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Royal British Legion chairman Alan Wagner speaks of his time in Cyprus
IN 2013, many of us think little of travelling to the other side of the world on business, or just for a holiday.
Things, of course, were so very different in the Fifties, when Alan Wagner was called up for National Service.
It’s hard to imagine how such young men felt, suddenly plucked from their everyday lives and sent to difficult and dangerous foreign trouble spots.
Alan was 18 when he was called up, given a few weeks of basic training, and soon after, aged 19, shipped off on peacekeeping duty to Cyprus.
Not that Alan, 76, of Aspen Court, Laindon, had the slightest hesitation about going off to serve Queen and country.
He said: “The way you were trained, you just accepted whatever happened.
“It was a matter of the Queen saying ‘I need you’. And so I had to go.”
Alan, chairman of Wickford British Legion, spent ten weeks training with the Essex Regiment, before being transferred to the Suffolk Regiment.
It was 1956 and he was sent to join peacekeeping forces on Cyprus, an island on the brink of civil war, between Turkish and Greeks Cypriots.
Alan was just a regular teenager from Dagenham, but he soon found himself under fire, facing riots and manning roadblocks, sweltering in almost 50-degree heat on the coast, or trekking through a foot of snow in the Troodos mountains.
He said: “There’s no music like there is in the war films. You just hear the bullets going past you.
It’s not very nice, but it has to be done. You have to keep the villains down.
“There were more than 200 deaths in 1956 alone. It was quite a high death rate and I lost two friends out there. Most people my age, who were drafted in to the Forces and had to go abroad, didn’t like it, but we all just had to make the best of it.
“When you get ambushed, you didn’t know how you would react, but with our group, we were straight in and we were up for it. I never thought my time was up.”
As well as protecting the civilian population, Alan’s unit played a part in bringing down the wanted Cypriot guerrilla fighter, Markos Drakos, who had a £5,000 price tag on his head after several attacks.
He was arrested for blowing up a radio station in 1955, but escaped by climbing from a window, using blankets tied together.
On January 18, 1957, Alan and his comrades set up an ambush in the Troodos mountains.
When Drakos and his followers came past, the terrorist was shot dead and four others were captured.
Alan also captured seven other terrorists during a mission, codenamed called Operation Bullfinch.
While Alan’s two-year spell on Cyprus yielded tales of successful actions, he says other incidents still play on his mind.
He recalled: “My biggest concern is something which happened in November 1956, when a child was killed.
“We had just removed a roadblock and were travelling in two three-ton trucks on the coastal road back to camp, when we were ambushed.
“We came round the bend and all of a sudden, there were two loud bangs and flashes. The next thing, we were in the dirt and the trucks were on their side. We could hear guns going, so we returned fire to where we saw flashes.
“The thing which has stuck with me is that child being killed.
He was a little boy and was absolutely shot to pieces.
“The terrorists had forced their way into his home and made the parents sit there until we drove along the road. This child was in bed. The question on my mind ever since has been was it my fire that took that child’s life?”
The experience was sobering enough to keep Alan from talking too much about his experiences on Cyprus.
However, it didn’t put him off returning – he visits the island every year and says it’s an idyllic and beautiful place.
Alan is staunch supporter of the Royal British Legion, explaining his service means he knows just how deserving today’s troops are of support.
He said: “They are putting their lives on the line and doing it for us. Our government says ‘yes, we will enter a country’, but it’s all right for the ministers to say that. They’re not the ones doing it.
“So many people have lost arms and legs. It’s terrible that our troops get no support. That’s why the British Legion tries to help as much as it can.”
In some ways, the world may have changed since 1956, but in others, it seems very little has changed.
Alan and his comrades’ mission to keep the peace between Turkish and Greek Cypriots was among the first peace keeping efforts to be mounted – and it mirrors the kind of action Western politicians are debating right now for Syria.
However, while Alan believes his work on Cyprus was justified, he is strongly of the opinion we could stay out of Syria.
He explained: “I don’t think we should get involved. It’s time to say enough is enough.”
But no matter whatever orders the Army gets, Alan firmly believes Britain will come out on top.
He said: “When Britain gets involved, we are always at the front. I believe we are the best at everything we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s on land, sea or air – British troops are the best.”
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