The Suez and Cyprus Crisis II

In 1951 the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group was sent to Cyprus, but soon became involved in maintaining the security of the Suez Canal Zone between 1951-4. In 1956 it conducted anti-EOKA counter-terrorist operations in Cyprus and returned to Egypt to conduct the battalion parachute assault at El Gamil airfield and sea landings by the rest of the Brigade during the Suez Crisis.

Paratroopers search for arms and ammunition in Cyprus, 1956.

Although Soviet pressure-switches were found in several devices, improvised versions were manufactured from two hinged pieces of wood fitted with a cheap bell push and a small battery kept open at one end by small springs placed on top of a tin of explosive buried under the surface of a road. When the wheel of a vehicle passed over the wood, the weight forced the two pieces together, which then pressed the bell push to complete the circuit to the battery and detonate the explosive. EOKA also developed a simple mortar from a length of plumber’s pipe packed with explosive and shrapnel and either buried in a bank or fixed to a tree and detonated remotely from a battery at a concealed firing point. Alignment was usually pre-arranged at night using the lights of military vehicles to calculate distances. Some remotely controlled improvised devices were placed in culverts.

Initially, the Ammunition Wing, 625 Ordnance Depot had assisted the police with Ammunition Examiners attached to the Criminal Investigation Departments at Nicosia, Famagusta, Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos. Their role was to accompany detectives to incidents, disarm or dispose of devices and then be prepared to give expert evidence in the Courts. This required devices to be dismantled and then examined for the signature of the person who had constructed it. The senior Inspecting Officer was Major William Harrison, who in 1956 had been seconded to the Cyprus Government as the Government Explosives Officer based at Police HQ and who would be awarded the George Medal. He insisted on attending new devices wherever possible so that he could pass on his findings to his men. In terms of bomb disposal equipment, the Ammunition Examiners usually had an assortment of screwdrivers, pliers, spanners, masking tape, fishing hooks of various sizes and string kept in an ammunition box as their tools of the trade. Protective clothing was almost non-existent, yet only three Ammunition Examiners were killed in action. When Captain J W Greenwood formed 1 Ammunition Disposal Unit (Internal Security), it was an administrative move to formalize the deployment of the Ammunition Examiners, nevertheless it was the first unit established by the RAOC specifically for bomb disposal. The Examiners laid the groundwork for the collection of forensic evidence in bomb incidents for which the Corps has since gained deserved international recognition. Between 1 April 1955 and 17 March 1959, the Ammunition Examiners dealt with 4,688 devices, attended over 3,000 recoveries of arms, ammunition and explosives and investigated 4,300 incidents. Greenwood also commanded 17 Mobile Ammunition Inspection Unit, which was part of the Ammunition Depot at the former RAF Lakatamia airfield.

Since individual ownership of wirelesses was not widespread, particularly in rural areas, the British and EOKA indulged in sustained psychological warfare campaigns throughout the Emergency, with the distribution of leaflets frequently used in efforts to discredit each other. One provocative EOKA leaflet suggested, in the autumn of 1955, that the US and Great Britain were an unholy alliance and since the UN had denied Cyprus freedom, the Cypriots had no choice but to shed blood. A British leaflet depicting a Cypriot murdered by EOKA suggested that supporting Grivas would result in the sacrificing of children for a pointless cause in which freedom of speech and religion would be denied. Other British leaflets included wanted posters, safe conduct and surrender passes and offers of rewards for supplying information. Every soldier carried a small red pocket wallet entitled ‘Wanted Men in Cyprus’ issued by COSHEG (Chief of Staff to His Excellency the Governor) which listed the details and photographs of EOKA suspects. Much of the printing was done by the RAOC Printing Unit. While Grivas was reliant on youths to distribute leaflets, the British, in a standard psychological warfare tactic, generally used Austers to drop leaflets, with the aircraft flying at low level and relying upon the breeze to help distribution. Boxes of leaflets were also dropped for troops to distribute. When two apparently loyalist organizations appeared in 1958, ‘Cromwell’ and AKOE (EOKA spelt backwards), and distributed leaflets promising retribution against EOKA operations, a military counter-intelligence operation discovered that some printing had been done on duplicating machines in British bases and several Servicemen were quietly shipped back to the United Kingdom.

On 28 September the Tassos Sofocleus Group used a site identified by Grivas a year earlier to ambush two military vehicles negotiating a hairpin on the main road between Nicosia and Kyrenia below St Hilarion Castle with heavy automatic fire, including from a Bren and a home-made mortar, killing Mrs Mary Holton of the Women’s Voluntary Service and her military driver, Private Colin Read of 1 Wiltshires, and wounding several others. Read was a professional Bristol City football player. This ambush led to HQ 16 Parachute Brigade launching Operation Sparrow Hawk One on 2 October with 2,000 troops from 1 HLI, 1 KOYLI and 40 Field Regiment searching an area of 200 square miles east of Kyrenia Pass for the Group. The Royal Navy sealed off villages along the coast. Among tactics developed to root out hideouts constructed in houses was pouring water on to the floor and watching its seepage. Next day, a C Company, 2 Para patrol commanded by Lieutenant John How was checking an isolated farmhouse about a mile from the Turkish-Cypriot village of Trapeza when Private Robert Taylor accidentally dislodged a rock to reveal a cave. Lance Corporal Staff entered and found a weapons cache buried in several oil drums, two wireless sets and clothing not normally associated with farmers. How then ordered a detailed search, and persistent patience profited for Privates O’Donnell and Pearce searching the fodder storage area in a barn. Removing a coat from a hook, they saw a hole in the wall and flashed a torch inside. On seeing a head, a shot was fired into the cavity and someone inside shouted ‘Don’t shoot! We surrender!’ But no one emerged and it was only when How fired another shot though the wall that paras in another part of the barn saw straw moving and six partially-clad men emerge from a trap door, one bleeding from his ear. Among them were Tassos Sofocleos and Fotis Christofi, his deputy commander with a £5,000 bounty on his head. Forensics on a Bren gun proved that it had been used in the Kyrenia ambushes, including the murders of Read and Mrs Holton. Several of the terrorists were convicted of taking part in the St Hilarion ambush and sent to Dartmoor Prison. The hideout was ingenious and consisted of a 8ft by 3ft cavity between two rooms with ventilation supplied through the hole. Suspicion and luck on the part of an observant soldier proved its undoing. When several more hideouts were found in the vicinity of the farmhouse, the farmer had his house blown up as a punishment for harbouring terrorists.

The next day, acting on information, the grave of the missing Lance Corporal Gordon Hill was found nearby. He had been strangled. Forensic examination of a buried Sten showed that it was his and that it had been used in several murders. Operation Sparrow Hawk One essentially destroyed the EOKA groups in the eastern Kyrenia Mountains and removed a significant threat to the road that connected Nicosia to Kyrenia and the northern coastal fringe. Operation Sparrow Hawk Two followed in mid-October for five days and focused on the western fringes of the Pentadactylos Mountains; it was supported by six Sycamores of 284 Squadron, previously the Levant Communications Flight, under the direct operational command of Brigadier Baker. The remaining three helicopters were used to enhance communications and evacuate casualties. Even though the Sycamores sometimes struggled to reach sufficient height, their ability to hover and allow patrols to abseil through the trees restricted EOKA freedom of movement. Rubber-soled boots made an appearance and the semi-automatic 7.62mm Self Loading Rifle (SLR) was replacing the .303 rifle, much to the disgust of some soldiers. With his Guerrilla Groups in the mountains still under intense pressure, the diversion of terrorism ordered by Grivas continued to ravage the rest of the island, with fourteen Greek-Cypriots, including one attending a wedding reception, and six servicemen killed during the month.

Wednesday afternoon in the Forces was, so far as was possible, a sports afternoon. EOKA had noted that the units stationed in Lefkoniko regularly used the High School football field. During the night of 20 October four students dug a 400-foot long trench from the communal fountain to an olive grove and then laid cable from a car battery to a bomb hidden near the tap. On the 22nd, a football game between two 1 HLI teams was watched by the students and their teachers, but after the final whistle, as the thirsty players strolled to the fountain, teachers discreetly marshalled the schoolchildren away from it. Two teenage girls watched the soldiers gather around the fountain and then waved their white handerchiefs to two students sat by the battery. As Private Matthew Neely was about to drink from the tap, they connected the wires to the terminals, disembowelling the soldier in an explosion that wrecked the fountain. Seven Highlanders were wounded, with Private John Beattie dying the following day and Private Benjamin Doherty after he had been flown back to England. When a company of Highlanders arrived, several vented their feelings while rounding up about 100 suspects by damaging some properties during searches. Some villagers later sought £3,000 compensation until Lieutenant Colonel Noble, the Commanding Officer, angrily retorted, ‘The murders of Privates Neely and Beattie are probably one of the most dastardly acts that EOKA has committed. It was premeditated and aimed to catch soldiers when they were at play. If £3,000 are being claimed for alleged damage caused by troops, the amount is infinitesimal when compared with damage caused by EOKA to my soldiers.’ Nothing more was said.

On 28 October 16 Parachute Brigade was withdrawn from Operation Fox Hunter and assembled in Kykko Camp outside Nicosia to finalize preparations for seizure of the Suez Canal, giving EOKA yet another valuable respite from sustained pressure. A suspect then claimed that the wife of a wanted terrorist living in Galini, named as mother-of-four Mrs Xapolitos, was strongly suspected of supplying two EOKA with food. Shortly before dawn on the 30th, troops surrounded the village and then Company Sergeant Major Dempster and Private Thomas of the 16 Independent Parachute Brigade Provost Group and two Provost WRAC, Sergeant Birbeck and Lance Corporal White, entered the house occupied by Mrs Xapolitos. When she was awoken and told by Dempster that she was being arrested on suspicion of supplying EOKA with food and would be taken to the Platres interrogation centre, Mrs Xapolitos explained that she had not seen her husband for several months and that she was penniless. But the military police had noted that her house was neat and showed no signs of destitution. Refusing the offer to take her children to Platres and declaring that their grandmother would look after them, Mrs Xapolitos was escorted from the bedroom by Birbeck and White to the room next door. As the two military police began a cursory search prior to a detailed one later, Dempster noted that a floorboard under the bed was loose. Silently attracting the attention of Thomas, they both carefully lifted the bed to one side and then Dempster covered Thomas as he gently prised up the floor board until a small, dark space was revealed. Two men then burst out and were arrested after a brief scuffle in the bedroom. When Mrs Xapolitos realized the commotion meant that her husband had been captured, she struggled to release him but was restrained by the two WRAC. Xapolitos and Thoma, the second terrorist, both had £5,000 bounties on their heads.

Operation Musketeer began on 31 October with British and French aircraft flying from RAF Akrotiri to attack Egyptian targets, followed a week later by airborne and amphibious landings. El Gamil airfield was seized by 3 Para while the remainder of 16 Parachute Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade disembarked from landing craft, followed by 45 Commando carrying out the first British helicopter assault in history. Even after the Greeks had presented the Greek-Cypriot cause to the UN Assembly, Grivas rejected an appeal from Athens to show restraint by declaring a truce, and on 2 November he used the scaled down internal security operations to blitz Cyprus by attacking Operation Musketeer assembly areas. Fifteen Servicemen, four British civilians, eleven Greek-Cypriots and one Turk were killed in the first three weeks of November, most in the Limassol area – where Grivas was hiding. A lorry carrying some 1 Norfolks was wrecked by a mine near Polymedhia, killing Corporal Richard Chittock and Private Cook and flinging fourteen other soldiers from the wreckage.

During the autumn fruit-picking season, the roads in some parts of Cyprus became sodden with juice squeezed from the squashed grapes and oranges loaded in carts and the backs of lorries. Near Paphos, a remotely activated mine placed underneath the liquid killed Warrant Officer Martin, whose unit, 6 Royal Tank Regiment, was in Cyprus as part of Operation Musketeer. The General Practitioner Dr Bevan was shot dead by the escort of a ‘patient’ after EOKA propaganda had accused him of administering ‘truth drugs’ at interrogation centres. A senior Colonial Police officer died and an Army captain was wounded when a bomb exploded in Gordon Highlanders Battalion Orderly Room in Platres. Staff Sergeant Donald Trowbridge, of 3 Signals Regiment at Episkopi, was killed and his wife narrowly escaped injury when gunmen ambushed his car. On 12 November, a Gordon Highlanders convoy of three lorries commanded by Lieutenant Bradshaw were about four miles from Lefka on their way to collect fire wood at a mine near Pedoulas when it was ambushed by the Markos Drakos Group. Sergeant Alexander Dow in the lead lorry brought a 2-inch mortar into action until he was killed by an EOKA Bren gunner. Meanwhile, Private Symon, who was badly wounded in the arm, had managed to turn around his damaged lorry and, in spite of a shredded front tyre, drove back to Lefka to summon help. Of the four wounded in the action, Bradshaw and Symons were flown back to Great Britain for specialist treatment. The initial search of the ambush site yielded nothing, but the finding of a cache revealed arms, ammunition and explosive. Three gunners from 21 Medium Regiment were killed by a bomb placed in the NAAFI canteen juke box at Coral Bay Camp at Paphos by a Greek-Cypriot employee. An airman used his personal protection revolver to wound one of two terrorists who had just murdered a pro-British lawyer cycling to work. A Hawker Hunter blown up at RAF Nicosia was blamed on nationalists. At the end of the month, when RASC Sergeant Major Middleton was badly wounded by a gunman in the Nicosia married quarter estate, his furious wife Muriel chased the gunmen. Although she lost them, her description resulted in the arrest of two youths, one of whom, Christos Lambou aged seventeen years, was sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life because of his age. Mrs Middleton received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. In early December Charles Foley infuriated the authorities by writing an article in which he implied that the British expatriate community were blaming Field Marshal Harding for the increase in sectarian attacks on their community and he found himself prosecuted for breaching censorship legislation.

A week after the Suez landings, 16 Parachute Brigade returned to Cyprus by sea and immediately began handing over its special operations role to HQ 3 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Hopwood), which had arrived on HMS Ocean at Limassol. The Brigade was part of 3rd Division and had been deployed to defend Malta during Operation Musketeer. One of its units, the 1st Battalion, The Somersetshire Light Infantry (1 Somersets) moved into Kermia Camp at Nicosia and relieved the Gordon Highlanders in 50 Infantry Brigade District, leaving the Scotsmen to embark on the troopship Empire Ken bound for England. The troopship Dilwara landed 1st Battalion, The Oxfordshires and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (1 Ox and Bucks) who took over from the Norfolks in 51 Infantry Brigade District. 1 Suffolks took over from the two Gordon Highlanders companies in Platres. Then 3 Battalion, The Grenadier Guards (3rd Grenadier Guards) arrived a month later. In mid-December, 16 Parachute Brigade less 2 Para returned to Aldershot, followed by 1 Norfolks. Apart from the few days pre-Operation Musketeer training, 1 and 3 Para had been away from England for nearly a year.

In early December, 3 Infantry Brigade began the unfinished business left by the Parachute Brigade by launching Operation Black Mak in the south-west Troodos. By now, the troops had warmer winter clothing and sleeping bags, which if heavy and bulky, were better than blankets.

Although heavy snow and bitter winds again hampered movement, by the time the operation finished on 13 December after ten days, fifty-two guerrillas had been captured, their romantic notion of living an austere heroic life ambushing patrols dispelled by the rigours of surviving in cold hideouts in the wintry mountains, short of food, weapons and ammunition, and constantly at risk from Army patrols. Their interrogations led Brigadier Baker to conclude that the operations since Operation Pepper Pot had reduced the ability of the Troodos EOKA to take the offensive. There was also confirmation that teenage girls were supplying EOKA with information and that some were complicit in some murders and ambushes. In a sweep in the Paphos area, a 50 Medium Regiment RA and police patrol trapped the Lyso Group Leader George Raftis and two EOKA underneath a bridge near Kissonerga, not far from their hideout in an orchard. On the 23rd, a 21 Medium Regiment vehicle patrol stopped three civilians leading two donkeys staggering under heavy loads. Two of the men abandoned their colleague, leaving him to account to the gunners why a heavily-greased Bren gun and other military equipment had been found loaded on the donkeys. He turned out to be Evagoras Pallikarides, who was high on the wanted list. Aged eighteen years, he had been involved in enosis since 1953 and had been named as the murderer of two Greek-Cypriots, one an elderly man accused of collaborating with a Turkish-Cypriot policeman. When Grivas heard about the arrest, he essentially condemned Pallikarides to death by suggesting that he had been moving the Bren to a winter cache; however, it was for the murders that Pallikarides was executed in March 1957, the youngest and last member of EOKA to walk to the gallows.

Lord Radcliffe then published his Proposals for Cyprus in which he recommended a format by which the Governor would exercise executive authority over an elected ministerial assembly with a Greek-Cypriot majority. In spite of recognizing the cultural and linguistic differences between the two communities, he did not believe that the Turkish-Cypriot minority should be given equal representation because it was inconsistent with a democratic constitution and predicted that if the Turkish-Cypriots were given equal representation, it would most probably result in federal separation – a prophetic conclusion.

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