Captain Topel’s plane was shot down on August 8, 1964 during a mission to support Turkish Cypriots against Greek aggression on the island.
The first martyr of the Turkish Air Force, pilot captain Cengiz Topel, is remembered on Monday, 58 years after his plane was shot down on August 8, 1964, by Greek Cypriots during a Turkish military mission to support Turkish civilians on the island.
Topel was among the Turkish Cypriot civilians’ first line of defense against Greek Cypriot forces. His memory lives on in Türkiye and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) where parks, streets, museums and monuments are named after him as a national hero.
Topel was born on September 2, 1934, the third of four siblings of a tobacco expert in Izmit, Türkiye's northwestern province of Kocaeli.
He graduated from the Turkish Military Academy in 1955 and joined the Turkish Armed Forces.
With a passion for aviation since childhood, Topel was sent to Canada for his flight training, after which he was stationed at an airbase in central Türkiye in 1961 before becoming an Air Force captain two years later.
Cyprus combat mission
Towards the end of 1963, Greek Cypriots initiated a systematic ethnic cleansing of Turkish Cypriots on the island. Over the following months, around a hundred villages were evacuated and Turkish Cypriot villagers moved into enclaves.
On August 6, 1964, the Greek Cypriot National Guard started action against the Turkish Cypriot enclave of Erenkoy on the northwest coast of the island, under the command of retired Greek General and leader of the EOKA, Georgios Grivas.
The EOKA was a Greek Cypriot right-wing nationalist militant organisation that fought for the end of British rule in Cyprus, and for the island’s union with Greece.
Erenkoy saw some 750 university students bravely manage to hold their positions against the Greek Cypriot onslaught till August 8, when the Turkish Air Force was forced to intervene as a guarantor power of Cyprus.
Against this backdrop, Topel was appointed to a combat mission known as the “Erenkoy Resistance” in support of the besieged villagers. He led a four-fighter flight of the 112th Air Squadron leaving Türkiye's Eskisehir Air Base for Erenkoy.
As he was strafing a Greek Cypriot patrol boat, Topel’s F-100 Super Sabre was hit by 40mm anti-aircraft fire. Topel ejected from his aircraft via parachute, landing on a road near the Greek village of Peristeronori between the Turkish settlements of Lefke, Gaziveren, Elye and Calikoy. He was captured by Greek Cypriot soldiers, after reportedly keeping them at bay until he ran out of ammunition.
Topel was imprisoned, an ordeal that would ultimately prove fatal. An autopsy of his body showed he was heavily tortured and shot several times.
The 29-year-old’s corpse was returned on August 12 to the Turkish authorities only after intense diplomatic efforts. On August 14, he was laid to rest at the Edirnakapi Martyr’s Cemetery in Istanbul.
Topel’s bravery, along with the outnumbered Erenkoy freedom fighters, meant that the village was saved in the end, and UN forces returned to the area following the end of hostilities.
However, the Erenkoy villagers continued to endure harsh conditions for a decade longer until Türkiye's Peace Operation on the island in 1974, following a coup aimed at the annexation of the island by Greece.
Topel is known as the first Turkish pilot to be killed in action since the founding of the republic.
To recognise his heroic efforts, a hospital in Yesliyurt, near Lefke, was renamed the Cengiz Topel Hospital in 1975.
The Cengiz Topel Monument in the town of Lefke was inaugurated in 1990 and houses his memorabilia, including original parts and a replica of Topel’s plane, photographs, alongside a bust of the pilot.
Even an annual TRNC army drill was named after Topel, known as the Martyr Captain Cengiz Topel Mediterranean Storm Exercise.
In Türkiye, a former Turkish Air Force base located near Izmit, now in use as Cengiz Topel Naval Air Station, was named after him.
A bronze statue was erected in his honour in Eskisehir, depicting him in a flight suit.