Ayios Nikolaos: Monitoring the Mediterranean

Surveillance in the 20th century underwent drastic changes in response to technological advances. Specific geographic locations were required to maximize the intelligence gathered by national agencies. Some of these posts gathered immense fame: The Berlin Tunnel, Teufelsberg, and RAF Menwith Hill. Other stations remain less renowned. The Ayios Nikolaos listening post in Cyprus is one of these latter stations and is the subject of this article. 

1.0. General Information

Ayios Nikolaos is an outpost for collecting signals and electronic intelligence (SIGINT and ELINT) (source). As such, the primary operator is Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), the premier British signals intelligence agency (source).

Ayios Nikolaos, as seen from Google Earth. Two runways can be seen in the southeastern section of the station, as well as a satellite instillation to the northwest, arrayed in a circular feature. Original Source: https://earth.google.com/web/@35.08765911,33.89172806,34.88977516a,4101.93556306d,35y,0.00000076h,0t,0r

2.0. British Cyprus

The British established GCHQ in June 1947 following the conclusion of WWII (source). At this point, Cyprus was a British colony (source). Both civilian and military intelligence specialists operated at the station (source). Its location allowed personnel to intercept communications from various Mediterranean nations, including Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Israel (source). Ayios Nikolaos was initially used to gauge the reaction of new national governments during British decolonization (source). To this end, it monitored developments during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1956 Suez Crisis (source). Information gathered at Ayios Nikolaos may have facilitated the Arab decision to invade Israel in the case of the former (source). 

2.1. Expanding Intelligence Collection

The American National Security Agency (NSA) also operated at Ayios Nikolaos (source). As the premier American signals intelligence agency, it is an obvious fit (source). Budget cuts by the British in the post-war period required a large, well-funded partner (source). The early years saw close collaboration between the Americans and the British. However, intelligence gathered at Ayios Nikolaos was not (typically) distributed to other allies (source). As time passed, GCHQ relied more on American resources to modernize the base and maintain its relevance (source). This trend coincides with the expansion of Ayios Nikolaos’ areas of intercept (source). Initially focusing on diplomatic interception, aerial and maritime monitoring of the region grew in importance (source)(source). The garrison established elaborate and expensive defenses, proving the value placed on the station (source).

American Hawk surface-to-air missiles, such as that present on Cyprus for air defense. Hawks were the primary SAM of the US armed forces in the mid-20th century, entering service in 1960. Original Source: https://history.redstone.army.mil/miss-hawk.html

3.0. An Independent Cyprus

1960 was a year of great trouble for GCHQ and NSA. The UK granted Cyprus independence, and for a time, the future of Ayios Nikolaos was in question (source). As noted, former British colonies had previously ejected Western listening posts; there were genuine fears that an independent Cyprus could do the same (source).

3.1. Alternative Collection Possibilities

The British identified maritime capabilities of possibly filling the gap left in the case of eviction from Ayios Nikolaos (source). GCHQ envisioned a fleet of nuclear-powered ships to take over signal interceptions in the Mediterranean (source). However, London rejected this option. As internal memos detail, “[t]his could not at best be mounted in less than three years and would entail very high costs” (source).

3.2. A Special Arrangement

Instead, Britain pursued a second option. The conditions for Cypriot independence stipulated the establishment of Sovereign Base Areas, which would allow Ayios Nikolaos to remain operational (source). Simply put, Britain did not grant independence to the entirety of the island in 1960 (source). Two Sovereign Base Areas, Dhekelia and Akrotiri, would continue to host British outposts (source). Ayios Nikolaos is in Dhekelia (source). 

A map showing the Dhekelia and Akrotiri Sovereign Base Areas. Original Source: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/cyprus

3.3. Additional Issues

Impending Cypriot independence was not the only issue during this period. Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) was a movement by Greek Cypriots to incorporate Cyprus into the Greek state (source). Recognizing the vulnerability of the station in the face of sabotage, the Ministry of Defense reinforced Ayios Nikolaos with a substantial ground and aerial garrison (source). This, however, carried extensive costs. The financial burden of the station would later prove to be an issue (source).

4.0. Post-Independence

With the future of the outpost secure, American and British intelligence diligently continued collecting information in the region. The scope of the collection capabilities present at Ayios Nikolaos during this time is mind-boggling.

4.1. Capabilitity Range

American personnel working at the station could intercept communications from the mysterious crash of a UN chartered DC-6 on the 18th of September 1961 in northern Rhodesia, some 5,340km away (source). The flight, carrying Dan Hammarskjöld (then Secretary-General), set off a succession crisis and has been the subject of conspiracy ever since. Reportedly, a specialist intercepted radio traffic from another aircraft in the vicinity of the crash (source). The operator heard gunfire and the phrase “I’ve been hit” (source).

4.2. Monitoring the Region

During the 1967 Six-Day War, personnel intercepted frantic communications from Egyptian forces stationed at airfields during Israel’s devastating preemptive strike (source). Sergeant John Berry, a Brit serving with the 9th Signals Regiment, overheard the last prayers of an Egyptian tanker as Israeli shells hit his vehicle (source). 

US forces stationed at Ayios Nikolaos collaborated extensively with Israeli intelligence (source). NSA provided information to the CIA, which gifted it to Israeli intelligence (source). This was mainly as target locational data, which enabled Mossad to conduct a successful campaign of assassination against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) (source). 

4.3. Spying on Rivals

Technological developments during this period enabled the West to monitor Soviet nuclear capabilities. The creation of an over-the-horizon backscatter radar, codenamed COBRA-SHOE, allowed Ayios Nikolaos to peer into the central Asian territory of the Soviet Union (source). Here, the NSA could intercept ballistic missile telemetry (source). Furthermore, the US and UK established submarine monitoring stations to keep tabs on the USSR’s nuclear submarine fleet in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (source).

4.4. The Invasion of Cyprus

THE BRITISH ARMY IN CYPRUS : THE 1974 EMERGENCY (MH 33824) As well as the 10th Gurkha Rifles, the ESBA (Eastern Sovereign Base Area) was strengthened by the arrival of men of 41 Commando, Royal Marines, who were airlifted from HMS HERMES. Here, two soldiers man a post on the sea front. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188108

In 1974, Turkey launched an invasion of Cyprus (source). The attack did not result in any harm to Ayios Nikolaos. However, it had grave implications for American intelligence capabilities (source). The US had dissuaded Ankara from invading the island ten years prior (source). Upon discovering the invasion, American military assistance to Turkey was immediately frozen (source). Turkey retaliated by ejecting American listening outposts from its territory, constricting the flow of vital SIGINT and ELINT (source). Cyprus gained even more importance as a result, though this conflict remains a force for potential instability.

“For London and Washington, Cyprus was the last imperial foothold in the region.” 

Sarah Mainwaring & Richard J. Aldrich (source)

4.5. Closing Years of the 20th Century

Further budget cuts in the late 70s meant Britain could no longer stomach the increasing costs of maintaining Ayios Nikolaos. With the loss of Turkish listening posts, the Americans stepped in to prevent the facility’s closure (source).

5.0. Modern Day

Ayios Nikolaos remains vital to the Mediterranean NSA, GCHQ SIGINT, and ELINT capabilities. Satellite dishes enable the station to conduct orbital communications interception and to beam vast amounts of information across the globe to national headquarters (source). Additionally, Cyprus is an ideal location for fiber-optic cable tapping (source). Fourteen undersea cables pass through or near the island; NSA and GCHQ are keen to exploit this newfound source of information (source). 

6.0. Conclusion

For the foreseeable future, Cyprus and Ayios Nikolaos Station will remain essential for Western intelligence agencies. Seven decades of continual development of its facilities is too great a benefit to easily let go of. The Middle East will remain a region of high importance to US/UK interests, and Ayios Nikolaos will provide policymakers with vital intelligence to construct strategy in this geopolitical arena.

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