Friday, 7 May 2021

Cyprus 1955-1959: reflections on the British military response to EOKA

A series of British Army interviews (done in 1980 and meant for internal training purposes) recently released on YouTube tell the story of the so-called Cyprus Emergency 1955-59 from the British military point of view. In the first two episodes, General Sir John Harding and Brigadier Geoffrey Baker are interviewed at length about the British response to the initial phase of the EOKA revolt. Harding was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of the island in October 1955, six months after the insurrection aimed at unifying Cyprus with Greece began, while Baker was appointed as his right-hand man or director of operations in November of the same year.

There are two further programmes in the series, in which the second period of the EOKA revolt is discussed by Sir Hugh Foot, who replaced Harding as governor in 1957; General Kenneth Darling, who took over from Baker as director of operations, maintaining the mission of destroying EOKA and the belief that this could best be done by capturing or killing its leader, Georgios Grivas; and John Prendergast, who became head of Special Branch in Cyprus, having had a similar anti-insurgency role in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.

All programmes reveal a breathtaking level of stupidity and conceit on behalf of the British establishment. With the exception of Foot, who realised there was no military solution to the Cyprus Emergency, the security chiefs’ focus on ‘the job’ – as Harding, Baker, Darling and Prendergast refer to suppressing the rebellion – betrayed a boorish contempt and ignorance of Cypriots, their rich and complex culture and history, which made it easier to dehumanise the locals and justify the repression used on them. These callous, mendacious, hypocritical men, devoid of conscience, intelligence, self-awareness and self-criticism defined the British empire (and the class of men who governed it) as it came to an ignominious close. Their cruelty and foolishness is not only an indictment of British imperialism in its dotage but, predictably, proved futile and counterproductive in pursuit of their stated security aims in Cyprus.

Thus, not only did repression – torture, exile, beatings, floggings, hangings, collective punishment, curfews, concentration camps, etc – not defeat EOKA, not only did Grivas manage to evade death or capture throughout the emergency, but over time EOKA and Grivas grew in strength, reputation, popularity, professionalism and ambition.

These ridiculous colonial marionettes not only presided over the loss of the British empire but also left a legacy of bitterness in the colonies that were subjected to their methods and in Britain where the wounds of being repudiated by their former subjects have never really healed – particularly among the establishment.

Even 20 years after the conflict, these interviews reveal how humiliated these men were by their experience in Cyprus, how obsessed they were by Grivas, an unremarkable and tarnished Greek army colonel, who became their nemesis and made fools of them. His band of 300 EOKA rebels outwitted the British military, who threw everything they had at neutralising ‘the leader’ and dismantling his guerrilla network and ended up doing neither. Certainly, these British soldiers’ unconcealed enmity tells us why British policy to Cyprus, right up until the present day, has always reeked of resentment towards Cypriots, an ongoing revenge for Cypriot audacity in rejecting British colonial rule and hammering a big nail in the coffin of the British empire.

Another point needs to be made, however, which is that these military dinosaurs and imperialist relics would never have set foot on Cyprus had the Cypriots not gone down the path of violent insurrection, hadn’t been mesmerised by the mythology of Thermopylae, Marathon, Salamis, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akritas, 1821, 1912 and 1940, in which Greek liberty is secured by heroic force of arms and self-sacrifice or as the great exponent of Greek nationalism, Ion Dragoumis, writing in 1903, put it in My Hellenism and the Hellenes:

‘Both Crete and Cyprus want Enosis and both are insistent about it. However, I prefer it the way the Cretans are insistent – with rifles.’

Once the Cypriot leadership had decided to take up guns and bombs in pursuit of Enosis, not only did they give the excuse to the British to turn what was a political problem into one of security, but they also relinquished their ability to command events. Political violence with its martyrs, victims, inexorable logic of revenge and retaliation, attracting to the cause as many psychopaths and gangsters as heroes and idealists, has a propensity to spiral out of control and follow unintended directions that rarely end with political goals fulfilled, while the violence and violent men it lets loose and valorises have a habit of sticking around to bedevil the postbellum state of affairs.

Not only was the Cypriots’ choice of armed rebellion over politics a fatal tactical error, we also have to ask to what extent was it even justified. Was British rule in Cyprus – from 1878 to 1955 – ever so oppressive and brutal to justify a campaign of violence to end it? Objectively, the answer has to be ‘no’; and this ‘no’ becomes even more emphatic when one considers that it should have crossed the minds of the Cypriot political leadership that, by 1955, British rule on the island was unsustainable, the British empire was coming to an end anyway, and that what mattered was negotiating the best conclusion possible to it for the Greeks of Cyprus. Ultimately, Britain was able to use the EOKA violence to bypass the Cypriot leadership in deciding the political future of the island, going above their heads to Athens, which agreed on behalf of the Cypriots the calamitous London-Zurich agreements, the truncated and poisoned form of independence that led to intercommunal violence in the 1960s and the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.