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The day Hitler thought about coming to Cyprus

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The day Hitler thought about coming to Cyprus

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This week 67 years ago, Hitler was planning a Cyprus invasion

By Nathan Morley

Last Sunday I paid a visit to Othello’s Tower in Famagusta, the ancient tower over looks the once busy port, which now is host to less than a dozen ships.

As I sat basking in the early glow of another long hot summer, my imagination wandered back in time to the Cyprus of the Second World War, and the ebbs and flows of fortune that brought the island so close to the brink.

Despite little physical change, the Famagusta of 1941 was a very different place.

Sixty-seven years ago, this harbour was in a state of panic as the war moved inexorably towards these shores.

Everyone expected Adolf Hitler’s storm troopers to attack the island ‘blitzkrieg’-style. Yet, what transpired during the summer of that year surprised even the gloomiest of commentators.

It is known that the future of Cyprus figured high on the list of plans discussed by Hitler and Mussolini as they conferred at the Brenner Pass.

The fall of Crete, and the alignment through aggression of France with the Axis powers had effectively ruled out the Mediterranean as a link between Britain and the Middle East.

More worrying for the population here, was a series of radio reports that were picked up in Nicosia, suggesting that German motorised infantry troops had landed just a stone’s-throw away at the nearby port of Latakia in Syria.

These reports were backed-up by credible dispatches from Ankara which stated that Nazi troops landed on the Syrian coast on May 29th, arriving by freighters and carrying troops, tanks and trucks.

There is little doubt that the devastating news seriously shook-up the British rulers of Cyprus, who quickly resigned themselves to the fact that the island might become the latest addition to Hitler’s growing empire.

In early May, a regiment of Australian troops arrived in Cyprus to bolster the scant allied presence on the island. The Seventh Australian Division Cavalry Regiment disembarked at Famagusta and despite everyone being on a war footing, the newly arrived troops quickly found a way to let off steam.

The antics of the men were the subject of their first Regimental Bulletin in Cyprus.

“The men headed straight for the night-spots of Famagusta. This sortie was to have grave short-term consequences for the physical well-being of the men,” the report said.

“Over-indulgence in the local brews had a devastating effect on even the most hardened and impervious drinker.
It was not more than two hours before the first survivors returned staggering to the encampment, much the worse for wear, and the rest of the night was spent by those on duty retrieving sodden wrecks from all over the town.”

At a subsequent Court of Enquiry it was proved beyond reasonable doubt that no blame was attachable to any member of the regiment for the events which occurred on that night in May 1941.

Evidence proved conclusively that the real culprit - the real fifth columnist - the true snake in the grass was: - KAMANDERIA! (A reference to the potent wine dating back to medieval times, Kommandaria).

Those troops, recovering from their hangovers, knew that the Mediterranean Sea which surrounded them had already become virtually an "Axis sea" and the days of blighty ruling these waves were well and truly over.

There is little doubt that many of the soldiers expected to be prisoners of war in the coming weeks, that’s if they survived the expected German onslaught.

The island had already experienced a small taste of enemy action in 1940, when Italian aircraft bombed the mining port of Xero, causing extensive damage and injuring several people.

Much to the dismay of British leaders in Cyprus, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had frequently said that a force of only 1500 men was all that was needed to deter the Germans from an invasion of the island.

Leaders here knew that figure was ridiculous and would be barely able to defend a town, let alone the whole island.

Once they had sobered up, the newly-installed Australian Regiment’s main job was to show the flag, and make the Germans believe that there was at least a brigade on the island, which it was hoped would deter them from invading.

Within days of news of the German landing in Syria, the British authorities in Nicosia announced the immediate evacuation of all British women and children.

Plans were hastily drawn up to transport allied troops out of Cyprus, should the Nazis mount an attack leaving no room for escape.

Fears grew in early June when German and Italian warplanes directed violent, continuous air assaults on Famagusta, Nicosia and Larnaca that killed a dozen people.

German U-boats stalked the waters off Famagusta and Cape Greko, dropping sea-mines and keeping allied shipping at bay.

The steamboat “Alliance” hit a mine when leaving Famagusta, killing the captain and two crewmen.

Against a backdrop of air raids, u-boats stalking the coast and just a small force of defenders, all that people in Cyprus could do was sit and wait, hoping for the best.

Here it was that those ebbs and flows of fortune came into play. Warfare, like nature, is unpredictable.

As events unravelled, the airborne invasion of the neighbouring Greek island of Crete proved so costly to the Germans in terms of casualties as to rule out any further use of parachute and airborne troops in that arena.

Result: the widely-feared invasion of Cyprus failed to materialise. Waking up back in the present, and historians will proffer different opinions on how the seizure of this island might have aided the Axis powers push towards the near-east and help their campaign in North Africa.

Yet, whatever the military retrospective, the rapidly-changing elements of war presented a frantic scare for the people of this island – one that happily did not result in German occupation.

With events tumbling over one another in quick succession, uncertainty ruled and produced a constant climate of fear.
Happily for Cyprus, the enemy at the gate had to pull back at the last minute. Such was the long hot Cyprus summer of 1941.

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