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In Search of Yesterday – Memories of the Black Watch in Cyprus 1958 to 1960

The 1st Battalion Black Watch left Edinburgh by train one evening, perhaps in October of 1958. We wore drill order which consisted of kilt and TOS etc. We always travelled in kilts in those days. It’s such a long time ago that I forget which port we embarked from. I imagine it was Portsmouth. Certainly in the south of England. We spent about twelve days on a very old slow moving troopship to get to Cyprus. There were short stops at Gibraltar and Malta where I went ashore. Dress was trews and blue bonnets. Most of the day was spent in bars drinking. No tourist type sightseeing. A few days later the whole battalion was paraded for inspection to see that we had picked up no social diseases. The journey through the Med was not unpleasant. Not much to do. A lot of lying around being lazy. Rather overcrowded living quarters. The trick was to get up and wash and shave before everyone else.

When we arrived off Limassol we disembarked onto lighters which took us ashore. Dressed in drill order, kilt and TOS, we were greeted by a pipe band of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. We then got on buses of all things and were taken to our camp at Polis which was in the North West corner of the island.

Life in camp. That winter we lived in eight man tents. Somewhere in the camp was a primitive shower which I might have visited once or twice. We washed and shaved out of mess tins. I remember I bought a small burner to heat my water. When I’d finished, the same water went around the tent. I then ate out of the same tin. I also bought a portable radio. I think everyone else was National Service and therefore broke. I know my pay when I started was about three pounds a week. When I finished it was just over five pounds. We were paid in cash every Friday, although when we were on operations or out of camp it was held over, but cigarettes and razor blades were handed out free. Sometimes we got a rum ration when we were in the hills. The other National Servicemen got about thirty bob a week with a ten shilling marriage allowance for those with wives and there were many. They married at eighteen or nineteen in those days.I was in the signals platoon. In the next lines were the regimental band and the pipes and drums. We still had two bands in those days. As we worked around the clock we often had to catch up on sleep during the day to the sweet lullabies of the bandsmen practicing on their instruments.

The regiment having a long association with India, when we arrived in Cyprus we were joined by the regimental caterers from the colonial days, Gulam Nhabi. This very enterprising gentleman set up shop. His employees would do the rounds of the tents in the morning at reveille with buns and tea. I detested tea but it meant we didn’t have to go off to breakfast. Later operating in the hills one would sometimes find oneself dying of thirst, forbidden to use one’s water bottle, and out of nowhere would appear a cha walla with a tea urn on his back; Gunga Din be praised.

I can remember switching on the light at night and seeing the floor thick with cockroaches which must have been living beneath the wooden floor boards. In that winter the camp was thick with mud. I suffered from terrible constipation. The field latrines took some getting used to. One officer dropped his revolver down one and had to fish it out himself.

On night duty we would take a blanket along and probably nod off most of the time. The officers or sergeants on duty never seemed to bother us. Radio transmission was poor to nonexistent. Having just arrived in camp I found myself on duty the following morning, my first day in Cyprus. A message came in from brigade to send in our sitrep. I’d never heard the term before. There was a certain confusion over radio procedures. Our main intercompany radio was the Mark 19 set if I recollect. It had seen better days with the eighth army in North Africa. If all else failed a hefty boot in its side often set it to rights. The rifle battalions switched from the .303 to the Belgian FN on arriving. The HQ Company still kept their old and trusty Lee Enfield’s. A lovely rifle that I always remember with nostalgia.

Patrols would have a bren-gunner in the open turret of the three quarter ton truck. He would wear a flak jacket. Nobody else ever wore one. None were issued in any case. We had helmets but they were never worn. That winter dress was very relaxed and there was virtually no bull. No parades either. No parade ground. If there was an alert at night one would go out with the emergency patrol. One company was always on standby. Others were posted to outlying stations. That New Years Eve or Hogmany most people got rather drunk. The stand by company was kept sober. The drivers and signalers were not billeted with them however and it is doubtful if the drivers could have navigated the gates. One of our signalers was brought in the next morning on a stretcher from an outlying post, rigor mortis not quite having set in. The regimental band played airs suitable for the occasion.

There was to be an operation in the Troodos Mountains; Mare’s Nest it was called. The first assault was to be sent in by helicopter. One day we were suddenly ordered to put on full kit with rifles and to report to the air strip for training. A light spotter plane would fly over this from time to time and drop our mail out. A helicopter arrived. We got in, were taken for a spin, a rope was thrown out, we were ordered to climb down. Only one broken leg. We were then fully trained.

On the actual day of the operation the helicopters were sent in. They were to be followed the next morning by lorry born infantry. It was too windy to land the troops, except for one luckless fellow who had been the first to descend, without his rifle. He spent a night on the mountain before being relieved the next morning. Promoted to lance-corporal.

We went up by road. I was in the signals van. It got stuck somewhere. That night a corporal and I had to spend the night guarding it. Very lonely. I was only nineteen at the time. I spent a few days at our base camp. Very small. I’d got hold of some coffee so was able to brew my own. Detesting tea this was a godsend. It was very difficult for me to function in a nation of tea drinkers. The food seemed to consist of mutton scotch style. There were C rations or was it K. I can never remember which were British and which were American. Russian salad, corned beef, bars of chocolate. All very good. I can remember deciding to get a bath. There was a mountain stream a hundred yards from the camp so I went off to it and swam around in this freezing water for a while. I must have been tough in those days. I never wore socks either. The sergeant had told me one day a year before to either darn my socks or not wear any. Being cussedly stubborn I’d stopped wearing them. Our highland hose didn’t have any feet on them either so it seemed logical. Arriving back in camp I realized I’d left my rifle by the stream. One of those moments of panic. Luckily I was able to get hold of it before there was a problem. One fellow in our platoon had dropped a single round of .303 on the ground on descending from a truck after an operation and not noticed it. He was put on a charge and lost thirty days pay. Another fellow in a rifle company had lost a bayonet scabbard, not the bayonet, and there was a court of inquiry. When a bren gun had been lost by some nameless regiment two battalions were turned out to search for it.

The Suffolk Regiment had a small base camp next to ours. This was in a small vale high up in the Troodos Mountains. A corporal put his hand into his tent to pick up his Sterling sub-machine gun. The trigger caught in a guy rope and he shot himself through the chest. Our medical officer tried to save him but he died. A company had been supplied with donkeys for supply purposes. At other times aircraft would fly over dropping us supplies.

I went to join Don Company. From there I went to an outpost which consisted of a corporal, two privates and me as radio operator. We were all alone on our own observation post far from everyone. The ideal place to soldier in. We had a small Australian radio which fitted onto the belt. It used Morse, so I spent a lot of my time there communicating in Morse with our HQ. One night there was a terrible storm. The wind howled through the mountains, the thunder crashed like cannon, the lightning flashed. We only had two small two man tents. I can remember being on guard duty after midnight. Under a tree, bayonet fixed, a round in the chamber, safety catch off, I’d have shot anything that appeared. Who had ever heard of precautions to take during a storm?

Sometime later two privates in a rifle company had irritated the colonel. The incident had taken place in our main battalion base but he had them brought up to him somewhere in the mud of the Troodos. They had to appear i n full review order, kilt, white spats and sporran and all. They both got fourteen days.

In the spring we moved up to relieve the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Xeros. I was in the advance party. It was always agreeable to be detached from the regiment. There were some Royal Signals on this base who wore civilian clothes. When the battalion arrived, our RSM, Patterson by name and a giant of a man, nearly went through the roof. I’d always felt that when he roared even the gods in their heavens trembled. There were to be no civilian clothes in his camp. We were still in tents, but there was a parade ground so we wore khaki drill and started to look smart again. I have photos of us in review order, kilts and blue bonnets, white spats and sporrans etc.

The nearby village was Turkish, was it called Lefka? Occasionally we were allowed out there. Trews and blue bonnets. The local money was piastres. The beer was bad, the wine worse, but both very cheap. We had not had a real break for six months so it was decided to let us visit Nicosia, a company at a time. I was not with the first company. The commander of the Military Police in Nicosia said afterwards that he had never seen so much damage done by a single company in all his years of service. Well, the Black Watch had a reputation to maintain.

I was detached to a post in some Greek town. This was in the period leading up to independence. The Greeks paraded past our post with flags flying calling for independence. I can’t remember much about that period as the politics of the situation did not really concern me. When my mother died five years ago and we were clearing out her things I found my two old copies of Bitter Lemons, by Lawrence Durrell, and Grivas and the story of EOKA by W. Byford Jones, and although I probably read these after the events concerned I could not really have been without interest. At Polis we had had an interpreter. He was a student of Greek at Glasgow University and largely sympathized with them. The Black Watch were very Gung Ho and couldn’t really give a damn for Greek Cypriot sensitivities. If I remember the Gordons had had five men burnt to death in one operation. The Argylls had rather terminally messed up some captured Cypriot suspects after two British women had been gunned down. We were quite friendly with the Turks whom we considered stout fellows although one of them accidentally discharged his shot gun into the stomach of one of our fellows one day. Another private lost his eye on parade whilst unfixing bayonets with the new FNs. As usual accidents were far more common than battlefield casualties.

Perhaps our habit of moving into a church to search it and the bren gunner placing his machine gun on the pulpit to cover the worshippers was overly aggressive. When out we would help ourselves to whatever fruit we found. One night we had an accident and slept where it had happened. In the morning we found ourselves in a water melon field so that took care of breakfast. I can remember taking my rifle and going through orchards helping myself to oranges. An order went out to the motor platoon to try to stop driving over so many animals. I think there was a competition amongst the drivers to see who had the highest kill rate in a month. It must seem strange today that during my three years in the army I cannot recollect ever seeing a tank. The battalion was equipped with two armoured vehicles, a Ferret and a Dingo.

And as for Archbishop Makarios and Grivas or was it Dighenis. They were for generals and politicians to worry about, not the rank and file.

As the situation became more peaceful the battalion created its own beach where one could stay overnight, get moderately drunk and spend the day swimming and sun bathing. No swim suits or anything. No women either. In my three years apart from seeing no tanks I can’t recollect ever seeing a female soldier. Were they called WRACs or something? In camp we began the day at five o’clock and finished at lunch time. One was able to take leave. I spent a month in Turkey and the Aegean. The Turks were very friendly, the Greeks lukewarm. In Cyprus there was no fraternization with the local population at all. I was there eighteen months and in all that time never spoke to one female. When I was on leave I did fall madly in love with e beautiful Armenian in Istanbul but she was chaperoned and I could never be alone with her. In Khios in the Aegean I found a Greek girl from Egypt. Chaperoned also. Never alone either.

Towards the end of 1959 the battalion moved down to the new British enclave of Dhekelia in the South East of the island. This had a brand new barracks in it with all the regimental bull that went with it. The old colonel and RSM had moved on to other postings, the troubles were over and it was more or less a return to routine garrison life. There was a riding school nearby which meant I could take up one of my passions again. I remember one incident. A group of us were out riding and we’d started a rather wild gallop. My horse pulled ahead which was fine by me. Then I saw a very wide ditch ahead and decided it was too big to jump so tried to pull the horse up; except that I no longer had it under control and couldn’t so I thought what the heck we’ll have to jump it. At the last moment the horse saw it and dug his hoofs in and came to a sudden halt. I went flying over his head, cleared the ditch, did a parachute roll on the other side and came up on my feet with no broken neck. I then tried to remount but the horse was very nervous and my knees none too steady. The Second in Command of the battalion, an old 2nd Battalion India army man rode up and said the damn fool (me) can’t mount.

Authority and I never really got on. I was far too independent. So a private I remained. One of my best friends was a corporal. Ian Holden by name. He’d been sent down from Saint Andrews University because he’d been too brilliant to bother to study. He became a corporal which I should have done also, but that would have meant conforming which I was too independent to do. We often went out together which was frowned on. However he was always in trouble because we used Christian names with each other. It was absolutely detrimental to the maintenance of good conduct and military order that such things should happen. There is a most delightful passage about that in Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to all that”. His book of course refers to The Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the First World War.

Lord Mountbatten came by and a Guard of Honour in full dress turned out for him. As I am typing this I notice my computer queries the spelling of honour. I once wrote to the Times about their spelling of that word. They had used the American form of Honor Guard. They said it was all the same nowadays. I disagree. I was part of the old army. I was a three year volunteer. More than half the people in the battalion were National Service men. We still had church parades. We were woken up on the fifteenth of each month by the Pipes and Drums playing The Crimean Long Reveille. Drum Major Dear was one of the finest men I knew along with RSM Patterson and our company CSM whom I only remember by the name of Gobby but who had won an MM in Normandy. There was also my platoon commander, Captain McMicking, who went on to command the battalion. He was always very decent to me and I was doubtless a trial for him.

In 1960 I went back to the depot in Perth Scotland to be demobbed. Again a slow trip by sea. Perhaps the same ship. I kept a bottle of whisky in my bunk to help pass the time. When it was finished I put a note in it and threw it overboard. Some months later a girl wrote to me in the Bahamas which was then my home but I never answered. Life had moved on. Now looking back after half a century one gets nostalgic for the past, but the past is no longer there. Old friends have died off. The Black Watch which was raised in 1739 and could trace its roots back to 1725 has disappeared. The highland regiments, all the Scottish regiments for that matter have been amalgamated out of existence. So have the old Irish, Welsh and English regiments for that matter. They only exist in history books and the memories of old soldiers.

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