I served a total of 27 years in the Canadian Army Reserve (Militia), including the Royal Canadian Artillery, Military Intelligence (yes, I know…it’s an oxymoron), and the Royal Canadian Logistics Service. The latter also included nine years as an Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel (Lt.-Col.)/Honorary Colonel (Col.). I trained at several bases and locations across Canada over my career, made a lot of good friends, and had some memorable experiences.
However, probably the most interesting one-week experience was an October 1981 visit to Cyprus while the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) were deployed there. At that time, the 2nd Battalion was stationed in Winnipeg at Kapyong Barracks located at Route 90 and Grant Avenue.
Some of you may remember Dennis Lowe, whom I first encountered as a Certificate in Adult Education (CAE) student in the early 1970’s when he instructed our Audio-Visual course. Dennis had a varied background and worked in several capacities at RRCC before he left to start a printing business.
He had developed a relationship with the 2nd Battalion and had performed numerous A/V services for them leading up to the Battalion’s deployment to Cyprus. As a result, he had been invited to visit them in Cyprus to take photos that would form part of their unit history.
Dennis and I would meet for coffee occasionally in Buffalo Place at the Notre Dame Campus. He knew I was in the Army Reserve at the time and that was sometimes a topic of conversation. On one of those coffee occasions, he mentioned he’d be visiting Cyprus to do some photographic and audio recording work for the 2nd Battalion. Jokingly, I asked if he needed help carrying his suitcases, which it turned out he did. After some discussion with the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 2nd Battalion, Lt.-Col. Barry Ashton, we agreed that I would accompany Dennis to conduct interviews in Cyprus.
At that time, Army Reserve Officers were typically not deployed overseas, although some Army Reserve other ranks, usually trained Privates, Corporals and Sergeants, did have the opportunity. For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to visit a UN peacekeeping operation I would likely not have the chance to do otherwise.
The Canadian Forces were deployed in Cyprus from 1964 to 1993, the longest peacekeeping mission in their history. Their mission, along with contingents from several other nations, was to keep the Greek Cypriots, who occupied the southern half of the island, and the Turkish Cypriots, who occupied the northern portion (36%) of the island, apart. Many Canadian army units were rotated through and deployed to Cyprus over those almost 30 years, and some soldiers died there.
Our overall trip lasted 11 days, but the best part was undoubtedly the seven days in Cyprus. Initially, we flew from Canada in a CC-130 Hercules aircraft to Heidelberg, Germany, where Dennis had a military acquaintance at whose home we stayed overnight. The next day we boarded another Hercules for the next leg to Larnaca in Cyprus. A memorable moment during that flight was standing in the Hercules cockpit area as it flew over the Swiss Alps.
Day #1: An introduction to statecraft in Nicosia
The 50 km trip from Larnaca, a city of about 50,000 on the south coast of Cyprus, to Nicosia, the capital city where the 2nd Battalion was headquartered, was uneventful. But I recall thinking the Greek Cypriot checkpoint we passed through on the way was somewhat casual. The Greek Cypriot soldier lifted the road barrier and waved us through without bothering to check any identification.
The occupied areas of Nicosia, the last divided city in Europe, are separated by a ceasefire line or buffer zone, known as the Green Line, the name of which was taken from the green line drawn on the map of Nicosia to show the dividing line between the Greeks and Turkish Cypriots. The ceasefire line extends both east and west of Nicosia across the entire island. The Canadian Forces were responsible for keeping the peace in Nicosia along the green line and for some distance on the west side of the city.
On arrival, we were assigned accommodations in the Ledra Palace Hotel in central Nicosia. At one time it had been a highly rated luxurious hotel, but by the time we arrived it had deteriorated considerably. There were bullet holes evident on the building façade, resulting from the 1974 aggression from the Turkish forces, and the rooms, while comfortable, were far from ostentatious. We were warned against opening the hotel room windows and taking photos in the direction of the Turkish forces as this could be considered a violation and potentially lead to a diplomatic incident.
During our first evening meal, we learned the 2nd Battalion had been extremely busy since their arrival the previous month, particularly the CO and the Deputy Commanding Officer (DCO). An important duty for both individuals was to socialize with both the Turks and Greeks, although not necessarily at the same time, to maintain friendly relations. If it was noticed the CO and DCO were spending too much time with one side over the other, they would be accused of favouritism, which could lead to accusations and offended officials. Therefore, both individuals had to spread themselves evenly across both sides.
The CO had been socializing every night since they had arrived; the DCO had been out only 28 of the 30 days. This was in addition to their daily military duties and there were few opportunities for “time off” unless soldiers were permitted to take leave (vacation) during their deployment.
Day #2: Tour of the Green Line west of Nicosia
Dennis was a passenger in one white UN Jeep ahead of ours and I was in the back seat of the other. As an Army Reservist, I wore my uniform, but did not have the light blue beret worn by UN peacekeepers.
Some portions of the tour were through narrow passageways and our vehicles had to slow down to navigate. At one point as we rounded a corner slowly, to my right there was a Turkish soldier who appeared to be bringing his rifle to bear. My first thought was “Oh, great. I haven’t even been here one day and I’m going to get shot.” However, the soldier was doing a “present-arms”, which is basically a salute with a rifle. It took a while for my heartbeat to slow down after that.
As we travelled westward along the Green Line, it was evident what the clash between the Greeks and Turks had done to most properties. Many houses were shot up and probably no longer occupied. Further, they would have been nice homes by any world standard. It seemed like such senseless destruction and loss.
One practice of peacekeeping forces is to deploy a component along the buffer zone. We visited a platoon (30-35 soldiers +/-) location at an abandoned, unoccupied house. The house served as a base from which daily patrols were sent and as an observation post where soldiers were required to keep watch 24/7 to ensure there were no violations on either side. A violation could be something as simple as either side improving a fortification by adding protection.
The most impressive part was realizing that soldiers manning these observation posts were sometimes as young as 18 years. It made us appreciate how difficult it must have been at that age and the courage it required to man a post like this by oneself in complete darkness.
It was the practice of the 2nd Battalion CO to have dinner, to which we were invited that evening, with what he called his “war cabinet” on regular occasions. His war cabinet comprised the Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (Snr NCOs) of the Battalion. Generally, this meant a restaurant dinner somewhere in the city, but outside the headquarters area, so the Battalion command team could relax a bit and talk over issues and challenges in a less formal environment.
Day #3: Work-up to a mezze dinner
For most of this day, we took videos and interviewed some of the senior soldiers in the Battalion, including the CO and some members who had been on several peacekeeping missions previously. We learned that, typically, a peacekeeping tour would last about six months until another Canadian Forces unit replaced the current unit.
However, for most deployments there was a “work-up” period to inform a unit’s soldiers what they would be facing. The work-up could last for two to three months, and a debrief was also required after a unit had returned home. This meant a peacekeeping tour could be 9 to 10 months when fully completed. Further, some soldiers had been on peacekeeping tours or other deployments several times because the unit or individual rotations arose fairly frequently when a country has been involved for that long in one location and in several others in smaller contingents.
That evening we were treated to a mezze dinner in a Greek restaurant. Mezze means a bite or small taste. It includes foods such as vegetables, grilled seafood, skewered meats, salads, individually stuffed grape leaves, dips, cheeses, desserts, etc. When the first platter or two arrived at the table, Dennis and I thought this might be the whole meal for what was a large group. We realized after the platters kept coming that each dish was to be just tasted so it added up to a complete meal over the course of the dinner. It is not unusual for a mezze dinner to have 15 to 20 courses.
Following dinner, we heard and observed some Greek music and dancing. Eventually, after a glass or two of Ouzo, and a few “Yiamas” (cheers) toasts we all joined in the all-male dancing (tzamiko) to chants of Opa, although there would definitely not be any prizes awarded to the Canadian soldiers for the quality of their dancing.
Day #4: The buffer zone in downtown Nicosia
Part of the duty of the UN peacekeepers was to ensure buildings and property located within the buffer zone had not been broken into and property damaged. One warehouse we visited was full of brand-new 1974 Ford Cortinas, photocopying machines, baby carriages and other items that had not been touched since the ceasefire was declared seven years earlier. It was like everything in that warehouse was a moment frozen in time and it seemed such a waste.
We were told the Greek owner of the warehouse contents had been offered the opportunity to empty the contents but refused to do so because it would mean having to ask Turk officials for permission and, on principle, he did not want to humiliate himself.
Another section on the Green Line in the city was so narrow it was difficult to drive a vehicle through it easily. During patrols, a soldier would be dropped off at one end to walk through the narrow area. If he had not arrived at the other end within a specified number of minutes, it was assumed he had encountered difficulty. Greeks and Turks would yell insults at each other across this small divide frequently and occasionally take pot shots at each other. If any fortification improvements were made it would be reported the next day by the other side and would usually require an investigation. Most times it would result in returning the fortification to its original state or the “other side” would be allowed to make a comparable improvement.
That evening we were invited to dinner at the British Officers’ mess with a Public Relations Officer for the British forces who was a member of the Irish Rangers. We spent a pleasant evening talking about our experiences and learning about the British peacekeeping involvement in Cyprus.
Day #5: Saint Hilarion Castle and Kyrenia
As most of our time to that point had been spent on the south side of or in the buffer zone, several Battalion officers decided to take us to the side occupied by the Turks. Our destination was Kyrenia, some 27 km to the north.
We stopped along the way to visit Saint Hilarion Castle, which had been started in the 11th century in the Kyrenian mountain range to oversee the passage of people travelling from Nicosia to Kyrenia. The “castle” had three levels. Historically, the lower level was occupied by the men-at-arms and horses at the time. The upper level was occupied by royalty.
We climbed to the middle level initially and stopped for a refreshment break in what was then a small, rustic café. As we started to the third level up the uneven stone path, I made the mistake of turning around on the steep incline to view Turkey across the Aegean sea. I had my first experience with vertigo at that point which made me feel like I was going to fall off the side of the mountain. I had to sit down and grab onto some grass beside the path to the upper level. Fortunately, the feeling passed momentarily.
Following the climb, when we reached the bottom of the mountain to resume our visit to Kyrenia, the Battalion Intelligence Officer discovered his notebook had been stolen from one of the vehicles. Fortunately, he did not have any classified information in it, so while it was not a great concern overall, it did teach a valuable lesson.
With the partitioning of Cyprus, Kyrenia became a tourist attraction mostly for the Turkish Cypriots and visitors from Turkey. For the Greek Cypriots, the most likely vacation spot on the island was in Limassol in the south, which Canadian troops usually visited on some of the few days off they had during their tour.
We had a meal and spent some time at the Kyrenia waterfront, but it felt more ominous than touristy. There were grey Turkish Navy patrol boats in the harbour and there were numerous armed Turkish soldiers in the waterfront area.
Day #6: Winding down
As this was to be our last day in Cyprus, and we needed to pack, we stuck fairly close to “home.” We were toured through the supply warehouse which contained clothing, materials, vehicle parts and the like for the duration of each unit’s tour. It was clarified that whenever a unit rotated over to another unit, it often involved changes in the clothing stores. For example, infantrymen tend to be slimmer than artillerymen because the former are more accustomed to physically moving around. This meant the clothing for infantry tended to be smaller sizes when an infantry unit was deployed and larger when an artillery unit was deployed.
That evening the Battalion officers held a “toga” party and had extended an invitation to nurses in the British contingent to join them. It involved much beer and mulled wine drinking as well as some competitive games. One game involved two individuals sitting on a railroad tie which was stretched across two, 45-gallon upright barrels. The individuals, facing each other, were supplied with a padded batten stick and attempted to knock each other off the log to defend a designated maiden’s honour. It was all in good fun and no one was seriously injured by the end of the evening.
Day #7: Homeward bound
On the day we departed, we were served a substantial breakfast and said our goodbyes. We had gotten to know and like quite a few of the unit members over the course of that week and felt a kinship with them that we could only assume was much multiplied for those who served with each other every day for their entire tour and beyond.
Our ground transportation took us back to Larnaca where we boarded a CC-130 Hercules to return to Germany and then home to Winnipeg the following day. Dennis and I were grateful for the entire experience and agreed it was a trip we’d never forget.
As a reservist, I had some prior academic understanding of what UN peacekeeping missions were all about, but those seven days in Cyprus really opened my eyes. Over 25,000 Canadians served in Cyprus over almost three decades deployed in 59 groups as part of Operation Snowgoose and the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). During that time, there were 28 casualties.
What we witnessed over those seven days was a well-organized group of soldiers who performed their daily tasks cheerfully and without complaint, who sometimes had to put their lives on the line to fulfill Canada’s commitment to the United Nations. They served away from their home and families for six months or more at a time, usually more than once in their careers. They made sacrifices which most of us are never called upon to make.
As we left Cyprus there was a feeling of intense pride in the Canadian Forces and an appreciation for what they were doing as well as the professional manner in which they were doing it. Somehow, a simple “thank you for your service” seems inadequate, but for most of them it is enough.
There is a tradition amongst Canadian Forces veterans to wear something red on Fridays. The acronym R.E.D. stands for “Remember Everyone Deployed” and wearing something red acknowledges that Canada still has military folks in various parts of the world all the time. If you want to do something to respect that tradition and their service, please wear something red on Fridays, and, in particular, remember them on November 11.
Another great contribution to our Celebration of (Retired) Life series. Thank you, Dale!
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