Sunday, 8 November 2020

Remembrance Day - with a difference


We are at war- a new enemy, an invisible enemy- Covid- with nurses and doctors in the front line- but with close support from the Armed Forces, teachers, council staff, care home staff and most of the public.


This meant this year we had to remember those who had fallen in conflict in a different way  - those who had made the ultimate sacrifice- the people of Ipswich did not let us down - they remembered those from Ipswich who never came back, but at the same time helping keep our residents safe by making sure social distancing was in place.

Next year, I am sure we will be able to remember together and also think about those from the NHS who have paid the ultimate sacrifice over the last 8 months.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Living in the Border Lands, part 2 – with a Blue Beret on!

Mid-August 1980, with the highest temperatures of the year in Cyprus we found ourselves moving inland, from beside the Mediterranean to just west of the capital Nicosia. We were now to take over from B Company, 3 RGJ and also swap our green berets for the UN Blue beret (and large cap badge).
Our destination was the Greek Cypriot village of Astromeritis and our Company base for the next 12 weeks was to be the Box Factory, before the war it was here that the crates were made for the export of the local fruit crops.

The old Factory was just to the north of the village and we also had within the confines of the perimeter, a large water tower. The tower not only overlooked our front gate but also 12 large oil cans, painted blue that marked the border. The crossing was closed however now (2020) it is a fully operational vehicle crossing and one that many locals and tourists use every day as they cross northwards towards Kyrenia.

Astromeritas Border Crossing - 2019

After spending some of the previous 3 months guarding the buffer zone between the British bases and the Turkish Army, we thought we knew what to expect. There were similarities, the Turkish troops, we did meet were friendly, badly equipped and obviously did not want to be there but the main difference from our time down south was we now found ourselves spending more time working with the local Greek Cypriot community. Our only previous encounters with the local Greek community on the whole had left a slightly sour taste in the mouth, we met them when we were hitting the ‘hot spots’ of Larnaca, and whilst they were happy to take our money they much preferred ‘real’ tourists than us from up the road in Dhekelia.

Now we would be living among and working with a Greek Cypriot community that was attempting to scratch out a living from the land, a job made more difficult as much of their farmland was now within the UN Buffer zone. Our neighbours to our east were our own Support Company, who worked around the Greek village of Mammari and also had the Western outskirts of the capital to look after.
After less than a few hours in the Box Factory we found ourselves moving out to our new home for 4 weeks, 11 Platoon had been allocated a villa to live in just south of the village of Avlona, the closest Turkish community to the buffer zone.

We soon settled into a simple timetable, of ‘stagging on’ from the top of yet another water tower, that gave us good visibility of the Turkish military positions in the village and also spending hours in small Observation Posts on the unmade farm track/road between Avlona  and two further Platoon locations that sat between us and the Box Factory.

It was not all work, as soon as we had our evening meal, a 4 Tonne Truck would transport a majority of the Platoon back the Box Factory, where within weeks of taking over ,the ‘R’ Company hierarchy had put our attached Engineers skills to work and we now had the best bar in the whole buffer zone, we even had two Corporals whose job for the 3 months was just- barman. The engineers even had time to build a small cinema where the Company Clerk was forced to dress up as an usherette and serve beers to us during the break when the reels on the projector had to be changed.

When we took over from ‘B’ Company there was just one fridge behind the bar, when we left it was up to a total of 6. As well as bar stools and seats, we even had rowing boat in the bar (painted UN Blue) which had been ‘liberated’ on an organised Sunday ‘day out’ to Aya Napa (at a time when the resort just consisted of about 3 hotels).

But it was not all beer and fun with the occasional period of ‘stagging on’ in between, we did find time to keep our fitness levels up, hone our military skills and at times enter various military and fitness competitions, either against other British troops or our UN Allies from Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Australia and Canada.

There was a fine balance to be had between the two, and whilst our Company Commander at the time was very keen on the social side – in particular he seemed to attend a number of ‘long’ lunches with both the local Greek and Turkish dignitaries our Company second in command was more focused on  ensuring we not only competed but also won as many competitions as we could – military or sporting. So as one of the younger members of the company, I certainly had a busy time, doing my share of ‘stagging on’ but finding myself one day playing football against the local Greek village team – game abandoned – fighting! To the next day entering a shooting competition against the Austrian Army, plus I also had to fit in my own daily run and a number of hours sat in the rowing boat drinking the local Keo beer.

After 4 weeks we moved to the Box Factory where we would spend October, the routine did not change much other than of course we had the use of the bar every night, the bar that now included an extension, after the cinema had been built, Tommo (the Company Sergeant Major) had now had the Engineers build a casino!

Box Factory Water Tower - a young Rifleman Ross looking out at the border - 1980

The Army of today, within weeks of arriving at a new camp, would have full gym up and running, telephones, internet and so on- but back in 1980 it was not so easy, fitness in the Box Factory, was either a run, or volleyball – this was a big sport in the Battalion, as often it had been the only team sport that could be played in small army camps in Northern Ireland, and it was taken seriously! Even if the rules were more ‘prison’ than ‘Olympic’.

However by the time we had arrived at the Box Factory, we had another obstacle to overcome, Tommo had now got the local Sappers to build him a budgerigar cage that sat behind his office, what happened to some of those birds will have to stay a mystery but it became quite obvious that misplaced volleyball shots and budgies do not mix.

No internet and one phone call a month, the only real contact with home was newspapers (often about 3 days out of date) and mail – probably the highlight of the day when the mail run arrived.
I also spent as much time as I could learning about the political situation, how long the British Army had been there and how long would we stay. (40 years later, the UN buffer zone still exists and currently Rifleman from 7 Rifles are guarding the Green line). I had already decided by then that I wanted to be an NCO, and that the army life was one I was going to make the most of, I was not the only one – for all the drinking, gambling, and so on there was a large number of us that knew the job came first and we had real pride in both the army and in particular our regiment, some called it cockiness, we just called it soldiering with a swagger – it was just the Green Jacket way.

One job at the Box Factory that I enjoyed was the Operations Room runner- I say Operations Room, it was just two desks, two radios and a phone! But it was maned by our own Signals Detachment ( all Scouser’s) and the Company Second in Command. This Captain had only just joined us for the UN tour, little did I know that our paths would cross for the most of my army career. I enjoyed listening to him, seeing how he handled any requests from higher command to how he dealt with the platoons on the ground, I learnt plenty.

As a young Captain, he was also ripe for being taken the mick out of, one conversation he had with one of our signallers made the Battalion magazine, The ‘Green Mole’. The young Captain was alleged to have said, “I am sensual and very physical. I am very erotic but my sexuality exists on a sort of fantasy level” – not sure even now, any of us know what he meant.

When I bump into him next, I should ask – then again as he is now General Sir Nicholas Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff he may have other matters on his mind!

"What Box factory?"

We did manage to get two trips into Nicosia whilst at the Box Factory, the first was organised by a young officer, Lt Bowden who I believe went on to become an Ambassador somewhere, he arranged a tour of the Carlsberg Beer Factory in the capital, it was free beer after the tour, the tour took about two minutes, the free bar ran for slightly longer. When we eventually arrived back at the Box Factory, Lt Bowden was slightly shocked that when he dropped the tailgate at the back of the lorry, some of the men had decided to have a few further drinks in the city and had jumped out when stopped at a city junction!

I helped organise – well as a young Rifleman, suggested a trip that one of our Corporals then got to run, we went to see Coventry City play a friendly against a Nicosia Select side, remember Gary Thompson the City Centre Forward looking shocked when arriving at the ground to find 20 odd British soldiers sampling the free drinks in the VIP boardroom at the stadium.

As a platoon we managed to survive the Box Factory, the nights in the bar – the Volleyball/budgie battle and we then moved out again to spend the last month of the tour, November split between two small locations, B33 and B35, there was not much going for either of these places, small, it was now getting cold, all our own luxuries had now started making the long trip back to the UK, and so it was just a case of getting through the 4 weeks, and when the sun did appear a quick bit of panic tanning to ensure we went back looking like we had just spent 6 months on a Mediterranean island.

B33 Basic - but livable - love the white stone painting!

We never had the best equipment in the world then, and the few night viewing aids we did have had been dispatched back to the Box Factory to be packed ready for our return to the UK, so often the first we knew the Turkish Army were in the vicinity was when they knocked on the hut door to try and swap some of their local vodka, for tea bags or coffee.

However one part of living in B33 was enjoyable, every morning about 6 of us were driven down to Astromeritas, to a small house where Cpl Tom Evans ( I think) and one other SNCO were based. Here you waited till you were allocated to a local Greek Cypriot framer, you would then spend the day stuck on the back of his tractor, riding shotgun, as he farmed his land which was within the buffer zone. This was not always fun, but in most cases was an enjoyable way to spend the day. My two favourite farm escorts ( as the task was called) was when I was protecting a large family group, picking the local potato crop, at lunch a large blanket was placed down, I was placed at the head of the blanket and feast of local food was served. The second escort, I remember with a smile was when I was picked out to join the local Greek Orthodox priest. I climbed onto the back of his motorbike (no helmet) with my rifle, bullets and a badly made pack lunch. We arrived at small orange grove, the priest picked about 20 oranges, sat down and from his bag pulled out 4 large beers, he gave me one, he drank three! He then slept all afternoon, woke up, got back on the motorbike and we drove back to Astrmeritas – it seemed the local priest enjoyed the occasional day away from his flock, where he could just have a few beers, enjoy the sun and relax!

A few days later, we were back in wet, dark Oakington Barracks, just north of Cambridge, it had been a great 6 months, I had worked hard, played harder and now as ready to move on, I had hoped for the NCO Cadre but my platoon commander wanted me to remain in 11 Platoon and become the Platoon Signaller, not for the last time in my career, I was having none of it, and with the help of an encouraging Corporal, I managed to leave the platoon and head for Support Company and a place on the Ant-Tank cadre.

I wonder if General Carter, ever thinks back to his time at the Box Factory?

Monday, 13 April 2020

Living in the Border Lands - Part 1

It became quite obvious to me after just a short time in the army that much of my military career would be spent guarding, patrolling and living at times in some  strange places - and no stranger than the 'Border Lands' , or often described as 'no man lands', 'green zones'. Various names, but all similar in ways.

A recent book, “Off the Map” by Alastair Bonnett has a whole chapter on them, from a strip of land that exists between Guinea and Senegal to Nahuaterique via a traffic island in Newcastle. All places that we know exist but not sure who owns them, lives there, runs them.

My time in the Green Jackets would take me to many places like this and to borders on a map that politicians may thing exist but in reality very other few people take any notice of.(Irish border) Or the dependencies that live beyond a border and exist and flourish but may not if the border was removed (Gibraltar) .

We (as the military) have occupied, worked and lived in these often strange zones, from the partitioned Berlin (1945-89) to more recent Green zone that exist in Baghdad.  Even when working (and living in Germany) we existed in some sort of limbo land – part of the UK, with some British laws that existed in another European sovereign country, not that we acted like the Americans and made their bases feel like a cross between ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and the town square in ‘Back to the Future’ and used dollars rather than the German Mark. It must have been the same for those garrisoned in Hong Kong.

Then there was Gibraltar, argued over with Spain but the border is now open, with many of the locals now moved onto the Spanish mainland but Gibraltar still exists as some British enclave, but what would happen if Spain took control, I am sure the peak and the apes would still be a tourist attraction, but would the airport survive? Would the ferries to Tangiers bother pulling into the harbour, would British tourists bother taking the coach trip from their Spanish resort to just another Spanish resort? So in fact it benefits both Gibraltar and Spain to leave it as it is.

However my first taste of these strange 'Border lands', was in Cyrus in 1980, when as a member of 3rd Battalion Royal Green Jackets, we were to spend 6 months on this Mediterranean Island, we were to spend 3 months in the Eastern Sovereign Base at Dhekelia, then 3 months as part of a United Nations force to the west of Nicosia.

Dhekelia was ( like the Western Sovereign Base at Episkopi)  also a strange place in its own right, part of the UK, our own police force but with a Cypriot road going through it as ( in those days, very few) tourists made their way from Larnaca to Aya Napa. The road still exists, however a new dual carriage way now by-passes the base to the north. Plus within the Sovereign Area were three Greek Cypriot enclaves (one is the local power station) and then to add to the confusion, most of the civilian workforce were bussed in from the Turkish controlled zone to the north.

Not all work - Regimental birthday on the beach in Dhekelia - Sgt Smith - Provo Sgt- to be avoided!

We knew that when we went to the United Nations Force we would be living in, operating in and guarding a buffer zone between the Turkish Army in the north and the Greek Cypriot Army to the south, but what we did not know that even whilst working in Dhekelia we would end up living and operating in a green zone.

The buffer zone in Cyprus was created by the British Army in the early 60’s to help stop feuding between the Greek and Turkish population, after the Turkish Army invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 it became to responsibility of the United Nations, the zone is known as the Green line ( Turkish often call it the Attila Line)

The UN resolution that created the buffer zone – the Green Line:
A security zone of a size to be determined by representatives of Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, in consultation with UNFICYP, was to be established at the limit of the areas occupied by the Turkish armed forces. This zone was to be entered by no forces other than those of UNFICYP, which was to supervise the prohibition of entry. Pending the determination of the size and character of the security zone, the existing area between the two forces was not to be breached by any forces.
— Tripartite Conference & Geneva Declaration,

The Green Line stretches for 112 miles, and includes a small Turkish enclave on the west coast of the Island, but what I did not know ( might have been told but probably was not listening- was only 18) is that part of that Green Line does not exist as a buffer between Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces, there was part of that line where Turkish troops faced directly British troops, not in UN Blue berets, but in our Green beret and it was Turkish controlled Cyprus bordering the UK – as the Dhekelia sovereign base may have had Greek Cyprus to the east and west of it but to the north it was Turkish controlled – I think at that time the closest UN troops were Swedish both to the east and west of us ( now I believe it is a Slovakian force) and there we were 90 British troops protecting just one small part of the sovereign area- Ayios Nikolaos a small piece of Britain that jutted out to the north east.

So there I was a young soldier finding myself armed, and patrolling this arid land or living in a small hut on a road from Ayios Nikolaos to what seemed nowhere- a couple of buses passed in the morning, bringing in the Turkish work force and then in the evening it took them home, this little hut (home) was called Black Knight – fortunately a small shop was next to it, to keep us supplied with cold coke and water melon.

We knew we would be doing something similar when on the UN part of the tour but could not understand why we doing it now, then it slowly dawned on us but also at the same time threw up many strange questions that were never fully answered. Ayios Nikolaos was a Signal base, many large masts, with their job to listen into the Soviet fleet as it left the Back Sea – listening in on behalf of NATO – which we like Turkey were /are a member of – so we guarding a NATO base from another NATO member country, even stranger (maybe an urban myth) we were told that the NATO General responsible for the Eastern end of the Mediterranean  was Turkish, so he was probably the beneficiary of the reports and intelligence collated at compiled at this small part of the UK, surrounded by his own army!

It was still fun, one young officer had an idea of patrolling this arid land on horses, luckily for me not our officer, and as the Royal Signals soldiers were very well trained/ paid and so well looked after, we found the food far better than what we were used to- a big shock was that you were even allowed to fry your own eggs on a griddle at breakfast!

I enjoyed living at Back Knight with 12 other mates, it cost us some money as game of street cricket on the road ended up with a broken shop window – however we also had to patrol the Green line by vehicle coming across deserted villages and as you came over a small ridge, in front of you was Famagusta, once a modern Mediterranean resort, high rise hotels, beach bars, but now deserted, the Greek citizens were living (in 1980) in refugee camps outside Larnaca, and the Turkish army stopping local Turk Cypriots from moving in – now you can see it from the sea as just the other side of the buffer zone a once deserted coastline is now full of hotels – with mainly UK and Russian tourists that has stretched up the coast from Aya Napa.

It was on one of these patrols that we came across a small group of Turkish troops on the other side of the barbed wire, and we were beckoned over by a loud voice with what seemed a cockney ( or as we often described the accents of those in our own regiment who came from Hertfordshire/Essex- as Mockney) accent, we found then that this young Turkish soldier was in fact from North London, dual passport and whilst on a business trip to the land of his parents, he had been conscripted! His father said he had to spend his year on national service as he did not want to lose his business interest in Turkey!

He gave us his father’s address and we sent him a letter and then for the next few weeks we delivered him cigarettes (by the hundreds) that his father had paid for and other gifts – as this young soldier did not have a great grasp of his parents language, at least being flush in both cigarettes and other luxuries- it could make his life much more bearable!

So this was my first experience of living in the ‘Border lands’ - a place that was governed by no one , ownership was disputed and we often found ourselves as the only inhabitants but that did not mean that we did not see anyone, for a place that no one lived in, we still had many people making their way across this border that was not really a border, the deserted villages were now full of flora and even if no one was meant to visit, you often found some family had made their way back to their ancestral home, often to remember a late relative or celebrate some anniversary.

40 hears on I guess it may be very different, the border is now open in a number of places, the border is now a tourist attraction, those Greek families who fled Famagusta in 1974 now live in small towns and villages that service the tourist industry and coastal resorts, Famagusta is no longer deserted but still no where near having the 40,000 population it had in 1974 and the British still operate out of Dhekelia and Ayios Nikolaos but not sure if Black Knight and the little shop (and the broken window from a stray cricket ball) is on the little used road into Famagusta. – Heard since, that it still exists, and now is used by locals from both sides and tourists to cross the border, it looks busier and not sure a game of street cricket would be possible now.!

Black Knight 2019 

After our stint operating on the Green Line between ourselves and the Turkish forces, we would now move north to work and live in a real buffer zone, the Green Line, west of Nicosia, between the Turkish Army and Greek Cypriot forces. To be continued in part 2.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Just took a week

Last Saturday was a key moment in Labour history, the day that the members decided (by a large majority) that the party needed to return to it's main core function- getting elected to govern this country.

However with the current Corona crisis, it may take longer for Keir Starmer and his new Shadow Cabinet to start to show the public that we are now serious about wanting to govern, because it is obvious to many of us at the moment that the public do not just want to see the opposition attacking the Government but in fact they want politicians to work together, to help us get out of this crisis as quick as possible. that does not mean the Shadow Cabinet should not highlight the failings of Ministers, and today both Starmer and Raynor have highlighted again the lack pf PPE and that the daily press briefings held by Ministers, are failing to give the public honest answers.

But Corbyn supporters, the so called 'left' of the Party, (or as they describe themselves ' the only true socialists in the Party) have decided today to use a leaked internal report into how the Party handled antisemitism, to show that antisemitism was used as a weapon to attack Corbyn and that the right of the PLP cost us the election in 2017. Yet again the 'left' of the Party show they have no rivals for top spot. when it comes to rewriting history

Antisemitism was used by some to attack Corbyn, I think that is obvious to many but he himself could have put a stop to that very easily, his failure to defend or even speak to Louise Ellman, his inability to openly criticise Livingstone and Williamson and then his failure to follow the report by Chakrabarti with immediate action, were just indications that he put misguided loyalty to former comrades ( like Livingstone) and keeping the support of the 'far left' above making the Labour Party electable.

The fact is, as highlighted by Starmer in his leadership speech, "Anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party" - and to go forward as a united party we all need to accept that as fact.

However instead we have some members, a vocal group picking up on this internal report (helped by the support of Owen Jones) and trying to deflect away from the true facts, John McDonnell admitted antisemitism was a problem in the Party, why cant others who supported Corbyn?

I never liked Jeremy Corbyn but I continued to campaign hard for a Labour Government, I was publicly critical of him at times and that often meant Labour members, some local attacked me, told me to leave the Party, but iI stayed, I kept campaigning- it was hard, I was not sure Corbyn could be a good Prime Minister, however I wanted Ipswich to have a Labour MP, and even if I thought Corbyn was weak, he was still better than Johnson and I hoped others in The Shadow Cabinet would step up and the PLP would act as a brake on any stupid policies that the likes of Milne, McClusky were likely to come up with.

Even when I was critical of Corbyn, it was not after just one week of him being leader, I kept campaigning - but after just 8 days we have a local Suffolk member calling on all party members to go on strike! We have others highlighting the lack of BME members in the Shadow Cabinet, but it is just one less than under Corbyn, and we have now have Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary, the likes of Lammy in important roles, but what they really mean is we do not have Corbyn supporting BME MPs  on the Front Bench. But how could Starmer have Dawn Butler on the Front Bench ( or Burgon) when they would not sign up to the pledges from the Board of Deputies that he had? Even if Rebecca Long-Bailey had won she would have had the same problem.

So will those already calling for Starmer to resign, stay in the Party? I am sure most will, they know that to leave they will never be elected themselves again, just look at how Williamson did in December or how the Militant left overs have done in Coventry, where they stand each year. Respect did get some seats, and those same seats could see rival left groups prosper again but in most towns and villages, the Labour Party is the only show in town.

I may not be happy that they are critical of Smarter, However I would be a hypocrite to say they must leave it they are not 100% behind the leader, I was often critical of Corbyn, but I still went out and campaigned hard, and I would still expect them to campaign for a Labour Government, not to call for a strike of members, and I would also hope that they would have given him more than a week to prove himself as leader!

I have found that often those most shouting about how we are no longer a socialist party (after just 8 days of getting a new leader!), are the same people who hardly ever campaigned, happy to go to a socialist book club, or wave  a banner at a mass rally in London, but knocking on doors, talking to voters on Ipswich council estates, was something they were never going to do. For those people the Party is probably better off without you.

For those who are elected members, I would expect nd hope you to join us when the Corona crisis is over by campaigning hard for a Labour Council and Labour Government, if you do not want to you should then think of standing down as a Councilor. We all need to be out there talking to voters, rebuilding their trust so that we can yet again have a Labour Government, so we can make real changes, like we did when we were last in power - Surestart, minimum wage, more investment in education and the NHS - rather than as now, where all we can boast of is that we had a good manifesto or if you are still living in a Corbyn dream world, that we won the argument!