Archive for the ‘syd cohen’ Tag

Sydney Cohen vs 4,300 Italian Fascist troops: Syd won

sydney cohen syd king of lampedusa

Sydney Cohen

On this day in 1946 a plane went missing without trace over the English Channel. On board was Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot and the ‘King of Lampedusa’. He was flying home to be demobbed but his aircraft crashed in the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found.

Lampedusa is a small island 175 miles (280 kilometres) south of Sicily. (These days it is most often referred to in relation to the European migration crisis, receiving migrants from North Africa.)

map lampedusa sicily tunisia

Syd Cohen was a tailor’s cutter from the East End of London. He was an orphan (born 1921) who before the Second World War lived with his sister Lily in a block of flats in Stoke Newington.

How he became Italian royalty is one of the great little stories of World War Two.

20 year-old Sydney Cohen joined the Royal Airforce in 1941 and was based at North Weald near Epping. He was subsequently stationed on Malta. On 12th June 1943 Sergeant Cohen took off from the island with his two-man crew in their Swordfish biplane. With him was Sergeant Peter Tait, navigator, and Sergeant Les Wright, wireless operator and gunner. They were on a search-and-rescue mission after reports of a German plane crashing into the Mediterranean. Returning from the mission their compass started malfunctioning and they found themselves off course (actually heading away from Malta) and low on fuel so had to make an emergency landing on the Island of Lampedusa.

fairey swordfish plane

Fairey Swordfish

“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land. As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us.”

The Allies had been bombing the island. As Sydney prepared to submit to the inevitable fate of being captured…

“a crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender, but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting: “No, no – We surrender!” The whole island was surrendering to us!”

“It was a bit of a shake-up but I put on a bold heart and asked to see the commandant. I was taken to the commandant’s villa but an air raid started and everybody suddenly dashed from the room. I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged. They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender. They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”

Sydney accepted the surrender of the commandant of the demoralised garrison, refuelled, flew the scribbled surrender on to headquarters in Tunis, and in effect single-handedly captured Lampedusa and 4,300 Italian troops. It was arguably the first step in the retaking of Europe by the Allies.

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison Lampedusa

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison

king cohen of lampedusa newspaper headline

The British press picked up on the story to help boost morale. ‘Lampedusa Gives In to Sgt. Cohen!’ was the front-page headline on the Sunday Pictorial the very next day. The News Chronicle gave it the headline: ‘London Tailor’s Cutter is now King of Lampedusa’ establishing the monicker which went on to provide the title for a highly successful Yiddish musical play by S.J. Charendorf.

grand palais yiddish theatre programme king of lampedusa sj charendorf

Programme from Grand Palais, East London

Charendorf was a Czech-American journalist, London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. He was on his way to the Ministry of Information to file his story about Sgt Syd Cohen when it occurred to him that it had the makings of a brilliant play. He turned back home to write it. He changed the hero’s name to Sam Kagan and created parents and a fiancee for him but Sam was clearly Syd.

poster king of lampedusa grand palais london

Poster from Grand Palais

In November 1943 Charendorf took his script to Meier Tzelniker, the actor-producer-director who ran the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Tzelniker commissioned some music and wrote the lyrics himself. He also cast himself in the lead role alongside his daughter Anna. The show premiered on New Year’s Eve 1943/4. It was a slow burner but Charendorf got the newspapers interested in the story again and it took off.

King of Lampedusa 2nd act newspaper cutting

The King in Act 2

King of Lampedusa yiddish play

‘The King of Lampedusa’ was a huge hit at the Grand Palais with 200 consecutive performances.

play scene the king of lampedusa

Naturalistic East End cheek-pinching from The King of Lampedusa

The BBC went on to broadcast an English version with Sydney Tafler playing the title role.

In time it came to the treacherous attention of William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw. In one of his nightly propaganda broadcasts from Berlin he threatened:

“The Yids at the Grand Palais should not be laughing for much longer at the ridiculous play ‘The King of Lampedusa’ because they are earmarked for a visit from the Luftwaffe.”

Although Cohen went missing in 1946, he did get to see the play while on leave in Haifa in 1944. It was a performance in Hebrew at the Hamatae Theatre. But he never saw the London production.

A final weird twist of a bizarre story – In the wake of Sydney meeting his end on a plane, so did the would-be producer of a movie of the story. After the war the film rights to the play were sold, however the film was never produced because the producer who acquired them, Walter Sistrom, suffered a burst appendix on the plane taking him to Columbia Studios in LA and he died.

 

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