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‘An assault upon the people’

Corporal Martin Bell as a young conscript in Cyprus in 1959

A new book by a former BBC journalist recalls his days as a British conscript in Cyprus during the EOKA uprising

By Jean Christou

British documents declassified in 2012 relating to the ‘Cyprus Rebellion’ revealed that in hindsight the island’s colonial rulers, in particular Governor Sir Hugh Foot, believed the most obvious lesson of their defeat by EOKA was that everything depended on intelligence.

“Our failure to destroy EOKA was largely a failure of intelligence,” Foot wrote.

While declassified documents only reveal so much, Martin Bell, former BBC war reporter and English Independent MP who served in intelligence at the time as a young British conscript, actually lived through the last two years of the EOKA struggle, and in his book The End of Empire offers a unique perspective into where the colonial army went wrong.

Bell did his national service in Cyprus in the Suffolk Regiment between 1957 and 1959. In a chocolate box in the attic many years later he found more than 100 letters that he had sent home. The letters give a vivid impression of what it was like to be a conscript on active service in Cyprus.

The letters describe road blocks and cordons and searches, murders and explosions and riots – and a strategy of armed repression that ultimately failed. It also reveals the “casual racism” of the British towards the population, or ‘wogs’, a term Bell apologises for using more than once in his letters home, though a short visit to Lebanon mid-service, left him feeling that Beirut was actually much more ‘woggish’ than Nicosia.

His tales of ‘intelligence gathering’ and other aspects of army life, and fighting EOKA are also not without plenty of humour.

“In 18 months in the Intelligence Section, patrolling and probing week in and week out, working the coffee shops and peering into candle-lit churches, I cannot recall coming up with a single piece of useful or usable intelligence. What we did find in plenty were leaflets,” he says.

He went on to recount a visit to a village where he and a colleague found themselves ploughing through a small mountain of EOKA leaflets. “The Cypriots must be the most untidy people in the world. The vagabonds who produce these leaflets scatter them to the four winds in their hundreds, knowing full well that no one will ever pick them up for fear of being found with them in their possession,” he wrote home.

Martin Bell's book offers a unique perspective into where the colonial army went wrong
Martin Bell’s book offers a unique perspective into where the colonial army went wrong

“Left like park keepers” to pick them up or make the locals “clean up their own horrible streets” they resorted to the latter. “This was in early April 1958, and I am sure we drove back to camp with a feeling of having done a good day’s work of intelligence-gathering. We were quite wrong of course. The so-called ‘vagabonds’ were getting the better of us in winning the people over. And by forcing them to clean their streets at gunpoint we were probably doing more to recruit for EOKA than to defeat it,” he says.

At the same time, Bell says, anti-EOKA leaflets were produced by a group of British expatriates whose leader called himself ‘Cromwell’ and was believed to be army. According to Bell, the organisation originally called itself AKOE, but changed its name to anti-EOKA when it learned that AKOE also stood for the Greek Homosexual Liberation Movement.

This “intelligence operation” was actually not “that clever” Bell says. “I knew that because I was part of it.”

In fact so low was the British army’s success rate in intelligence operations that Bell calculated that if they had lain 1,000 ambushes “the Greeks would run into only one of them”.

“In the Regiment’s magazine I dared to describe the Intelligence Section as its ‘last outpost of civilisation’. It was of course nothing of the kind. It was more like a cover organisation for spinning wheels and appearing to be busy while not actually doing much of any military value at all. The Army was expert at it even on the parade ground, where it was called ‘marking time’ (marching on the spot without going anywhere). We issued maps. We talked in coffee shops. We circulated photographs of wanted men. We patrolled the hinterland. We searched buildings for leaflets and culverts for bombs. My only operational success to date was to find a small bundle of leaflets in a hole in the wall of an empty house,” one letter says. “The fact that it was all for nothing had not yet occurred to me – and did not, until the end when it was too late,” Bell added.

Bell ascribed this naivety to the colonial mind-set that had little knowledge or understanding of Cypriots, and the “outstandingly dismissive” attitude towards them that proved to be Britain’s undoing. Bell was told by the army that Cypriots were “crafty in the extreme” and that “airs of injured innocence and the like should not be taken notice of” during searches.

Governor Sir Hugh Foot inspects the Battalion, August 1958
Governor Sir Hugh Foot inspects the Battalion, August 1958

According to declassified documents, EOKA was on the brink of defeat in March 1957 but staged a spectacular recovery by summer the following year, partly due to the repressive measures against the population that made it harder to recruit informers, which in turn produced no usable intelligence.

It was at that point, July 1958, Britain began its biggest push until then against EOKA with Operation Matchbox – one intelligence report of which is only marked for declassification after 120 years. The operation involved collective punishment with mass arrests, detentions, roadblocks, searches censorship, curfews and general heavy handedness, or what Bell described as “harassment of the Greek population” with a “staggering lack of humanity”.

EOKA pushed back with a wave of reprisals against the British with 45 killings in October 1958 including a sergeant’s wife, Catherine Cutliffe, who was shot dead in broad daylight near Famagusta on October 3.

The backlash brought more sledgehammer tactics against the Cypriots and in a number of cases British army discipline completely broke down as enraged soldiers took out their anger on the population.
Governor Foot had warned against the operation and of its consequences, which had come to pass.

“I admired the Governor, a humane and decent man with the right instincts; but his motto of ‘firmness with courtesy’ fell on deaf ears,” Bell says. Foot was surrounded by hardliners keener on the firmness than the courtesy. “I stopped making excuses for the methods being used and recognised armed repression when I saw it. It was an assault upon the people.”

October 1958 saw army regime change and Major General Sir Douglas Kendrew was replaced as by Major General Sir Kenneth Darling who decided on a new strategy of beating EOKA with brains rather than brawn. Bell says that when final negotiations for a Cyprus settlement were underway, the British believed they knew where EOKA leader George Grivas was hiding. They had the house under surveillance and could have raided it but Darling decided not to risk a single British life in the process.
“But by then the cordons and searches had done their damage,” Bell said. “The hearts and minds campaign, in so far as there ever was one, had failed completely. And so it came to pass as I foretold it.

The knockout blow was never delivered. EOKA survived and prospered.”

Bell says in his book, he and his fellow low-ranking soldiers were unaware of the torture and brutality that took place behind closed doors during interrogations by the British, and for which EOKA veterans now plan to sue Britain after the release of the declassified documents in 2012.

He said the operations of the security forces had a darker side to them than he knew from his vantage-point on the first floor of the Central Police Station, and the real truth had lain hidden for more than 50 years in the National Archives. “We should have asked more questions, but did not,” he said.

Over 370 British soldiers died in Cyprus between 1955 and 1959. Of those, 105 were killed by EOKA plus another 603 who were wounded in the campaign. The remainder of the soldiers died in other ways including accidental discharges, suicides, traffic accidents, and in other ways.

British troops search villagers in Ayios Nicolaos in 1958
British troops search villagers in Ayios Nicolaos in 1958

Twenty-two EOKA members were sentenced to death during the four years of the uprising. Thirteen were reprieved. The other nine were executed, all during Field Marshal Harding’s governorship. Sir Hugh Foot signed no death warrants. “Others were killed haphazardly without being tried or sentenced,” Bell said. That was in addition to the thousands of Cypriots detained and beaten and those killed during interrogations or riots or during intercommunal violence during the period.

Bell merely touches on the role of Turkish Cypriots – either as policemen or civilians – during the struggle.

He recalls when it was all over and independence was close: “If Archbishop Makarios and Dr Kuchuk had appeared jointly before their supporters and proclaimed the advantages of a shared independence to their people, the peaceful option might have prevailed. But after the inter-communal violence of 1958 there was too much bad blood between them. Instead, the Turkish leader said that Makarios held the steering wheel but he had his foot on the brake. It was all downhill from there. At the Battalion level we had no idea of the politics of it. We lowered the flag, turned to the right and dismissed. It was the twilight of Empire.”

The End of Empire will be published in July by Pen & Sword Books Ltd in London

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