WITH THE REDCAPS IN CYPRUS
By virtue of their training, both as police men and soldiers, the 'Redcaps' - the Royal Military Police - were uniquely suited to Internal Security duties during the 1955-59 EOKA Emergency, when 250 of them, mainly National Servicemen, with a small nucleus of regular officers, warrant officers and NCOs were based in Nicosia, Famagusta, Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos. Here Lieutenant Colonel Nicholls recalls the lives and times of the Famagusta Detachment at the height of the conflict, a period in which he was personally involved.
THE FAMAGUSTA detachment was employed mainly on mobile patrols in urban areas in support of the civil police and acted as the eyes and ears of the Army. The theory was that they would radio for assistance if trouble were found to be brewing, but since the radios rarely worked effectively and riots could break out quickly, while bombings or shootings happened instantaneously, this rarely happened, leaving the RMP to handle the situation as best it could.
The RMP in Famagusta consisted of a regular captain as officer commanding, a National Service 2nd Lieutenant, a couple of regular sergeants and about 30 junior NCOs - there are no privates in the RMP.
Patrols were carried out in stripped-down Land Rovers (although a form of nylon blanket armor was issued later) with personnel immaculately turned-out in neatly pressed battle-dress or khaki drill, red caps and white blancoed belts and gaiters. They either carried .38 revolvers or Sten guns, often supplemented by tear-gas grenades.
The Detachment Headquarters was a requisitioned house on Evagouros Avenue and personnel were either accommodated in two other requisitioned houses in the town or in the nearby tented camp of 51 Infantry Brigade.
Once the conflict began in April 1955, unrest became widespread throughout Cyprus. EOKA leaflet were secretly distributed and fly-posted in all the Island's major towns. Greek flags were widely flown and simmering resentment on the part of the Greek populace could quickly turn into ugly confrontations with the Security Forces. Riots broke out, shots were fired and terrorists threw bombs from behind cover at passing police and army vehicles.
Two 18-year-olds die
IN NOVEMBER 1955, the Famagusta Detachment suffered its first casualty: 2nd Lieutenant Bruce Cox was shot in the back and seriously injured. He was evacuated to the UK for urgent medical treatment. Then, on 21 March 1956, the first Redcap was killed, when terrorists threw a bomb into an RMP 15 cwt truck on a routine administrative task. There were two NCOs in the front cab and two in the open rear cargo area.
The bomb fell in the rear of the truck and in a vain attempt, Lance-Corporal Bryan Welsh grabbed it, but before he could throw it out, it exploded in his hand and he was killed instantly.
At the subsequent inquest, the Coroner, Mr. Justice Trainor recorded: 'Having heard the evidence at this inquest, I would like to congratulate Lance-Corporals Prosser, Burrows and Smith (the other military policemen in the vehicle) on their miraculous escape on 21 March... It was nothing short of a miracle that saved them from being butchered by the barbarians who threw that bomb.
'It is tragic that this boy of 18 years, Bryan Welsh, should have been killed. I have had as witnesses in this court on many occasions - members of the Royal Military Police - and I have always been very impressed by their intelligence and efficiency. They have struck me as being a body of men well above the average in those characteristics and its horrible to see that they have suffered heavy casualties, in this case the death of this 18-years-old boy...
'I believe that in a heroic attempt to save his companions he met a hero's death. His body absorbed, I imagine, most of the destruction of the bomb and so the other occupants of the car were saved.'
Welsh was a quiet, amiable young man who came from Lewisham in South East London. He was a National Serviceman whose ambition was to become a schoolteacher. For his courage in attempting to save the lives of his comrades he was posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct. His 44-year-old mother said: 'I am very, very proud.'
Barely six weeks later, on the morning of 30 April 1956, serious riots erupted in Famagusta. A group of youths began stoning RMP patrols and the doughty Corporal Len Want received a very heavy blow to his head from a large piece of concrete thrown at him by one of the rioters.
Fortunately the stiff peak of his Red Cap prevented his skull being smashed, but Len was certainly put out of action for a few days. More seriously, however, rioters lobbed a bomb at another RMP patrol made up of Corporal Barry Heseltine and Lance Corporal Neville Dawes, both 19. Heseltine retaliated, opening fire on one of the ringleaders. As a result, Petros Yiallouros, an 18-year-old student, received a fatal injury.
Petros Yiallouros, a member of ANE, EOKA's youth movement, on parade in Famagusta.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Petros Yiallouros was a member of ANE, EOKA's youth movement. He attended the Ammochostos Greek High School, where he was responsible for organizing his fellow students and distributing anti-British propaganda leaflets. Among his many EOKA duties was to transport weapons and messages between gangs. On 7 February 1956, he led a student riot in Famagusta. After bombs were lobbed, British troops were forced to fire. Yiallouros was killed in the action.)
Loss of young life on either side was always a matter of deep regret and poignancy was perhaps added to this death by the fact that like many Cypriots, Yiallouros' family was living in London. After a period of prolonged and profound anxiety, the subsequent lengthy coroner's inquest completely exonerated Corporal Heseltine and again the high standard of conduct of the RMP was complimented.
A 'caring and gallant man'
LATER THAT same day, 30 April, EOKA threw more bombs at a two-vehicle RMP patrol, which included a pair of RAF Policemen, injuring the occupants to varying degrees.
RMP Lance-Corporal Roger Golden and Corporal Laing of the RAF, both particularly badly hurt were bundled into one of the Land Rovers by Corporal (later Lt. Col) Steve Manning. The driver, Lance-Corporal George Watts, put his foot down on the accelerator and raced towards the nearest civilian hospital. But his bomb-damaged vehicle broke down en route.
Quite unexpectedly a passing Cypriot civilian stopped his car, placed the two injured servicemen on the rear seats and drove at speed to the hospital, straight through an armed police roadblock on the way. On arrival, the 'Good Samaritan' pulled the injured inside and then returned to his blood-soaked car, drove away and was never identified, probably a good thing because EOKA 'executed' those that were seen to help the British.
This Cypriot's action was that of a truly caring and gallant man. He had put his own life at substantial risk, but demonstrated that even in times of great anguish, fear and hatred, humanity and decency can still emerge as an example to us all.
Both Golden and Laing were evacuated to UK. Golden made a full recovery, but Laing lost a lung because of his injuries.
Young killer escapes death
LESS THAN two months after the death of Corporal Welsh, the detachment lost another popular NCO, Lance Corporal Colin Keightley, when a bomb was thrown into the compound of Inkerman House, one of two houses used to accommodate RMP NCOs.
Lance-Corporal Tony Fish, a National Serviceman (later to become a Superintendent in the Warwickshire Constabulary) was present.
'The 13th of May 1956 was a Sunday,' he recalls. 'The yard at the side of Inkerman House served as a vehicle park and located in it were the "Thunder boxes" (latrines), the sign writer's store and garage. Behind the thunder boxes was a footpath, which ran from the road at the front of the billet. It led to a field, which was overlooked by a guard point in the water tower at the rear of the premises. But during daylight hours, it wasn't manned.
'On weekdays this area was used by off-duty NCOs to receive orders for their next patrols and for tea breaks. Usually there were several people around, but this Sunday there were just a few.
'Corporal Geoff Allman of the RAF Police, about to set off on a patrol, was present and so were Lance Corporal Keightley, ACC Private Norbury and Busty, our Greek Cypriot cook, who were preparing vegetables for our day's meals. All three were sitting together outside the kitchen, while I was returning from the yard, with some floor mats for the Corporals' Mess.
'Then there was a huge explosion. Its force pushed me against the mess wall. Everything seemed to stand still. Just absolute silence and thick black smoke. I knew I was injured. I touched my back and it was wet with blood. Geoff Allman carried me inside the building and placed me face down on someone's bed. I could see an old newspaper on the floor and it began to get wet from the sweat dripping from my head.
'I tried to calm my fears, grateful that I was lucky to be alive after being so close to where the pipe-bomb had gone off. A Mr. Munson, a civilian with 2 Field Ambulance appeared out of nowhere and removed a piece of shrapnel from my back. Mine was a minor injury compared to the wounds suffered by Colin Keightley, Private Norbury and Busty.
'Colin, badly hurt, was rushed to the British Military Hospital in Nicosia for treatment, but he didn't survive. He died six days later, on 19 May 1956. An immensely popular man, he was sadly missed. The other two injured men returned to good health and continued their duties.
Lance-Corporal Colin Keightley
'Because The Ballad of Davy Crockett was popular at the time, Colin had bought a Davy Crockett hat and wore it off-duty. Whenever I think of him, he's still wearing it. Memories can be very odd.'
Lance Corporal Gerry (Wilf) Mannion had been asleep until the explosion jolted him awake. 'I leapt out of bed wearing only "drawers, green, cellular", jumped into my boots and, without lacing them up, wrenched open my locker door,' he says.
'Contrary to standing orders, I kept my Webley .38 revolver, inside the locker. Although our small arms instructor had told us in training that this particular weapon would do just as much harm to an opponent if we took it by the barrel and threw it, I wanted it my hands, even it didn't fill me with confidence that I could do much against a well-armed adversary.
'Having grabbed hold of the firearm I ran like a bat out of hell down the stairs, my unlaced boots barely touching the treads.
In the yard, I saw my shocked and bleeding colleagues. All I wanted was to capture the person who had thrown the bomb.
'I turned right out of the yard into the path to the rear of Inkerman House. The narrow walkway was deserted and uncannily quiet. The only sound came from my panting (too many cigarettes and Keo rum!) and the pounding thud from my heart. I ran on the connecting road. That, too, was deserted. Where was the bomber? The enemy was nowhere to be seen. Then I spotted the small religious shrine. Dug into the high mud bank, it was small alcove, containing a Madonna and crucifix. Just below, there was a door. "That's it! That's it! He must be in there!" I exclaimed.
'I approached the door cautiously, when, like a bolt out of the blue, the reality of the situation suddenly struck me. If the enemy were in the shrine, he could well kill me. What was I going to do, shoot him? "Please, God, God, don't let him be in there," I prayed. I flung the door open. To my relief the shrine was empty. If anyone had been inside, would I have fired my revolver at them, regardless of their innocence or guilt? I fear I might well have felt obliged to shoot them - innocent or guilty. The entire episode was surreal.
'Having failed to capture the bomber, and dressed like a warrior in drawers - green - cellular, boots - munitions black, unlaced - and a large black revolver in my sweaty hands, I returned to the front door of Inkerman House. Standing there, under guard, was the bomber, a mere teenager.'
Lance-Corporal Fish explains: 'When the bomb went off, an army 15 cwt truck was passing our billet. Instead of stopping, the driver and his escort, both from the RAOC, used common sense and raced ahead of the bomber and waited. He literally fell straight into their arms. He was taken in handcuffs to the shower room and manacled to a pipe until the civilian police arrived to take him away.'
Lance-Corporal Ted Millan, who saw the entire incident take place from an upstairs window of Inkerman House, positively identified the EOKA bomber. He was Chrysostomos Panaghi, 18, from Askas village. In court, he was found guilty of Lance-Corporal Keightley's murder.
'I was present at the special court in Nicosia when Panaghi was sentenced to death, which involved the judge donning his black cap. A priest sat by the accused,' Lance-Corporal Tony Fish remembers. 'Like most of those caught and so sentenced he was not hanged and, as far as I am aware, is a free man. More than can be said of the terrorists' victims. Such is the game of politics.'
Field Marshal Sir John Harding, the Island's Governor, commuted Pagaghi's death penalty to life imprisonment as 'a gesture of goodwill', because of his age and EOKA's decision to call a unilateral truce in August 1956. He was released from prison when Cyprus was declared an independent republic in 1960.
'Jimmy Edwards saved by the RMP'
THE TWO months of April and May 1956 marked an all-time low in the RMP Famagusta Detachment's fortunes since the outbreak of the EOKA conflict. It suffered 13 more casualties, about half of whom required in-patient treatment at the British Military Hospital, Nicosia, or were cas-evaccuated to the UK.
Morale in the unit, however, remained extremely high, despite the danger, extremes of temperature, impossibly long hours worked and the very basic living conditions. Such things as air conditioning and refrigeration were virtually non-existent, and certainly in the tented camps, life was far from comfortable. Nonetheless there was always good humor and great camaraderie with the day-to-day stresses often being relieved by a variety of less hazardous experiences.
One such was when Len Peacock, a unit cook, was on guard duty during a dark night and heard suspicious movement ahead of him. He shouted a challenge, but there was no reply. Without waiting any longer, he released the full firepower of the Army Catering Corps on the suspect. It resulted in the premature death of a grazing donkey. After that, legend has it, Len had difficulty persuading the troops to eat any more of his meat stews.
On another occasion, Lane-Corporal Derek Coleman was on night shift at RMP HQ, when the sound of an explosion rumbled through the darkness. He and his colleagues immediately drove to the scene of the incident and found a bombed army bus, with its front wheels blown off. To their surprise, the Redcaps saw the stranded passengers were a group of show business stars from the UK on a tour of army camps on the Island. They included Jimmy Edwards, Lita Rosa, Jess Conrad and 'Baron Hard'. Slightly shaken, they were quickly taken to safety at RMP HQ.
Next morning, the newspapers reported that Jimmy Edwards had told them that the Redcaps had saved their lives! Then the lovely singer Lita Rosa visited one of the RMP billets to express her thanks to the young NCOs. It was a very welcome surprise to have such a beautiful young woman in their midst and she boosted both morale and testosterone levels.
But there were also females of a different kind who established a good-natured relationship with our men. These were Famagusta's 'ladies of the night', whose premises were 'out of bounds' to military personnel and subject to frequent checks by the Redcaps. From time to time, errant soldiers were found in interesting situations in the 'houses of ill-repute' in the back streets of the old city, but usually they were merely returned to their units, once fully dressed.
As a result, this pragmatic approach resulted in a very harmonious modus operandi between the Royal Military Police and the 'ladies', who often raised their skirts and showed off their skimpy underwear as a salute to the passing patrols.
Tea and 'smoke breaks' could be taken safely in the Turkish quarter and several military policemen developed a taste for such exotica as slices of giant watermelon and sandwiches made of unleavened bread, sold from wayside stalls.
The maintenance of discipline amongst the young men of RMP was never a problem, as they were invariably highly motivated and took a fierce pride in their unit. Moreover, the high standards set by the senior NCOs, such as Sergeant (later Major) Frank Bardsley was an example to all.
For many of the young men involved, their time in Cyprus was the adventure of a lifetime and a period in which they quickly changed from boys to men. They experienced fear, anxiety, fatigue and danger, but also the joy of comradeship, hardships shared and the knowledge that their job was well done.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the four year-long EOKA conflict, the Royal Military Police lost 9 of its members:
© Maurice Nicholls 2009