A WWII L Detachment S.A.S. Military Cross group awarded for Operation BIGAMY, the 1942 raid on Benghazi

SAS Bill Cumper medal group

Medals and awards to Major W. J. “Bill” Cumper, Royal Engineers and 1st S.A.S. Regiment. Included are his Military Cross, G.VI.R. (reverse officially dated ‘1943’ and additionally inscribed ‘Major W. J. Cumper, R.E.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, clasp, 8th Army; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals, with M.I.D. oak leaf; General Service 1918-62, 1 clasp, Palestine 1945-48 (Major W. J. Crumper (M.C.) R.E.) note spelling of surname; Regular Army L.S. & G.C., G.VI.R., 1st issue (2.Lieut. W. J. Cumper, (M.C.) R.E.), together with officers’ bullion SAS parachutist wings, Free French (SAS) parachutist wings, ‘1st S.A.S.’ shoulder title, Greek Sacred Squadron bronze badge, cloth and bullion Greek Service badge, 1st pattern SAS Association enamelled badge tie clip. Photo: Dix Noonan Webb

This is a rare and significant early Special Air Service Military Cross group that was awarded to Major W. J. “Bill” Cumper, Royal Engineers and 1st SAS Regiment who won the MC as a result of the famous L Detachment SAS raid on Benghazi in 1943. It was sold at auction in 2003, to an unidentified buyer, achieving a hammer price of £16,000.

Studio portrait of 202597 Major William John (Bill) Cumper MC MiD 1 SAS (HQ)

Studio portrait of 202597 Major William John (Bill) Cumper MC MiD 1 SAS (HQ)

William John “Bill” Cumper, an early member of ‘L’ Detachment, Special Air Service, was born in Hawick, Scotland and enlisted in the British Army as a boy soldier in January 1924. When war was declared in 1939, he was serving as a Lance-Sergeant in No. 1 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers. In May 1941 he was promoted as an Emergency Commission to the rank of Lieutenant and posted to 143 Field Park Squadron R.E. Soon he deployed to the Western Desert to join the 7th Armoured Division and was Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) in the London Gazette of 30 December 1941.

 In May 1942, Cumper, a ‘tall, erect 16-stone man … who asked no quarter and gave none to his men’, was recruited to David Stirling’s still fledgling  ‘L’ Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade as an explosives specialist, where he quickly established a reputation for eccentricity. John Lodwick, a fellow L Detachment member, recalls in his book Raiders from the Sea how Cumper enjoyed deflating the ego of fellow Officers. When Lodwick walked into the former enlisted man’s office for the first time, still wearing the rather garish and ostentatious uniform insignia of 12 Commando, his previous unit, Cumper shouted “My God, look out, the Commandos are here!” and dived for his captured Luger, attempting to shoot out one of the office lights.

Several SAS memoirs and histories recall similar occasions, one in particular involving a rather delicate looking Guards Officer who entered the unit’s Mess and ordered up a cup of tea. Lieutenant Cumper immediately sat down beside him, a detonator apparently tucked behind his ear, and loudly hailed a waiter with “Come ‘ere China, yer lazy rat!” And when the waiter had come, “Cup o’char, please, same as the officer”. As L Detachment medical officer, Malcolm James (Pleydell) goes on to explain in his Born of the Desert, With the S.A.S in North Africa, ‘He would step in where angels feared to tread and carry it off every time … Bill came from the ranks; he knew it, rejoiced in it, and pushed it straight in front of your face to see how you would take it.’ As it transpired, the Guards Officer took it pretty well, and he became a successful member of the unit.

When Cumper attended the six-jump parachute course, which was required training for all SAS soldiers, Cumper cut up a set of the parachute wings into six pieces and after each jump would enter the Mess with another small piece stitched onto his tunic. And the arrival of the S.A.S’s cap badge with its “Who Dares Wins” motto was simply greeted with “Oo’ cares oo’ wins?”

1 sas officers group may 1943_

1 SAS Officers. Nahariya, Palestine May 1943. Left to Right – E.L.W. Francis, W. Cumper, P. Gunn, R.V. Lea Photo by Paddy Mayne

Then there was the night an anxious but super-efficient David Stirling had harangued his gathered Officers about everything being ready for a pending operation. Afterwards looking up from his papers, he asked when the moon would rise. Cumper, having already answered in the affirmative to a string of equipment queries, mockingly apologised, “Sorry, sir, I forgot to lay that on.”

Recruited for his knowledge of explosives, Alan Hoe, a former SAS soldier (1960-80), friend and authorised biographer of SAS founder David Stirling says in his book that Stirling believed Cumper was ‘the best and most ingenious explosives man’ ‘L’ Detachment had. A ‘likeable chap,’ Stirling said, ‘he took on all the explosives training and improved our techniques tremendously.’ Another L Detachment officer, Fitzroy Maclean having also come under Cumper’s instruction wrote in Eastern Approaches,

Soon it became clear we had a remarkable acquisition. In addition to his knowledge of explosives, Bill had a gift for repartee which pricked anything approaching pomposity as though with a pin. He was never bad-tempered and never at a loss … Bill had become an important part of our lives.

Members of the ‘French Squadron SAS’ (1ere Compagnie de Chasseurs Parachutistes) during the link-up between advanced units of the 1st and 8th armies in the Gabes-Tozeur area of Tunisia. Previously a company of Free French paratroopers, the French SAS squadron were the first of a range of units ‘acquired’ by Major Stirling as the SAS expanded. Bill Cumper was involved in training these soldiers for SAS operations and was known for the repoire he developed with the French troops. Their distinctive wing, which also forms part of the group sold by DNW can be seen on the breasts of some of these men. Photo: IWM collection. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125573

Bill Cumper was not just responsible for explosives training and eagerly participated in operations, being famously observed stating on the eve of one ‘activity’ as saying “Not for me mate; I’m too old. What time do we start?” These included Operation Bigamy (sometimes also incorrectly referred to as Operation Snowdrop), the raid on Benghazi in September 1942 where Cumper actually led ‘L’ Detachment to the very gates of the enemy’s Benghazi positions, for, having crawled around in the dark to investigate the surrounding mines, he went forward and unhitched the bar on the road-block, facetiously announcing, as the bar swung skyward, “Let battle commence”. It did. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when all hell broke loose. Quickly hot-footing it to Stirling’s jeep, with the faithful Reg Seekings at the wheel, amidst heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, he told the latter, undoubtedly within earshot of his CO, “If this is the bloody SAS you can keep it, you crazy bastard.” In fact, transport that night became a serious problem, the three leading jeeps quickly being marked by the enemy’s fire.

Cumper eventually alighted upon another, the driver, Sgt Bob Bennett receiving a broadside when he was unceremoniously ejected from the back as recounted in Philip Warner’s book, The Special Air Service,
‘(Cumper) leapt on to the one driven by Sergeant Bennet
(sic); his hold was not very secure and after a while he fell off. Bennet stopped the jeep and ran back. Cumper was lying in the middle of the road, head supported on arm as if on a vicarage lawn. All around was an inferno of fire and explosion. As Bennet came up – to find Cumper unhurt – Cumper said: ‘Now, look here Bennet, if that’s the way you treat your passengers I’m going to stay here and have a nice quiet read until you’ve learnt to drive properly.’

1st sas jeeps north africa

A jeep patrol of the SAS out in the desert. Photograph: IWM collection. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205220478

They made it back safely and it was for the Benghazi raid that Cumper received his Military Cross (MC) which was gazetted on 14 October 1943. The recommendation for the award states,

‘On 14 September 1942, the 1st S.A.S. Regiment raided Benghazi. From information received on the previous day it was believed that the Benghazi garrison had fortified their position by mines, wire and other entanglements. These obstructions to a night raiding party without artillery or tanks might have proved disastrous. Captain Cumper volunteered to lift the mines and clear a way through the entanglements and so lead the raiding party in. He picked a way which avoided mines and got the party to within thirty yards of the enemy’s positions. He carried on and managed to open the gate which allowed the attacking force to get at the enemy. All through the operation, Captain Cumper’s cheerfulness and bravery had a magnificent effect on the morale of the troops, and, although faced with an extremely dangerous and difficult job, he showed no regard for his own safety.’

In September 1943, Cumper was transferred to HQ Raiding Forces with whom he served until September of the following year, an appointment that witnessed further clandestine operations with the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), 2 SAS and Special Boat Squadron (SBS). According to Richard Capell’s 1946 book,  Simiomata: A Greek Note Book 1944-45, Cumper participated in no less than 30 operations during this time. Among them was the raid conducted by the SBS and Greek Sacred Squadron on the island of Symi (Operation Tenement) in July 1944. John Lodwick recalls how Cumper set about assorted demolition work once the German garrison had been brought to heel:
‘General demolitions were begun by Bill Cumper and installations as varied as 75mm gun emplacements, diesel fuel pumps and cable-heads, received generous charges. Ammunition and explosive dumps provided fireworks to suit the occasion. In the harbour, nineteen German caiques, some displacing as much as 150 tons, were sunk. At midnight the whole force sailed, the prisoners being crowded into two ‘Ems’ barges …’

Captain Bill Cumper

Captain Bill Cumper MC, MiD

Bill Cumper returned to the SAS between August 1945 and January 1946, prior to returning to regular duties with the Royal Engineers and was finally discharged from military service in December 1948 with the honorary rank of Major, having been awarded his Long Service & Good Conduct medal (L.S. & G.C.) the previous March. He moved to Rhodesia with his wife and died tragically after a stay in a prison hospital in December 1954. He had suffered a stroke, been paralysed and unable to speak, but had been turned away from the Salisbury General Hospital because his admission papers were signed for a hospital 300 miles away. Critically ill, with his Greek born wife not allowed to nurse him at home, he was sent to the Salisbury Gaol where he was locked up in the prison hospital without attendants other than the guard. He died shortly after his release. He left behind a widow and son, the latter’s godfather being David Stirling.

Bill Cumper’s medal group is another significant special forces medal group that has been sold by the auction house, Dix Noonan Web. The lot included his Military Cross, G.VI.R. reverse officially dated ‘1943’ and additionally inscribed ‘Major W. J. Cumper, R.E.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, clasp, 8th Army; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals, with M.I.D. oak leaf; General Service 1918-62, 1 clasp, Palestine 1945-48 (Major W. J. Crumper (M.C.) R.E.) note spelling of surname; Regular Army L.S. & G.C., G.VI.R., 1st issue (2.Lieut. W. J. Cumper, (M.C.) R.E.) this with official corrections, together with Greek commemorative Campaign Star 1941-45 (Land Operations), officers’ bullion SAS wings, Free French wings, cloth cap badge and ‘1st S.A.S.’ shoulder title, Greek Sacred Squadron bronze badge, cloth and bullion Greek Service badge, 1st pattern SAS Association enamelled badge, this numbered ‘538’, and similar tie-pin Also included was a quantity of original documentation, including M.I.D. Certificate dated 30 December 1941 (Lieutenant, Royal Engineers), War Office forwarding letter for M.C., named certificate for Greek Sacred Squadron badge, various official wartime ‘flimsies’ concerning his M.I.D., registration of marriage (Lieut. W. J. Cumper, “L” Det. S.A.S. Bde, Combined Training Centre, 22 Aug. 1942) and a Movement Order, official copy recommendation for M.C., several original photographs and news cuttings.

SAS Cumper death Burton Observer 13 January 1955

Article in the Burton Observer newspaper of 13 January 1955 reporting on the death of Major Bill Cumper MC MID

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The Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ Qualification badge – 1941 – 45

In 1941, fearing that the Japanese may launch an invasion of southern Africa from Vichy French controlled Madagascar, the OC of B Coy Rhodesian African Rifles, Captain Alan Gardiner Redfern was tasked with training a commando force of Rhodesians that could undertake guerrilla operations should an invasion occur.

Redfern was a good choice, a competent bushman who as a young school-boy had spent his weekends and school holidays camping out in the veldt with a native companion and carrying very little apart from a rifle, blanket some mealie meal (maize flour) and condensed milk. He was proficient in both the main African languages, Chishona and Sindebele and prior to the war worked in the Native Department (later renamed Internal Affairs) of the Southern Rhodesia Civil Service.

lrdg-southern-rhodesia-commando-redfern.jpg

Captain (T/Maj) Alan Gardiner Redfern MBE, founder of the Southern Rhodesia Commando. Redfern was KIA in November 1943 whilst commanding B Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group on operations in the Aegean.

Recruits for the Southern Rhodesia Commando were a mix of volunteers and conscripts, many of whom were drawn from the farming community and as such already well versed with living in the bush. The unit was conceived as a part-time cadre, not as a regular unit, able to work behind enemy lines should the need arise. Training occurred over an initial period of six weeks with an emphasis on bushcraft, small unit guerrilla operations and a demolitions course which was conducted near Gwelo. After the initial training, the soldiers returned to their usual occupations although regular on-going training took place.

Southern Rhodesia Commando

Sheet brass Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge awarded to successful participants of Redfern’s commando course. This badge was intended to be worn on the right shoulder sleeve, although photographs of Rhodesian LRDG members who completed the course show it being worn on the left shoulder sleeve. This badge is stamped with the serial number 229, but I do not know the identity of the original owner. Collection: Julian Tennant

The men who finally completed the course were awarded the ‘Cobra’ badge as recognition of their qualification. The badge depicts a cobra poised to strike within a circlet containing the words “Southern Rhodesia Commando”.  Each badge was individually numbered and were made from sheet brass by Keays Gold and Silversmiths in Salisbury.  The award was made in two sizes, the larger version, shown above, and worn on the uniform, plus a miniature silver lapel badge (also numbered) for wear on civilian attire. In an unpublished manuscript shown to me by fellow collector, Eric Crépin-Leblond, the uniform of the Southern Rhodesia Commando is described as follows,
The No. 1 Dress uniform for part-timers who successfully completed the course was: Bush hat, turned up on the left side, pinned with the Lion and tusk badge. Khaki bush shirt, with curved brass ‘Rhodesia’ shoulder titles; ‘cobra’ badge in brass worn on the right sleeve below the shoulder. ’04 web belt. Trousers. Veldschoen.

Rhodesia SRC mini

Miniature version of the Southern Rhodesia Commando qualification for wear on civilian shirt lapels. These badges were made from silver sheet and also individually numbered. This particular badge, number 120, was sold via auction in 2010 to an unidentified collector in Canada.

Little more is known about the Commando cadre and it is thought to have numbered less than 500 qualified members before it was disbanded in 1945. Many of the men from the Southern Rhodesia Commando subsequently volunteered to serve with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), forming S1 Patrol. On the nominal roll/database page of the the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society  there is a small photo of Sergeant Hubert ‘Hughie’ Hein where he can be seen wearing the ‘Cobra’ badge on his left shoulder. I believe that this photo is also shown on page 110 in Craig Fourie and Jonathan Pittaway’s book LRDG Rhodesia but unfortunately I don’t have a copy to confirm if it is the same picture. Training with the Southern Rhodesia Commando is mentioned by some of the Rhodesian members of the LRDG in Pittaway’s subsequent book Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak which also includes a picture of Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan who, once again is wearing his ‘Cobra’ on the left sleeve.  I can only surmise that the reason for the LRDG members wearing the badge on the left shoulder rather than the right as outlined in the original dress instruction, is because the same position on the right sleeve would have been reserved for their parachutist qualification wing. In both photographs it also appears that there was some kind of dark cloth used as a backing for badge but I have not yet identified the colour used.

LRDG Rhodesia Signalman John Kevan-Recovered

Rhodesian member of the Long Range Desert Group, Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan shown wearing the Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge on his left sleeve. Note the dark backing material used behind the badge. Source: Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak. by Jonathan Pittaway.

For his role in forming the Southern Rhodesia Commando, Redfern was awarded the M.B.E., which he accepted with the understanding that he could join the men that he had trained who had subsequently joined the LRDG. On 22 April 1943, Captain Redfern transferred from the KRRC, reverting to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant before taking over command of S1 Patrol (LRDG) once again as a Captain in May 1943.  On October 15 he was made OC of B Squadron, but was killed in action on the 12th of November 1943 during LRDG operations in the Aegean.

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