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Cyprus 1958-1961

On 12 November 1958, the 1st Battalion sailed from Southampton for Cyprus aboard the troop transport Dilwara. They were seen off by a large crowd of well-wishers and the Regimental Band played a medley of Regimental marches on the quayside. Ten days later, having travelled via Gibraltar and Malta, the Dilwara reached Cyprus, where the Battalion, now under a new CO, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Wheatley, went on operations immediately. The Greek Cypriot community wished for union with Greece, or Enosis, while the Turkish Cypriots wanted partition, or Taksim. EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kypriakon Agoniston), or The National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, led by Colonel Grivas, had been trying to force the issue with the British for the previous three years. Three months after the 1st Battalion arrived in Cyprus the Greek Cypriots' spiritual - and soon to be political - leader Archbishop Makarios returned from a three-year, British-forced exile, first in the Seychelles and later in Athens. Nevertheless, after an upsurge of violence in late summer 1958, Grivas and Makarios were steadily being outmanoeuvred on the political stage. Although the members of the 1st Battalion were scarcely aware of such developments at the time, this phase of the 'troubles' was actually coming to an end.

The Battalion's task was to stifle the activities of EOKA within its areas of responsibility and, so far as was possible, to establish a rapport with the local, mainly Greek Cypriot, population. The 1st Battalion was initially deployed in two quite separate groupings. Battalion Headquarters, B and C Companies went to Waterloo Barracks at Episkopi but were initially required to maintain four of their six platoons at outstations: 7 Platoon was at Phassouri, on the way to Akrotiri; 8 Platoon was at Pissouri Jetty, off the road to Paphos; 9 Platoon was at Evdhimou towards the north while 4 Platoon was at Larnia in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. B Company's remaining two platoons were held back at Episkopi as the Battalion reserve. The eastern half battalion, comprising A and Support Companies, came under Major Randle and were under command of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. They were based on Kophinou, at the junction of the Nicosia to Limassol and Larnaca to Limassol roads. That half battalion also deployed platoons to outstations: 1 Platoon to Lefkara; 2 Platoon to Ora and 3 Platoon to Zyyi. The Medium Machine Gun (MMG) Platoon of Support Company was at Pyrga and there was a radio rebroadcast station on Mount Stavrovouni. The reserve, comprising the Mortar and Anti-tank Platoons, was co-located with the two company HQs at Kophinou. Much of their area, too, was within the eastern foothills of the Troodos Mountains and would, under other circumstances, have been most attractive.

Foot and vehicle patrols, road-blocks, café checks, ambushes and searches for the terrorists' favourite culvert bombs became the Battalion's routine, foreshadowing developments in Northern Ireland little more than ten years later. An early success was a cordon-and-search operation at Sotira and Ayios Therapon, in which 5 and 6 Platoons, under the command of Lieutenant Cobb, approached the objective up an impressive ravine in the midst of a thunderstorm. Weather conditions ensured that surprise was achieved and three wanted men were captured. If only intelligence was always so reliable! A few weeks later B Company assumed responsibility for guarding detention centres at both Pyla and Pergamos, before being redeployed in tented bases on Op Safari, essentially undertaking the same role as they had before. Meanwhile C Company caught five so-called 'leafleteers' red-handed and also found nine pistols and eight shotguns. In the eastern operational area, apart from routine patrolling activities, two extensive cordon-and-search operations were mounted, at Kornos and at Kalvasos. A Company's surveillance to the west of Kalvasos led to the arrest of six wanted men while a culvert bomb, believed to have been intended for Major Randle, shook up a forestry official instead.

Matters were progressing swiftly on the political front. The Foreign Ministers of Greece, Turkey and Britain commenced discussions on 18 December 1958 in Paris. The outcome, announced on 19 February 1959, only three months after the 1st Battalion's arrival, was independence for Cyprus but with two permanent Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) being retained for the British Services, one at Episkopi/Akrotiri and the other at Dhekelia. These arrangements came into effect eighteen months later. The changed situation led to a gradual relaxation of tension, and the withdrawal of British forces from the countryside. By May 1959 the 1st Battalion was reunited at Polemedhia, just north of Limassol, before moving into Kitchener Lines, also at Polemedhia, in August. While these moves were taking place, the demands for guards and other security commitments continued unabated: the MMG and Mortar Platoons had responsibility for the security of the Middle East Broadcast Station at Zyyi, C Company could claim to be the last British garrison at Paphos and A and B Companies took it in turns to guard Government House in Nicosia.

Major General George Wood, the first Colonel of the Regiment, visited the 1st Battalion in early 1959. Another sign of a return to relative normality was the reintroduction of the Sarah Sands march-and shoot competition, won by the MMG Platoon, under Lieutenant Baxter. This was, and remains, an inter-platoon competition to mark the saving of the troopship SS Sarah Sands by the officers and men of the 54th Foot, later 2 Dorset, on 11 November 1857. Great care was taken to ensure a balance when adopting the traditions and customs of the predecessor Regiments. For example, the 1st Battalion first celebrated Wagon Hill Day in Cyprus on 18 January 1960. This commemorates the gallant bayonet charge of 1 Devon during the siege of Ladysmith on 6 January 1900. Three of the five officers who took part were killed and Lieutenant Masterson was wounded and awarded the Victoria Cross. On Wagon Hill Day the Warrant Officers traditionally join the Officers for a formal Guest Night in the Officers' Mess. That May the 1st Battalion celebrated Amalgamation Day with a Trooping of the Colour Parade - which later became known as The Regimental Day. Another sign of reduced tension was the Queen's Birthday Parade, which took place at Limassol on 13 June 1959.

After EOKA finally declared a ceasefire on 24 December 1959, the 1st Battalion at last had the opportunity to travel further afield. The first, month-long, Ex Overlift took place in Libya the following September - see map on page 34. The exercise covered familiar Second World War locations such as Martuba, Mechili, Derna, Tobruk, El Adem and Cyrenaica. Many of those taking part had the unforgettable experience of visiting the war cemeteries at Knightsbridge and Tobruk. Following the end of Ex Overlift, a separate expedition was mounted to Kuffra Oasis. Another aspect of army life was also playing an increasingly prominent role - sport. Both 1 Devon and 1 Dorset had been keen sporting battalions and even between the amalgamation in May and departure for Cyprus six months later, the 1st Battalion achieved third place in the Army Inter-Unit Athletics Championships at Aldershot. The Battalion's football, rugby, hockey, athletics and cross-country teams were particularly strong and the latter swept the board at both Army and Inter-Service levels. To round off a successful season the cross-country team ran a relay round the island, 360 miles in a little over thirty-six hours, in the process shattering the existing RAF-held record. Other popular activities included skiing in the Troodos Mountains and swimming and sailing at Ladies' Mile near Limassol.

Shortly after the return from Libya in October, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willcocks took over as CO from Lieutenant Colonel Wheatley. At this stage of the new Regiment's life, the COs, most of the Company Commanders and many of the Warrant Officers had earned their spurs in the Second World War. By contrast, the vast majority of junior ranks were two-year, sometimes reluctant, National Servicemen. The turnover was continuous: for example, no less than half the personnel in C Company changed between the autumn exercise in Libya and the next exercise the following March. Another factor was that the strength of each company was far larger than was typical just a couple of years later; B Company had 160 soldiers on strength, of which just sixty were on a regular engagement. This unusual state of affairs presented some real challenges.

A second exercise in Libya took place in March 1961. Once again, the 1st Battalion was flown to the dusty and fly-blown base at Tmimi. This time the Battalion was involved in Brigade Ex Triangle West and Ex Triangle East, with night attacks and long desert moves becoming a speciality. At the end of these exercises the Battalion sailed back to Cyprus aboard the appropriately-named troop transport Devonshire. On return to camp, rehearsals began immediately for the Trooping the Colour Parade on 17 May 1961. This was the last time the Colours of the 1st Battalions of the old Regiments would be 'trooped' since they were to be replaced on the Battalion's return to Plymouth in August 1961. There was one final challenge, Ex Barbican, a Brigade exercise held in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. It was indeed a challenge: exhausting and hot and not likely to be forgotten by those who took part. At 'Endex' even the CO was moved to hoist his shirt on a radio antenna, announcing his 'surrender' to all within earshot!

The 1st Battalion's time in Cyprus was concluded by a fly-past of light aircraft and the playing of 1 Black Watch Pipes and Drums as the 1st Battalion left Famagusta aboard the troop transport Nevasa. Some two hundred miles out in the Mediterranean, there was a last tribute from an appreciative Royal Air Force, as two Canberras from RAF Akrotiri flew past and dipped their wings in salute.