644 Signal Troop - UNFICYP 1973-74

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644 SIGNAL TROOP - UNFICYP - 1973-74

Written by Will Norton

Being posted to 644 Signal troop back in the late 1960s/early 1970s was considered by most in RC Sigs as a real holiday and a great way to get away from the Parade Square or the Training areas across Canada. Now there were two ways for a RC Sigs to get posted to the “Island of love”, one was to go over with their respective Infantry/Combat Arms Regiments to carry out their 6 months of duty at Wolseley Barracks while living in Shakespeare House in the Nicosia District or, if you were with a Sigs unit in Canada, then many of us would be attached posted to 644 Signal Troop which was a mixed British/Canadian unit of approx 80 personnel of which 21 members were Canadian. The Canadian members were normally responsible to operate the three Radio detachments at Swedcon, Dancon and the Troodos RRB Detachment plus operate the radio room at the Force COMCEN or maintain /repair the many Radio masts at troop locations.

In my particular case I happened to be posted to 1st Canadian Signal Regiment in Kingston in late 1972 and postings to Cyprus were available as they had regular manning commitments to 644 Signal Troop. All Rad Ops at that time had to be QL4 Qualified so I quickly ran around getting my QL4 OJT sheet signed off so I could put my name in for a future posting which is why I joined up in the first place, to see the world. When I first got to the regiment Cyprus was the only UN Overseas posting but in the spring of 73 we had some deploy to Vietnam with the ICCS. I was pleasantly pleased when I was told I was scheduled to be deployed to Cyprus on the 6th of September along with my buddy Stu “Steamer” MacDonald who I knew since Boot Camp.

Back then there wasn’t any pre-deployment training as they expected everyone to be up to scratch in their soldier and trade skills. In early September of 1973 we proceeded to Trenton where we hopped on a 707 bound for CFB Lahr, Germany. Upon arrival we found out we were scheduled to be on a C-130 Hercules bound for Nicosia the next day so we headed to our room in the Europahof on the airstrip to get dressed in civvies and head down to the Jr ranks Mess for a cool one.

The Hercules we caught the next day was right full of cargo and we quickly found a seat where we could look out the window or catch some ZZZ. Upon arrival at Nicosia Airport we were greeted by Cpl Tony Walsh, a Newfoundlander who we knew in the Regiment and he took it upon himself to greet and indoctrinate all the new Canadians to 644. The guys we replaced were already on the Herc heading back home so we already had a place to hang our hat upon arrival. We quickly headed over to Camp Jubilee (British Base near the Airport) to Canada House where we proceeded to stow our kit and get to meet my new Detachment Commander, MCpl Harry Heard from 2 Sigs in Petawawa. Harry was a man of few words but he got the point across to stay out of trouble, when to be ready for work and then we headed downtown to visit Regina Street where all of the bars were and get to meet the local Whisky Dollies.

While in Cyprus the routine was to be in uniform at all times while off the base and civvies were only allowed on base when off duty so you were always in the public eye and not mistaken for a tourist.

For any of you unindoctrinated people, Whiskey Dollies were very good at getting you to buy them drinks (always weak tea) at 5 Cypriot Pounds ($15) each and make all sorts of promises but usually would sneak out the back door by the end of the night.

The next day after clearing into the various HQ support offices I started my first job working in the Radio Room at the Force COMCEN working the Non-Secure VHF Command net with a C-42 Set and also the backup Teletype link. Being Canadian meant we could speak the Queen’s English very well and everyone could understand us so the Swedes, Danes, or fellow Canadians operating in the out detachments at Famagusta, Xeros or Troodos could understand us the first time over the net. Traffic was very light and for the next month I found myself working on a regular shift in Radio room as the Control Station Operator. There would normally be 5 on shift (4 Brits, 1 Cdn) and the COMCEN would provide Teletype, Radio, Telephone, CRYPTO & SDS for UNFICYP HQ.

In our off time we usually found ourselves in downtown Nicosia or headed up to Kyrenia area to 6.5 mile beach for a swim. Back then the island was not fully partitioned and though we had to go through checkpoints it was just a formality. On many occasions we would also accompany the Resupply Cpl to visit all of the Radio detachments or visit the pay office at BBC as back then the only way we got paid was to withdraw your money personally in Cypriot Pounds or US Dollars (UN Pay) . A QL3 Rad Op back then would make about $500 monthly which was a princely sum if you didn’t give it away to the Whiskey Dollies. I know the Brits used to complain when I told them but they could also be easily pacified if you bought them a beer. Now our Resupply guy was Cpl Jim Moore, an MSE Op who brought us fresh or canned rations, spare parts, exchanged your laundry and brought the mail. Resupply runs were done once per week and only one location was done per day. The DANCON Detachment was in Xeros, located on the NW part of the island where MCpl Leo Simpson, Cpl Mike Dufour along with Ptes Terry Hoddinott and Mike Conway worked at. Now DANCON was famous for their annual DANCON March which is a demanding 50+ km march with 22 lbs (10 Kg) kit which was conducted through the local hills but their most famous claim to fame was the Schnapps Test. It consisted of four 1 ounce shots of 4 different types of Schnapps, total = 16 ounces in a set time. Many had tried it but many had failed because schnapps is a drink that can be strong and comes up as fast as it goes down after a few shots. Another stop on the Resupply run would be SWEDCON which was just north of Famagusta on the east side of the island. We were greeted by Cpl Bob Blizzard, the Det Comd and his crew at that time was Cpls Mike Boisvert & Jim Gaylor. As mentioned the resupply consisted of fresh rations as none of the Canadians ate at the local messes and were responsible to make their own meals. The food was good & fresh so they were always well-fed. Final destination for the more adventurous members was a visit to Troodos where the RRB Det was setup to Rebroadcast VHF signals to both sides of the Buffer Zone and most parts of the island. The drive was up narrow roads in the Troodos Mountains and during the winter they actually had a lot of snow. We were met by Cpl Danny Day and sometimes fellow Brit Tp members were assigned this task to breakup their monotony of working at BBC. Other Canadians that were there during my tour were Capt Bob Prior, Troop 2IC while also on the ground were Cpl Rick Vanderkirkhove, Ptes Stu MacDonald, Rick Macleod & Pete Hedley along with two Linemen, Cpls Robbie Robinson and Bernie Aubin. New guys were always showing up replacing guys on their way back to Canada and we were used to telling them that no one had 183 days to go. No longer being the “rookie” was a good feeling.

Being part of a UN joint Brit/Cdn unit meant that we had to learn to do drill using British Commands and learn how the Brit army does things but for the most part we were left to our own devices. We had a very good rapport with our fellow Brit Troop members who would make “comments” about us but we gave as good as we got and it was truly all done in fun. We also had very seasoned NCOs who weren’t to be messed with and were old school. They weren’t career Cpls for nothing but who played hard but also got the job done. After just over a month in Nicosia, I was told that I would be heading to work at SWEDCON located in Famagusta.

This was the most desirable detachment to be as in your days off you could head down to sandy beaches where many tourists would be enjoying the sun. My first experience upon arrival was being greeted by Bob and the rest of the detachment while being shown around the base. Many of the Swedes would be work/live out at the Observation Posts and by this base had all of the support elements that would keep them well-supplied. I was taken over to the SWEDCON QM and presented with a pair of “Clogs” (wooden soled with black leather top shoes) and a Swedish army Sweater which I regularly wore on duty or my off time in the Camp. The Swedes didn’t mind so why should we. We knew when the brass were coming so we changed into more appropriate kit when they visited.

Now we had a rather unconventional shift schedule at SWEDCON as we worked 24 hrs on and 72 hrs off. When Det members were on UN Leave we would cover off that members shift and work 1 day on, 2 off. The traffic over the VHF Comd net or the Teletype Link was limited as we normally only did hourly Radio Checks and morning/nightly Teletype Circuit Tests/daily reports. We were allowed to sleep for a few hours at night in the HQ where a bed was setup and if required the Swedish Duty Officer would just wake you up when required. In addition we also would have a week of cooking duties every fourth week as the “Duty Chef” which means preparing both Lunch and supper for the other Detachment members that stayed in Canada House. If you couldn’t cook you soon learned how to or faced the wrath of your fellow Detachment members. We were quite fortunate to have a large turkey for Christmas dinner so we always cooked up a big batch of food and invite many of our Swedish friends over for dinner. Many times we were invited to their mess for food or a beer as all of us were honourary members of the Swedish Sgt’s Mess. It felt quite strange to see guys in their early twenties with Sgt Chevrons on their epaulets where in the CF it would take 15 yrs or more for some to reach that rank level. If you hit the lotto and had a 24 hr duty and “Duty Chef” at the same time we would head back to Canada House to prepare both meals and also carryout our regular hourly RCs via the Green Hornet which was a remotely operated Handset hooked up via LL to the C-42 Set.

In the Middle East back then and even today things don’t stay quiet for any length of time and in late October of 1973 while working at SWEDCON, the Egyptians did a surprise attack on the Israelis and crossed the Suez Canal to try and get back the Sinai Peninsula which was being occupied since the six day war of 1967. At the same time the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights creating a second front. The first few days saw the Israelis getting pushed back but after all of the troops got to the front they were able to push the Egyptians back across the Suez canal and at the end of fighting completely surrounded the Egyptian third Army. The UN had to act quickly so they went to UNFICYP to quickly get boots & equipment on the ground between the two armies while working out a ceasefire. Many of the Swedes in UNFICYP quickly loaded vehicles and equipment ready to be shipped out via freighter out of Limassol or airlift out of Nicosia. This was a tense time as many of the Swedes had to resupply the cut-off third Army and they had to do it with all sorts of obstacles such as minefields, barricaded roads, jumpy combatants and unexploded ordnance. They carried out their duties very well along side the Irish, Austrian & Finnish contingents from UNFICYP that were the first on the ground awaiting the initial setup & deployment of UNEF II. To complicate things UNFICYP also had to supervise the Turkish Rotation as there were Turkish Army bases in Northern Cyprus at the time and they needed to rotate their troops in/out of the island. Also Turkish and Greek Cypriots were living all over the island and sometimes in adjacent villages so UNFICYP was broken down in 6 Districts which covered the whole island. UN Observation Posts were setup all around the island covering the hot spots so they could report incidents that may cause friction and resolve any problems before they became shooting matches.

When not on duty we did many different things for recreation. We were all prolific Euchre, Cribbage or Monopoly players while Darts were also a favourite past time. Every week we had a full length movie from the Welfare office that was dropped off via the Resupply so all of us had to know how to run a projector as there were no VHS players available in those days. If the sun was out and it was warm we would see who was heading to the beach or downtown via taxi, resupply or other military vehicle as Famagusta was only afew miles away. Famagusta was a real tourist destination before the 1974 war and all sorts of Souvenir shops were in business trying to get your last Cypriot Pound. The beaches were always inviting while if you planned to visit the Turkish Area you had to be in uniform as the UN Soldiers or tourists with passports were normally the only ones that had regular access to the Turkish Sector.

During your 6 month tour you always got 2 weeks leave and many would head to Germany to the UN Leave Centre or if you are like me take your time off and drive around the island in a rental car. You needed to get a Cypriot Licence and drive on the other side of the road but that was all a part of the adventure. I had made arrangements with Mike Dufour to go on the trip together where we would do a circle trip from Xeros and around the island via Paphos, Limissol, Troodos, Kyrenia and back to Xenos via Nicosia. During our trip we hit the usual sites such as Paphos Harbour to see the large friendly Pelicans, many of the many historic sites such as Kantara Castle, Salamis or hit the local bars, which of course had Whiskey Dollies.

One memorable lunch was to the seaside restaurant in Xeros where you noticed many pigeons living in the cliff side in dugout holes. I didn’t take any real notice until I saw the menu and you had a choice of chicken or live pigeon. I stuck with the chicken but Mike chose pigeon so he proceeded to go over to the cliff and point to his main course (victim) and the waiter proceeded to snap its neck and give it to the cook. From what I understand it was pretty tasty. We also had access to the British Sovereign Bases so a trip to the NAAFI was always on our “to do” list. In addition I also did a couple of three day trips with some of the Swedes, one to Lebanon while in Beirut I saw live elephants on the stage of the “Casino du Liban” while also going to an American movie with Burt Reynolds with two rows of subtitles on the screen (one in Arabic, One in French) with a side trip to Tyre and Sidon. The second trip I visited Israel, primarily Jerusalem where I visited the Old city, Hebron and Bethlehem. While in Jerusalem I bumped into some of the guys from the regiment who were with UNEF II in Cairo (Camp Chams) and were on leave. They were having an interesting time but definitely living under more Spartan conditions.

My six months was soon up and being single meant that I had a nice little nest egg in my pay account to spend back home. I didn’t really want to return to Canada but there were no extensions back then so you had to go home for at least 1 year and then put your name down for another tour if you wanted to go. Just before the end of our tour we would assemble at the Mercury Club located at Camp Jubilee where we were presented a metal Beer Stein where you put your favourite drink in it and you had to chug it all down or pour it over your head. I liked a “Paymaster” which is a combo of Vodka, Lemon Squash and Seven-up. Not a drop hit my head. In March 1974 I headed home via Germany on a 707 as they were used to drop off Canadian Troops in Cairo, Egypt now that we had troops in UNEF II. Little did I know that within four months all Hell would breakout in Cyprus and end this holiday in the Mediterranean for all Canadian Troops as they were filling magazines instead of reading them in the summer of 1974. These were very busy times for Rad Ops in the CF as we were very much in demand for UN Duties. Within 14 months I found myself posted to UNDOF via UNEF II which was the main unit that sent Canadian personnel and equipment to the Golan Heights in 1975 but that’s another story.