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The British-Jewish Pilot that accidentally made a 4300-strong Italian garrison surrender their island

In July 1943 the fascist regime in Italy fell. It ended Benito Mussolini’s 21 year-long fascist regime. The crucial external element in the toppling of Mussolini had been the allied landings in North Africa in November the year before. Besides the landings in North Africa, the allied powers also emerged victorious in their siege of Malta, an island to the south of Italy. They established a base there from which they used to dispatch Royal Air Force fighter planes over Italy and bombing raids over Axis-controlled territories.

Sydney Cohen

During such a flight mission on June 12th 1943, 22-year-old sergeant Sydney Cohen, a young Jewish RAF pilot from London, flew his Swordfish bi-plane back to the base in Malta. He had looked for, but failed to locate a supposedly crashed German aircraft in the Mediterranean sea. On his way back, Cohen got lost due to problems with his compass, however, and flew past Malta towards the North African coast. In Cohen’s words: ‘the compass had a fit of the gremlins.’ Realising his aircraft didn’t have enough fuel to return to Malta, it was necessary to find a landing base to refuel. As such, he made the emergency landing on an island much smaller and much further south than Malta: Lampedusa. 

 The island he stumbled upon had a large landing strip, and he managed to reach the ground safely. Now, Cohen didn’t yet know it, but the fact he ran out of fuel seemed to become the least of his worries. The thing with Lampedusa was that it wasn’t yet under allied control. A garrison of around 4300 Italians held the island despite constant allied bombings. Cohen made the emergency landing on Lampedusa, between “burnt-out aircraft everwhere.” He recounted there were big holes in the field, as a result from the constant bombing by allied aircraft. But as he got out of his plane, he was immediately approached by Italian soldiers, wearing a “Tyrolean hat, with long plumed feathers, a leather jacket, khaki shorts and high boots”, as Cohen recalled.

Cohen put his hands up in surrender. However, the Italians didn’t accept it. Instead, the Italian soldiers exclaimed, “no, no – we surrender!” A little bit baffled, Cohen was then led to the commander of the island. When Cohen arrived at the island’s headquarters, a dozen Lockheed P-38 Lightning came over for another bombing raid over the island. During that bombing raid, the harbour was destroyed, and Cohen could see why the Italians wanted to surrender: they were sitting ducks. The commander then confirmed the surrender by signing a scrap of paper, which he gave to Cohen. As Cohen refilled his Swordfish bi-plane another pattern bombing occurred, and four fighter-bombers zoomed over the island, saw the markings on Cohen’s aircraft and turned around. Eventually, Cohen managed to refuel his plane and take off. He didn’t fly to Malta, but to a United States base in Tunisia to officially deliver the document of surrender to Allied command.

When news reached the United Kingdom of this pilot that managed to force an island with 4300 Italian soldiers to surrender, the propaganda value obviously knew no bounds. Mainly because this happened during a time when morale was low. The News Chronicle, a British newspaper, titled Cohen the ‘King of Lampedusa’. The Sunday Pictorial ran the front-page headline “Lampedusa Gives in to Sgt. Cohen!” Basically, this mass surrender was one of the first victories in a much larger operation that would eventually lead to the demise of the Axis powers.

The joy of this event didn’t just remain in newspapers. Within the Jewish community, Cohen quickly became a well-known hero. S.J. Charendorf, a playwright, actually wrote a Yiddish play about Cohen’s story. Due to legal issues, the main character was named Sam Kagan, but the narrative was based on Cohen. The play, titled the King of Lampedusa, was one of the most successful Yiddish productions ever. There were 200 non-stop performances and was broadcast by the BBC, boosting British morale. The play didn’t go unnoticed in Germany either, and Lord Haw-Haw, the British Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom, even threatened the theatre in East End with Luftwaffe bombings if they continued to stage the play. Even Cohen himself saw the play in 1944 while on leave in Haifa. 

The film rights to this play were sold to director Walter Sistrom. Unfortunately, he died due to a burst appendix on a plane to Hollywood, and nobody knows what happened to the film rights he bought. As such, a film about Cohen’s adventure was never made. An article from 2001 reveals that director Arnold Schwartzman has been interested in the story of Cohen and wants to create both a documentary and a feature film about his story. According to his filmography, Schwartzman released the documentary “Anna and the King of Lampedusa” in 2006, 3 years after he initially planned it. As for the feature film, I cannot find anything on it. Schwartzman has done interviews with still-living people that knew Cohen and used newspaper articles for his story. It tracks Cohen, who was an orphan and became a tailor’s cutter, working in the sweatshops of the East End until he joined the RAF.

Unfortunately, Sidney Cohen himself couldn’t enjoy his new-found fame for too long. In August 1946, following the second world war, he disappeared over the straits of Dover. He most likely crashed because he was notorious for flying low and recklessly. And, well, that is the tale of the RAF soldier that, on his own, managed to force an entire Italian garrison to surrender and become somewhat of a war-hero in the process.

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