Norfolks’ horrors and heroism in Cyprus Emergency

PUBLISHED: 18:20 11 March 2011

Brian Wright with a copy of a newspaper reporting the tragic forest fire when he was a National Serviceman during the Cyprus Emergency.

Brian Wright with a copy of a newspaper reporting the tragic forest fire when he was a National Serviceman during the Cyprus Emergency.

Archant © 2011

As a new book charts the course of a largely-forgotten war on terror, Steve Snelling talks to Norfolk veterans about their psychological scars after the tragedies of the Cyprus Emergency.

Brian Wright on guard at Nicosia Central Prison in 1955.

There was a certain inevitability about the course our conversation was taking as we ventured into painful territory. It was as though all memory lanes led back to the Troodos mountains and a scorchingly hot day in June 1956 when a British war on terror took on a terrifying new meaning for scattered squads of young Norfolk conscripts caught up in the so-called Cyprus Emergency.

Brian Wright has a hauntingly vivid recall of the moment a forest fire turned a guerilla hunt into a frenzied struggle for survival.

“My wife will tell you,” he says, “I still get nightmares about it all these years on. Even now, I can’t stand the smell of barbecues. It brings it all back…”

In all, 20 British soldiers, including five Royal Norfolk National Servicemen, died when the tinder-dry and tree-smothered hills caught fire at the height of Operation Lucky Alphonse, or ‘Unlucky Alphonse’ as it was quickly dubbed.

Designed to root out and capture the notorious Colonel George Grivas and his terrorist groups, who were hell-bent on ending British rule and forging political union with Greece, the counter-insurgency sweep was all but overwhelmed by the tragic inferno that left deep psychological scars which, in some cases, have been slow to heal.

Even among those Norfolk veterans not directly involved in the blaze the disastrous episode has endured as an abiding recollection of loss and sacrifice.

Memories of the Troodos tragedy that marred an otherwise largely successful campaign waged by the 1st Royal Norfolks during its 13-month tour have been stirred by a searching new study of the four-year struggle and the subsequent Turkish invasion that has left the Mediterranean island divided to this day.

The Cyprus Emergency charts a remarkable, if strangely familiar, story of how ill-prepared and under-resourced British troops, many of them teenage conscripts barely out of basic training, took on and eventually defeated Colonel Grivas’s EOKA guerillas during the ‘rock ’n’ roll’ Fifties.

It is a compelling saga of a conflict characterised by moments of horror, humour and no little heroism that has been largely forgotten but which ex-soldier turned military historian Nick van der Bijl believes deserve wider recognition.

“Most people today think of Cyprus as a holiday playground, a place to relax and unwind in the Mediterranean sunshine, but it was a different story for all those National Servicemen who found themselves initially pitched into a guerilla war with absolutely no intelligence and the wrong equipment,” says van der Bijl.

A few weeks ago, Brian represented the battalion at a poignant ceremony when an Elizabeth Cross was presented to the family of his close friend, Keith Haylock, one of the five Royal Norfolks to die in the Troodos fire, the oldest of whom was just 20.

“Others may have forgotten what happened, but I’ll never forget,” says Brian. “I was so lucky.”

A gathering of Royal Norfolk veterans of the Cyprus Emergency is taking place at North Elmham village hall on April 30, from 7pm. Anyone who served in the battalion during its tour of the island is welcome. For more information telephone John Mitchell on 01328 701342.

The Cyprus Emergency: The Divided Island 1955-1974, by Nick van der Bijl, is published by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99.

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