All right, I’ll admit it. When we rode out into the dark on those distant nights, we felt more like cowboys than infantrymen. But instead of horses, our mounts were two open-topped jeeps, with steel pickets like ships’ prows welded to their fenders, ready to slice through the lethal, invisible steel wires the enemy stretched across dark mountain roads at just the height that could chop off a man’s head. It was the winter of 1956, and the enemy was EOKA, a private army of Greek Cypriot partisans bent on wresting independence from the British in Cyprus, led by the same men who’d harassed and demoralized the Nazi and Italian fascist occupying armies in mainland Greece eleven years earlier, at the end of World War II.
Now, under a cold, cloudless sky at around 2:00 a.m., we swung out through the heavily guarded gates of our camp into a moonlit landscape. We drove fast, our engines reverberating in the narrow streets of the sleeping villages along the way. As the leader of the patrol, I drove the front jeep. Beside me sat Private Lou Davies, a chirpy ginger-haired draftee who, only months earlier, had worn another uniform as the driver of trains between London and Birmingham. Now he crouched behind a spotlight and a Bren medium machine gun, its bipod resting on two sandbags like cement pillows on the hood of the vehicle, while his eyes swept the terrain around us. Behind Davies sat my radio operator, Freddie Higgs, an amateur boxer, his head wrapped in an oversized headset under a swaying twelve-foot aerial, from the top of which fluttered a yellow pennant. Squeezed into the back seat next to Higgs, ‘Tiny’ Mustapha, a massive Turkish Cypriot police sergeant with the girth of a Sumo wrestler, chewed tobacco throughout the patrol, occasionally clearing his throat and spitting out of the jeep. In the second vehicle, towing a two-wheel trailer with mail and rations, Lance Corporal Peters and three privates followed closely behind, their rifles and a Sten sub-machine gun covering our rear.
They called this nightly routine ‘The Dynamite Run,’ one of the least popular missions in a five-year terrorist war about which hardly any Americans have ever heard. Our destination was Mitsero, one of many copper and asbestos mines that lay in the shadow of the 5000-ft Troodos mountains that form Cyprus’s rugged backbone.
Where there are copper mines there are always plastic explosives, the essential ingredients for making primitive bombs and anti-personnel mines. Mitsero was therefore a priority target for EOKA. About twenty miles from our base, Mitsero stored the demolition equipment for a dozen other mineral mines nearby. The stone building was ringed with a wall of sandbags and razor wire, and a circle of outward facing floodlights. A group comprised of a sergeant and nine men, armed with an arsenal of light mortars and automatic weapons, manned it day and night. Every night, a patrol such as ours took out supplies, but also gave moral support to isolated little units like this one, which was from time to time a target for snipers from the mountains that towered over it.
For the first fifteen miles or so we sped through rolling countryside, past olive and carob plantations and a dozen darkened villages. But in the last few miles we were forced to drive more slowly when the road to Mitsero snaked and climbed, narrower now, its unfenced curves carved out of the mountains, and often hanging several hundred feet over a sheer drop. From here on we were perfect targets. The corkscrew track passed over dozens of culverts in which it was only too easy to plant remotely detonated mines. Weeks earlier a member of our own platoon had been crushed to death on this strip of road after his scout car overturned. But what made these missions even more hazardous was the fact that there was only one usable road to and out of Mitsero. If EOKA were looking out for us on any night, they knew we’d be every bit as easy a target heading home as we’d been going out.
And so it was that night. We’d reached Mitsero without incident. For half an hour or so we sat around a table in the store, by the light of a hissing Colman lantern, drinking tea laced with rum, smoking and chatting with the few men in the unit who were awake.
We were more than half way home when they got us, passing through Kokkino Trimithia, a dot on the map with a picturesque church, a coffee shop and a few dozen unremarkable stone houses, surrounded by olive groves. We’d just entered the village when a short burst of machine gun fire crashed into our offside fender. I braked and, with the metallic reverberation of the shots still shrilling in our ears, we scrambled from our trucks and spread out, taking what cover we could behind the concrete-mixers and stacked bricks around what was clearly a building site. Peters, in the second vehicle, had spotted the flashes from the weapon, in a building maybe thirty yards away, up a steep gradient. His alert co-driver, crouching behind the now static jeep, swung his searchlight up the slope, training the powerful beam on a half-built, roofless single story cinderblock house. For a fraction of a second, in one of the building’s hollow window frames, we spotted two men crouched over a weapon, caught like road kill in the headlights.
While Peters and his team gave us covering fire, Davies, Higgs, the Turkish sergeant and I spread out, to be halted momentarily by a burst of automatic fire. Seconds later there was an ear-splitting explosion in one of the unfinished window cavities of the house, and then a total, mystifying silence.
In a minute, still covered by Peters and his crew, the four of us had run on up the slope and made a cursory search of the shell of the little four-roomed house. There was nobody there, but the sharp smell of Baratol explosive hung in the building’s open room spaces.
Tiny Mustapha was breathless by the time we reached the little house. But, leaning, panting against the stone wall he removed a brown, folded envelope from his tunic pocket with the letters OHMS printed on it – On Her Majesty’s Service. Armed with a flashlight, he unfolded it and was soon crawling around on the sandy, unfinished floor of the room from whose windows we’d been attacked.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You not see blood in the doorway?
I hadn’t seen any blood. Maybe my being colorblind didn’t help.
Still kneeling on the floor, the big policeman held up his envelope to me.
“Then, you look in here, sir.”
Taking his flashlight I peered into the envelope, at the bottom of which seemed to be one or two small pieces of . . . of what?
“What are they, Tiny?”
The Turkish policeman literally left me holding the bag.
“That big bang, sir,” the Turk said, “They throw a grenade. A Number 36 Mills bomb. See . . .?”
He held up a small, threaded metal disc. “This is base plug, and here is striker lever. But it go off too quick, see? Maybe blow off his whole hand. Now I collect it up. If we get bigger pieces of fingers like these, we get good fingerprints! We look for more. You help?”
While the crew of the other jeep followed the trail of blood from the house with their flashlights, Davies, the gunner, watched over us while we searched the floor inch by inch. Scrabbling in the dirt, in addition to a handful of used 300 caliber cartridge cases, we found a few unidentifiable pieces of flesh and bone, and had soon accounted for what were later identified as pieces of three fingers.
“No thumb,” Mustapha said. “Big pity. Thumbs make best prints.”
We searched for a while longer until, with a joyful whoop, the Turkish sergeant pounced on most of a right-hand thumb.
“With this,” he said, holding it up, his eyes popping with excitement, “we get fingerprints. Now we can do something!”
But for all of our patient searching that night we achieved nothing. It was a mystery. The trail of blood led some fifty yards round the back of two houses and disappeared without trace on the narrow street through the village. The forensic people at the police headquarters in Nicosia got good clear images from Mustapha’s trophies, but their CID – Criminal Investigation Department – colleagues could find no prints in their files to match them.
Why hadn’t he thrown the grenade? There were two fuses available for a Mills bomb, for four seconds and seven seconds. Maybe he had a four second fuse and thought he had a seven second one. And why wasn’t he killed by a bomb that had a killing range of up to fifteen feet? Had the bomber maybe been killed instantly and borne away by his comrade? Or had he lived to tell his own grizzly tale?
. . .
Three years later, a civilian again, I was back in Cyprus on contract to the British Government as the press officer for the colony’s emergency police force. On my last day on the island I stood, incognito, on a sidewalk in Nicosia, the island’s capital, within sight of the saluting base as Sir Hugh Foot, the colony’s last governor, relinquished the government of Cyprus to Archbishop Makarios, the new Republic’s first president.
After the hand-over, the handshakes and the hymns, a military band struck up. Leading the freedom parade, marching past the Archbishop and his fledgling cabinet ministers, came the heroes of the revolution – the men of EOKA.
Remembering that night in Kokkino a few years earlier, I searched for a marcher with no hand with which to salute. In the first little squad there seemed to be no such man. And nor was there one in the second group. But as the last squad passed there was, indeed, a limping man who, with his right sleeve hanging empty and pinned below the elbow, saluted with his left hand.
Could that have been he? I’ll never know. Looking back over more than sixty years I accept that, while to me and my comrades he was simply a terrorist thug, to himself and his fellow countrymen he was a freedom fighter and more than that, a patriot.
I’m old now, and I don’t care anymore. At least in our own minds, didn’t each of us have right on his side?
* * *