Flying with the Argentine military

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

 

The military currently serving with the United Nations in Cyprus is made up of service personnel from a number of nations that you would not expect to usually work together.  Not many people realise that here on the island we, the British Army, work very closely with the Argentinian military who, after the UK, contribute the second largest contingent to UNIFYCP.

Argentinian helicopters on service with the UN

Argentinian helicopters on service with the UN

The Argentinians patrol Sector 1, which includes the mountainous Buffer Zone in the west and they also operate the only helicopters the UN has with this mission.  This therefore means that when we in Sector 2 patrol from the air we are flown by the Argentinian Air Force in their helicopters.  Recently I joined one of these air patrols and have also spent a day with my Argentinian counterparts to see how they carry out their work and the challenges the UN face in Sector 1.

In Sector 2 we patrol on the ground, on foot, by bike and by vehicle.  This however limits what we can see and we need to monitor what the opposing forces are doing immediately behind their respective cease fire lines.  The answer therefore is to take to the air and fly along the Buffer Zone. 

The air patrol

One morning recently I  joined two other British soldiers for an air patrol.  First we had to report to the Argentinian UN Flight for a briefing.  The helicopters operate from a corner of the old Nicosia International Airport.  This has been closed since the fighting of 1974 and remains frozen in time slowly deteriorating, as nature recaptures the land and the buildings crumble.  Here in a corner sits one hanger and a small office where we are briefed on the flight and I explain that I want to look at an illegal rubbish dump that is being used by Greek Cypriots from the south and some building work being carried out by the Turkish Forces in the north.  Finally I will be looking at the farmer’s crops in the Buffer Zone and how much they have harvested so far.

Once the briefing is over we are taken out to the small Hughes 500 helicopter for our patrol.  I sit in the front right hand set next to the pilot and the other patrol members sit behind.  Soon we are off and I am looking out through the plexi glass dome at the deserted airport.  We fly over the old runway and see the long abandoned remains of an old Royal Air Force Shackleton below.

On aerial patrol

On aerial patrol

As we climb it is now time to be thinking of work, I have to get my bearings and look for the edge of the buffer zone so I can find the rubbish dump.  I see it and take some pictures before we fly on to the northern side of the Buffer Zone to check on the construction we have been asked to look at.  Everything is in order so now it is a quick flight across the old town before we can see the east of our sector opening up before me.  I note the progress of the farmers before it is time to return to the airport.  Suddenly we are coming into land and the patrol is over.

Nearly an hour has passed and though I have flown in British military helicopters many times I have never been in one so small and noisy.  As the pilot shuts down the ground crew are there to escort us out but not before thanking the pilot.  It has certainly been an experience.  Now it is back to Ledra Palace to download my pictures and file my report.

The Buffer Zone Nicosia

The Buffer Zone Nicosia

The ground patrol

On Tuesday a small group of British personnel joined our Argentinian colleagues for a familiarisation tour of their sector.  Our sector, Sector 2 consists of the Buffer Zone passing through Nicosia and some flat rolling agricultural land either side.  It is therefore the narrowest part of the Buffer Zone and also the most populous area.  Sector 1 lies to the west and the Buffer Zone quickly opens up into a wide area several kilometres across.  Initially the land is farmed and it is green with orange and lemon groves unlike the parched fields we are used to where cereals are grown.  The Buffer Zone then rises into the Troodos Mountains before meeting the northern coast away to the west. The two sectors therefore are very different and the UN peacekeepers face different challenges.

We join our Argentinian hosts at the UN Headquarters and set off for Sector 1 in convoy, our first stop is in the Buffer Zone, near the northern edge, by a Turkish Cypriot village which lies just outside the Buffer Zone and further north.  Here we are standing on the site of a serious disagreement last year with one of the opposing forces that ultimately was resolved after some prolonged negotiations by the UN Force Commander, Maj Gen Chao Liu, but the area still remains contentious.

Polite discussions and negotiations

Soon after our arrival and as our Argentinian host is explaining the past problems to us an officer and private soldier from one of the opposing forces approach us.

Our visit has just become a patrol and we are witnessing a violation of the status quo agreements.  This means that troops from either of the opposing forces can only enter the Buffer Zone with prior UN agreement and that is not the case here.  To start with we observe, photograph and report the incursion.  Meanwhile the officer observes photographs and reports us!  Our Argentinian host begins to discuss the situation with the officer but an Argentine patrol arrives and we are able to hand over the incident to the new arrivals.

Welcome to the UN Buffer Zone where instead of violence, it is polite discussions and negotiations over what might appear to be very minor incidents, but this is the world of the peacekeeper and it has worked for many years here.  Our success means tensions between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides have eased and now it will be the diplomats and politicians who must reach a solution through talk.

The rest of the visit passes without incident as we journey to the far end of the Buffer Zone to visit the large manned observation post there. This OP is on the top of a small mountain that looks out over the sea.  Here an officer and eight soldiers look out over the other peaks at the equally isolated Greek Cypriot and Turkish positions in the distance.

Argentinian manned UN Observation Post Sector 1

Argentinian manned UN Observation Post Sector 1

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Busy time for VIP visits to peackeeping team

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

We are still busy here on Op TOSCA, this time it has been the turn of VIP visits.

 

My Last blog focused on a time of commemorations.  This time I will be focusing on visits and also a subject close to the hearts of many British people, the weather!  As I mentioned in my last blog we were due to have our Force Commanders Inspection on Tuesday 14 May, which duly took place.  Before that, however, we hosted the UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Mr Hervé Ladsous and also a separate visit by the Officers of the 1 Wolf Regiment of the Turkish Cypriot Security Force led by their commanding officer.  This unit occupies the Turkish side of the Buffer Zone in Nicosia.

So, a busy time for visits and in the best traditions of the British Army everything was planned and rehearsed. However, after suffering from a mini heat wave with temperatures rising into the mid thirties we have been suffering from extremely heavy rainfall and thunderstorms.  This weather is again very unseasonable and has meant that plans have had to be adapted, and in the finest traditions of the Army we have adapted and overcome the problems caused by flooded roads and washed away tracks.

Lt Tom Murphy escorts Mr Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations on a tour of the Buffer Zone. Capt Singlehurst RE

Lt Tom Murphy escorts Mr Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations on a tour of the Buffer Zone. Capt Singlehurst RE

Putting names to faces

The first of our visits was by Mr Ladsous, he is a former French diplomat who now heads the UN Peacekeeping organisation.  His visit therefore was extremely important as it gave UNFICYP the opportunity to demonstrate to him the challenges of this mission.  Sadly, the weather intervened and so the tour of the Buffer Zone in the old city had to be cancelled, but we were still able to take him to visit the old French Embassy building in the Buffer Zone.

The following Monday the Officers from 1 Wolf joined us for lunch in the Officers Mess of the Ledra Palace Hotel.  This visit gave 17 Port and Maritime Group the opportunity to demonstrate who we are and what our previous experiences have been.  This lunch was important, for the CO 17 P&M Gp had decided to invite the Turkish Platoon Commanders and this invitation was accepted.  It appears this was the first time such an invitation had been made and meant that they would have the opportunity to meet their British counterparts, our Troop commanders.  Previous lunches and meetings have only involved the senior officers of 1 Wolf.  The lunch was a great success and of course means that names have now become people.  This was helped because many of the young Turkish conscript officers spoke English.

Omelette Challenge

The following day the Force Commander, Major General Chao Liu spent the day with us in Sector 2.  The purpose of the inspection was to give us the opportunity to demonstrate to him that we have completed our training and are now operating effectively as per his direction.

The Force Commander UNFICYP, Maj General Chao Liu on a bike patrol with Cpl Jamie Dougall 17 Port and Maritime Grp  S/Sgt R Chovanec  Slovakian Army

The Force Commander UNFICYP, Maj General Chao Liu on a bike patrol with Cpl Jamie Dougall 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec Slovakian Army

The Force Commander during his visit did many of the things that would be expected on such an occasion, including briefings, visits to the Buffer Zone and so on, however some light hearted elements were also included, such as the chefs challenging him to the “Omelette Challenge” from the BBC Saturday Kitchen Show.

The Force Commander is tested on his MHE skills under the watchful eye of L/Cpl Meli Salabogi 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec  Slovakian Army

The Force Commander is tested on his MHE skills under the watchful eye of L/Cpl Meli Salabogi 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec Slovakian Army

When Gen Liu visited the QM department he was met with a forklift truck challenge, before finishing his afternoon with a few games of table tennis.  The General met all of his challenges successfully and appeared to enjoy himself.  The inspection concluded with a social call on the Corporal’s Mess before Gen Liu was entertained to dinner by the CO and officers of Sector 2, in the Officers Mess.  The evening was rounded off with the General enthusiastically joining in some Mess games.

Meanwhile the daily work of patrolling and being Peacekeepers has continued 24 hours a day seven days a week.

In future blogs I will take you on some patrols so you can see the challenges the soldiers on the ground face, It is not what you will expect!

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The heat is on as united nations remember fallen

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

It has been a busy time for 17 P7M Gp here in Cyprus since my first blog here is some of what we have been up to.

Welcome back to Cyprus!

Since my first blog we have been extremely busy here in Nicosia.  The Force Commander for the military component of UNFICYP is Major General Chao Liu of the People Republic of China, so yes we are in the unusual position of being commanded by a Chinese General.  His Chief of Staff, however is Colonel Angus Loudon MBE late R Irish.  Later this month Maj Gen Liu will be visiting us at the Ledra Palace Hotel to carry out the Force Commander’s Inspection and prior to that Col Loudon first visited to carry out his own inspection.  This meant that WO2 (SSM) Pitt of the Ops Squadron was able to demonstrate his new fully trained Honour Guard team to Col Loudon  for his first official visit to 17 P&M Gp.  Col Loudon then became the first visitor to sign the brand new Officer’s Mess Visitors book, before spending the day visiting various departments and also going on patrol into the Buffer Zone.

A fire breaks out in the Buffer Zone.

A fire breaks out in the Buffer Zone. Photo by Maj Adrian Spicer.

The heat is on for 17 P&M Gp already, as the island is experiencing an early period of hot weather with temperatures unseasonably high, the result has been an early outbreak of fires on the Buffer Zone and indeed a fire also broke out in one of the abandoned buildings in the Old City part of the Buffer Zone in Nicosia.  This was quite a serious incident and saw 17 P&M’s Deputy Commander Major Adrian Spicer literally rise to the occasion, when he took to the sky in an Argentine UN Helicopter to assess the situation.  Meanwhile on the ground Major Chris Hike one of our Military Observation and Liaison Officers was able to help coordinate the efforts of both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot Fire-fighters who tackled the blaze from their respective sides of the fire.

Maj Hike RLC(V) coordinates Turkish and Greek Firefighters during the Buffer Zone Fire.

Maj Hike RLC(V) coordinates Turkish and Greek Firefighters during the Buffer Zone Fire.

The situation was brought under control but not before one of the buildings collapsed and extensive damage was caused.  This incident has therefore reinforced to us all here the very the real risk of fire that we were already prepared for.

ANZAC Day commemorated

The last few days have also been ones of remembrance. UNFICYP has a UN POLICE element to it, which has a strong Australian contingent, and every year at dawn on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember the fallen and in particular those who died at ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsular.  Wherever they are in the world Aussies and Kiwis pause to remember, as this day in 1915 during the First World War, the soldiers from these two Dominions of the Old British Empire landed on the Turkish mainland.  This was the day when the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand by their deeds began to forge a national identity for the countries we now know.

Anzac Day in Nicosia 2013

Anzac Day in Nicosia 2013

Here in Cyprus in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, the Australian Police Contingent, invited the CO, Lt Col Rob Askew RLC and officers and men from 17 P&M Gp to join them for their dawn service.  We assembled in the cemetery and at 5am, as dawn was breaking, under the watchful eyes of Turkish soldiers in two observation posts and with the twinkling lights of Nicosia in the background, our Fijian Choir sang a lament to open the ceremony. The ceremony was conducted by an Australian Master of Ceremonies from the Australian Federal Police, with the assistance of our Padre, The Reverend Mark Ewbank CF, who conducted the religious element of the ceremony.  Wreaths were then laid by Australian, New Zealand and British High Commissions, the French Ambassador, The UN Chief Of Mission, The UNFICYP Force Commander and various others. A more personal remembrance ceremony has also been held on May 3 by the Royal Engineers serving with 17 Port and Maritime Group.  We gathered to remember one of our own, WO2 (QMSI ) Graham Bean RE(V), who sadly died two years ago on this date while serving with the 3 Royal Anglian Group here on Op TOSCA.  The short ceremony was again conducted by our Padre and finished with a wreath being laid at Graham’s memorial stone in the Buffer Zone.

WO2 Bean's Memorial Service.

WO2 Bean’s Memorial Service.

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Life on Op TOSCA in Cyprus

Capt Peter Singlehurst RE

Capt Peter Singlehurst RE

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group (Volunteers) (MOG(V)) and is currently serving as the Media and Ops Info Officer with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

In this first post I will introduce you to the Unit and what we are doing here. In future I will report on some of the activities of this peacekeeping tour that is so very different from the majority of the Army’s recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome to Cyprus!

In this blog I intend to share the experiences of 17 Port and Maritime Group’s tour in Nicosia, Cyprus, as part of the UN Peacekeeping mission on the island. The British Army’s contribution to the UNITED NATIONS FORCE IN CYPRUS (UNFICYP) is now the longest continuous operation for the British Army.  We have been here since 1964, which of course means many have heard of it and have seen the medal that goes with the tour, but what do we do and why are we here?

Well, it is not Afghanistan and it is not Iraq and nobody is being shot at and, yes, in some quarters the tour is known as a sun bathing tour.  That said this is a real tour that has its own challenges and the reasons that nobody is shooting at anybody is thanks to the UN in Cyprus and those who came before us in the past.  They were the ones who managed to stop the fighting and who have slowly but surely de-escalated the situation and kept the peace.  We now, as a result, are able to patrol and negotiate unarmed between two armed forces who look out at each other 24 hours a day.  Outside the Regimental Headquarters is the memorial to the 28 Canadian Peacekeepers who lost their lives on this tour that reminds us of those who went before.

Bike Patrol Sector 2 City Rorke’s Drift, Pte Billy Brook (l) Cfn James Morley (r) 17 Port and Maritime Regt RLC

Bike Patrol Sector 2 City Rorke’s Drift, Pte Billy Brook (l) Cfn James Morley (r) 17 Port and Maritime Regt RLC

North and South

So now the situation is that two armed forces face each other across a buffer zone and in between we, 17 P&M Group, as UN Peacekeepers, patrol and seek to maintain the status quo so that the UN can work with the political leadership in the North and South of the island to find a political solution to the ‘Cyprus question’.

To maintain the status quo we therefore have to monitor the two sides’ positions and ensure that they are manned at the agreed levels, that no positions are enhanced, and that neither side encroaches into the Buffer Zone.  To do this takes a keen eye and a level head.  And who is doing this challenging work?  In the main, it’s patrols of two soldiers, made up of Privates and Lance Corporals.

17 Port and Maritime Group is formed around the Headquarters element and 54 Squadron from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, based at Marchwood and commanded by Lt Col Rob Askew RLC, who is also in command here in Cyprus as well.  The Group is augmented by members of the TA in the main drawn from 165 Port Regt RLC (V), the TA sister regiment of 17 P&M Regt RLC.