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Royal birthday card sparks poignant wartime memories

World War II veteran Charalambos Orphanides turned 100 last month

By Evie Andreou

World War II veteran Charalambos Orphanides turns 100

Though the British colonial authorities insisted otherwise, it was poverty not patriotism that drove most of the 30,000 Cypriots who signed up for the Cyprus regiment of the British army in World War II.

As 100-year-old Charalambos Orphanides recalls only too well, the 1930s was a brutal time to earn a living in Cyprus and the army’s promise of a steady salary and regular food was all it took to swell the ranks.

Before he joined the army, Orphanides had been reduced to stealing bread, an act he recounts  as clearly as if it happened just days – rather than 80 years – ago.

Orphanides reached his milestone 100th birthday last month and the family celebration brought with it a birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II who is not so much younger herself.

The birthday card from the queen
The birthday card from the queen

Along with his medals, the card is now among the most important pieces of his wartime memorabilia, a recognition not only of his years of service but also evidence of an adventurous and hard life.

“It is nice, eh? She is showing her appreciation. I served from the beginning, 1939, until the end,” Orphanides told the Sunday Mail.

“I saw the queen when we were sent to the UK from France on a ten-day holiday in May 1940, before the invasion [Battle of Dunkirk]. She was around 13 years old. She was on her balcony and we were a group of 30 Cypriots, and we marched in front of the palace and we saluted her and she waved back at us,” he said.

Charalambos Orphanides, second row on the left, marching outside Buckingham palace in May 1940
Charalambos Orphanides, second row on the righ, marching outside Buckingham palace in May 1940

Born in 1917 in Ardana, in the Famagusta district, Orphanides is the fifth of eight children, six boys and two girls. His father was a shoe maker and a farmer.

As soon as he graduated from elementary school, he worked in Larnaca as a construction worker for a year and a half before being laid off. He returned home to find one of his two sisters had died and under pressure to learn his father’s trade.

“I refused. I set off on an old bicycle without any lights or brakes for Famagusta, but there weren’t many available jobs there,” Orphanides said.

His tales of those years are of hardship and a constant struggle to find employment.

In Famagusta, he had to share a room with 22 other people for which he paid a shilling a month.

As soon as he arrived, he grabbed the first job he found as a construction worker, for five piasters per 12-hour working day. “I was young, around 16, at the time. I worked some days, I earned 18 piasters and on pay day I asked the boss to pay me first because I wanted to go to my village to get clean clothes as I only had those I was wearing.  It had been raining for days and I was soaked. He told me that I had to wait.”

“I got paid last, at around 9pm,” Orphanides said.

After paying his rent, he set off on his bicycle, in the rain for his village four miles away.

“I arrived at around midnight. I changed my clothes and headed to Varosi, to find a job.”

Once at Varosi, and unable to find work, he was left penniless and forced to steal food.

“There was a woman from Paralimni selling bread. I sat further back, waiting for the opportunity. I crept over there and grabbed a loaf of bread from her basket. I had never done that before but I was hungry. Those were tough times.”

No wonder Orphanides saw the 12 piasters a day and regular food offered by the British army when war broke out in 1939 as an opportunity not to be missed.

“I had a raise every six months. By the end, I was earning eight shillings a day.”

Both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, around 30,000 in total, answered the call to join the Cyprus regiment. It consisted of pack transport companies, pioneer companies, general transport, engineers, mobile laundry units, tank landing craft, road construction companies and saw service in France, North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Crete and Italy.

Charalambos in uniform
Charalambos in uniform

In the following six years, Orphanides saw most of those countries.

“I was in a pack transport company. I used to take to the soldiers whatever they needed, ammunition, food. We transferred the supplies with mules. Each of us had two mules. In 1939, our company had around 800 Cypriots,” Orphanides said.

Cypriot mule drivers were the first colonial troops sent to the Western Front. They served in France, Ethiopia and Italy carrying equipment to areas inaccessible to vehicles.

His first mission was in France where he stayed until the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940 when he was sent to Port Suez in Egypt. In October 1940 Orphanides and other Cypriots were sent back on leave to Cyprus.

His arrival back home stunned his family. They had been told he was dead.

“When I arrived at the village, I saw my mother out in a field picking olives. I entered the field and I began shouting ‘Mother, Mother’. She was shocked to see me because the German radio station had announced that I had been killed,” he said.

After the evacuation of the Allied forces from Dunkirk, the British troops had left behind their personal items, which were found by the Germans who then announced their names on radio as casualties.

“My parents heard my name on the radio and thought I was dead. By the time I returned home for holidays, my family had already held three memorial services for me!” he said.

Charalambos pictured next to the birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II
Charalambos pictured next to the birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II

Meanwhile, the letter he had sent months previously to his mother informing her that he was alive arrived a few days after he went to the village.

Searing heat and hostile fire were among the challenges the Cyprus regiment faced in North Africa.

“In Abyssinia, one day, we had set off from a place in the morning, we walked 42 miles. That is a long way to walk in the heat. From the too much heat, and the sweat, our shirts were turned into rags within one week,” Orphanides said.

He described how the skin on the soles of his feet had been hardened through years of walking barefoot and that had become an advantage during the war.

“I remember a lad, after a very long march taking off his socks and the skin of his soles had remained in his socks from too much walking. He wasn’t used to such conditions.”

Orphanides believes that he survived the war unscathed due to the protection of Virgin Mary, whose icon he had on him in his missions.

“I was in danger many times. One time in Dunkirk, a bomb fell right where we were standing but luckily, the soil was sandy and it did not go off. We were spared.”

His evocative accounts of human suffering in World War II are equalled by his descriptions of the toll taken on nature and animals.

“When we arrived at Cassino in Italy the trees were in good condition, after the war, from the shells, not a single leaf was left on them. War is terrible. It destroys everything. The trees had paid the price.”

The same was true for many of the mules, killed and mutilated by bombs.

“We saw a lot, the animals were suffering, the trees. I wish peace in the world. People ought to fight only for their country and honour, not for the affairs of others,” Orphanides said.

By the end of the war, Orphanides was the head of his company and was asked to stay in the army.

“An officer from Larnaca had advised me to sign up for two more years, I had already risen two ranks and he said I could earn a third stripe. But I was sick of the war,” Orphanides said.

After being discharged, Orphanides married Margarita also from Ardana in 1946.  But jobs were still hard to come by.

“I got married, had a son and a daughter. I thought ‘if I stay here my children will be left without any education just like me’, so I decided to move to the UK.”

Charalambos with his wife Margarita whom he married in 1946
Charalambos with his wife Margarita whom he married in 1946

After working for a few months, he managed to bring his family over and settled there. He initially lived and worked in London, in various restaurants and at the Firestone tyre factory, before finding a job as a cook in a hospital. By 1963, he was able to buy property in Weston-super-Mare and open his own restaurant and small hotel.

“I had a very good life in England,” Orphanides said.

One of Charalambos' stone carvings
One of Charalambos’ stone carvings

After retirement in 1983, Orphanides and his wife returned to Cyprus to join their children who had already moved back. When Margarita died in 1992, Orphanides decided to take up stone carving as a hobby.

“I was a construction worker, I wanted to work with my hands,” he said, pointing to one of his finely crafted pieces.

“Life is adventurous. One ought to be patient and never give up hope. I had always kept my faith and never stopped trying.”

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