by Uwe U. Beyer
Hostilities between Turkish and Greek Cypriots had been waning for years, but deep-rooted animosity between each faction was still a significant hindrance to peace and stability in 1974, 10 years after the United Nations had established a peacekeeping force on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
On July 20, 1974, Turkish forces from mainland Turkey invaded the northern half of the island and entered the cities of Kyrenia and Famagusta. In relatively short order, brief engagements were fought. A protracted war wasn’t expected, nor did one materialize. Instead, a negotiated settlement was established that saw the island almost cut in half by a demilitarized zone that separated Turkish Cypriots to the north and Greek Cypriots to the south.
Later that year, I would discover that this so-called partition would be no further apart than four metres in some places of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.
In between the two combatants were the UN peacekeepers. It was not an enviable place to be by any stretch of the imagination.
As a combat engineer sapper, I was still wet behind the ears when I got word that I’d be heading to Cyprus in December ’74. I considered it an honour to be living in a country that had been part of the peacekeeping force since1964. As a young soldier, I was thrilled with the idea of being on a mission in a hostile environment. Our engineer troop of 40 or so sappers would support the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. As a seasoned unit, 1 RCR still had several veterans of the Korean War on its nominal roll.
We arrived in Cyprus as planned, and our unit’s construction activities continued each day and well into the following year. As engineers we were prepared to construct and maintain a variety of essential projects for the infantry. We built a multitude of living accommodations that were cut and assembled almost like giant Lego sets, gradually put together piece by piece until each soldier had his own private living quarters. We also constructed patios so the soldiers would have a place to rest and relax after patrolling the demilitarized zone, also known as the Green Line.
The RCRs helped us in a wide variety of ways. In fact, the pioneer section managed some of the more difficult tasks since we lacked the technical skills and expertise to complete them successfully. Painting kept me busy for months and months. I even earned the nickname Rembrandt because of my superior painting skills.
Other more intense tasks also came to the engineers, especially along the Green Line.
Picture these scenes: Burned out cars and 45-gallon drums littering a narrow and charred road located directly between two hostile forces heaven bent on killing each other; unoccupied houses riddled with bullet holes and mortar fire ranging for long distances along the Green Line, and at different locations along the line, houses–occupied by hostile forces–facing each other only metres apart. These short distances between the Greeks and the Turks caused numerous problems, from indiscriminate gunfire to grenades hurled out of windows at the potential threat across the alley.
One warm but cloudy day, my section commander–a master corporal–received orders to move to a point along the Green Line. His orders confirmed that an unexploded grenade had landed near a Greek Cypriot home and was potentially dangerous to the children living nearby. We were tasked with removing the grenade and had permission to blow it in place.
A Greek officer met us and directed us to the grenade which was sitting directly beside a Greek observation post and only four metres from a Turkish post. Needless to say, both parties were nervous and wanted the small, but lethal bomb removed immediately.
Being a young and technically inexperienced sapper, my section commander made it clear that I would not be doing the dirty work. I was left with filling several sandbags that would be used to encircle the grenade and provide needed protection of the surrounding buildings. Sandbag filling, as one might expect, is not rocket science. Nevertheless, I was happy to be near a bunch of hostile enemies who were counting on us to make their day a little easier.
The grenade exploded on time and loudly. The Greeks were impressed with our countdown and were quick to give us the thumbs-up. The Turks, meanwhile, were quieter, probably because most couldn’t speak any foreign languages.
During my first three months in Cyprus I noticed a significant difference in the military capabilities, discipline and attitudes of the Greek and Turkish soldiers. The Turks impressed me. They were well-dressed and disciplined individuals who took orders emphatically and precisely. This was, in part, due to their officer corps methods of instilling respect and discipline in the lower ranks.
Although I did not see a Turkish soldier shot by an officer, I did see an officer take out a pistol at a Turkish post located directly behind the pool at the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia. The soldier was clearly agitated after the incident. He had apparently fallen asleep at his post, which is a serious enough offence in any military organization.
The officer did not take kindly to this soldier’s ineptitude and lack of resilience. I am positive the young fellow never again slept while on duty. If so, it would be my guess that he is permanently resting in a cold dark place back in his home country.
Turkish forces were a professional organization and a very capable fighting force. A lot of people were of the opinion that they could have taken over the entire island if the world community had not intervened. The Greeks on the other hand were generally less disciplined; lackadaisical and looked like a band of Gypsies travelling to a circus.
One Greek platoon was situated directly across the street from the hotel’s main entrance. Just 250 metres down the same road was a Turkish checkpoint. Both units could not see each other so there was no reason for any indiscriminate gunfire at each other’s position.
But near the end of March and encompassing several nights, both the Greeks and the Turks began hostilities with the predictable ritual of random gunfire at unsuspecting targets, mainly trees and vehicles that were shot at over and over again. The hotel sustained countless bullet holes, but fortunately no one was injured as far as we could tell. However, it did cause us to hunker down in our rooms.
On the morning of April 1, 1975, all hell broke loose. The Greek platoon across from the hotel began shooting at the Turkish position down the street. The Turks responded with gunfire that continued for some time. I stayed hidden in my bed. My roommate, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was under the bed. I was too frightened to look.
That same morning brought a chill to the soldiers who lived in the Ledra. That was when we found out about Captain Ian Patten of the RCRs. We heard he had entered his room shortly before 4 a.m., wanting to record the sounds of the gunfire. He had changed into his bathrobe before going out onto the balcony. A maid entering his room to change the bed sheets found him dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Someone had shot him, and the shot had apparently driven him back from the balcony and onto the floor. I was one floor above and one balcony to the left of his room.
Late one night in May, a Greek officer approached us at the checkpoint south of the Ledra and asked us why we hated them. He said the Turks had killed Patten. Since we knew the Turkish checkpoint down the street from the Ledra Palace could in no way have shot at us due to the trajectory and line of sight, we knew the Greeks were not telling the truth. So this sad tale ended with no suspect ever being brought to justice.
Several years later I would discover through my father that Patten’s younger brother and I went to school together in Islington, a suburb of Toronto. It was a small world. Following Patten’s death, increased security measures became the norm. It became clear that UN soldiers were susceptible to dangerous events dependent upon their Rules of Engagement. Balconies were made out of bounds during firefights.
Our work prevailed, but in between tasks we did have time to enjoy some of the island’s riches. The northern part of Cyprus was off limits so we played the southern half extremely well. Cyprus was a tourist mecca before the hostilities. European travellers relaxed on the warm sandy beaches, sipping strong ouzo-laden drinks. Nipple Beach, as it was known, was a nude beach. Men had flocked to it in droves, but to our dismay it was not open during our tour of duty.
Some of the finer sites I visited while on leave included Limassol, Mount Olympus and Paphos–all described as creations of the Greek gods. Limassol was on the southern part of the island, right on the Mediterranean Sea. It featured some excellent hotels and restaurants.
One day, after commandeering a UN vehicle and a bottle of Southern Comfort, a small group of us headed towards Limassol. Our only real problem occurred when we arrived at a Turkish checkpoint. With gun barrels pressed against our cheeks, we slowly gave the soldiers manning the checkpoint our UN identification cards. Both soldiers compared us to the photos and let us through. The incident was a small price to pay on the road to enjoying a great steak and seafood meal capped off by several bottles of fine red wine.
As spring turned into summer, hostilities between the Turks and the Greeks seemed to mellow, but our tasks continued through to the end of our tour in May.