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?