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Remembering When: Operation Cossack

Story & Images By Paul Ward

Experiencing the hustle and bustle of development in the Turks & Caicos today, especially on Providenciales, it is hard to believe that the basic infrastructure was put into place only a little more than 50 years ago.

In 1967, Provident Limited, a development company headed by Fritz Ludington, identified the potential of Providenciales’ beautiful beach and pristine turquoise seas. The TCI Government granted 4,000 acres of Crown Land to Provident in exchange for constructing an airstrip, roads, a jetty, and a hotel. By 1970, the Third Turtle Inn and Turtle Cove Marina were in operation.

The Sunday Mirror on March 8, 1970 describes some of the escapades of British servicemen taking part in Operation Cossack.

The Turks & Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory and in 1970, the UK initiated Operation Cossack. It had dual benefits. According to Dr. Richard Grainger, medical officer in TCI from 1970–71, “In the 1970s, the trade unions in the UK were powerful and prevented or severely limited the activities of the Royal Engineers in using or practicing their essential skills—such as building roads or bridges—in the UK.” As a result, 97 men from the 15th Field Support Squadron of the Royal Engineers (and three RAF divers) were sent to the Turks & Caicos Islands to carry out a number of civil engineering tasks such as road building and repair, updating the telephone system, constructing a large water tank at South Caicos airport, and removing obstructions from several channels to make it easier for boats to navigate.

According to Turks Islands Landfall: A History of the Turks & Caicos Islands, “The detachment was based at South Caicos and comprised about 100 men. . . . A diving party blasted a passage from Fort George Cut to Sandy Point. From Sellers Cut to Long Bay the channel was opened. At Middle Caicos, the canal near Lorimers was opened.”

Paul Ward was part of the diving team of the Royal Engineers. He recently contacted us about sharing his memories of that brief, but important, time of his life. He recalls that their mission was to mark out a channel from the breakwater to enable low-draft yachts and boats to get to shore, which would ultimately aid the tourist trade for the Islands. “For me, it was a dream assignment — camping on the beach and experiencing the most pristine waters and beaches in the world.”

Royal Engineer divers used explosives to blow up coral to open up channels for boats to navigate through the reef.

The servicemen landed by a troop carrier in late January, 1970 and left in early April. In a somewhat-sensationalized article in the Sunday Mirror (March 8, 1970), the newspaper reports “daily confrontation with sharks, vicious barracudas and aggressive eels up to 12 feet long.” Paul Ward says that the RAF divers were employed as shark guards for his team of Royal Engineer divers who used explosives to blow up coral obstructing the channel.

The main camp site for the divers was at Parrot Cay. Paul recalls that George Stubbs provided the petrol to power the outboard motors they used to get to the clearing sites. He also remembers an Islander who had a donkey called Lulabell, who they could hear approach through the bush chatting away to the animal. He says, “I was very lucky to experience the Islands before development, especially meeting up with an American diver who with his wife and daughter set up home in a cave on one part of Parrot Cay. He was an artisan who used pieces of wreckage he found whilst diving to make furniture.”

The main camp for Operation Cossack’s divers was located on the beach at Parrot Cay.

Another favorite memory is going on a night dive to experience some of the sea creatures that lived in the waters around the coast. As well, Paul notes, “We would see the occasional very large manta ray leap out of the water and flying fish come into our boat. Our diet was supplemented by turtle and parrotfish that were stunned or killed during some of the explosions in the water. Occasionally a few of us would go to the Third Turtle Inn for a change of scenery and a few drinks, following the sandy dirt tracks through the bush to get there. For R&R we were taken to the ‘Pan Am’ Base (originally US Guided Missile Tracking Station at South Base) on Grand Turk.”

Paul returned to the UK sporting a Caribbean tan, a detail that helped impress his wife-to-be in a bar in Southampton. (They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.) To mark the experience, the team created a tie to commemorate their time in the Islands.

Note: The Royal Engineers returned to the Islands in January 1971. During this visit, they resurfaced the South Caicos airport runway and opened up Ingram’s Cut near Lorimers, Middle Caicos.



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