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The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE

05 Sep 23


(Fonthill – £25)

ISBN 978 1 78155 732 7

208 pages

Lt Cdr Mike Cumberlege DSO & Bar, RD, Greek Medal of Honour was clearly one of those naval officers who would never have survived in a peacetime navy, but was well suited to the more irregular fringes in wartime. As Ewan Southby-Tailyour says in his introduction, Mike Cumberlege was an SBS officer before the SBS was formed.

Mike Cumberlege was born in London in 1905.  His father rose to be a Rear Admiral & one of his father’s good friends was Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 1942. Admiral Godfrey took a significant interest in Mike Cumberlege’s career &, it is surmised, may well have ‘employed’ him from 1936 onwards. After Pangbourne, Cumberlege joined the Merchant Navy & progressed as far as second mate, before deciding to become a professional yachtsman. He was clearly a natural & skippered the famous Jolie Brise for her American owner from 1934-36, followed by the 71-foot ketch Landfall (also American-owned) up to the outbreak of war.  He had joined the RNR as a cadet on joining Pangbourne in 1919 & signed up as a Midshipman on leaving in 1922.[1] He continued his RNR training throughout the rest of the 30s & was promoted to Lieutenant in 1933. It was as the skipper of Landfall that he spent long periods in & around the Greek islands and in the Baltic. He sketched & took plentiful notes of places that a boat could anchor unobserved & of beaches suitable for landing.  It was this period that led to the assumption that he might well be working for DNI.

Cumberlege was stuck in Venice with the American flagged Landfall when the war broke out in September 1939. Finally, in December he managed to get away & sail her to Antibes where he left her & returned to London. On 25th January 1940, he was appointed to Marseilles for ‘contraband control duties’, an appointment that probably emanated from DNI. He did not enjoy this desk job & felt that he should be doing something more belligerent.  His wishes were granted in early 1941, when he returned to London to be briefed personally by Admiral Godfrey & sent on to Egypt in command of the Allied ‘para-naval force’ in the Aegean & eastern Med. He was in the Dodecanese on a ‘shake-down’ cruise when the Germans invaded Greece. In April, he made his first attempt to block the Corinth Canal, laying mines near to the railway bridge over the canal.  Unfortunately, the timers were defective & the mines failed to explode.  Two days later, the Germans overran the canal & just under three weeks later, they captured Crete.   After assisting with the evacuation of Allied troops, he settled into operations supporting SOE’s activities in the Greek islands – he returned to occupied Crete three times.

In May 1942, Mike Cumberlege was back in London & was tasked to make a second attempt at blocking the Corinth canal – Operation LOCKSMITH. Unfortunately, neither the preparation for nor execution of this operation went well & he & his whole team were captured. They ended up in Athens, in Italian hands &, just before the Italian surrender in September 1943, were handed to the SS. Evidence of what happened thereafter is patchy, but there seems to be no doubt that he was tortured & after 21 months of solitary confinement, he was eventually murdered in Sachsenhausen camp in April 1945.[2]

It is clear that a lot of research has gone into this book, which is, sadly, a bit ‘plodding’ in places. I have to admit that I left it twice for a week or so. That said, the author does have a good story to tell. Cumberlege was clearly an exceptional sailor & an inspiring leader – both in peace and war.


[1] According to the history of HMS Conway, in August 1917, the Admiralty seeking to increase the pool of cadets to the Royal Navy announced that cadets in Conway, Worcester and the newly opened shore establishment at Pangbourne were henceforth to be enrolled as Cadets RNR and thus entitled to wear the regulation uniform previously worn by midshipmen RNR.  This arrangement ceased in 1974, when HMS Conway closed, although students at Pangbourne College still wear naval uniform.

[2] In Ben Macintyre’s recent book Double Cross, about the D-Day spies, Cumberlege is described by someone who survived Sachsenhausen, as “a piratical Royal Navy officer with a gold earring”.