was no ‘cloak and dagger’ affair, but I did occasionally have to go into the city, when the drill always was to alight from the vehicle ‘gun first’, with my revolver cocked. My main activity involved paperwork and keeping records of the battalion’s activities and details of terrorists captured or killed. The ‘kills’ were noted in a small handbook which was distributed to certain members of the security forces, and contained photographs of all the leading EOKA members. (I still have my copy with its large, red-chinagraph pencil crosses across the photos of the terrorists ‘dealt with’.) However, having been filled with enthusiasm for the 3-inch mortar, I soon mounted a campaign of action to be returned to the mortar platoon, including the posting of photographs of the weapon on the Intelligence Section’s notice board, which eventually achieved its aim.
Soon after my return to the mortar platoon we were sent into the Troodos Mountains, where our role was not dissimilar to that in Kenya, except that this time our enemy was far more sophisticated, was well armed, and very much more dangerous. Although we acted more as a rifle company, we did occasionally have the opportunity of firing our mortars, much in line with the tactic employed in Kenya, whereby the mortars would fire bombs into a designated area, denying it to the terrorists and, in theory, driving them into the waiting ambushes of other units. Active patrolling was essential, and this included surprise ‘visits’ to villages, recording the names of people living there and the number of goats and sheep they kept. On one such occasion, we were given a friendly welcome by the Greek village head-man, who gave us coffee and delicious prickly pears from one of his trees, only to learn the following day that he had been murdered by a terrorist, even though the ‘information’ he had given was of no real value, and most certainly would not have led us to any EOKA hide-out.
Spot checks were carried out regularly at isolated villages, and houses searched to find hidden weapons. Due to the support known to be given to the terrorists by priests, and although not a pleasant duty, this had also to include Greek Orthodox churches. On one such occasion, I was met at the door of a church by a somewhat over-friendly priest, who insisted that a search was unnecessary as he had nothing to hide, but after a few minutes of this, I had to push past him and on entering saw that it was festooned with paper Greek flags bearing the word ‘Enosis’. The priest’s attitude changed and he angrily followed me into the church shouting about sanctity and abuse by the British, but we continued to search anyway. Although no weapons were found, our search revealed clear signs of someone having lived in the vestry, with an unmade bed and partly eaten food on the table, which the priest insisted had been left by his ‘altar boy’. However, an ashtray full of cigarette butts indicated that someone older had been occupying the room, but the delays caused by the priest had given whoever it was ample time to ‘disappear’, and we could take no further action other than demand that the flags were taken down (one of which I kept as a souvenir).
Although we did not have to face the deadly roadside bombs (or I.E.D.’s) experienced later by our troops in Afghanistan, EOKA were quite capable of laying booby traps and manufacturing other forms or types of bombs. One such was planted in a village pump, which the terrorists knew would be used during a football match between the army and local villagers and was activated at half-time when the pump handle was depressed. It killed two of the soldiers and severely injured half a dozen village children who, having crowded round the footballers, were caught up in the blast.
Life in the mountains was not easy but still preferable to city duty in Nicosia, which although more comfortable was repetitive and often boring. We established base camps living in ‘pup tents’ (which had to be crawled into, with just sufficient room for two men) and were active with patrolling and the setting of ambushes and observation posts (OP’s). The latter had to be established and maintained ‘secretly’, which meant that relieving the two soldiers manning each of them often had to be accomplished at night and supplies of food and plenty of water sent up to them regularly without the ‘providers’ being seen. My platoon commander at the time, an Australian on secondment to the British Army, insisted that in order to set a good example to the men, a particularly difficult OP situated hundreds of feet up a steep mountain path, had to be supplied by the two of us. We had to climb, sometimes on our hands and knees, up to the men, with each of us carrying a full jerry can of water strapped to our backs, plus food and our personal weapons. A somewhat exhausting experience and one I felt had more to do with the ‘macho Aussie’ testing out his skinny platoon sergeant to see if he could match him for strength and stamina.
Travel along newly made roads in the mountains was particularly hazardous, these having been built in a hurry by Royal Engineers with bulldozers carving out the sides of the mountains and tipping the rubble over the edge as they progressed. Roads were sometimes completed in this way only shortly before our vehicles used them. I have a vivid memory of a nasty accident which occurred when our convoy was slowly winding its way along one of these narrow roads, wide enough for only one lorry to progress and with no room to pass. The road wound around steep ravines and gullies, often doubling back on itself with only a few yards from the side of one mountain to another, with drops of many hundreds of feet in between. I was sitting in the front of the lead vehicle of the convoy, comprising ten one-ton lorries, when on hearing a loud noise to my left, saw one of our vehicles, with eight Glosters sitting in the open back, slowly tip over as the edge as the road gave way. It then rolled down the steep side of the valley between us, spilling out soldiers as it went. My driver also, on hearing the noise and looking in horror to see what was happening, actually hit the side of the mountain opposite to the edge! I jumped out and with members of my platoon, scrambled down the side of the ravine to assist the injured. Others ran to the soldier who was screaming in pain with a smashed and bloody face over which the edge of the lorry had rolled, but I could see another man’s head sticking out from a pile of rocks, which had been loosened by the falling lorry and which had buried most of his body. I called the men to help me remove a large boulder from the silent soldier’s chest which was slowly crushing him, which we achieved with no little difficulty. Meanwhile, a radio message was sent to the company commander, who relayed details of the accident to army headquarters, and in under an hour one of the very few helicopters available in those days arrived to ferry the badly injured to hospital in Nicosia, thereby saving the lives of all eight, including the badly injured man we had rescued from the rocks.
EOKA were capable also of laying their own forms of ambush for the unsuspecting, and I escaped one such when my company was returning to Nicosia, following a spell of duty in the mountains. We were in a convoy comprising some fifteen army vehicles and after about five hours travel were dusty and tired. After following the ‘convoy signs’ placed by the military police at intervals along the side of the road, we suddenly ended up in a narrow street, with the road ahead of us blocked by an old unmanned lorry, causing the convoy to halt and unable to move either forwards or backwards. It was clear immediately that the signs had been moved and a street ambush prepared, which had been foiled due only to the number of well-armed troops involved, who were immediately ready to fire back at any heads which may have appeared on the roofs of buildings on either side of the street. A quick check of the buildings was made, but no terrorists were to be found, who had obviously fled the scene, probably having expected to entrap and shoot up a supply convoy and not a company of infantry, who would have hit back hard.
Our time in Cyprus was not all ‘gloom and doom’ and one night when I was guard commander at battalion headquarters, a military police Land Rover drew up at the front gate barrier, and two burly military policemen (or red-caps as they were known) escorted and half carried a small member of my regiment into the guardroom. The young man had been a well known jockey prior to beginning his national service, and the fact that he had one leg in plaster, combined with the general suspicion of red-caps, who were not well loved by the ordinary soldiers at the best of times, led me to suspect that he had been ‘damaged’ while in their custody. However, the facts of the case were somewhat different and it transpired that the fellow had been caught in one of the infamous Tanzimat Street brothels (all of which were out of bounds to British soldiers, but a rich hunting ground for the military police nonetheless), literally with his trousers down. He was bundled into the back of the police Land Rover, but as the vehicle slowed at a junction, he had taken the opportunity to jump out and leap over a low wall immediately ahead of him. Unfortunately for him, it was the upper part of the city wall surrounding Nicosia, and he fell some twenty feet into the dry moat below, escaping only with a broken leg. This had been plastered at the military hospital prior to his continuing on his way to the Glosters’ guardroom.
Overall, we considered ourselves in a situation where Greek Cypriots had to be treated with suspicion (even though many of them were not involved in any terrorist activity or support) and only Turkish Cypriots (particularly when it came to taxi drivers), could be relied on not to attempt any harm to British soldiers. This led us not to put any ‘trust in Greeks’, a bias which remained with many into later life. Anti-British rhetoric and propaganda was rife in Greek schools, and I recall once manning a check-point and standing in the middle of the road and being shocked and upset when a bus drove slowly past and its teen-age schoolgirl passengers began screaming and spitting at me, and I narrowly dodged one trying to scratch my face. The pity of it all was that Cyprus was a beautiful country, blessed with good weather, fine beaches and cool mountains, and had a long and interesting history. Prior to the attempts to make the country part of Greece, it had also a friendly population where Christian Greek and Muslim Turk lived and worked in relative harmony.
After a year in Cyprus, I was posted to the Regimental Depot at Gloucester, as a recruit training sergeant, and following a further army reorganisation when the Glosters’ depot was closed, I moved from there to Exeter where a combined ‘Wessex Brigade Depot’ had been established.
(Edited extract from my book ‘A Varied Life’.)
Barry Thorne joined the army as a Boy soldier in 1952, and on reaching the age of 18 served in the Gloucestershire Regiment from 1953 to 1959, obtaining the rank of sergeant in 1956. His postings included Kenya (1955-56, during the Mau Mau campaign); Aden, the Yemen border, and the Persian Gulf (1956); Cyprus (1957, during the EOKA campaign); and Germany (1958/59).
After a short break in the UK, he joined the Colonial Police, serving in Nyasaland/Malawi from 1961 to 1968. In 1968, he became a member of HM Diplomatic Service, serving in East Pakistan/Bangladesh; South Africa; Sri Lanka; Ethiopia; Italy; Turkey; and The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London. He retired as Deputy Consul-General, Istanbul, in 1993, and set up his own business in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in International Credit Management, where he continues to act as Chairman.
“A Varied Life” by Barry Thorne
It is available from the Glosters Museum in Gloucester (at £20.00, plus p&p, telephone 01452 – 522682; Email: Lavinia.Drake@sogm.co.uk ), but should any ex-soldier/serviceman be interested in obtaining a copy, this could be provided by Barry, at cost price (i.e. without ‘author’s mark-up’) for £14.00 plus p&p; Contact: by telephone (01628 789345), or email (email@example.com). (Barry has also published a novel, ‘Mists of Kirinyaga’, in which he draws upon (but not based on) his experience in Kenya during the Mau Mau campaign).