Evacuation from Famagusta: 20th July 1974
Although it was Saturday, it began like any other working day as my husband was a shift worker due at 9 Signal Regt, 4 Mile Point, for a morning shift. So at 6.00 am we were having breakfast, when – to coin a phrase – ‘all hell broke loose’. There had been an uneasy atmosphere and curfew, since Nicos Sampson and the Greek National Guard had taken over and formed a new Cypriot government on 15th July.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey were mounting, and the families of British servicemen, British civilians working alongside them, or for other UK based concerns, their families and numerous people on holiday were caught up in the middle.
My husband, Andy, was a Sector Warden. We were always aware that there could be problems, and were all briefed as to what to do in the event of an ‘Emergency’, so many of us already had cases packed. Our little family was due to leave shortly as Andy was leaving the Army. So, there we were, eating bacon butties and listening to the radio, which, since the ‘troublei started, was on from early morning till late at night, because that was how we would know if and when evacuation would be necessary. Indeed, a ‘paper exercise’ evacuation had taken place only days before.
At 0620 the announcement was made that the Turks had landed at Kyrenia and the families would be evacuated into the Sovereign Base Areas or SBAs. Andy’s butty was never finished – he rushed off to report to the Head Warden for his sector, and I got the children out of bed and ready for a very taxing day ahead. We could hear gunfire, and some of the more exuberant young men rode around in jeeps firing off random shots , which, not surprisingly, scared the children. We packed our bags, gave shelter to the newly arrived lady and her daughter who had moved in across the road only the day before, and waited. During this time I fastened down the lids on our packing cases and filled in the Customs Declaration Forms. Pretending things are normal sometimes does help.
By noon we were being picked up in army buses to be taken to the safety of the SBA at Dhekalia. We could not travel by way of the main roads, so, led by a scout car our convoy, which included 3 ton trucks bearing our luggage, wended its way via the orange groves.
At Dhekalia we queued to register our family groups, were given a telegram form so we could let relatives know we were OK and would probably soon be home, and were told where we would be staying. To my shame I cannot remember the name of the family we lived with for a week, nor how we got to their home. There was dad [Staff Sergeant in the Royal Signals], mum [from Dublin and called Maura], and three children, more or less the same ages as our boys; Iain was 9 and Duncan was 4. The family had been on holiday in the Troodos Mountains and had been evacuated only the day before. I felt sorry for them, having us wished on them so soon, but also very grateful.
Sunday morning, and the noise of helicopters. I looked out of the window and was aware of a very large grey ship in the bay. My only worry was ‘Whose navy does she belong to?’ After all, Turkey was a flipping sight nearer than the UK. With great relief I recognised British flags. I don’t think anyone has ever been so grateful to see a Union Jack and on closer inspection to find we were in the capable hands of all those on board HMS Hermes.* Believe me, I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since.
We spent the afternoon on the beach. Duncan slept most of the time [he can still sleep anywhere, through almost any disturbance] whilst helicopters ran a ship-to-shore shuttle service with vehicles, arms, ammunition and stores.
Duncan did actually waken up long enough to inform a green-bereted Royal Engineer ‘I don’t think my daddy’s a proper soldier’. On being asked, kindly, ‘Why is that, son?’ he gravely informed his new friend ‘Because he doesn’t take his gun when we go swimming!’
A week later we were wakened at 5.00 am to begin a 24 + hour trip back to the UK. But that’s another story.
*The cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals is the Greek God Hermes [Roman name Mercury] or to the average squaddie in our day ‘Little Jimmy’.