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Dhekelia at 60: ‘the finest barracks in the world’
SIXTY years ago, in the summer of 1950, a group of British soldiers were ordered to erect half a dozen tents and a Nissan Hut in a small deserted coastal region known as Dhekelia.
The soldiers arrived at a parcel of barren land near Larnaca bay, which consisted of rock-strewn slopes, sparse olive groves, a dirt track and small fishing quay – the simple operation took just a week and marked the establishment of a base which would become one of London’s key military installations.
With malaria still a threat, no running water, no heating and constant power cuts being a part of the dire living conditions endured by soldiers and their families in Cyprus, the Clement Altlee government was under urgent pressure to address the dire conditions.
The solution was investment – and with an enormous budget of £2 million, the British War Office announced that the new garrison would service troops from Tripoli and North Africa, as well as locally based soldiers.
Consisting of barracks, modern married quarters, a shopping centre and other amenities Dhekelia was destined to become the British military hub in the near east.
For long suffering servicemen, and impoverished locals who relished the prospect of future employment, the news was warmly welcomed.
Sir Lindsay Parkinson and Co., Limited, who were already engaged on building the power station at Dhekelia were brought in to design and construct the modern new base, which was to include a water-borne sewerage system, the construction of new roads, and development of a water supply.
At the official laying of the first stone in 1952, General Sir Charles Keightley, G.O.C.-in- C. Middle East announced to the press that Dhekelia would be “the finest of its kind in the world”, and would be based on barracks built in Germany under Hitler's regime, which were warmly commended by British soldiers who occupied them at the end of the Second World War.
“Self-contained communities will be developed with churches, schools, shops, clubs, theatres, and cinemas,” he told journalists.
Some of the married quarters at first were prefabricated temporary dwellings made of a material known as ‘Cyprus hutting’. They were not impressive to look at from outside, but inside families said they were comfortable and well equipped with modem domestic fittings.
With most construction work completed by the mid 1950s, the garrison entered into what was to become its most active period – the twin task of dealing with EOKA and Suez crisis.
At the height of EOKA’s struggle for enosis, there were no fewer than 14 infantry battalions and two artillery regiments on ‘internal security’ duties in Cyprus.
The infantry battalions included The Wiltshire Regiment, the South Staffordshire’s, The Middlesex Regiment, the Royal Leicester’s, The Gordon Highlanders, The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, The Suffolk Regiment, the Gloucester’s, the Royal West Kent’s, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, The Royal Berkshires, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Dhekelia became the military operations headquarters, with patrols searching for EOKA operatives being conducted from the base into the Troodos Mountains, Larnaca and the Famagusta district almost daily.
The garrison was also a frequent EOKA target, with bombs being planted on the water pipes into the garrison at regular intervals, forcing soldiers and their families to depend on fresh water being trucked in from Episkopi – the power plant was also a target of EOKA agents.
As thousands of troops tried to deal with the EOKA struggle, 1956 also witnessed the Suez Crisis which became one of most important and controversial events in British history since the Second World War.
Dhekelia, like Akrotiri and RAF Nicosia was used by troops in transit being sent and returning from Suez – with some troops facing the prospect of having to serve in Cyprus and shuttle back and forth to Egypt.
Not only did Suez result in deep political and public division in Britain, it also caused international uproar. It has come to be regarded as the end of Britain's role as one of the world powers and sounded the death knell for the British Empire.
By the early 1960s and the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, political tensions had died down and there were serious discussions within the Harold Wilson government about closing the base and moving existing troops to Akrotiri.
However, with the brutal Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Dhekelia became a natural safe haven for tourists and refugees.
As the increasingly serious situation became clear, Dhekelia was pinpointed as a safe haven and a hastily arranged convoy left the British High Commission in Nicosia with British families travelling in their own cars – with pasted paper Union Jacks on all the windows.
The Army escort was under the command of the United Nations and charged with evacuating as many British and other civilians as possible from the capital. Snipers were firing into the High Commission grounds as they left.
This convoy was joined by other convoys at the Hilton Hotel, about three miles across the city.
From there the convoy of 1,000 cars headed to Dhekelia, others flocked in from all directions, - the base became increasingly overcrowded and overburdened.
Eventually 60,000 refugees sought sanctuary at Dhekelia, many being forced to live in a tent city for over a year.
On August 15 1974, fears that Turkey would attack Dhekelia itself swept the island.
British and Turkish forces confronted each other when a Turkish armoured column rolled in battle formation to the fringes of the base. The confrontation arose as Turkish tanks and infantry descended.
One Turkish armoured column of 30 tanks and 12 armoured personnel carriers swept to the north-east fringes of Dhekelia, ground to a halt and one of the tanks fired three shells inside the boundaries of the base.
The Turks then took battle formation facing the base, but the situation soon died down when the Turks made an about turn.
After the Turkish invasion Dhekelia was gradually downscaled, with the main hospital and BFBS radio buildings being demolished and re-located to Akrotiri.
In recent years the base has made headlines for the wrong reasons, including violent demonstrations by anti-British campaigners and drunken brawls involving squaddies in resorts such as Ayia Napa.
While the scars of Dhekelia, which endured bloody and at times brutal events, have mostly healed, the base celebrates its 60th anniversary with no ceremony and uncertain of its future in the face of cutbacks.