In the final part of the interview with Bembridge-based Ken Hicks, we hear about some of his experiences as an Intelligence officer with the United Nations Force in Cyprus, and leaving the army to become a ‘Kidnap and Ransom’ negotiator.
“We lost our daughter Claire, aged 23, who was killed while out hunting 20 years ago, but my great happiness is Deirdre, the girl I married 57 years ago.”
Ken Hicks claims that throughout his military career he was often fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, the reason why he rose fairly quickly through the ranks. But while working all around the world, he never forgot his close ties with the Isle of Wight and openly admits: “I just love the Island and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Early in his career, when a newly married young Lieutenant, he was delighted to be posted to Golden Hill Fort, Freshwater to train as a landing craft officer. Ken said: “I couldn’t believe my luck – just married; buying our first house at Seaview; liked boats and getting paid to do something I loved!”
After training Ken was posted to a maritime unit in Singapore, and then transferred to Army HQ on the staff. Singapore was a long way from home, when on Christmas Eve 1961 he recalls: “I was staying late at HQ, waiting for the mail and the Island papers to arrive, as I loved keeping in touch with Island news. Everybody except the Duty Officer had left to celebrate Christmas, when a ‘Top Secret’ signal arrived from the UK, and when I opened it, it was ordering a Gurkha infantry battalion up-country in Malaya to move to Borneo to counter the Indonesian invasion which had just started. I warned the Adjutant of the Gurkhas, using a special code word to move, and that was the start of the Indonesian confrontation – and I had only been waiting for the local papers!”
Shortly after this Ken was posted to Hong Kong, into what he described as a ‘rather sensitive’ appointment dealing with the then current situation in Communist China. Even today, the Official Secrets Act still prevents disclosure of some of his experiences.
On returning from Hong Kong, Ken was selected to attend the Army Staff College at Camberley – and afterwards sent to Strategic Command, as an Operations Officer.
This led to promotion and into another post, one task of which was to liaise with the UK Security Service, some of which was extremely interesting, unexpected and quite sensitive – just a touch of the ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff.
From 1968 to 1971, Ken was the military organiser and commentator of the Carisbrooke Castle Tattoo, raising money for Island charities.
In 1971 Ken was sent to Cyprus to be the Intelligence Officer of the UN Force, and had Intelligence detachments of many nationalities under his control. His task was keeping ‘tabs’ on many different armed factions operating – many covertly – these included AKEL (the Greek Cypriot Communist Organisation) and EOKA.
He said: “On one occasion I heard Communist arms had been landed by a Polish ship. Observers and helicopters were deployed, monitoring the trucks carrying the arms. We tracked them through Nicosia and then, surprisingly into Famagusta Docks. Later one of our patrol reported they were only carrying empty orange boxes – an enormous waste of effort and money.
“Three months later there was a similar report, we tracked several vehicles into the Tactical Police Reserve’s barracks, and confirmed they were carrying illegal arms. The Cypriot Government emphatically denied any importation, and the affair reached the UN Secretary General in New York. After further evidence, the Cypriot Ambassador admitted it, but stated they were under the personal control of President Archbishop Makarios – in his own Palace. This was a bonus; an armoured car cordon was thrown around the Palace and Police HQ thus forcing the weapons surrender.”
While Ken was in Cyprus, he successfully fended off a plot set up by the KGB to compromise him. Shortly afterwards the Security Service invited him to join them, but a few days before the transfer, accusations were made in the press that some methods of obtaining information from suspects, such as in Northern Ireland, were of doubtful morality, and Ken decided to stay in the army.
He was attached to an International multi-service Inspection Team, which was visiting NATO HQ in Belgium, when in October 1973, Egypt invaded Israel and the US Command locked out the Danish Admiral and his Inspectors, taking control of the situation, excluding all non-US personnel from any knowledge of what was happening.
Ken returned to normal army duties, attached for three years to the Household Division, with an office in Horse Guards and a Regimental HQ at Regent’s Park Barracks. He was also in command of four Squadrons, including a TA Parachute Squadron.
After the appointment in London, he was appointed as Assistant Quarter Master General and again travelled the world, employed, at times, on unusual projects. However, at the relatively young age of 43 he decided to leave the Forces, and after a short time, was invited by Lloyd’s of London to become a negotiator to recover kidnapped clients.
“My job was to meet the foreign brokers who had clients insured at Lloyd’s. They could be politicians, industrialists, sports personalities – in fact almost anybody. I then awaited the broker’s call, which could be from anywhere in the world, but often Italy or South America. I was at immediate notice, every day of the year, to fly out to help. To cover Christmas Day it was necessary to have alternative travel arrangements to take me from Bembridge to an airport near Heathrow.
“Good cover plans were needed to account for my presence in the community, and I used my interest in antiquarian books to good effect. It was important to stay near the locality where the kidnapping took place, and I changed my accommodation frequently. Usually it was rather boring, awaiting contact from the kidnappers, but sometimes really challenging and interesting – evaluating if the victim was still alive – and sometimes rather too exciting!
“On one occasion, against my advice to the family, I paid the ransom, and the hostage was later found dead in a river – probably kept frozen until the money was paid, but the money was eventually recovered. The last project in which I was involved ended in a £2 million payment in Northern Italy.”
He continued: “I was often in alien territory, but felt safe until the ransom was handed over, but then needed to have a sound escape plan to get out swiftly. A project could vary between six weeks and six months. Other than the flights out, all expenses – accommodation, car hire, confidential translators and other expenses, came from the large consultancy fee. However, the inability to go abroad on holiday, or even go sailing more than a couple of hours from a harbour with good train connections to London, allied to being on 24 hour call, made me decide eventually to look for a quieter, Island based life!”
Back at Bembridge, Ken and Deirdre bought Harbour Farm where Deirdre enjoyed riding and carriage driving, while Ken took on other responsibilities (at one time being Chairman of the Isle of Wight Family Health Authority); enjoyed his sailing and flying, and helped out with one or two Island charities.
Of all his different roles, he reckons the most worthwhile was raising the funds to save the Isle of Wight Credit Union from being closed down by the Financial Services Authority in 2011.
Ken and his wife Deirdre are now happily retired. But he will always have one great void in his life. He said “We lost our daughter Claire, aged 23, who was killed while out hunting 20 years ago, but my great happiness is Deirdre, the girl I married 57 years ago.”