Empty envelopes provoke harsh British reprisals in Nicosia
24 May 1956
On Thursday 24 May 1956, Martin Clemens, the British commissioner of the Cypriot city of Nicosia, ordered the closing down of shops across several streets, and the expulsion of all inhabitants for three months. The draconian measure was described as a ‘collective punishment,’ a reprisal against the entire population for their supposed failure to cooperate with the colonial authorities. It was to take effect from 8 am on 27 May and was a gross violation of the Geneva Convention directed against innocent civilians, most of whom probably had no information which would have been of any aid to the British authorities.
On the preceding Monday, a soldier had been killed and several civilians had been injured during clashes between protesters and British security forces. A curfew had immediately been imposed on the area, which was wired off while British troops set up gunposts on the rooftops and conducted a house by house sweep.1 When the search revealed nothing Clemens informed the residents that
‘Tonight a policeman will visit every home in the curfewed area with envelops and paper. Every householder will write on the paper everything he knows about EOKA (the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation fighting British rule), then seal it in the envelopes… Here is your chance to help the police without fear of any consequence.’2
When the envelopes were collected and handed over, Clemens opened them himself to find that they were all blank. The infuriated commissioner immediately ordered that the entire area, including 31 houses and 20 shops, be closed for three months. The residents were only allowed to take away with them whatever possessions they could carry and the long closure of the shops forced many into bankruptcy. The Daily Herald explained that ‘the order hits doctors, chemists, tailors and publicans’ and noted that Clemens made the announcement ‘sitting in a cafe behind a table draped with the union jack.’ He assured the sullen silent crowd that had gathered that the British governor, Field Marshal Sir John Harding, had given him his full support, reminding his audience that ‘I told you all before what your duty is when incidents like this occur.’3
- John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2015 p. 99, ‘Murder Mile is Shut Up: Toughest Reprisal Yet for Monday’s Riots in Nicosia,’ The Birmingham Gazette, 25 May 1956, p. 1 and ‘Shops and Houses Closed,’ The Birmingham Post, 25 May 1956 p. 1.
- Martin Clemens cited in John Newsinger, op. cit., p. 99.
- Martin Clemens cited in ‘Shops Shut,’ The Daily Herald, 25 May 1956 p. 2 and ‘Murder Mile is Shut Up: Toughest Reprisal Yet for Monday’s Riots in Nicosia,’ The Birmingham Gazette, 25 May 1956, p. 1.
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