From 2006 to 2014, Canadian soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan stopped over in Cyprus for five days of enforced rest, recreation, and stress briefings to prepare them for reintegration into the pace of daily life in Canada. This marked a new chapter for the Canadian military's long involvement in Cyprus, beginning in 1964.
Fifty years ago, Canadian soldiers made up part of the first international contingent of United Nations peacekeepers who arrived in Cyprus to defuse a crisis when violence between the Greek-Cypriot majority and Turkish-Cypriot minority threatened to spiral into war between Greece and Turkey.
For the next 29 years, Canada joined other countries in contributing contingents to the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Peacekeepers on the island patrolled the Green Line, a narrow buffer zone between the two combatants, and reported on troop movements and ceasefire violations.
In 1993, with the Canadian government facing mounting demands for military support to UN missions in more pressing and dangerous conflicts in Africa, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, Canada ended its major commitment to UNFICYP.
Today, one Canadian staff officer remains in UNFICYP headquarters to show the flag while soldiers returning from Afghanistan join the tourists on the island's beaches and bar scene.
The Cyprus mission is historically significant for Canada. More than 25,000 Canadians served there from 1964 to 1993, many serving multiple tours over 59 rotations. It thus represents Canada's longest traditional peacekeeping mission, where an impartial UN force was invited by both sides in the conflict to keep the peace until a diplomatic solution could be found. Canada's decision to supply troops to the Cyprus mission satisfied our national interests as defined in Cold War foreign and defence policies.
The United Nations' intervention in Cyprus prevented Greece and Turkey, two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members, from warring over the island, which hosted strategic British naval and air bases. In addition to the threat posed to NATO unity, Canadian officials feared that internal discord in Cyprus might lead some Cypriots to turn to socialism and the Soviet Union. Altruism, too, played a role in Canada's involvement in the United Nations force.
During a parliamentary debate over the Cyprus crisis, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson declared, "There is every humanitarian reason … for doing what we can to halt violence and bloodshed on that beautiful and once happy island." The Prime Minister was also realistic about the complexity of the conflict and the mission's potential costs: "Peacekeeping operations are very rarely easy. They are usually expensive. They are uncertain in duration and they are very often subject to unfortunate incidents."
Within 48 hours of Pearson's declaration, soldiers of the Royal 22e Régiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons were on a flight to Cyprus, the first of many such deployments. Canada's sole aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, sailed for Cyprus carrying equipment for the contingent.
The UN force faced an island that was deeply divided and in danger of dissolution into violence. Yet, for the first 10 years of the mission, Cyprus at least posed few dangers for Canadian troops, who endured monotonous months of duty in fixed observation posts or on roving patrols. The soldiers negotiated or bluffed their way through checkpoints, enforced the terms of the United Nations' mandate, and built rapport with Greek and Turkish forces to keep track of the political and military climate.
By their presence, the Canadians and other peacekeepers were able to intervene to prevent a stray gunshot fired by a nervous militia member from escalating into an island-wide war. Furthermore, the UN force did a good deal more than just military intervention.
Role of Canadian peacekeepers
To overcome the ethnic divide on the island and ensure the smooth operation of agriculture and infrastructure, officers with the UN mission supervised maintenance of water lines. Soldiers escorted farmers to their fields when tensions were high, and escorted civilian vehicles across territory that was in dispute. The tasks of the UN peacekeeper were many, and, as Major M.D. Kearney put it during his tour in 1969: “It requires tact, diplomacy, and an infinite store of patience.”
Events in 1974 would sorely test Canadians’ reserve of patience, and challenge the will of the United Nations to enforce its mandate on the island. In July 1974, a Greek-inspired coup overthrew the Cypriot President, Archbishop Makarios III, and installed a sympathetic Greek-Cypriot leader intent on enosis, political union of Cyprus with Greece.
Within days, the Turkish armed forces dusted off their 1964 intervention plans and sent 40,000 troops to assault the island with the stated intention of securing the Turkish minority.
The United Nations force was caught in the middle of the war. Four hundred and fifty soldiers of 1 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment held the line in the capital city of Nicosia. Under fire from both sides, UNFICYP repeatedly sought to secure local ceasefires and, when these failed, the Canadian contingent placed strategic locations such as Nicosia’s International Airport and the Ledra Palace Hotel under UN control as a means of limiting the conflict.
Seventeen Canadians were wounded in the fighting, and Privates Gilbert Perron and Jean-Claude Berger were killed by rifle fire.
In one incident on June 23, at Camp Kronberg, north of Nicosia, Canadians were forced to return fire at a Greek force that attacked a UN patrol leading Turkish soldiers back to their lines.
In reaction to the 1974 crisis, the Canadian government doubled the size of the contingent on Cyprus, and provided soldiers there with armoured personnel carriers and anti-tank weapons to offer some defence against Turkish and Greek armour.
New status quo
Canada’s casualties in Cyprus that summer underlined that peacekeeping duties were rarely peaceful, but the losses garnered little attention at home, where Parliament was out of session and the press preoccupied with judiciary impeachment proceedings against United States President Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. Though this new phase largely passed by without great public notice in Canada, this is not to say the changes made to the Cyprus mission that summer were insignificant. In the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Don Manuel, commanding officer of 1 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment: “Well, if we were bored with the lack of progress by the politicians… the situation changed dramatically with the military coup which overthrew the government and resulted in an intervention by Turkish national forces in a strength of 40,000; the fall of two governments; the military withdrawal of Greece from NATO … To say the least it was interesting to be in the middle.”
The Turkish intervention in Cyprus substantially changed the areas in which the United Nations was permitted to operate. The successful intervention claimed a third of the island, which became a breakaway republic in 1983, sponsored and diplomatically recognised by Turkey. As the rest of the world condemned the events in Cyprus, through the following decades Canada’s role there would remain mostly the same, keeping a long watch on the combatant forces. The relatively peaceful conditions that settled across the island after 1974 and the following two decades led some in the Canadian Forces to label a Cyprus deployment a trip to “Club Med”, a sunny vacation and a welcome relief from the dreary nature of garrison duties in Canada. The risks remained largely the same, as stray rounds and vehicle accidents on treacherous mountain roads continued to claim the lives of Canadian soldiers in Cyprus, 28 in all by the time Canada ended its major contribution to UNFICYP.
End of an era
In 1993, with commitments to the troubled UN missions in Bosnia and Croatia rapidly expanding, as well as other hotspots emerging around the globe, the Canadian government chose to end its major presence in Cyprus.
The last rotation of soldiers to Cyprus came from 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. One of its members, who had been deployed to the island before, wryly observed that most of the troops in the rotation were 19 years old, and hadn’t been born when the mission began. When the last Canadian troops left that June, it was a symbol of a changing security environment; a move away from traditional peacekeeping, and a move towards more robust and complex international missions in the anarchy of the post-Cold War world.
Fifty years on, the mandate of UNFICYP is the same, and a comprehensive settlement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides remains elusive. The presence of the United Nations force, and the Canadian contingent within it, saved many lives and on countless occasions prevented small-scale violence from escalating into war. The modest steps towards reconciliation between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus in recent years can be attributed in part to the international community’s continued involvement in Cyprus.
Canadian veterans of this mission, from the first troops to arrive in 1964, to those who still serve under the UN flag, are justly proud of their contribution towards peace on the beautiful, troubled island of Cyprus.
By Andrew Burtch, Ph.D., Historian (Post-1945), Canadian War Museum