AN EXTRAORDINARY ENCOUNTER
On the night of October 28th 1941 an extraordinary encounter took place off the Libyan coast involving two brave Old Pangbournians. Both went on to be awarded DSOs and both were killed during the war, one at sea and the other in a German concentration camp.
At the time of the chance meeting Mike Cumberlege (19-22) was a 36-year old Lt. RNR in command of a secret para-naval force assembled by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) to wage subversive war in the Aegean following the German invasion and occupation of Greece in May 1941. By October he was in charge of two caiques, HMS Escampador and HMS Hedgehog. Lt. Michael Willmott (22-25) was the resourceful, decisive 33-year old captain of a Royal Navy T-class submarine HMS Talisman returning to Alexandria after a reconnaissance patrol along the Cyrenaican coast.
Visibility and sea conditions were poor. Because of this Hedgehog was towing the smaller Escampador towards Crete where the two boats were to land arms and stores for the local resistance movement and collect “stragglers” – servicemen who had been left behind on the island in the precipitous Allied evacuation in May. At 10.18pm while travelling on the surface Talisman ran into what its Log, written by Willmott, describes as “a one-masted motor lighter (Hedgehog) armed with a stern quick-firing gun,” and a “motor lifeboat” (Escampador) on course 330 degrees at 7 knots in position 32 degrees 18’ N, 27 degrees 55’E.
After the challenge, which was answered correctly, the motor lighter skipper (Cumberlege) announced their destination as Crete. Willmott then realised that the little caique was on a clandestine mission and ordered his crew to secrecy. Talisman went on its way. Willmott later described one of the two occupants of “the lifeboat” as “a most suspicious-looking character of appearance similar to ‘Electric Whiskers’” – a reference to the famous appearance of Annibale Bergonzoli, the fascist commander of Italian forces in North Africa, who had been captured by the Allies earlier in 1941. The “character” most likely was ‘Captain Boreas’ (real name Stefano Delavasili). Only weeks before Boreas had made an amazing escape from Crete in a decrepit, leaking boat and immediately volunteered to return to the island with the para-naval force. He became a firm ally of Cumberlege, a piratical figure himself with his buccaneering ways and one ear pierced with a gold ring, who was always on the lookout for recruits with flair and panache and a fighting spirit.
Escampador and Hedgehog reached the coast of Crete, delivered their cargoes and returned to Alexandria safely together with nineteen refugees. Talisman, too, returned to Alexandria and subsequently undertook a succession of increasingly hazardous and incident-filled patrols in the Mediterranean during the rest of the year. After the fifth patrol, during which the submarine hit an Italian torpedo boat, sank a 15,000 ton enemy supply ship and got into a surface fight with a U-boat which ended with the German submarine sinking directly under Talisman, Willmott was awarded the DSO “for outstanding skill, courage and devotion to duty.” He had taken over command of Talisman in early March 1941, been described by his Admiral as “unorthodox” and been involved in two Boards of Inquiry for various tactical errors while on convoy duty in the northwest Atlantic so the medal must have been a welcome turn of events. Cumberlege made three trips to occupied Crete and had previously made an abortive attempt to blow up the Corinth Canal as German forces advanced through Greece. His exploits earned him the first of two DSOs – this one “for daring and enterprise.”
It must be doubtful if Cumberlege and Willmott knew each other. Cumberlege had left Pangbourne the term before Willmott arrived. Yet it is possible. Both had served for years in the 1920s and 1930s as officers in the Royal Naval Reserve and gone on lengthy training voyages and courses with the Royal Navy. Both were RN officers based in Alexandria. And the NCP was a very young school, founded in 1917. Most of the early entrants knew each other, especially those who ended up in the RN, because of a love of the sea or sailing and shared an identity as pioneers in the initial era of the Nautical College.
Sadly, this is not a story with a happy ending. Cumberlege, after further hair-raising exploits, was captured in Greece in May 1943 trying again to blow up the Corinth Canal. Treated as a saboteur, not a prisoner-of-war, by the Nazis he was taken to Mauthausen concentration camp and severely tortured before spending twentyone months in solitary confinement in Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. He was executed in February/March 1945 as the war was ending. His second DSO was awarded posthumously to his widow in 1946. Willmott undertook more patrols in the Mediterranean through 1942 until September 18th when Talisman was lost with all five officers and fifty-eight ratings having, in all probability, hit a mine in the Sicilian Channel.
by Robin Knight (56-61)