Cyprus in March 1956: Australian Documents

On a recent visit to the Greek-Australian archive, I found two interesting documents on the Cyprus issue in 1956. These two documents provide an insight of how Australian officials viewed Cyprus at this particular moment in time. Both documents are best understood within the context of EOKA’s (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters ) struggle for independence from British Colonial rule, the deportation of Archbishop Makarios in March 1956, strained Greek-Turkish relations over Cyprus and wider Middle East strategic considerations.

The first document outlines the conversation of the Australian Minister to Egypt A.R. Cutler, VC with British military leaders in Cyprus in March 1956. Cutler took the opportunity to discuss Middle East defence strategy with Commander-in-Chief Land Forces, General Sir Charles Keightley and his Chief of Staff, Major-General Benson.

In the ensuing discussion, the British considered Cyprus forming a very important part of its overall defence policy in the Middle East. Keightley offered three reasons to support the British thesis. Firstly Cyprus was considered “the last remaining British base of any importance in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East area.” The gradual British withdrawal from the Suez Canal zone increased the strategic value of Cyprus for Britain and “made it a necessity to securely hold it as a “spring board” for British troops.”

It also was considered “a convenient base both for Air Force operations and the movement of troops by air [within the Middle East].” It should be noted that Britain signed a treaty with Egypt which lead to a withdrawal of its troops from the Suez Canal in 1954.

Secondly, Britain had treaty obligations with both Iraq (1948) and Jordan (1946) and through the Tripartite Pact (Baghdad Pact 1955) which might involve a large and speedy movement of troops in the Middle East. This is where Cyprus provided the “springboard” for the deployment of British forces in a Middle East conflict. The unstable situation existing in the Middle East might result in “some deprivation of oil to the United Kingdom and Western allies generally, and at the same time, would open the way for Russian and Communist infiltration.” This instability was largely due to the growing friction between Egypt and Israel in 1955 and Egyptian President Nasser’s assertiveness in seeking to become the leader of the Arab world.

Thirdly Cyprus formed an important part of NATO’s security on its eastern flank. Keightley stated that both Greece and Turkey needed “to be strengthened in a military crisis, and this this could best be done from Cyprus.” The British viewed “that ENOSIS (Union with Greece) might very well have the effect of the Communists gaining their objective by subversive instead of military means: in other words, Greece could, in their opinion, turn communist which would automatically apply to Cyprus if Greece controlled the island, and the Eastern flank of NATO would be turned without a shot being fired.”

The Australian External Affairs Minister R.G. Casey responded to this communication on April 10, 1956. He informed Cutler that he appreciated the information collected in Cyprus. Casey stated that he was in Cyprus in 1942 and 1943 when he was in the Middle East. He mentioned that his “car was held up in a village in Cyprus in 1943 by a group of Enosis demonstrators. When I asked the Head villager, through an interpreter, who had told them to do this, he replied “the Priest.” He could not offer any ideas regarding “the present situation in Cyprus” but was “glad to know what is going on and your despatch adds substantially to our knowledge of this.”

In conclusion, Cutler’s despatch provided the Australian government with information on the importance of Cyprus in Britain’s defence strategy for the Middle East. Moreover Australia considered the Suez Canal a vital link in its communications and trade with the Middle East and Western Europe.