Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 17 Dicking about in Dhekelia with mezes & brandy sours

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 17 Dicking about in Dhekelia with mezes & brandy sours

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 2, September, 2020

WHEN I REJOINED 4th Tonks in early 1989 it was still in Osnabruck. I had visited the Regiment once, I think, over the past four years and it was less familiar to me although only some of the personalities had changed. The Officers’ Mess, though, was quite different. A whole generation of young subalterns had joined, and many had already left having completed their Short Service Commissions, during the time I had been away. I also found that I was now the most senior bachelor officer which was distinctly odd.

The good news was that the Regiment was now commanded by Lt Col (later Brigadier) Charlie McBean, a fellow Glaswegian, and his adjutant was another Scotsman, Archie Lightfoot from South Uist, so we really did live up to our claim of being “Scotland’s Own Royal Tank Regiment”. I was given command of C Squadron, where my 2ic was Patrick Kidd, who went on to become a Brigadier in the Australian Army, and the subalterns were Hamish De Bretton Gordon (DBG, now the media’s go-to expert on all aspects of chemical and biological warfare), Sean Rickard, a Kiwi, Charlie Pratt (now Cavanagh) and Brett Fleming-Jones. They were all nice boys and I liked them a lot. I think Patrick probably thought I was a bit casual and a soft touch discipline wise, and he may have been right. After all, he’s the one that made Brigadier, not me! 

Charlie Pratt and Hamish De Bretton Gordon

It’s an old adage that the senior NCOs were, and no doubt still are, the backbone of the British army, and that was definitely the case in C Squadron. Mine were an outstanding bunch; I couldn’t have wished for a better SSM than WO2 Stuart King, nor in my SQMS Davy Valley. Troop Sgts came and went a little during my time in command but included John Barnwell, Sinky Sinclair, Jimmy Simpson (now McCalman), John Riach, Murdo McLeod and “Jack” Russell. They were the ones who kept the whole thing ticking over smoothly and they were a fine bunch. 

SQMS Davy Valley and crew

I arrived back at the Regiment just in time to participate in our UN tour of Cyprus as dismounted infantry. This was meant to be a jolly, a holiday posting for all of us after eight years of BAOR grind on panzers. Consequently, in early 1989 we put our tanks into the hangars and started re-learning the basic infantry skills we had all gone through in basic training. Out went our Sterling sub-machine guns (SMGs) and in came the Belgian designed self-loading rifles (SLRs), bigger, longer, heavier and infinitely more powerful. They allowed the old sweats to swing the lamp about previous Norn Ireland tours where they had last used them.

4th Tonks had always been reasonably fit; we held two regimental runs a week on top of other voluntary sports activities. But we commenced trying to get infantry fit with a series of route marches carrying rifles and webbing, and it was surprising how many of the younger lads found this difficult.  We got there in the end, though. Then at some point we had to pass our Annual Personal Weapon Test (APWT) on the SLR. The final bit of preparation was the CO’s exercise to confirm our infantry skills in a series of advances, attacks, and patrols out in the field. 

The “field”, in this case, was literally that, German farmers’ fields in the monotonously boring northwest German plain. Depressing at the best of times in late winter/early spring, they were made much worse by the near constant rain and the farmers’ habit of spreading untreated pigs manure on them to encourage growth. As the correct response to coming under effective enemy fire is “down, crawl, observe, fire”, you can imagine how popular that was in the circumstances. We stank to high Heaven and were only too glad when it ended.

And then in June of that year we went to Cyprus. I can’t actually remember how we got there but obviously we flew. I do remember the CO getting mightily hacked off with the RAF for making us wait around for come considerable time before we set off, a recurring theme during my military career. We hated RAF movements, who we thought lax, scruffy, rude and inefficient – which they were. Anyway, eventually we landed in RAF Akrotiri and wended our way up to Dhekelia in the Sovereign Base Area (SBA), where C Squadron was to spend the first three months of our six month tour before moving up on to the UN Green Line.

Soldiering in the SBA was like being back in the days of the Empire. We were nominally guarding the base, but in fact there was no enemy, and the boys got quickly bored stagging on despite a few training exercises thrown in to keep us occupied. The Base Commander was clearly bonkers, perhaps having spent too long in the sun. It was his habit to turn up at 3 am in the wee small hours in full dress uniform to inspect the pillboxes our sentries manned 24/7, probably to try and catch them sleeping on the job. We despised him for it. 

Marlita beach

It was blooming hot too, and we worked from 6 am until 2 pm and then packed it in for the day. Our barracks were on the beach, and for the first fortnight the sea was full of white, skinny Scottish soldiers frolicking about as if on holiday in Torremolinos. After that initial burst of enthusiasm few bothered any more. We spent time at the nearby “Larnaca strip”, a collection of dingy and dilapidated bars, restaurants and clubs which ran along the coast road, and dined on a standard and repetitive menu of “mezes” (a selection of small dishes served as appetizers) until we could stand them no more. In the Officers’ Mess (main picture) brandy sours were the drink of the tour for reasons I know not – cheap brandy I would presume. They were very refreshing anyway.

To be frank, southern – that is Greek – Cyprus was a mess at that time, all dusty roads and half-finished buildings with the beginnings of the modern tourist trade which now defines it. The British expats were awful people and we tried to have as little to do with them as we could. The British holidaymakers even more so. I did spend some time, though, visiting some of the ancient ruins on the island which were quite impressive. There was also a rolling programme for R&R which meant that we were never completely up to strength at any one time. Lots of the boys took the boat trip to Egypt, which by all accounts was a bit of a booze cruise, whereas the officers tended to go home or bring their WAGs over to the island for a fortnight or longer. 

At some point we went up the long, narrow extension to the SBA which led up to the listening station at Ayios Niklaos, just short of the deserted former holiday resort of Famagusta which was in the middle of the no-man’s land between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. What allegedly goes on here can be found via Wikipedia  but suffice to say there seemed to be a large number of civilian employees on site and in the Officers’ Mess there, many of whom seemed to be Arabic speakers. I can’t for the life of me think why that should have been the case, but there you go. 

The six odd weeks we spent there were doubly dull. The boys once again stagged on guarding the barracks and manning a check point that led into nowhere and whose traffic mainly consisted of locals going to their fields. There was yet another dingy roadside restaurant serving the local fare there and not much else. I think it would be fair to say that we were pretty bored there, even more bored than we had become back down in Dhekelia. It was tedious in the extreme.

How to sum up our time spent in the SBA at Dhekelia? After the initial frisson of excitement of the new it was pretty humdrum. We were there because we were there, but it certainly didn’t turn out to be the holiday posting we imagined. In our boredom and ignorance we were almost looking forward to going up on to the Green Line as part of the UN. We should have been more careful about what we wished for, but that can wait until next time.  

To come in Part 18; on the Green Line with the UN. 

© Stuart Crawford 2020 

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