Operation Musketeer: Corporal Tony Lowe’s Story

On the 4th of November 1956 I was with 16th Independent Para Brigade HQ assembled in Cyprus 1956 and billeted just outside Nicosia on the Kyrenia road. I was aged 27 and had been in the Parachute Regiment already some 7 years. The Co Brigadier of HQ 16 Independent Parachute Brigade Group was none other than the charismatic Tubby Butler of who I was driver/batman to. Being along side Tubby Butler I was at the hub of the events surrounding the hunting down of the head of EOKA Georgios Grivas, a Cypriot-born Colonel in the Greek army.

When the call came that there was going to be an airborne assault on El Gamil Airfield at the Suez Canal in Egypt I must admit I felt I was not going to be involved. It was literally as I drove Tubby Butler along the dusty Kyrenia road in Cyprus the day before the drop that he turned to me and said ‘We’ll be going in with 3 Para on a very important mission tonight Tony’. When we were alone Tubby and I were always on first name terms; something unusual as a soldier/officer relationship at the time, but was soon reversed when in the company of fellow soldier’s or Tubby’s fellow officers. We had a friendly camaraderie and the banter came along with it. I replied ‘Well I can’t go…I haven’t done any synthetic training to do the jump’. Synthetic training was the ongoing training for paratroopers. He replied ‘Tough...you’re coming with me anyway. Don’t give me any of that rot Lowe!’. We drove on after that in silence…

 Before I knew it I was boarding a Dakota aeroplane in the small hours of the morning on the 5th November 1956. The Dakota I boarded was to be the leading aircraft in the assault on El Gamil Airfield and I sat next to Tubby Butler with 28 members of 3 Para around us. I was armed with a Bren gun, 6 ‘36’ hand grenades, 6 full magazines of ammunition and was weighed down with enough equipment and rations to double my own body weight. I felt rather like a pregnant duck!  The flight was crowded, hot and I remember sweating profusely with the amount of equipment wrapped around my body as the din of the aircraft’s engines changed pitch in preparation for the drop zone (DZ).

 When action stations were called we hooked up our lines and I positioned myself behind Tubby Butler who cast an enthusiastic heroic figure in the door of the plane, as the wind flapped around his uniform. He turned to me winking and bellowed above the noise of the engines ‘Right Corporal Lowe…we’re about to make history now’. Still sweating and hoping I’d remember how to parachute I replied ‘You know what you can do with your history don’t you?’ He replied back with a playful grimace and shouted ‘I’ll see you on the ground PRIVATE Lowe!’ and with that he was gone through the aircraft door and out into the Egyptian dawn quickly followed by myself and my fellow combatants. It was 04.15 hours on November 5, 1956.

 The drop itself was over very rapidly as we’d flown in at 600 feet (the lowest we could go), and with my weight in equipment it only took around 20 to 30 seconds to hit the sandy desert floor with a hard bump. I was quickly to my feet freeing myself from my parachute and I could already see the control tower was billowing heavy black smoke from an earlier pre-emptive strike and that made it slightly easier for me as that was the position RV I was to take up. As Tubby Butler’s batman I was assigned to stick by him and should he be taken out my enemy fire recover any important maps and documents from his body. Along with Tubby and Lt Col Paul Crook (whose batman was in toe as well) the four of us headed to the control tower. The Egyptians had expected our arrival and had placed oil drums all over the airfield. As we made our way along using the drums for cover I remember seeing the sand spitting up around my feet from the bullets being fired at us from the Egyptian side. This spurred us all forward as quickly as possible. We safely made it to our RV point and I set up the Bren gun to cover our forward positions. For some reason I still remember the sea was to my left and the airport road to my right.

 At one point I was ordered to escort Tubby Butler and Paul Crook up to the forward positions to check the progress of the battle, which appeared to be going well for us. During this manoeuvre I spotted an unfortunate dead Egyptian soldier lying by his bazooka. As we returned to the control tower I lifted the bazooka up on end (Which was on wheels) and pulled it back with me less it fall into enemy hands and be used against us.

 We successfully secured the airfield but within 48 hours we were returned to Cyprus due to the political wrangling out of my control at the time as a foot soldier. I will never forget the day we dropped into battle and still think of my lost comrades that day.

I remained a professional soldier until 1969 and served alongside Tubby Butler for most of my military career. He never tired of reiterating what I had said to him as we were about to jump into Suez whenever we were in the company of his fellow officers with a ‘Do you know what this man said to me as we were about to jump into Suez?’ I was always stood to attention and unable to respond, which I think amused him greatly. If only they’d known we were on first name terms!

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