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Sydney Cohen - 'The King of Lampedusa' and Brackley

Marcus Roberts

© Marcus Roberts (2009)

Brackley has a little known link to one of the strangest escapades of the War. In 1941, Sergeant Sydney Cohen, a RAF pilot, quite unwittingly and single-handedly, captured the tiny Island of Lampedusa, just 200km south of Sicily. He then accepted the surrender of a garrison of 4,300 Italian troops stationed there. This episode became the subject of a famous Yiddish play 'The King of Lampedusa', which became one of the most successful Yiddish productions ever, with 200 non-stop performances, and was broadcast by the BBC, which boosted War-time morale.

Cohen joined the RAF in 1941 and went to serve on Malta. While on a mission from the island in his Swordfish biplane, in 1943,he went off course and had to make an emergency landing with his crew on the Island of Lampedusa - the home of a disgruntled Italian garrison. He immediately offered his surrender, but he related, '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!'

Sydney Cohen then accepted the surrender (confirmed on a scrap of paper) from the commandant. Afterwards he took off back to Malta and delivered the 'document' of surrender.

The positive propaganda of the incident was quickly taken up back at home, at a point in the War when morale was low. One paper, the 'News Chronicle' declared 'London Tailor's Cutter is now King of Lampedusa'.

A playwright, S.J. Charendorf, quickly adopted the story and title, with little alteration, for a new Yiddish play and production, 'The King of Lampedusa', which became a hit musical at the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre in the East End. The BBC broadcast the English version and the play even attracted the attention of 'Lord Haw-Haw' in Germany who threatened the theatre with a visit from the Luftwaffe for their temerity.

Brackley's connection with this extraordinary story is that Sidney Cohen came to the Red House in Brackley, after his escapade, to visit Eva Deyong, who was his aunt. Eva was staying with her married daughter, Pricilla Tibber (who was also Sydney Cohen's cousin) and family. Jacqueline Toff (Tibber), who was a young girl, believes she recalls the visit of this World War II hero.

The story of the King of Lampedusa did not have a happy ending, as Sydney died when he and his plane were lost, without trace, over the Channel, near Dover, 26 August 1946. He had however, seen the play before he died, while on leave in Haifa in 1944.

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