HUNDREDS OF GREEK CYPRIOTS DETAINED WITHOUT TRIAL
[ 22 July 1958 ]
At 1 am on 22 July 1958, Operation Matchbox commenced. The British Army’s orders were to detain anyone suspected of having any affiliation with the Greek Cypriot EOKA movement, an organisation which demanded the end of rule from London and for the island to be unified with Greece. Troops dragged hundreds from their beds and herded them into high security internment camps where, after some were randomly beaten, their identities were verified by hooded informers. Dennis Pitts, the Daily Herald‘s Nicosia correspondent, reported that ‘by teatime nearly 2000 Greek Cypriots were believed to be behind barbed wire,’ adding that ‘many more are expected to be detained during the next 24 hours.’1
Governor Sir Hugh Foot authorised the operation after the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, insisted that he make conditions as miserable as possible for the Cypriot population, so that they would agree to accept any deal Britain might offer them.2 Accordingly, the arrests followed the imposition of a dusk to dawn curfew, the cutting of telephone communication lines and the imposition of a tight censorship on all Cypriot press and radio outlets.
New emergency powers also granted the governor the right to detain those arrested without trial, including schoolboys as young as 14 and priests of the Greek Orthodox Church who were suspected of harbouring sympathies for the insurgency.3 The veteran war correspondent Martin Bell later recalled his part in the clampdown as a corporal in Suffolk Regiment: ‘We interned more than three thousand Greek Cypriots of military age and some who were younger. All we achieved was to alienate the people we were trying to win over and to recruit for our enemy. Even as a thoughtless young soldier I described it in one of my letters home as “armed repression.”‘4
It was clear to many observers that the repressive measures would prove counter productive. The Daily Mirror‘s William Conner, writing from Nicosia under the pseudonym Cassandra, lamented that ‘the whole brilliant and lovely island has become a shuttered gaol,’ and reflected soberly that he could not help ‘wondering what the hundreds of thousands of Cypriots are thinking about us now. They are imprisoned in their homes in temperatures of a hundred in the shade…. The children cannot get to school. Business is dying on its feet. Trade is paralysed. The people hear the roar of military vehicles day and night. They must hate us as never before.’5
- ‘Biggest Ever Clampdown Now Grips Cyprus,’ The Daily Herald, 23 July 1958, p.1 and Martin Bell, The Cyprus Emergency: A Soldier’s Story: The End of Empire, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2017, pp. 70-71.
- Robert Holland, Britain and the revolt in Cyprus, 1954-59, Oxford University Press, p. 267.
- ‘Hundreds of Arrests in Cyprus,’ The Birmingham Post, 23 July 1958, p. 20 and Martin Bell, Op cit., p. 70.
- Martin Bell, War and the Death of News: From Battlefield to Newsroom – My Fifty Years in Journalism, Oneworld, London 2018, p. 14.
- ‘Cassandra in Cyprus – Darkness at Noon,’ The Daily Mirror, 24 July 1958, p. 4.
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