In 1943 a British pilot made an emergency landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, only to have it surrender to him

The official story is that in June 1943, as a precursor to the Allied invasion of Sicily, the island was secured without resistance by the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Lookout and ninety-five men of the 2nd Battalion the Coldstream Guards.

However, a second claim has also been made regarding the capitulation of the island, when earlier that same day elements of the garrison had also attempted to surrender in unusual circumstances when Sergeant Sydney Cohen, the pilot of a Royal Air Force Swordfish aircraft landed having run low on fuel and suffering problems with his compass.

This is how it was reported in the Youngstown Vindicator – June 12, 1943:

Sergeant Cohen Reigns as King of Lampedusa

The fellow named Cohen was the one who “captured” Lampedusa Island from the Italians on Saturday and has papers to prove it is Sergt. Sidney Cohen, 22-year old R.A.F. pilot who still was a little bewildered on Sunday.

Already named “King of Lampedusa” by his mates, Cohen told how the Italian garrison surrendered to him Saturday. Hours before the formal capitulation to British landing forces.

With two mates, Sergt. Peter Cates, as Scotsman, and Sergt. Leslie Wrights, he was flying a Swordfish plane on a sea rescue mission when the compass “had a fit of the gremlins.” His gasoline was running low as Cohen spotted Lampedusa and sat his plane down.

“Burnt-out aircraft were everywhere,” he said. “There were big holes in the field. We saw some people waving white sheets, and two Italian officers approaching.” The leader wore a Tyrolean hat with long plumed feathers, a leather jacket, khaki shorts, and high boots.

Wanted to surrender

“He burst into Italian, and we discovered he wanted to surrender the island. I told him I would have to see ‘Number One man’, and he took us to the highest ranking naval officer.

“Other officers and civilians entered the room, and I was just about to receive the official surrender when ‘swish’… everybody suddenly ran out of that room and left me alone.

“They must have thought another air raid was just beginning, but there was no sound of gunfire or bomb explosions at the moment, and I thought the nerves of my hosts must be getting a little ragged.”
But in a few moments, I had a ‘worm’s-eye view’ of what was happening. About 12 P-38 Lightnings came over and hit the harbor. We fell flat.

“As soon as that was over me and my mates went out to our plane and began cranking her. Just then four fighter-bombers zoomed over at zero feet, and we dropped in our tracks again. But they saw the markings on our wing and swerved away.”

“The next chapter was pattern bombing by the big boys. After that was over our Tyrolean friend reappeared and told us to get away at once.”

“We thought it a good idea too, and the Italians gave me a piece of paper signed by the commandant, guaranteeing the surrender and asking that we stop the bombardment.”

“Those chaps were anxious that we deliver it to the proper authorities, and we promised that. Then we began cranking that Swordfish again, twisting the crank so hard we almost tore it off.”

Cogen and his mates landed at an American base in Tunisia where “the King of Lampedusa” triumphantly produced his now celebrated Italian certificate of surrender.

Joris Nieuwint

Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield guide for the Operation Market Garden area. His primary focus is on the Allied operations from September 17th, 1944 onwards. Having lived in the Market Garden area for 25 years, he has been studying the events for nearly as long. He has a deep understanding of the history and a passion for sharing the stories of the men who are no longer with us.