Days to do? Very few. The national serviceman's mantra. My mates were decorating their kitbags and working on the tans they would show off back home. But no troop ship for me. I had been making plans for months to take a local release, which meant that I would effectively be demobbed from the Army in Cyprus, where I had been stationed since Christmas 1957, and make my own way home.
Not that the Army made things easy. Nothing that deviated from the norm was ever easy in the Army. I think I was the first serviceman to request this route out since the end of the Cyprus emergency (1955-59) some months before, and at first no one took me seriously. But regulations are everything in the services, and I had discovered that local release was an option covered by regulations. So it was just a matter of persevering. The first requirement was a passport from the Governor of Cyprus and visas for Turkey and Greece. I would then pick up further visas for Yugoslavia and Bulgaria in Istanbul.
According to the note in my passport I had £45 to get me home. (In those far-off days any money you were taking out of the country was recorded in your passport.) So I decided on the short, cheap flight from Nicosia to Adana in southern Turkey. At the time, Nicosia was the great air hub of the eastern Mediterranean; after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the subsequent division of the island, its airport was closed. These days, travellers aiming for Turkey must fly from Ercan in the north, while the shabby resort of Larnaca has taken over as principal airport for the official Republic of Cyprus in the south of the island.
My most vivid recollection of the flight aboard, I think, a Cyprus Airways DC-3, is that the human passengers were almost outnumbered by the livestock, mainly poultry. Chickens were also in evidence on the train that I picked up at Adana, and which had probably started some days before in Baghdad or Basra. I can't swear that people were cooking on the train, but who knows? If there was a dining car I never found it. But at every stop - and there were many - kebabs, water and bread were available on the platform. Agatha Christie's Orient Express it was not.
Conversation was limited. I could get by in French and German, but my Turkish and Greek were limited to "yes, please" and "thank you". The passengers in my compartment appeared to be all Turks, save one elderly man, who after several hours said something to me in what I took to be Arabic. One picked up snippets of Arabic in the forces, but they were not usually the sort of words suitable for polite conversation. So I tried French and German. No joy. More hours passed, and then my companion said something that sounded vaguely familiar.
I looked at him questioningly, and he repeated it. It was Latin. What these first words were I cannot now recall, but we did manage a conversation of sorts in the language of the Caesars, albeit with extended silences, until I left the train at Konya about halfway to Istanbul.
In the interests of economy I had intended to hitch-hike home, which is why I had a ticket only as far as Konya. However, lifts in rural Turkey are not as easy to come by as on the A3 from London to Portsmouth. Nevertheless, I found a truck stop and two friendly drivers whose French was as mediocre as mine, and we trundled on to Istanbul.
I had scarcely said goodbye and thanks to my benefactors, and was drinking my first coffee in Istanbul when I was approached by a young man who offered in halting English to buy me another coffee. His name was Ozben and he said he was a medical student. Could I help him with his English?
He turned out to be my guide for a week in Istanbul. He organised a student pass, accommodation and food. He took me to meet his family and showed me the sights. He even said that he could fix me a job teaching English if I wanted to stay on in Turkey. I was tempted, but it was nearly two years since I had left the UK and I was keen to get home. Ozben helped me to get transit visas for Bulgaria and Yugoslavia - no stopping in Eastern Europe in those days - and saw me off on the train heading for Sofia and Belgrade. Change there for Munich.
My only recollection of the capital of Bavaria was the huge new railway station, where I and other vagrants slept when we could avoid the attentions of the Polizei who wanted to move us on. A lady school teacher gave me a lift to Stuttgart, and from there I managed further lifts to Paris. It was my first visit to the French capital, but its delights were beyond my means, which by now were running rather low.
I worked out that if I didn't eat too much and got a lift to Dieppe I would just have enough cash to get the ferry to Newhaven and train or bus to Manchester. Customs gave me a serious going-over. I guess the Cyprus passport and several weeks of grime didn't help, but that wasn't the worst of the homecoming. The summer of 1959had been the hottest in the UK for years. I arrived home to find that everyone had a tan as good as, or better, than mine. But crossing Europe a decade before the first hippies was well worth the effort.Reuse content