A 'realistic approach'
EOKA MEETS THE PARACHUTE REGIMENT
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WHEN 1 Para left for Cyprus in December 1955 to perform Internal Security duties, about a third of the lads were WW2 veterans, who had been at the Battle of Arnhem - Operation Market Garden - and really did not give a damn about anything. They felt rightly that they had seen and done it all and whatever the army threw at them now, it could not phase them.
About a third was made up of regular soldiers from other regiments who had been pushed into joining or had drifted into the Parachute Regiment.
The remainder consisted of National Service conscripts. We were committed to testing ourselves to our limits for two years in one of the toughest regiments of the British Army. And tested we were - from the moment we landed in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.
I had been doing my Parachute training when the lads were first shipped out, but like the others, I took the move in my young stride.
'When the two Battalions of The Parachute Regiment arrived in Cyprus it was to find bomb throwing and sniping of civilians by hidden gunmen an everyday occurrence somewhere on the island, if not in Nicosia, the capital,' reported Ivan Smith for his Aldershot newspaper.
Our water came to us through iron pipes laid across rocks. At best, conditions were primitive.
Members of the Oasis Club
WE lived eight men to a tent, illuminated at night by a single hurricane lamp per tent. If we wanted to drink water or wash, we had to collect it early in the morning. By mid-day, the water from the iron pipes became so hot, it would burn the skin our hands if we used it to wash.
The toilet area became known as the Oasis Club. Here, there were two cesspits dug from the solid rock by us. We erected a small hut above the site and placed a large box over the pits, drilled large holes and covered what were now lavatory seats with a wooden lid.
There were no partitions and we sat next to each, spending our time chatting. With oranges plentiful in Cyprus, but still a rarity in the UK, some chaps who had eaten too many found themselves spending a long time in the Oasis Club.
When the mood took us, some one would light a small piece of paper and drop it into the pit, setting alight the rest of the paper below. Immediately a billion flies would try to escape the inferno, exiting in a hurry through the open legs of the nearest seated individual.
Our urinal, too, was less than hygienic. It consisted of a piece of bent corrugated iron that emptied straight over the cliff into the quarry below. If we had downed a couple of beers, we had to be careful as there was nothing to stop us from falling over the edge.
We also used the sandstone quarry for 'live' firing.
Then there was problem of 'dust devils', which would tear through the camp half a dozen times a day covering every thing in a fine layer of dust.
All equal in a fighting unit
IVAN Smith represented a group of Aldershot newspapers and was invited to visit us and report back for the folks at home.
He wrote: 'In a Land Rover we entered the outskirts of Nicosia and made our way to the camp of the 1st Bat-talion, which is situated about five miles from the city on a rocky plateau high above the fertile plain,' he wrote enthusiastically. 'Here the two Parachute Regiments have adjoining camps with separate entrances from the main road and a wire barrier be-tween them.
'They do not have elaborate kitchen ovens, Nissen-hut bedrooms, baths or showers, which practically every other regiment on the Island enjoys, but it is the austerity in their lives in the camp under these conditions that the men of the two Parachute Battalions take as part of their normal life on active service.
'The food is plain, and the rations of officers and men are alike, just as are the sleeping and livings conditions generally.
'One of the facts most noticeable to the civilian in this camp is the little difference between the provision for officers and other ranks, a fact which is definitely appreciated by the men themselves and is something which is largely responsible for building a team of men into a perfect fighting unit.'
The Coca Cola patrols
WHEN we were sent on patrol in Nicosia, 1 Para would call at the Coca Cola factory and pick up a couple gross of Coca Cola. The factory charged us two Mils [2d] a bottle.
In those days, Coca Cola was sold in distinctive bottles, which were beautifully made from very thick green glass in the shape of well-curved woman, some said.
If we expected to get involved in a riot of hostile Greek Cypriots, we left the Coke bottles in the backs of our trucks to 'cook' in the hot sun.
When a riot got underway, we grabbed a few of these bottles, gave the Coke a good shake and then threw them in the air so that they dropped just in front of the demonstrators. The bottles exploded like hand grenades and laid a carpet of thick glass across the street.
Because many Cypriots wore shoes with very thin soles, the glass became a barrier they found painful to cross. Usually they then gave up the idea of attacking an administration building or us and went home instead.
We never had to hit or shoot any rioter, let alone release some tear gas and spoil a fine day.
I often wondered if the Coca Cola Company knew just how we were using its product or the grand job it did in keeping the peace.
Pride and praise
IVAN Smith wrote: 'The Parachute Regiment takes a realistic approach in dealing with the bomb-throwing and armed bandits and when men wearing red berets enter the walled city of Nicosia, they are treated with grim respect.
'The attitude of The Parachute Regiment generally has been the cause of considerable praise, not only from other armed forces, but also from high officials. Aldershot can be justifiably proud of its regiment, and in particular of the two battalions now completing and leading the internal security of Nicosia.
'There are one or two hundred EOKA fanatics of the age - and sometimes of the mentality - of our own Teddy-boys, led by a mere handful of extreme nationalists.'
Life in a detention camp
WHEN terrorist suspects were arrested, their details were taken and they were transferred to one of several detention centers in the Island.
Located eight miles from Nicosia, Kokkinotrimithia Camp, was used to detain Cypriots on suspicion of complicity in terrorist activities. Formerly a Cyprus isolation hospital, it was supplemented by several quanset huts. There was space for 252 suspected terrorists, held under the detention of Persons Law. No charge had been made against them and they were not awaiting trial. The camp had a double fence, which was patrolled by two German shepherd dogs - Hector and Hercules - trained to attack any thing between the wires.
Ivan Smith, the Aldershot journalist, was invited to visit a detention camp. He chose Camp K. He reported: 'To appreciate the true position of the Cyprus problem those armchair critics, Members of Parliament and church leaders who air their views should either go out and see for themselves or find something else to talk about.
'When Derbyshire miners send £250 to known murderers, snipers and bomb-throwers, who, because of insufficient evidence for presentation in our courts, are quite rightly put into an 18b deten-tion camp guarded by men of the Para-chute Regiment. Both Greeks and Cypriots can be forgiven for marveling at the mentality of those at home,' wrote reporter Ivan Smith.
'In Camp K detention camp is a section known "Millionaires' Row" where some of the most wealthy men of the island are detained because they have plotted and have been responsible for many murders.
'When I was conducted around, the insolence of most of the occupants was obvious. They sat in summer lounge chairs, eating the expensive foods they are permitted to have sent to them.
'Visitors with gifts attend daily and they are ushered into a special room and sit at one end of a long table with the detainee at the other. They talk in Greek and an interpreter stands near to report on the conversation, but as he is a Greek who probably, as most do today, fears for his loved ones, there is no guarantee of co-operation.
'It is firmly believed that the detention camp is a hot-bed of intrigue, and that from it detainee EOKA leaders send back, through the visitors, instructions for the bombing and shooting that continually flares up after a temporary lull.
'You see, in the whole of the British Armed Forces we boast only five Greek interpreters.'
At night we thought it was very wrong that the EOKA suspects were nicely tucked up in their beds while we were stuck in the goon towers to guard them. So we filled our pockets with stones and threw one at their Nissan hut roofs at 15-minute intervals. All through the night there were bangs, followed by a series of smaller bangs as each stone rattled downwards. My guard position was on the first floor of the water tower. The Paras caused so much trouble, the authorities requested we never returned to the camp after our first guarding duty. Thank Goodness.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Athens Radio beamed programs to Cyprus and regularly accused the British of operating detention camps that were comparable to the Nazi run camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz in World War II - 'only with crematoriums missing'.
(The truth was very different.
(Detainees did absolutely no work, yet received up to 35 pounds a month. A detained shepherd - who had never seen more than two pounds 10 shilling as a weekly wage - now drew the sum of 30 pounds, with allowances for his wife and children.
(As A C Sedgwick of the New York Times found: 'Some of the charges made by Athens Radio could not be even remotely substantiated. One was that women inmates were among those ill-treated. There are no women inmates.
('Mr. Pissas, a spokesman for the detainees, charged that the soldiers performing guard duties were in the habit of calling out insults to the inmates and making threatening remarks to them. He asserted that the inmates sometimes had guns pointed at them, presumably to make the threats against them more realistic. The mere fact that any inmates were allowed to be as outspoken as they were seemed to argue against the similarity of this camp with such institutions as the Nazis established during the war.)
Nights at the movies
BEFORE my 'call-up' I had worked for J Arthur Rank in his cinemas, theaters and studios. In Cyprus, I decided to use my experience to both entertain my camp-bound mates - and to make some pocket money.
My 'projection room' was built from a crate used originally by a large engine. The power to screen the films came from our own generator as there was no mains-electricity in the camp.
I hired the projection equipment from a Greek Cypriot cinema in Nicosia. Because there only one projector, I had to stop every 20 minutes to change reels.
To acquire new movies meant regular trips to Nicosia for which I was given the use of the 2 i/c's Champ and an escort of three armed soldiers. In addition I was excused all duties while in camp and had full control over the cinema and what I screened.
My fellow Paras were charged 10 Mils for which they were able to watch a movie every night. I also collected all the bottles left behind by each audience and kept the place tidy. The bottles - hundreds of them - provided another source of income because I traded them for cash. A quick rake in the sand also turned up a load of coins that had fallen out of customers' pockets. In a good week I made about £50.00.
The film that proved most popular with the Paras was called Rasputin. It had been made Warner Brothers in France and so it went into great graphic detail about the Russian monk's sex life, with no holds barred. The dialogue was entirely in French and there were no subtitles, but no one gave a damn as the 'action' was arousing for the lads deprived of any contact with the opposite sex.
Everything went smoothly - the troops and officers were happy and I was earning more than my army pay - while Lt. Colonel Jackson was the 'boss', but he was transferred and his replacement was brought to us from a County Regiment and ended our entertainment. His presence has become part of Para folklore.
Tracking the terrorists to their lairs
WE spent most of our time out in the open roaming the hills and mountains. We did so many sweeps that the names of these operations have long since been forgotten. We would carry rations for three days and would meet up with a truck towards the end of that time to collect more rations and then carry on.
Matters came to a head when all the lads were going out on patrol with a six-pack of our own Pegasus beer. Strict orders were given that this practice must end but every one ignored them. Things changed when we were issued with a second water bottle, then we did not have an excuse to take the beer.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: There were further protests by the Paras after the new CO arrived. From all accounts, he was a martinet who believed the primary role of the regiment was to achieve top marks for spit and polishing and to perform routines only found in basic training. The men refused to be humiliated. The CO threatened to charge them for disobeying orders. The Paras refused to accept his punishments and instead requested they face courts martial.
(While the request moved up the chain of command, the officers' mess turned into a flaming inferno and the CO's tent was set on fire so many times that he was forced to order an armed guard to protect it from future attacks. The next time it went up in flames, it was because the guard had fallen asleep on the CO's bed. The Paras, of course, knew the man with the matches.
(When the General Officer Commanding British Forces in Cyprus received the 600-strong list to face courts martial, he immediately recognized something was very badly wrong at the Para camp. Soon afterwards the CO was sent elsewhere.
(Once the CO had packed and gone, the regiment's adjutant took over, all charges were dropped and life returned to normal, whatever that was.)
One of our biggest success occurred in the Troodos Mountains. We set off early from our camp and had not gone far when we saw people running away from us, down a mountain as fast they could. They were probably 300 - 400 yards away, going like the clappers, when we gave chase.
Preparations for another conflict
IN mid-1956, the buildup for Operation Musketeer began. We were to invade Egypt and reclaim the Suez Canal from President Nasser, although we did not know that at the time. Our work in Cyprus was placed on the backburner and we were recalled to the UK for more parachute training, after which we were on the move again.
There was a small chemical toilet for the crew, but we peed in the rear of the bomb bay and the pee was sucked through the seams in the bay doors by the slipstream I often wondered how many people below wondered why they felt rain on a clear day. We stowed our kit at the front of bomb bay to avoid contamination. The aircraft carried 30 to 50 of us on each flight. Because the planes were not pressurized and there were no seats, flying in a Shackleton was an endurance test especially when we crossed the Alps.
After our additional parachute training in Britain, we set off for Cyprus again - in Shackletons.
On this return leg we had brought so much extra gear that the planes could not get over the mountains and so they flew at a very low altitude. At times the aircraft wings came close to scraping the sides of gorges and canyons or so we thought. Even in September the temperature drops below freezing at that height, but one bright spark had the idea of sitting in the rear gun turret to have a better view. When we landed to refuel in Malta, he was frozen solid. He had to be lifted out and carted off to hospital. We never saw him again.
I had traveled to Cyprus for the first time by troop ship, a journey that took about two weeks, but returned to the UK by a Coastal Command Shackleton, stopping briefly at RAF Idris in Libya for the aircraft to refuel. We landed back in Blighty on 15 December 1956, touching down at Hampshire's Blackbush airport in the early hours of the morning.
OUT of about 100 men in the company in 1956, there were 60 who attended. The reunions are annual events and when 1 Para was at Dover they were held there. Now they take place at No.1 Parachute Training School and at RAF St Athan in Wales. They reunions are good enough to attract former Paras from as far away as Canada and Australia.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: 1 Para today is permanently attached to the SAS as the Special Forces Support Group. This group consists of a battalion from 1 Para and a company of Royal Marine Commandos, with a squadron from the RAF Regiment consisting of 22 men.)
© Bryan Hunter and David Carter 2008