WW2 Pilot to The King of Lampedusa

  • By Neven Connolly

WW2 Pilot to The King of Lampedusa

Would-be Aussie Sheep Farmer Turned Jewish King

There’s a lot of unlucky experiences found in war stories, nations stuck between opposing armies, boys born just early enough to be of drafting age when conscription kicked in and countless soldiers in the wrong place at the wrong time on the front lines. Thus, when the coin landed in one’s favour it could seem fantastical, even wondrous enough so that one could imagine it becoming a story worth telling over and over again, perhaps as a book, a play, or even a musical.

Sydney was an orphaned tailor’s apprentice from London’s East End, Sydney vowed vengeance on Nazi Germany and the Axis powers after an air raid struck his flat in 1941 and joined the RAF with the intention of migrating to Australia to become a sheep farmer once the war was over.

Cohen and his two co-pilots were flying back to their base in Malta when their navigation system went haywire, forcing an emergency landing on the closest island, the nature and occupation of which was unknown to the three-man crew. Upon landing Cohen was confronted with approximately 4,300 Italian soldiers (nazi allies) who were based on the island and, uderstandably expecting the worst, proceeded to surrender. The Italians had a different idea however.

“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.”


Cohen “put on a bold front” (he’s still a kid) and consorted with the island’s commandant, securing a signed letter of surrender, refueling his ship and bringing news of the victory to his commanding officers at the Maltese base. The news spread quickly and served as a glimmer of hope for the majority of Britons who were beginning to fear defeat was imminent, Allied headlines around the world sung Cohen’s praise with the exception of one unlikely newspaper.

The London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York was on his way to submit his coverage of Sgt. Cohen when the thought occurred to him that the story had the potential to be much more than a headline. S. J. Charendorf turned around and once home began writing (and admittedly rewriting at times) Cohen’s story as a stage production, and not just that, but a full length musical-comedy titled ‘The King of Lampedusa’.

The musical debuted in London before the end of the year and played consistently to packed out houses serving as a colourful and effective morale boost to both Jewish and non-Jewish Britons. The script was quickly translated to Hebrew and another edition opened in Haifa (now Israel) where Cohen proudly witnessed it for the first time while on leave in 1944.

In ‘The King of Lampedusa’ there is a fictitious second act wherein Winston Churchill himself offers the island of Lampedusa to Cohen (renamed Sam Silverman in the script) as an alternative to the ancient Jewish homeland of Israel as a joyous resolution to the story. The true story, of course, didn’t end as happily. Cohen never met Churchill and he didn’t return home to loving parents because, as we know, he was orphaned as a child long before. In fact, even though Cohen survived the second World War, he never made it home regardless. He was on his final flight back to Britain from Malta and on August 26, 1946 his plane crashed into open water during the last leg of the trip. The wreckage was never found therefore denying Cohen a true Jewish funeral but despite this tragic end his story has survived to the currency day through stage and song.


Aish.com: https://www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Jewish-King-of-Lampedusa.html

JTrails: http://jtrails.org.uk/trails/brackley/articles/c-1167/sydney-cohen-the-king-of-lampedusa-and-brackley/

Darwin Army News: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/38341449#

BBC Witness History: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswsht

Jewish East End: https://www.jewisheastend.com/yiddishtheatre.html

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