Let’s Fight for the Right to Party
Perhaps this fresh faced unbearded 22 year old may look familiar to some of you? Fast forward much more than four decades, add a soupçon of life skills learning, a tad of (but not too much) maturity, a beard, hard crusty weather-beaten outer wrapping, and snow on the thinly thatched roof, and then, let your imagination flow. But first that mugshot.
It was 1971 and Officer Cadet KA Boddie was mulling over the possibility of joining the Royal Engineers with his commanding officer at Aberdeen University OTC and also the warrant officer in charge of his Royal Engineers subunit, both with distinguished careers in Her Majesty’s regular army.
This green and immature uni student was advised by these ‘dogs of war’ that perhaps I should dip my toe in the real sapper’s arena first (instead of playing at engineer soldier games), prior to committing to a 'short service commission' and taking the ‘Queen’s shilling’.
And so, a few months later, a keen but clueless, nervous and nebbish, freckly Ken stepped off the plane at RAF Akrotiri, in the British forces Western Sovereign Base Area, located on the south coast of Cyprus, near Limassol. I arrived after dark and was quickly whisked away by forces bus to the Officers' Mess, along with a slightly more zealous and more confident pommy officer cadet from Manchester University. The two of us would be on secondment to 24 Squadron, Royal Engineers, NEARELF (that's Near East Land Forces for the uninitiated) for a period of approximately 2 weeks [here the use of 'approximate' is due to the failings of my memory, since in the British Army there is no 'approximate', and anything less than 'precisely' is grounds for derision at best and demotion at worst].
The next morning, before a hasty breakfast, we donned out respective uniforms, mine the familiar khaki work dress of the soldier, but topped with a rather splendid red and white diced Glengarry, a symbol of my university regiment's connection with the Gordon Highlanders. This hat was to cause a bit of curiosity among the local Cypriots who were more used to seeing less auspicious flat khaki cloth caps or berets on these foreign non-combatants. Many of the Brits here were either involved in providing services and building up and maintaining infrastructure for the local communities, whereas others (the Blue Berets) were involved in a peace-keeping role, along with United Nations troops from other nations, patrolling the buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish administered portions of the island.
On arrival at Squadron HQ, we were ushered into the Commanding Officer's office and briefed on what we would be doing over the next two weeks ('approximately'). As it happened, the CO was a fellow Aberdonian (ie a 'jock' from my old home town of Aberdeen) and there were quite a few 'jocks' in the squadron. We were to be closely 'supervised' by the squadron lieutenant some of the time and the squadron staff sergeant for much of the rest. I suspect that the closeness of this supervision was not so much to mother us and to look after our welfare, but more to ensure that we didn't do any damage or upset anyone, and that we didn't upset the fragile eggshell cooperation between the Greek Cypriots, located to the south and west of Nicosia, and the Turkish Cypriots, located to the north and east of Nicosia.
Back then Cyprus was my first real exposure to a warm sunny climate and the first time I had been exposed to tropical heat and egg frying sun, Cyprus being located much closer to the equator and less close to the Arctic circle than my then home base in North-East Scotland, where Scotch mist and drizzle were more the order of the day, and freckly red skin was more of a hazard associated with wind burn, and both less likely and less painful than the blisteringly touch tender and lobsterishly lookalike consequences of over-exposure to the sun. After all, only "mad dogs and Englishmen [include fair-skinned freckly Scotsmen with that] go out in the noon-day sun" of the tropics.
Although we would spend most of our time based in the Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area and surrounds, we would also make a visit of a few days to the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, with a visit also planned with the squadron, mid-secondment, to Nicosia, and north to the beaches of Kyrenia for a spot of R & R (rest and recuperation), or, in the case of the pommy cadet and myself, instruction on how some of the male squadron elements maintained close relations with the Cypriot female community in recuperative clubs and establishments, attractively decorated with red lights.
I won't bore the reader with details on most of the squadron's building maintenance and earthworks operations which we visited and the actions which we undertook, and on which we were subsequently examined (more to see that we were paying attention than for any gratification or notification of KPIs). As the years rolled by I have forgotten most of these anyway. There are two activities, however, that still stick with me, both because of their uniqueness and their enjoyment.
First there was the fascinating evening pursuit of surveying by the stars, taught to us by the squadron staff sergeant (Staff). Back in those days there were no sophisticated self reducing distomats and global positioning devices and all survey setting out was performed by theodolite and dumpy level mounted on robust tripod stands. It follows that the measuring of angles between stars, in conjunction with published tables of their positions in the sky for any given time, was an alternative method of orienting and locating position, as then primarily adopted mostly by naval surveyors using sextants, but also occasionally by land surveyors.
These days I have absolutely no recollection of the survey details we learned from 'Staff', but I have fond recollections of the after 'work' evening trips when he, often accompanied with his wife, showed us the sights of ruined moonlit or floodlit temples and amphitheatres or took us for a late supper to one or other of his favourite Greek cafés. Consequently, Cypress was where this young and open-mouthed youth, brought up on a Scots staple of meat and three veg, first experienced Greek and Turkish cuisine, and where I first tasted olives, feta cheese, moussaka, and souvlaki kebabs.
The second unique experience was participation in underwater demolition. By way of introductory explanation, some of the local harbours (originally built to shelter local community boats) required the removal of boulders and similar obstructions on the seabed to facilitate passage of larger vessels. Removal of particularly large boulders was a difficult exercise and could be expedited by placing plastic explosive (PE) at various strategic places or drilled holes, and creating a synchronised explosion using detonators placed in the PE and connected by det chord to a single detonation source on land. Needless to say, although both the pom and I had some experience in setting and initiating controlled explosions on our local firing ranges, we were not deemed dependable enough to actually set the PE and place the detonators. We were, however, allowed to tie off and layout the det chord underwater, closely accompanied by one of the sappers, for which we were given instruction on the use of scuba gear.
Apart from the joys of actually working, rather than relaxing, in magnificently crystal clear and azure blue water, our enjoyment was heightened by being required to wear fashionably attractive [not] dry suits under our gear. This was explained to us as being required more as protection for our pasty white skin against the rigours of the baking sun (remember "mad dogs and .....") rather than as a fashion statement.
The above described diving and demolition work was, from memory, undertaken in Famagusta in the Turkish Cypriot area, while we were based in the Dhekelia SBA (but don't hold me to that). I do distinctly remember, however, that the squadron guys told me they'd undertaken a similar exercise for a Greek harbour, a few weeks previously, and that this Turkish harbour was specially selected to balance things out politically, and to show both communities NEARELF's neutrality.
Another memory that sticks in the mind, prior to being cleared for underwater action, was the two of us (the pom and I) visiting the local military hospital and having our ears examined by a rather attractive nurse, so that we could be passed as able to withstand pressure, and no doubt ensure that we actually had something in place between the ears. In addition, perhaps the upper echelon were keen, by then, to ensure that we could safely fly back to Blighty at the end of our adventure and not be marooned overly long as non-paying guests of the squadron, and Her Majesty's forces.
And then I almost forgot that day we spent on the ranges, up-skilling our weapons familiarity, when I heard that the local Black Watch regiment was in residence as part of the UN peacekeeping taskforce. I sought permission to briefly visit their encampment and went straight to the sergeant's mess where I literally bumped into my old friend and mentor, Warrant Officer Class II (Company Sergeant Major Willy ....). I had previously been advised that he would be in Cypress during my visit. An enjoyable drink or three together ensued as a visitor in their sergeant's mess and time got away from both of us with too many "Do you remember's" and "What's so and so doing now?". On my return to the squadron, however, I was politely reminded that my attendance had been sorely missed at lunchtime at the squadron 'do' set up for a few special guests by way of a local Cypriot 'greet and meet' and that "fraternising with the other ranks in their mess is not something that should be overly encouraged".
The rest of that secondment morphs into a vague recollection of how hard these other ranks 'sappers' worked and how they threw themselves into their daily activities, and lazy late afternoons exploring the island's beaches and winding roads in a red Triumph Spitfire with the top down, owned by one of the locally stationed WRACs, an attractive lady of mature years who took pity on us like a mother hen and who was only too keen to show us around her local discoveries.
Needless to say, I never did end up joining the regular army and wimped away my remaining couple of years at uni playing at soldiers, chasing girls, avoiding good exam results, and shooting blanks, but not necessarily in that particular order. In the end I came to the conclusion that I had a potentially terminal allergy to lead poisoning (a morbid fear of being shot at) and also suffered from an incapacity to recognise rank.
I do often ask myself "what if?", but only when the stars come out and on the odd occasion when I've been diving on the reef, or in some warm tropical clime. The feeling soon goes away when I see how the real 'dogs of war' bark and the casualties of man's inhumanity to man are pictorialy revealed in the World News.
The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.
Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.