A Hot Night In The Zone

May 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by Robert Burns

 

On July 20, 1974, Turkey’s military invaded Cyprus in response to an ill-fated military coup aimed at bringing about the union of the Mediterranean island with Greece. During the invasion, the Turks sent thousands of troops in by sea and air and it wasn’t long before they had control of the north half of the island. All of this happened in the presence of a long-established United Nations peacekeeping force.

During the fighting that followed the invasion, roughly 200,000 Turkish and Greek Cypriots were displaced and forced to find refuge in their respective enclaves. A ceasefire went into effect Aug. 18, but by then Turkey had 40,000 troops and about 400 tanks on the island. Among other things, the invasion led to new difficulties for United Nations Peacekeeping Force In Cyprus, UNFICYP.

In order to explain how those difficulties arose, it’s important to understand that UNFICYP had been operating in Cyprus since March 1964 and that Canadian units had been part of the peacekeeping effort from the beginning. After the Turkish invasion in ’74, the size of the UN force was increased. The mission’s mandate also changed. Prior to the invasion, the fundamental task was to patrol a buffer zone–known as the Green Line–dividing Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in Nicosia as well as the road between Kyrenia and Nicosia.

The Green Line was established in 1964 by British peacekeeping forces and got its name after a British senior officer used a green pencil to draw the line on a map. The task after the invasion and subsequent ceasefire was to create and preserve a buffer zone running the entire 180-kilometre length of the island. The difficulty with this was that the Turks considered the buffer zone to be a dead zone, open only to UNFICYP, while the Greek Cypriots viewed it as being within their jurisdiction, but temporarily covered by UNFICYP’s mandate. The result was that both sides tried to enter the buffer zone.

In December 1974, my unit, 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, was sent on its third, six-month tour to the troubled island. Very quickly, we found ourselves in the heat of the problem, manning the infamous buffer zone between the Turks and Greeks. We were located in the heart of Nicosia where the Green Line followed a typical European style street not much more than 30 feet wide.

Both sides had strongpoints, mainly sandbagged bunkers with firing slits. These defensive positions looked like ancient fortifications. Occasionally we would see an armed sentry. The Turks seemed to be more serious, but both sides would usually respond to us with a wave or a salute.

My time in Cyprus proved to me that soldiering can indeed be described as long periods of boredom followed by short periods of intense activity and excitement. During January and February 1975, my battalion experienced several serious incidents that involved the exchange of gunfire between the opposing sides. It was very obvious that the events of the previous summer were still fresh in the minds of people on both sides. Clearly, the Greek Cypriots were not happy about the loss of the northern part of the island

I was employed as company operations officer of B Company, and on the night of March 31, 1975, I was duty officer in the company command post situated in an old British army barracks, called Wolseley Barracks, just outside the ancient walls of Nicosia. The battalion headquarters and the rest of B Co. were located in the same area. East of the barracks was the Ledra Palace Hotel which in its former glory had been a five-star hotel. I use the term former because from 1974 onward it was to become a barracks for the Canadian contingent.

Although the hotel was a rather solidly constructed concrete building, it was located between two armed and hostile forces and had collected its share of bullet holes, some of a rather large calibre. Roughly 300 metres north of Wolseley Barracks and less than 10 metres south of the Turkish forward defence line was a modern-style house. The house, which was nicknamed the Casa, was the temporary home of B Company’s officers.

The duty officer was responsible for manning the company operations centre, ensuring that information to and from the observation posts was maintained and that any and all situations were properly actioned. This wasn’t a difficult task when it was calm, and quite often it presented the opportunity to get caught up on letters home. That is exactly what I was doing on the night of March 31. In fact, I remember I had just closed my letter to my wife with the remarks that all was quiet and that I was going to turn in early.

I went to bed and it seemed like I had only closed my eyes when I was jarred by the sound of heavy machine-gunfire coming from somewhere not far from my location. This was soon followed by shooting across our entire company sector.

By the time my feet hit the floor, the phones and radios were blaring away and it seemed all hell had broken loose. One of my first callers was my company commander demanding to know what was going on. I couldn’t tell him much except that I was sending out the duty driver with the standby section to bring in the company officers from the Casa. The company commander arrived a short time later and quickly took charge by sending the platoon commanders down the Green Line in their jeeps. He followed shortly after in his own vehicle and left me to man the communication nets in the command post.

The company commander and I were roughly the same vintage, but had come from two different regiments to meet in the Royal Canadian Regiment. I had not served with him before, but we thought and acted in much the same manner. I must admit that I was not envious of his job that night; travelling down the narrow streets of the Green Line between two opposing sides intent on killing each other. And all the while making the journey in an open jeep, with headlights on and the UN flag fully illuminated, and announcing over a loud hailer that they were to stop shooting.

Although I was kept busy talking to people at our observation posts and trying to make contact with the local Turk and Greek headquarters, I was very grateful to be in the command post behind very thick stone walls. However, my personal situation changed rapidly once I received a call from the company commander who ordered me to pass over control of the communications to the operations warrant officer and proceed immediately to the Casa. It had been reported that firing was coming from the area of the Casa and I was to determine if it was occupied and where the fire was originating from. All of a sudden this battle took on a very personal aspect.

The duty driver had been standing by with a jeep and so he and I drove off to find out what was happening. The Casa was only 300 yards down the road from the barracks, but it was between the opposing forces.

It was around 1 a.m. and dark, but the street lights were still on. In fact, every light was on in the Casa, just as my fellow officers had left them. As soon as the jeep pulled up to the front door, I ordered the driver to get out and take cover in the Casa. I ran into the same building and turned off the lights as I proceeded to the second-floor balcony at the back of the house.

A sandbagged, unmanned observation point on the balcony afforded a view north into the Turkish held area. My plan was to try to determine where the small arms fire was coming from, but all was quiet immediately to my front for a few moments until I heard a loud snap. My first thought was that someone had thrown a grenade because the snap reminded me of the noise that comes from a 36-Grenade, once the firing lever flies free. I ducked behind the sandbagged wall and started to count. One, two, three…. Nothing happened so I stuck my helmeted head up again and heard another snap. I repeated the same movement, but by the time I reached the count of three, it became obvious that someone was shooting at me.

Just then a machine-gun opened up from the northwest, immediately in front of our other company area. With this information, the driver and I beat a hasty retreat back to the jeep. The news was passed on to my company commander who then ordered me to check out the Greek Cypriot positions just south of the Ledra Palace Hotel. It seemed that I was not going to get back to the safety of the command post quite as soon as I had hoped to.

While driving up Shakespeare Avenue –the main north-south street in front of Wolseley Barracks–I spotted someone lurking behind a stone pillar that marked the entrance to the Ledra Palace Hotel parking lot. I ordered the driver to stop and immediately recognized the person to be our unit padre who was waiting for an opportunity to cross the street to get to the battalion operations centre.

The padre told me that there was shooting down the street, but I insisted it was safe to cross the road since we were stopped in the middle of it and hadn’t been shot yet.

This explanation must have sounded convincing because the padre very quickly darted behind our jeep and then ran into the operations centre. The driver and I both laughed at this and then made some disparaging remarks about prayer merchants. However, both of us soon changed our opinion when we noticed the leaves and branches lying on the ground in the hotel parking lot, and then started hearing those damn snapping sounds again.

We soon spotted muzzle flashes coming from the rear of an old house immediately south of us. I knew this was a Greek Cypriot National Guard position and we had earlier suspected it was a platoon headquarters location.

After telling the operations centre what we had observed, I instructed my driver to stop in front of the house. It was my intention to do whatever I could to have the occupants stop shooting. I knocked loudly on the huge front door and almost immediately it was opened just a crack, allowing me to see the biggest set of eyeballs I have ever seen.

In my best parade square voice, I told the eyeballs that I was a UN officer and that their command had issued a ceasefire order and they were to stop shooting immediately. I pushed the door wide open and was confronted with about 20 very young, very scared Greek Cypriot soldiers led by an equally frightened second lieutenant. All the soldiers were seated on the floor of a long hallway with their backs against the walls and holding their weapons between their knees. After a short pause I ordered all of them, rather forcefully, to stand to attention and clear their weapons. I then inspected their guns and told them to remove the magazines.

I repeated my explanation that their headquarters had ordered a ceasefire. The young Greek Cypriot officer responded by giving me his solemn promise to keep his men on the floor until someone from his headquarters arrived to give him further instructions.

It was only after we got back to our operations centre that my driver asked me when I had received word about a ceasefire because he had been listening to the vehicle’s radio all the time and had heard nothing to that effect. I had to admit that I had pulled a bluff and it worked. However, I knew that our battalion headquarters had been working towards that end as a standard operating procedure.

The firing lasted about two hours along the Green Line, both within the walled city and in the suburbs. We heard of no casualties from either side and both blamed the other for firing first. It wasn’t until much later in the morning–on April 1–that we learned of the death of Captain Ian Patten of our regiment. He was killed on the balcony to his room that overlooked the buffer zone in front of the Ledra Palace Hotel.

Later that afternoon, a short burst of machine-gun fire was heard coming from a Turk Cypriot bunker and both sides were soon observed occupying their battle positions. It looked like there was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s activity. Once again the company commander called on me to don my flak vest and steel helmet and go out to the firing site to be in place should the situation escalate into another shootout. Only this time it was broad daylight and even though we had driven down the Green Line with headlights on the previous night, the darkness still seemed more reassuring and the flak vest didn’t really give me that much of a warm fuzzy feeling.

Before I arrived at the scene, the company commander called on the radio to tell me that a young Turkish Cypriot soldier had been accidentally killed by a discharge from a Thompson submachine-gun.

Major units of the Canadian Forces served in rotation in Cyprus from 1964 until 1993. 1RCR’s third tour ended in June 1975, but the battalion was back for a fourth tour from October 1984 to March 1985.

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