May 20th 2024

Op TOSCA: Royal Engineers deploy to Cyprus on United Nations peacekeeping mission


A bus driver, computer technician, first safety officer and HGV driver have returned home after deploying with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

Lance Corporal (LCpl) Connor Boyes, Sapper (Spr) George Robson, Spr Stuey Williams and Spr Ricky Layer spent 6 months working in the buffer zone between the northern and southern parts of the divided island.

The soldiers, of Chilwell-based 350 (The Robin Hood Foresters) Field Squadron, 75 Engineer Regiment, have become part of the British Army’s long history of keeping the peace between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, which dates back to 1964 with the creation of UNFICYP.

Op Tosca

Patrolling the buffer zone

An important part of the mission in Cyprus was to patrol the 180km-long buffer zone. While there are villages and special areas within the buffer zone, other areas left abandoned since the ceasefire was agreed in 1974 require special authorisation to access them.

Combat engineer Spr Williamson, a Reservist of 11 years, said: “When we came across people who weren’t supposed to be in the buffer zone, we had to report them and their vehicles to the tactical operations centre so that the United Nations Police (UNPOL) could investigate. 

“We had to be very diplomatic about it. We were on a peacekeeping mission and always had to think about the ‘bigger picture’.

“There were a couple of occasions when we had to respond to clashes between the opposing communities in Cyprus. It was really important to stay composed but prepared to work hard if anything ‘kicked off’. You had to remember your training, trust yourself and your mates in the patrol.”

For most of their deployment, the Royal Engineers were based at the United Nations’ Blue Beret Camp in the capital city, Nicosia. However, during deployments with UNPOL away from the base, Spr Williamson and his fellow Soldiers lived in a tented camp.

He added: “We built our own showers at our new camp – they were cold, but it was the best way to maintain hygiene. I really enjoyed the work; we had a good patrol rota and I could do plenty of physical training in a different environment.”

As an instructor, leading the physical training for 65 Soldiers was Spr Williamson’s favourite part of the operation – that’s despite having to exercise at 06:00 to avoid the worst of the Mediterranean sun.

For LCpl Boyes, who returned to Cyprus 13 years after first deploying to the country as a Reservist, the variety of the taskings made his time on the island fly by. 

The Stagecoach bus driver said: “The Mobile Force Reserve has been used for different tasks, like joint patrols with the UNPOL, construction work at the sector 2 HQ and removing old obstacles from the buffer zone. There has been a different tempo and constant variety.”

Honour Guard Presenting Arms to the SRSG (left) and German President

Honour Guard Presenting Arms to the SRSG (left) and German President

Honour guard

During their Mediterranean deployment between September 2023 and Easter 2024, one moment stood out above all else – forming the honour guard for the German President and Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations on a special visit to UNFICYP’s headquarters. 

Spr Robson, a computer technician from Matlock, said: “When I joined the Army Reserve less than 3 years ago, I had not even considered, as a possibility, that I would be a part of the honour guard for the Head of State of the third largest economy in the world.

“Having the opportunity to rehearse for a few weeks prior to the event took our drill to a standard where I was proud to be a part of the honour guard, making it a unique and rewarding experience within the Army Reserve.”

For Spr Williamson, a fire safety officer from Mansfield, it was an extra special opportunity having been inspired by the drill team at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to join the Reserves 10 years earlier.

Spr Layer, of Swadlincote, added: “Being part of the honour guard made me feel really proud and it is a memory I will always have of deploying with the United Nations.”

Spr WIlliamson

Spr WIlliamson

Skills on display

In his day job, Spr Layer drives HGV lorries for McVities and he was able to put those transferable skills into action on Op Tosca. 

During his stay on the island the former Regular soldier, who has now been a Reservist for 5 years, trained to become an assessor to test personnel on their driving ability. All UN personnel have to complete an assessment to confirm they can drive on roads and in 4-wheel drive vehicles over rough terrain. 

As an assessor, Spr Layer checked the UN drivers were safe and capable of covering more demanding routes than they would normally experience in their home countries. 

With his additional skills as a self-loading dump truck operator learnt during his Regular Army service, Spr Layer was able to support the removal of barbed wire obstacles from the buffer zone. Without those skills, the barbed wire and metal fence posts would have been loaded onto the trucks by hand.

Not only were Spr Layer’s skills being put to good use, but his employer McVities helped maintain the morale of deployed soldiers by kindly donating 25kg of biscuits.

Spr Layer wasn’t alone. Others, including Spr Williamson, were able to put their ‘civvy street’ skills to work on Op TOSCA, unlocking opportunities for travel, adventure and a great sense of achievement.

All 4 Reservists were released by their employers for their mobilisations, enhancing their leadership skills, robustness and resilience to add even greater value on their return.

Spr Williamson added: “We get the best of both worlds. Being a Reservist is a hobby that keeps you fit, pays you and levels you up.

Being a physical training instructor has given me the confidence to talk in front of people that I don’t know. I would never have thought I could do that before being in the Army Reserve. 

“It helps you grow as a person. It’s a no-brainer, really.”

Want to find out more about the work of 350 Field Squadron and joining the Reserves? Visit the British Army’s website.