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Cyprus - Suez and the Rocky path of True Love, by Gerry Catling (1956-57)

Having endured six months through a Gander winter, I was well compensated by six months in Bermuda, a paradise by comparison; it was there that I met my future wife. She was a refugee from the winter in Ottawa and had decided to take a hotel receptionist’s job in Bermuda; I was the first person she checked in. I taught her to play snooker, and life appeared to be progressing well with all the enjoyable pastimes available on this sub-tropical island.

We made plans to marry in Western Canada in January 1957. However, Sir Anthony Eden, France, Israel and BOAC conspired to throw a very large spanner in the works, although I managed to outwit them in the end, but it was a rather hard road.

Two days after my fiancée had returned to Vancouver Island to prepare for our wedding, the dreaded signal arrived from London saying, ‘Proceed to Gander immediately’! Gloomily, I auctioned my motorised bicycle, carefully packed my shark's oil barometer (essential for forecasting hurricanes), wrote a note to my fiancée and took the next flight to New York, where I had an overnight stop before flying to Montreal and on to Gander.

I decided to have a good night on the town in Greenwich Village before facing the austerities of Gander again, but returning to my hotel at a late hour, passing through Times Square, I noticed the rolling news display on the Times Building saying, ‘Britain and France invade Suez’. “The best of luck,” I thought, “I am far enough away, it won't affect me”, but experience of BOAC should have taught me to be more circumspect in making such rash assumptions; obviously the New York atmosphere had clouded my judgement.

The next morning I blearily turned up at the BOAC Ticket Office to collect my ticket to Gander, but saw that it was made out to London. When I queried this, the ticket agent said, “Haven't you seen this signal?” ‘Gander posting cancelled, return London first available’.

So, four hours later, I was sitting in the downstairs bar of the Stratocruiser passing Gander on the left-hand side with some relief, wondering what fate had in store for me this time.

I went directly to traffic branch to find out. The traffic manager said “Where the hell have you been, we have been trying to contact you for days? This Suez business, tomorrow we are starting a series of six Constellation flights to El Adem, Tobruk in Libya to evacuate British and French nationals. They will be coming overland from Cairo to be flown back to London and Paris. You will go on the first flight, help the RAF to check them in, do the loadsheets and come out on the last aircraft.

Although rather time lagged (there were no jets in those days), I was very interested in the opportunity of seeing Tobruk with its infamous history in World War Two. However, on arriving on a blazing hot day at El Adem, the only view in sight was a flat sandy rocky desert as far as the eye could see in all directions. The crew and I were given beds in some huts which didn’t appear to have been renovated since the Luftwaffe had departed, and I went up to the airfield control tower to find out what was going on, and when our passengers were likely to appear.

The only person present was a bored RAF officer gazing across the desert through binoculars. “Good to see a new face,” he said. “Nothing has happened around here for months. I just sit here day after day watching the locals with their donkeys out on the desert looking for scrap metal, making their wives walk well ahead of them to trip any landmines that may be in their way. Roll on a decent posting”. I sympathised.

Some hours later, coaches containing British and French passport holders started to arrive, but I was surprised to find that most were of a very mixed Middle Eastern appearance and few could speak English or French; a real mixed bag of folk with obviously interesting antecedents, but I had no time to find out more.

After 3 days, nobody else turned up, the RAF were bombing Cairo, so the last Connie brought me back to London before I had a chance to explore Tobruk.

My involuntary duty to the Empire accomplished, I thought I could get some leave and get married, but it was not to be. Two days later I was on a BEA flight to Nicosia, Cyprus, with a bag containing a Britannia 102 flight manual and loadsheets. The B102 was not yet in passenger service with BOAC, the first few had only just been delivered, but were being used to transport the army to Cyprus for the invasion of Port Said and the Canal. I had never seen a B102 before, but need not have worried as the flight plan was easy and the B102 loadsheet was probably the easiest one on which to achieve a trim that I had come across. After Comet 1s, almost anything was easier.

Nicosia was not only the assembly point for the invasion of Suez, it was also the centre for the Greek EOKA terrorists who were conducting a campaign for independence from Britain. They were killing the British on a regular basis on a street known locally as ‘Murder Mile’ whenever they got the chance.

On arrival, the Army had considerately booked me a hotel room at the Ledra Palace in central Nicosia not far away, and advised me not to go out and to travel to and from the airport in their truck with two armed guards. I reflected that I was really earning my salary of 1000 a year.

The hotel was full of British and French Foreign Legion parachute officers and it was instructive to note the difference in mess etiquette between the two nations in the dining room. Whereas the British very properly hung their belts and sidearm in the cloakroom before entering, the French placed their loaded sub-machine guns on the dining table beside their soup spoons. If you were sitting opposite one of them, it was a great incentive to finish your meal quickly and not linger for coffee and liqueurs. This armed camp existence went on for about a couple of weeks until President Eisenhower pulled the plug on the British and French and the operation went into reverse - and so did I.

Meanwhile, my fiancée had not received anything from me since I left Bermuda about a month before, thinking that I had deserted her in Gander. No post had reached her and at that time international telephone calls were almost impossible. My prospective Scots-Canadian mother in law had written me off as another deceitful Englishman who had ruined her daughter's prospects. However, I was grudgingly granted three weeks leave, escaped before the next crisis occurred, made my peace with Canada, got married, and we went to Rome for 5 months, then to Istanbul. Not many dull moments.


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