Mike Cumberledge SOE – Book by Robin Knight

Photographs – Book cover and author Robin Knight

The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberledge SOE by Robin Knight, published autumn 2018.

Review by Bridget Osborne

Mike Cumberledge was a wartime hero who was killed in the German concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Though recognized for his bravery with a Distinguished Service Order and medal bar, and with the Greek Medal of Honour, his story has not had much publicity, perhaps because he disappeared at the end of the war and was forgotten because no one knew the details of his death. Now Robin Knight has brought his story to light in the first biography of the man who as part of the Special Operations Executive served in undercover roles based in Egypt, at Alexandria, taking part in the fighting in Greece. He attempted to blow up the Corinth Canal, escaped from Crete, was wounded and returned to the island three times clandestinely. It was on his second attempt to attack the Corinth Canal (which gives access from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea, a vital strategic link) that he was captured.

Robin Knight has lived in Chiswick on an off since the 1970s, having spent most of his working life abroad as a foreign correspondent for the American publication US News and World Report, covering the dissident era in the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war in Eastern Europe, famine in Africa in the 1980s, the apartheid era in South Africa, war and conflict in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, the Balkan wars in the 1990s, general elections in the UK, presidential elections in the United States. He came across Mike Cumberledge when he was researching the history of the Nautical College Pangbourne, where they both went to school. While Robin’s parents had to pay back his bursary when he chose a career in journalism rather than a life at sea, Mike, who had been at the school nearly 40 years earlier, did what he was supposed to do and went into the Royal Naval Reserve.

Through a combination of meticulous research and lucky breaks Robin has been able to unearth a lot more detail of Mike Cumberledge’s life, both the charmed existence of the 1930s sailing expensive yachts around the world for rich Americans, enjoying literature and writing poetry and the high octane adventure of the war years. Crucially he has also been able to find out more about the truly awful circumstances of his imprisonment.

Photographs – Mike Cumberledge, Nancy Cumberledge, Mike at the helm of Landfall, 1939, Mike and Nancy on their wedding day 1936

Mike Cumberledge learned to handle all manner of different boats, initially in the Merchant Navy, and spent the 1930s in a charmed existence skippering yachts around the world mainly for rich Americans. It was the son of one of these owners, Walter Paine, who at the age of 93 came across Robin’s research and gave him a priceless cache of letters that Mike had written to his parents between 1938-42. Walter remembered sailing with Mike in the 1930s as a teenager.

Mike met and married his wife Nancy in 1936. They didn’t have much money but they both loved the itinerant life and the adventure of the sea. “Both loved the open-air life” writes Robin, “both were sociable to a fault, neither was hidebound by class or country, both were ‘outsiders’ and both were fearless sailors”. They set up home in Cap d’Antibes at a time when the place was a magnet for the rich and famous. ‘Everyone went there’ … ‘from Churchill and Valentino to Cole Porter and his Jazz Age friends, Picasso and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’. These years (1937 – 1939) were the only period of real domesticity in Mike Cumberledge’s life. His son Marcus was born in December 1938, one of a whole generation who never got to know their fathers.

It seems his wartime work started before the outbreak of war because pootling around the Mediterranean and North African coast in yachts was perfect cover for spotting hidden coves which might come in useful upon the outbreak of war. When the war actually started, after a period of frustration away from the action he was given the mission of blowing up the Corinth Canal. Cutting through the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow, steep sided canal, only 6.4 metres long, offered the Germans and Italians a shortcut to moving supplies in safety to eastern Greece, Turkey and North Africa.

In April 1941 Mike and his team scuttled a large rowing boat laden with depth charges in the canal, a magnetic mine timed to blow it up a few days later. ‘Displaying notable coolness’, having replaced the rowing boat with a dinghy off the stern of their boat Dolphin II, ‘Mike then disembarked from the ketch to pay to canal dues’. Of course he had to explain why his boat turned round and went back the way it came. ‘The port officers were very helpful’ Mike wrote in his own account of the attack. ‘I explained that I had been recalled to Athens. They were quite unsuspicious’.

Had the attack been successful it would have been a significant setback for the Axis forces, but it wasn’t as the charges didn’t go off, which Mike only found out weeks later.

Photographs – Escampador & Hedgehog in Crete, 1941, Escampador in hiding, Cretan reconnaissance crew, Taras Bulba-Borovets, 1941, drawing of torture at Mauthausen concentration camp.

Not knowing what was going on characterized quite a lot of his work in Crete. His team, local Greeks and Palestinian Jews among them, were fighting a rearguard action against the German invasion of the island.

‘All his ingenuity, doggedness, courage, leadership skills, and admiration for the Cretans and their history and culture came together in support of the desperate and ultimately hopeless Allied struggle to halt the German advance on the island. All around him, collapsing lines of communication, non-existent transport, broken Allied units, German and Italian air attacks, and shifting loyalties on the ground made his task more hazardous by the day. He insisted on remaining on Crete to the last possible moment before making his own escape. Most of the time he was acting on his own initiative; the Dolphin II was not equipped with radio and orders frequently never arrived or were lost or ignored or overtaken by events’.

Operating in the dark, without intelligence about how the war was going, they ran straight into trouble. Using the account of another member of the crew, Robin describes how their boat Dolphin II developed engine trouble and Mike was unaware that German parachutists had landed as he approached the harbour of Heraklion, until they were fired on and hit by machine gun fire. The trip back to Alexandria, holed up in a cave while they tried to repair the engine, transferring to another boat, heading for Libya without knowing whether it too had fallen to the Germans, dodging German aircraft by hiding under cliffs provided the excitement on which he seems to have thrived, but Mike was wounded and his cousin was killed. Subsequent trips to Crete to support the resistance were equally hair-raising.

His luck ran out when he led a team into enemy territory to make a second attempt on the Corinth Canal in January 1943. Robin details the many ways in which the attempt went wrong. It ended with the team of Operation Locksmith being taken captive and taken to Mauthausen concentration camp, where Mike was tortured. He was transferred to Sachsenhausen and spent twenty one months in solitary confinement. Sachsenhausen was a grim place of execution and torture and Mike and his team were not accorded the status of military prisoners, but treated as common criminals so they didn’t receive Red Cross parcels or letters and were subjected to the toughest of conditions and received the worst and smallest of food rations.

When Robin published a pamphlet about Mike as part of his history of Pangbourne Nautical College, miraculously it found its way to Ukraine, where a man called Andy Titov read it and contacted Robin with the information that Taras Bulba-Borovets, a Ukrainian prisoner who had survived the war, moved to Canada and written an account of his time in the Zellenbau wing of Sachsenhausen, had actually been held in the cell next door to that of Mike Cumberledge. Though no one actually knows for certain exactly when and how he met his death it’s clear he never left the camp. Taras Bulba-Borovets’ moving account, published in 1981, the year in which he died, describes Mike as ‘an extremely good companion in distress. Always cheerful’.

What an amazing spirit. He was posthumously awarded the DSO and Bar and the Greek Medal of Honour.

This meticulously researched and detailed account by Robin Knight: ‘The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberledge SOE’ is available from Amazon.

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