Cyprus - The Turkish Invasion, by Taff Lark (1974)

In 1974, during the final months of the Greek military junta, a coup d’etat was staged in Cyprus against Archbishop Makarios by a group consisting of Greek army officers and a secretive Cypriot organisation called EOKA-B, whose aim was to make Cyprus a part of Greece. On 15th July a detachment of the national guard, led by Greek officers, overthrew the government.

It had all started for us when the Greek junta leader George Papadopoulos was overthrown by Brigadier Ioannides, an even more uncompromising leader, earlier in 1974. Ioannides had always been a supporter of EOKA. Our family were put under house arrest in Athens for three days because our house was rented from General Tzanetos, a senior officer in the Papadopoulos regime who lived in the upper apartment.

My involvement in Cyprus started when air services to the island were resumed after Makarios had narrowly escaped assassination and had been whisked away by the British in an RAF jet. The airport staff had left to join their National Guard units; female staff had gone home to see that their families were safe, as for 48 hours the situation had been very tense with pitched battles taking place between supporters of the two sides.

As the newly appointed operations control superintendent for the eastern Mediterranean I found myself on the jump seat of the first Cyprus Airways BAC 111 back into Nicosia after the fall of Makarios. There were no customs or immigration staff on arrival and only minimal ATC staff. There were no facilities for food and drink. Relative calm prevailed, but there were no phones. However to my surprise the telex continued to work all the time we were at the airport and I was able to maintain contact with colleagues in London and Athens.

The terminal was rapidly filling up with delayed passengers and others hoping to get off the island. The plan was to operate a shuttle service between Nicosia and Athens as aircraft and crews became available, to uplift as many passengers as possible in the shortest time. There had been a Trident on the ground when the coup started, with a crew stuck in the Hilton; another Trident was on its way from Athens with an engineer on board.

All was going well, with crews and passengers and some elderly airport staff helping with baggage. On the Wednesday morning the night stopping crew were held at gunpoint outside the airport terminal. They had already witnessed the troubles in town and were ready to leave. Some fast talking and help from the captain eventually got them on their way.

Later that day a British crew with Cyprus Airways arrived from Kyrenia – one crew member, who had served in World War II, had seen Turkish citizens clearing large areas of land and was convinced they were preparing for a parachute drop. On Wednesday night aircraft of Lufthansa and Hapag Lloyd uplifted as many German citizens as wished to leave - but would not take anybody else.

Wednesday afternoon saw the arrival of the BEA marketing director Charles Stuart. We were so shorthanded that he was asked to lend a hand – and did, for 18 hours. The following morning he and I went to the high commission to try to get an assessment of the situation. The advice given was that the new provisional president, Nikos Sampson (a senior EOKA-B member who was subsequently convicted of murder) appeared to have the situation under control and we should advise our passengers to carry on with their holidays and enjoy the sunshine, as it was not felt there would be any worsening of the situation. Subsequent events disproved this diagnosis comprehensively…

We continued to operate the shuttle while trying to obtain further information from all sources. A long-haul Boeing 707 joined the shuttle fleet and Cyprus Airways continued to operate when crews and aircraft were available. On the Friday afternoon a Cyprus Airways Trident was inbound from Rome with only crew on board. As we were awaiting a possible VC-10 arrival from Khartoum on diversion to pick up passengers we were listening to the air traffic control channel.

At approximately 1600 the captain of the CY Trident called up and urgently requested clearance to divert to Beirut. When questioned as to the reason, he said that he was descending through 12,000 feet and had just passed over a large fleet of warships and landing craft. He had made a circuit of these ships and seen to his alarm that they were flying the Turkish flag. He was advised to break his transmission and land at Nicosia as planned...his was the last aircraft to land at the airport; it was damaged beyond repair during the invasion.

After discussion with the airport manager I advised London and Athens that the staff were exhausted and we would be unable to handle any more flights until the situation became clearer. I was driven to the Nicosia Hilton where my first night’s sleep since Tuesday was interrupted at 0530 by yelling and shouting and the sound of distant explosions. The Turks had arrived.

I rang the office of the manager whom I knew well. “Taff, the Turks have invaded and are bombing the island.” I thanked him and went to the window, which faced north. The morning was a beautifully clear one, and at that moment I saw a Turkish Hercules, silhouetted against the mountains in the background, dropping parachutes. Still groggy from lack of sleep, I mouthed a suitable expletive, drew the heavy curtains, pulled the mattress into the bathroom (as explosions might shatter the window) and promptly went back to sleep.

Waking at around 1000 I had a shower and decided to seek more information. In the breakfast room I met the BA engineer who had come to check the damaged Trident and was now stranded. We could hear the thump of anti-aircraft fire and other explosions. A Cypriot National Guard base some 1500 metres from the hotel was under attack from Turkish F100 fighter-bombers. Together we tried to find out how many BA passengers were in the hotel – not that we could achieve much but it gave us something to do.

The hotel was a shambles with a lot of people milling around and news coming over the tannoy from the BBC overseas service every half hour. Many people had come to the hotel as a rallying point for some reason, including a large number of Americans who acted as if the Hilton was diplomatic territory.

During the day things calmed down a bit; the hotel announced that it had no incoming supplies of food and guests would be rationed at mealtimes. At about 1400 it was announced that all American citizens were to assemble in the ballroom. We pointed out that this was highly dangerous to life and limb as two walls were of glass and the pressure from any nearby explosion could cause shattering. This was ignored and it was announced that all US citizens would leave within the hour. Those in charge refused point blank to take any other nationals, not even women and children.

Disgusted, I retreated upstairs where a plan was being made to bring women and children to the Hilton from a hotel close to the airport, where a heavy concentration of units from both sides were still fighting. After a lot of trouble getting across the city this was eventually achieved. Apart from the occasional gunfire, Saturday night passed uneventfully.

The following morning, food supplies were down to bread and jam. The men agreed to let women and children go first. While we were waiting our turn a group of Cypriot national guard turned up, demanding to be fed. The men formed a barrier to stop them entering the dining room and the young lieutenant in charge was told he would have to wait. Two of the guards pointed their weapons at the barrier. At this a rather large person stepped forward and told the young guardsman that if he didn’t put the weapon down he would do something rather nasty with it. The guards left hastily.

At lunchtime on Sunday we were advised that the British commander near east forces had negotiated a ceasefire with the Turkish Authorities to allow evacuation of civilians from Nicosia to the safety of a military base in the south of the island. Promptly at 1500 four armoured vehicles of the Finnish UN troops arrived with buses and lorries. Anyone who wished to leave was to be taken to Dahkalia. The convoy was so long that as I left on the last Finnish vehicle, the first was already arriving at the base.

When I arrived at the base after some minor stops for national guard to check that there were no Turks among us, I encountered a situation that was just about controllable. The colonel had been told to expect about 200 cars and 8-900 people; instead there were some 1500 cars and well over 3000 people. I made my way to the command HQ, told them who I was and asked if there was anything I could do to help. Hearing that I was familiar with aircraft manifests and loading, they asked me to report to the HQ first thing in the morning.

On Monday I started making lists of passengers in co-operation with the military. The RAF were using Hercules aircraft from a deserted old strip, picking up the passengers 100 at a time and taking them to Akrotire where they were transferred to Transport Command Comets, VC-10s and Britannias for the flight to the UK. I continued working through the Tuesday, when I was told that BA London Operations wanted me home. On Wednesday morning I flew to Akrotire; unfortunately the RAF had run out of aircraft so used the Hercules for the complete trip – six hours on a noisy, cramped aircraft to RAF Lyneham. Fortunately though, I knew a crew member from my service days, so I had one of the crew bunks up front all the way.

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