The 7 RIFLES Battlegroup was formed up of Reservists from 7 RIFLES and 5 FUSILIERS, both of which are in the 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade.
Formed in January 2020, the battlegroup spent several weeks conducting pre-deployment training before deploying out to Cyprus on Operation Tosca. Operation Tosca is the UK’s commitment to the United Nations longest running peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, separating northern and southern Cyprus, patrolling the buffer zone between those two forces. The 7 RIFLES Battlegroup deployed to Cyprus in April 2020, and was based in the Buffer Zone of the island’s capital Nicosia, which divides the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.
The troops were tasked with monitoring the activity of both sides to de-escalate tension and to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The British Army has maintained a peacekeeping presence on the island of Cyprus since 1964 and took over responsibility for what the United Nations calls ‘Sector Two,’ the area of the island in and around Nicosia, in 1993. What the British Army calls ‘Op TOSCA’ sees about 250 personnel police the Buffer Zone for a full operational tour of six months.
Unlike most past deployments, the current British peacekeeping force is over 90% Reservist, the largest recent deployment of the Reserves in a single formed unit under its own command. Around 120 Reservists from 7 RIFLES were deployed, joined by a similarly-sized contingent from 5 FUSILIERS. The Army Reservists came from all walks of life – from builders, to accountants, to policemen and students – but have chosen to become full-time, Regular soldiers for what will amount to over half the year in the service of their country and the cause of peace.
One of the many interesting aspects that Reservists bring to an operational deployment is that they all have a primary skill set other than soldering. For example, there were Reservists who in their civilian roles were builders, carpenters, accountants, lawyers, paramedics and even a professional poker player and a yoga instructor.
All of these skills proved their value at one point or another, patrolling the buffer zone and interfacing with civilians. Operation Tosca, more so than other operations, is all about people – about the two opposing forces and the civilians that we interacted with on a day to day basis.
‘This deployment shows that the Army Reserve can take on a full operational tour under its own steam,’ said Lieutenant Colonel James Gayner, Commanding Officer of the battlegroup, ‘thereby fulfilling the philosophy of One Army, Regular and Reserve. Op Tosca is an intricate tour. It demands excellent understanding of what is a complex conflict, diligence, and diplomacy: the kind of nuanced, human skills that are particularly found in the Army Reserve.’
‘We deployed in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, so I am particularly proud of the way in which my Riflemen have dealt with the additional challenges of keeping the peace whilst taking all measures necessary to combat coronavirus.’
Despite the limitations imposed upon the operation by Covid-19, the battlegroup was still able to enjoy the opportunities that the island of Cyprus has to offer. Adventure training activities included rock-climbing, mountain biking, sub aqua, skydiving, and individuals in the battlegroup had the opportunity to explore the island for themselves and to dig into the history and the culture of Cyprus.
The 7 RIFLES Battlegroup was given the opportunity of proving the concept of the Army Reserve delivering an operation on its own. The benchmark has now been truly set for future Army Reserve deployments under its own command that should give the Army real confidence about using Reserves in this way in the future.