Plans for British military intervention in the civil war in Cyprus involving a naval flotilla and 15,000 soldiers were drawn up hastily on the instructions of the prime minister, Harold Wilson. Article history
The aim was to restore the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, who had been deposed by a coup led by officers supporting the Greek military junta in Athens.
News of the coup on July 15 1974 provoked a flurry of diplomatic contacts in which the Russians sought assurances that the situation would not be allowed to escalate into an international crisis.
Makarios, who fled when his presidential palace in the capital, Nicosia, was attacked, was eventually evacuated to London, where he met Wilson on July 17.
Britain, as the former colonial power, was one of the three guarantor states – with Greece and Turkey – recognised as having a legitimate interest in Cyprus’s internal affairs. It controlled – and still controls – a number of military sovereign base areas (SBAs) on the island.
In exile, Makarios urged that the Greek officers in the national guard should be withdrawn and the international community should not recognise the regime which had installed Nicos Sampson as president and was intent on annexing the island as part of the Greek state.
“Shortly afterwards the Turkish prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, arrived in London for urgent consultations and met the prime minister. After he left, Wilson instructed the ministry of defence assessment staff to draw up contingency plans for a British invasion.
Marked “Secret UK Eyes A’” and entitled Re-instatement of President Makarios in Cyprus by means of British military support, the document warns of the dangers involved in such an operation.
“This paper considers the general forces level necessary to achieve this,” it begins. “It does not address itself to the possibility [of intervention] by Greece, Turkey or another nation … However, the attempted intervention by air or sea of Greek forces could be deterred by our own forces given about 10 days notice.
“The threat will not only consist of the Cyprus national guard, Greek national contingent, EOKA B [paramilitary Greek loyalists] … there will be sizeable elements who will actively oppose us by resorting to guerrilla warfare.”
The total strength of “Greek loyal forces” was estimated at 55,000, but “standards of training are poor”.
The assessment concluded that three brigades – as many as 15,000 soldiers – would be needed.
Close air support would also be necessary, but added: “Bitter experience has shown us that even a small number of dedicated men from the local population can pin down an inordinately large force for an indefinite period and we might well end up by facing an open-ended and expensive situation, like in Northern Ireland.
“Our chances of ever fully subduing the island as a whole … must be extremely low.”
Up to 23,000 service families, UK citizens and friendly nationals would be vulnerable to hostage-taking but evacuating them before an intervention “would make our intentions plain”, it said.
The government hesitated and events moved faster than anticipated. In the early hours of July 20 Turkish troops invaded north Cyprus and in effect partitioned the island on the grounds of protecting the Turkish Cypriot population.