By Robert Smol
In 1974, a total of 41 Canadian Armed Forces personnel (including six army cadets) were killed while on service overseas and here in Canada. Outside of the military community, their sacrifices and the ordeal of their families and friends went largely unnoticed by the Canadian public. In the series 1974: Lest We Forget, Robert Smol tells the stories of the little-known events that plagued the CAF 40 years ago.
In April of 1974, the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR), which had stood up only six years prior, was deployed to Cyprus for its first peacekeeping mission. Three months later it was to stand in the centre of an all-out war when Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded the island. Dutifully remaining within peacekeeping’s extremely restrictive rules of engagement, the Canadians exchanged fire with both belligerents while attempting to keep the United Nations mandate intact. At the same time, CAR soldiers rescued civilians and tourists caught up in the erupting conflict.
Deployed to keep the peace in a “boiling pot of distrust”
When Canada’s Airborne Regiment arrived, the mandate of UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus) was to monitor the 10-year-old ceasefire between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island.
“There really was no political unity between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities for many years,” says David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “The island had had issues with a sort of intermittent civil war and that was when we first sent a contingent to Cyprus in 1964.”
In his book, The Bulletproof Flag, Brigadier-General Clay Beattie, who in 1974 was a colonel and commander of the Canadian contingent in Cyprus, described the ethnic situation on the island as a “boiling pot of distrust.”
According to retired Lieutenant Colonel Ian Nicol, who in 1974 was serving in Cyprus as the staff officer responsible for intelligence and security, elements of the CAR were deployed to Cyprus as a composite unit called No. 1 Commando Group. It consisted of No. 1 Commando (the French-speaking part of the unit) as well as elements of the Airborne HQ and Signal Squadron, engineers, and Service Support Unit.
At the time, Canada’s area of responsibility on the island was the Nicosia Zone, which comprised the capital and airport and outlying areas. The remainder of the island was monitored by other UN contributors, including Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Austria and Britain, which retained sovereign air bases.
The military coup and Enosis
The lead up to the Turkish invasion of the island on July 20, 1974 began five days earlier when the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, was disposed and sent into exile in a coup d’état organized by the Greek Cypriot National Guard.
“I was in a United Nations helicopter moments after the coup started and saw many movements of troops, including the actual attack on the presidential palace with BRDM APCs, with infantry on foot, and with T-34 tanks,” recalls Nicol. “The island went quiet for a few days and the mobility of the Airborne was severely curtailed.”
At the time of the coup, Beattie was on leave with his family at a cottage near Kyrenia, on the north of the island. When a helicopter arranged by the local Finnish contingent arrived to pick him up, the Canadian commander suddenly became the target of fire from nearby Kyrenia Castle.
“As I approached the helipad I could see what I assumed to be national guardsmen on the top of the castle wall. They could easily observe the helicopter circling as if to pick somebody up. As soon as I came into sight, they began to shoot in my direction, skipping bullets off the helipad. It was abundantly clear that they didn’t want anyone to use the helipad. I waived the helicopter off and made my way back to the cottage.”
Before a second helicopter was to extract him from a more secure location, Beattie personally led a convoy of 20 civilian vehicles seeking safety in the Finnish Zone.
On the Green Line separating the Greek and Turkish communities in the Nicosia Zone, the fighting among the Greeks inevitably spilled over into the Turkish enclave.
“My platoon area was right on the Green Line itself, and in my area the separation was sometimes no more than five metres” recalls retired Major-General Alain Forand, who in 1974 was a captain serving as the CAR’s recce platoon commander. “So obviously, during some of the fighting among the Greeks, the bullets went over to the other side and there was inevitably a lot of uneasiness amongst the Turkish population.”
The July 15 coup replaced Archbishop Makarios with Nikos Sampson, whose stated objective was to seek enosis or unification with Greece. “No other act could have inflamed Turkish sensibilities more and, as we now know, planning for the invasion was stepped up,” says Nicol.
Visitors are coming from the North
On the afternoon of July 19, 1974, the CAR’s log entered an observation from Forand’s recce platoon reporting that the Green Line had become “suspiciously quiet” and that Turkish Cypriots had established roadblocks adjacent to the Green Line leading into their enclave. Just after midnight on July 20, the CAR received intelligence from a local source indicating that Greeks were setting up positions at Ledra Palace Hotel, a popular tourist spot on a high point on the Green Line, which also provided a vantage point into the Turkish enclave. An hour later, Forand’s recce platoon reported that Turkish Cypriots were upgrading their barricades.
Despite the danger and the escalation in tension between the two national groups, humorous situations still occurred, as recalled by Corporal Alain Gaudet in his diary.
“We were watching a John Wayne movie in the mess hall last night (July 19). As soon as the cowboys started shooting (in the movie), the Greeks heard it and started firing on us in the mess. We got out of there and ‘the cowboy movie’ will be left for another day.”
At 0330 hrs the commanding officer received a call from Brigadier General Francis Henn, the UNFICYP chief of staff, advising that “he had some info that visitors are coming from the north” and that “he wants our contingent to be ready for any action.” At 0332 hrs the Canadian contingent went on full alert with orders that observation posts were to be double manned. At 0505 hrs the recce platoon reported that Turks were out of their buildings with weapons and equipment.
At 0520 hrs came the first confirmation that Turkey was invading the island with air attacks on Greek National Guard locations in Kyrenia as well as on the airport in Nicosia. By 0615 hrs, some 36 Turkish Hercules and DC-3 aircraft had dropped over 1,000 troops in Turkish enclaves with more insertions to follow that morning. In addition, close to 100 Turkish helicopters were reported to be flying in the region and 11 warships were observed firing off of Kyrenia.
By 0730 hrs the CAR’s incident log ascertained that “it would appear that the object of the invasion is to secure a corridor from Kyrenia to the (Turkish) enclave.” At 1030 hrs the first reported amphibious landings took place off Kyrenia.
Recalling those fateful early morning hours on the invasion’s one-year anniversary, Beattie wrote: “It was clear to me that we at UNFICYP would be fully committed to trying to manage a full-scale war. This was one task that had never been foreseen and was not within the forces’ mandate.” According to Beattie, the UN could, at that point, “only encourage us at UNFICYP to play it by ear and do our best to meet the challenge of the task.”
“Our main role was to keep our own people safe and report on what was happening,” says Nicol. “Also under the UN mandate in Cyprus, we could only use force to defend ourselves and this did not change in the post-invasion period.”
In spite of the restricted rules of engagement, Canadian Airborne Regiment patrols on the Green Line continued as the two sides exchanged fire. This in spite of the fact that in some areas along the Green Line the space separating the two sides was no more than five metres!
“We received the order to patrol in order to convince both belligerents not to shoot and that is when we started to get some wounded because, obviously, we became a target,” says Forand. “After a couple of days I had received five wounded and the decision was made to withdraw to a place near the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia.”
Securing a place at the Hotel
The Ledra Palace Hotel stands on the Green Line between the two enclaves and, in the words of Corporal Gaudet, provided a “helicopter view of the Turkish positions.” Not surprisingly, the hotel became a major bone of contention between the two sides in the hours and days following the invasion.
“At the time fighting broke out, about 350 people were trapped in the hotel,” recalls Nicol in a 1974 interview with the Canadian Armed Forces magazine Sentinel. “Our CO, LCol Don Manuel, went to the hotel on the first day of the invasion and the effect of his presence on the civilians was quite noticeable. They calmed down and listened to him.”
The following day the Airborne Regiment proceeded to escort the civilians out of the hotel.
“For a lot of those civilians I think it was the first time that they had heard bullets flying over their heads so we did not have to push them to move faster,” says Forand. “They were pretty eager to get out.”
The next priority, according to Ian Nicol, was to have the UN secure the hotel. Although Greek National Guard personnel had previously evacuated the hotel and the site had been declared a UN protected area, allegations continued to come in that the Greek Cypriots were sniping at the Turks from the hotel.
At 1748 hrs on July 21, the Turkish ambassador informed the UN liaison officer that “the hotel would be bombed in about five minutes.” At that time, 10 to 15 Airborne soldiers were guarding the building and they were told to seek shelter in the basement.
“I stated that if the attack was carried out and any Canadians were killed or injured, I would hold him personally responsible and report the details to the Canadian government,” wrote Beattie. “Approximately 10 minutes later, Turkish aircraft attacked the area of the hotel. They made four passes but they did not drop bombs — they simply sprayed portions of the hotel and the surrounding area with canon and machine-gun fire.”
According to Nicol, a local ceasefire was negotiated to extract the 15 Airborne soldiers from the hotel.
“The full air strike was subsequently called off and we re-established UN operations in the hotel.”
Firefight at Camp Kronborg
On July 23, the headquarters for the Canadian company manning the observation post, Camp Kronborg, began to draw mortar and gun fire from Greek Cypriot National Guards when the remains of a retreating Turkish patrol sought sanctuary within the camp. The Greek attack also set the camp’s infirmary on fire and prevented it from being put out. As they continued to draw fire, priority then became to get the Turkish soldiers safely out of the Canadian camp.
“Captain Normand Blaquière, the operations officer, said he knew a safe way across the small river to the Turkish Cypriot side,” explains Nicol. “As he was escorting them, with a flag and bullhorn, he was fired on by machine guns and hit in the legs. Anyone who tried to get to him and help him was also fired on.”
Among them was Private Michel Plouffe, who was part of the escort party for the Turkish soldiers being dispatched back to their lines. According to Beattie, Plouffe then proceeded to “crawl over Turkish bodies, positioning himself between the Greek fire and Captain Blaquière. He then began to cut the legs off of Blaquière’s trousers in order to apply tourniquets. As he was doing this, a bullet hit his helmet, glancing into his face and breaking his jaw.”
By this time, Forand was on his way to the camp with two British-loaned Ferret Scout Cars. While his troops provided covering fire, he went across to retrieve Blaquière and Plouffe.
“I am going to get Blaquière and Plouffe and if they shoot at me from the Greek side, I will order you to fire. When the Greeks then started shooting at me, I gave the order to fire.”
Following orders, the CAR soldiers opened up on the Greek National Guard positions. Among them was Corporal Gaudet who, in his words, “unnerved the gun pit crew with my firing, standing prone over the .50 calibre gun pit that was also blasting away at the Greeks. I fired until I had no ammo left … My God, the bashing they took.”
“I think we killed three or four of them. This allowed me a bit of breathing space to bring back Blaquière and then to move back for Plouffe,” explained Forand.
For their actions at Camp Kronborg, both Captain Alain Forand and Private Michel Plouffe were awarded the Star of Courage.
Defending the Nicosia Airport
By July 23, it became clear to UNFICYP that the invading Turkish forces had no intention of allowing the airport to remain in UN hands.
“Turkish interest in the airport became obvious as they made allegations concerning the control and occupation of the airport itself,” wrote Beattie. “I approached the force commander and suggested that he delegate me with the authority to open fire if the airport came under attack.”
Forand, who was now in command of a company, was ordered to take defensive positions at the airport together with other elements of the Canadian force.
“We had four recoilless rifles, six heavy machine guns, and the motor platoon from the regiment in location,” explains Forand. “Our mission at the time was to defend the airport and not to let them seize it. Even though the resources we possessed were not very high, we would have given it our best.”
The threatened attack never came. The Canadians, according to Nicol, had “made the local Turkish commander blink.”
“Interestingly, the international media — but strangely not the Canadian — hailed the Airborne as the saviours of Nicosia.”
By early August the regiment was to be reinforced with the remainder of the Canadian Airborne Regiment as well as other personnel and equipment.
“The Canadian government had agreed to double the size of the contingent, so part of our logistics company had to coordinate arrivals at the RAF station at Akrotiri of our aircraft, which amounted to over 50 flights bringing reinforcements and equipment,” stated Nicol in his 1974 interview with Sentinel.
The reinforcements included the remainder of the regiment as well as a reconnaissance troop from the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). Added to the surge in personnel were M113 APCs and M113.5 (Lynx) recce vehicles from Canadian bases in Germany.
During the months of August and September, two soldiers of No. 1 Commando were killed: Lionel Gilbert Perron on August 6, and Claude Joseph Berger on September 10. The Cyprus conflict also resulted in 30 wounded among the Canadian contingent. In addition, two Stars of Courage and six Medals of Bravery were awarded for actions during this operation, and five members were also made Members of the Order of Military Merit.
Reflecting on his experiences in Cyprus and in 1995 as commander of the UN’s southern sector in Croatia, Forand believes that traditional Chapter 6 peacekeeping “does not function. I think that the only thing that can function is that you have to impose peace; otherwise, we become part of the problem. When you look at the definition of peacekeeping, I don’t think it exists anymore.”
For Bercuson, the lessons of Cyprus in 1974 “should have been learned at a higher level. You need to be far more aware than you think when it comes to these so-called peacekeeping operations, which turn out not to really be peacekeeping in the sense you thought they would be.”