When Royal Air Force pilot Sydney Cohen crash landed on the Italian-controlled island of Lampedusa in 1943, he thought he would be in for the fight of his life. Lampedusa was the home of more than 4,000 Italian troops in garrison, and all Cohen had was his service weapon to fight them.
Instead, he was in for the surprise of his life, and was crowned King of Lampedusa shortly after.
Cohen was supposed to be headed back to his home base on Malta in a Swordfish biplane but never quite made it. The pilot was flying with his two-man crew, Sgt. Peter Tait, the navigator, and Sgt. Les Wright, the wireless operator and gunner, on a search and rescue mission over the Mediterranean Sea. Their instruments failed mid-flight and they got turned around, only to run out of fuel before realizing the island below was not Malta.
The plane had a “fit of gremlins,” as Cohen later described it. The only place he could land was on the Axis-held island of Lampedusa.
Luckily for the RAF pilot, there were no Nazis on Lampedusa, only Italians. The island had a big runway and the crew saw no option but to go in and land on it, consequence be damned. They could never reach Malta in their condition and it was better than crashing into the ocean. They also didn’t know that the Allies ran heavy bombing missions on the island. So when he crash landed on the island, it made for incredible headlines back in London. Not because of a terrific battle – it was the mass surrender of 4,300 Italians.
“As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us,” Cohen said. “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 got bold and asked to see the island’s commandant. As they moved toward the commandant’s villa, another Allied air raid began. The RAF pilot began to surmise the Italians were sick of getting bombed and really were ready to surrender.
“They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender,” he said. “They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”
So Cohen refueled and took off for the Allied base in Tunis to give the RAF the news. Upon hearing it, the RAF, the newspapers, London society, and even the British Jewish population raved about the new “King of Lampedusa.”
Cohen’s story was immediately picked up and turned into a play and a musical. Hollywood even wanted to make a movie of the event as soon as possible. News of the debacle even reached the ears of Nazi propagandists in Berlin, who threatened to give the Jews in London’s East End “a visit from the Luftwaffe.”
The real life of Sydney Cohen doesn’t have a happy ending, no matter how the play, musical, and/or feature film turned out. Cohen disappeared while flying a mission near the Straits of Dover in August 1946. Neither his body nor the wreckage of his plane were ever located and no one knows exactly what happened to him.