ROYAL CANADIAN REGIMENT DEPLOYS TO CYPRUS
By Frank Reid
From Volume 23 Issue 1 (February 2016)
Exploring personal military experiences while deployed in Cyprus during the height of the 1974 conflict
On the last day of my nine-day rotation, while I was pulling guard duty at Observation Post (OP) Hermes in Cyprus, my lieutenant paid me a visit. He was just a little older than me and this was his first tour as well. We were learning the peacekeeping roll we were to play in world politics together. Mostly, the peacekeeping mandates were a little more peaceful than the ones we had been dropped into, so the learning curve was steep for us all. Luckily we had some senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who had been around a long time to help guide us.
The lieutenant explained that there had been movement in one of the many burned out buildings on the Green Line and no one was sure who it could be: Turks, Greeks or just someone pillaging the empty buildings? I told the lieutenant in a sarcastic manner that anyone coming up the stairs to my observation post who was not suppose to be there would go down the stairs a lot faster then he came up and probably not in a healthy state.
The lieutenant looked at me in an odd manner and, after a moment’s reflection, came back at me snarling, “I don’t care what you do, Reid, as long as you can account for your 40 live rounds at the end of the shift.” It was a veiled threat and, on reflection years later, I guess it had not been one of the wisest things for me to say. You shouldn’t bait a young lieutenant. No doubt he was as exhausted as I was and he had a lot more responsibility on his young untried shoulders than I had. He then turned and hurried down the stairs to carry on with his inspection of other OPs under his command.
Sometimes we had to send soldiers into buildings to see who was there and tell them to leave when one or the other side requested it. This was a dangerous undertaking for peacekeepers since we were watched closely by both sides and, in many cases, communication between the parties was non-existent. Anyone in those buildings took the risk of being shot by someone thinking they were about to be attacked by soldiers from the opposite side. It was a free fire zone as far as Greeks and Turks were concerned, which meant you were there at your own risk and you would get no sympathy if someone shot your head off.
When the duty drover dropped us off for our shifts, we always walked directly up the stairs and to our observation post, which was at the highest point on the building. Since both sides were always watching, sticking to this routine religiously ensured we were not targeted, or so we hoped!
At 6:00 pm my shift was over and I was looking forward to my day off. I returned to my room at the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia, where I was living the good life for free as part of Canada’s peacekeeping deployment to Cyprus in 1974. A room at this luxurious hotel in normal times would have been impossible for me to afford, but here I was. There were only two soldiers to a room, not the usual open dormitory-style sleeping arrangement with dozens of soldiers in an open area on folding cots. I grabbed something to eat and then headed to the junior ranks mess for a little R & R.
On the way down, I picked up a copy of The Nic News (short for Nicosa News) to read later in my room. It was a paper published by battalion volunteers. It included stories, pictures and important dates to keep people serving as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) informed. It was also full of funny stories and more than a few bald-faced lies. An item of high literary content it was not.
When I got to the mess the jukebox was playing Like a Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell and the place was humming. No problem, I thought, I can sleep in late tomorrow. I grabbed my favourite drink: Cognac and Coke. At 75 cents a shot, I unfortunately indulged too much. This was not uncommon for the soldiers to do on their one day off. It is difficult to unwind after nine days of 12-hour shifts on guard duty.
The junior ranks mess was set up in what had been a beautiful mirror-lined ballroom. In better times, this room had hosted grand parties for the hotel’s rich clientele, and uniformed waiters moved among the guests, caring for their every need. But no more; the only uniforms you could see now were those of young tired soldiers. This was a huge room with marble floors and mirrors, measuring 15 feet tall by 8 feet wide, surrounding the dance floor. Crystal chandeliers gave it a light, airy feeling. At one time it had been special, but now the mirrors looked down on a bunch of kids in blue berets, wearing sweat-stained combats and dirty mud-crusted boots, cursing, playing cards and drinking to excess.
I left the mess about 2:00 am and stumbled up to my room where, fully dressed, I passed out on my bed into a glorious long sleep; or so I thought.
Around 4:30 am the duty sergeant banged on my door. We were all ordered downstairs. Flak jackets and helmets were the order of the day. Days off meant nothing in the army when an emergency situation reared its ugly head. When we got to the lobby of the hotel a sergeant was sitting at a desk with a large pile of rifle magazines in front of him. Each one of us was issued with 40 live rounds. Even my overtired sleep-deprived brain told me that this was not a good thing. Typically, the only time we were issued live rounds was when we were on guard duty.
I could hear people whispering and speaking in low tones. Apparently, one of our foot patrols, which had been out doing their normal route, had been caught at a checkpoint in a cross fire between the Turk and Greek Cypriots. It was not an uncommon occurrence for us to get shot at, sometimes on purpose and sometimes at random. Cypriot militia on both sides were mostly untrained and trigger-happy. They reminded me of kids with their brand new toy guns on Christmas morning.
At that very moment, the duty officer was down at the checkpoint with a couple of NCOs and a few privates for added security. He was speaking with the belligerents, trying to work out a deal to get the patrol out safely. Our sergeant told us in no uncertain terms that if the negotiations failed we would be going out to do the job properly. Failure was not an option.
I remember being so tired — I had had less than three hours of sleep in the past 24 hours. As I listened to the sergeant, I leaned against a wall so I would not fall over, hoping that this was a dream and we would not have to go out.
Even though it was early morning, it was hot and we were all sweating profusely. Between the alcohol still in my system and lack of sleep, I was totally drained. We waited for four hours in the Ledra Palace Hotel’s lobby, in full web gear and flak jacket, until the word came down that our guys were safe. Being a lowly private, I was not privy to exactly how it all came about. All I knew was that our ordeal was over.
Even though I was exhausted, I was now so high-strung that I could not sleep. A few hours later I was back out on another 12-hour shift, dreaming of my next day off and hoping desperately that I would be able to finally get some rest.
Article courtesy of Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies