Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 18 Defending the Green line from Turks, Greeks and our own rascals

Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 18 Defending the Green line from Turks, Greeks and our own rascals

by Stuart Crawford
article from Tuesday 15, September, 2020

HALFWAY THROUGH our 6 month tour to Cyprus we moved up to the UN Green Line and put on our blue berets – we were UN soldiers now! By way of background, the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus ran across the middle of the island from west to east and separated the previously warring Greek Cypriots to the south from the Turkish Cypriots in the north in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). It varied in depth from a few metres in the middle of Nicosia to nearly 5 miles in some of the rural areas, and was commonly called the Green Line. If you want more detail as to how it came into being then this resume in Wikipedia is as good a source as any.

C Squadron’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) ran from just outside of Nicosia for about 13 kilometres to the west and was mainly rural in nature with a few villages scattered here and there, and our orbat (below) consisted of about 100 blokes all told at various times. My squadron headquarters (SHQ) was in an abandoned and semi-derelict primary school which still bore the pockmarks of small arms fire from the 1974 fighting. I had my own small room there which gave me a modicum of privacy and we all got on well in SHQ. The dereliction surrounding us could be a bit oppressive at times but the weather was generally good and clear blue skies have an important psychological impact. We were fine.

My three Troops were scattered across our TAOR and were to all intents and purposes semi-autonomous. It was in many ways classic young officer stuff redolent of the days of Empire; young subalterns on their own with their boys in the ulu1 and responsible for everything that happened there. To the north was the Turkish army and to the south the Greek Cypriot National Guard had their positions, from whence both sides glared at each other with us in the middle.

Our job was to patrol the buffer zone and keep the two antagonists from confronting each other, defusing situations as they occurred. We were lightly armed with our SLR rifles and some backup in the shape of a handful of Ferret scout cars armed with .50 Browning machine guns, but that was it. If anything really serious had happened we would have had to just stand aside. Luckily it never came to that.

We had a high regard for the Turkish Army. Its soldiers were tough, smart, well disciplined and professional. The Greek Cypriot National Guard, on the other hand, were a bit of a shower. They lounged around their positions like disgruntled teenagers (which many probably were), bareheaded, smoking, and drinking coffee. Few of us were in any doubt that, if the Turks had decided to complete their conquest of the rest of the island, it would probably have taken them about 24 hours.

Most complaints from either side via the UN were petty in the extreme – a sandbag mover here, an encroachment into the buffer zone there – and were generally pathetic and pointless. Interestingly, the Gunners (hawk, spit) we had taken over from had abandoned patrolling the buffer zone at night. I corrected this straight away and reinstated patrols round the clock, if for nothing else than a statement of intent and showing that we would not be pushovers by either side.

We did, however, have a handful of incidents which were more substantial. Amongst these was the occasion when we were deployed to prevent a “student” demonstration crossing from the Greek side to the Turkish side, a deliberate confrontation sought to highlight their “right” to reclaim homes lost during the ethnic cleansing of 1974. 

Having grown up in the 1960s my image of a student demonstration was coloured by the riots in Paris in 1968 (when we were told “le printemps sera chaud2”, amongst other things) and the waves of violence that had swept American campuses during protest there against the Vietnam War. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to see groups of schoolchildren with their teachers turn out with placards to wave at the Turkish Army and police. This was my first brush with school pupils being called students, an American affectation which pervades the UK media today. 

Be that as it may, the Turks were clearly taking it seriously and had deployed heavily suited and booted riot police to meet any incursions. There were one or two minor surges towards the Turkish lines but they always stopped short, and having seen what was awaiting them I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t have tackled the riot police either.

The other incident I recall was a blatant incursion into the Green Line by the Turkish side, where they unilaterally decided to shift their boundary towards the Greeks and did so, erecting signs announcing the fact. The local Greek Cypriot National Guard commander, a brigadier if I recall, asked me to go down and observe this “outrage”. I did so and found him up to high doh, threatening to carry out an attack to restore the integrity of the buffer zone.

This was pure bluff and bluster, because if he had carried out his threat it would have been both a serious international incident and a disaster for him and his men; they would have been swatted away like flies. But I had to do something. During a quick conflab with the CO he suggested I should deploy a troop to the area, stand out in front of them facing the Turkish lines, and see what happened. So we did, and lo and behold after about ten minutes the Turkish CO arrived and we had a quick parley through an interpreter he had brought along. At the end of our talk he basically said I should leave it to him, which I agreed. The next morning the encroachment, and the signs, was gone, removed during the night. We heard no more about it.

What did cause us the most hassle and heartache, though, was created internally, by my own soldiers. A couple of young troopers who obviously had an eye for the main chance had noted that security in Greek Cypriot shops was lax and that there were rich pickings to be had. They came up with a criminal modus operandi whereby the smaller of the two miscreants would conceal himself inside a shop just before closing time and get locked in. When the coast was clear he would then unlock from the inside and let his partner in, upon which they would then steal attractive items and be well clear when the shop re-opened in the morning.

What made their scheme doubly ingenious was that they did their stealing in southern (Greek) Cyprus but hid their stash in the UN buffer zone; the Greek Cypriot police had jurisdiction where the crimes were committed, but the UN Police had jurisdiction in the buffer zone, and there didn’t appear to be any extradition agreement. So as long as they remained in the buffer zone they were untouchable by the Greek police.

In fact we wouldn’t have found about their nefarious activities at all had it not been for the curiosity of Sgt John Barnwell, who was intrigued by the fact that the Turks had started sending night-time patrols into the buffer zone, patrols which we confronted and sent back home. So he had a quick rummage around where the Turks had shown interest, discovered the stolen goods in a derelict building, and the game was up. The two thieves owned up when confronted with the evidence.

The problem was that they would be picked up by the Cypriot police if they left the buffer zone, and previous experience with such matters did not fill us with huge confidence in the Greek Cypriot justice system. The prospect of them rotting away in some nasty cockroach infested jail for years did not appeal to either them or us. So in the end we spirited them off the island. Charlie Pratt took them in his car to Limassol airport, bought their tickets on his credit card, and sent them back to Germany via the UK. 

Naughty, I know, but we decided we had to look after our own. They were eventually court martialled and dismissed from the army so justice was done in the end. Interestingly, the flight they were due to get on at the end of the tour was stopped and searched by the Greek Cypriot police, who were understandably displeased that the two birds had flown.

There is much, much more that could be written about this particular UN tour but it’ll have to wait for another opportunity. Suffice to say that I, and many others, was glad to see the back of the island after our “sunshine posting”. We didn’t know at the time that the Regiment would return for another tour only two years later, but this time I was not with them. All will be revealed in due course!

To come in Part 19; back on tanks and once more to Canada.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

1 Origin: Malay, to describe a place that is remote or deserted. Ulu is commonly used to describe a place that is remote, deserted, abandoned with little human traffic. (www.singlish.net ) 

2 “Spring will be hot” 

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