Archived Lot

Date of Auction: 19th September 2003

Sold for £16,000

Estimate: £10,000 - £15,000

The excessively rare ‘Benghazi Raid’ ‘L’ Detachment S.A.S. Military Cross group of eight awarded to Major W. J. “Bill” Cumper, Royal Engineers and 1st S.A.S. Regiment, explosives expert and canoe specialist, who later took part in the raid on the Greek Island of Simi in July 1944

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, 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, generally good very fine (16) £10000-15000

Footnote

M.C. London Gazette 14 October 1943. The recommendation 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.’

Mention in Despatches London Gazette 30 December 1941.

William John “Bill” Cumper, one of the great characters to emerge from the founding-cast of ‘L’ Detachment, S.A.S., was born in Hawick, Scotland and enlisted in the British Army as a boy soldier in January 1924. The advent of hostilities found him serving as a Lance-Sergeant in No. 1 Field Squadron, R.E., and he was granted an Emergency Commission in the rank of Lieutenant in May 1941, being posted to 143 Field Park Squadron. Having worked his men up to combat efficiency, he sailed with them for the Western Desert to join 7th Armoured Division, and won a ‘Mention’ before the end of 1941.

In May 1942, Cumper, a ‘tall, erect 16-stone man … who asked no quarter and gave none to his men’, was posted to ‘L’ Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, David Stirling’s infant S.A.S., as an explosives specialist, and quickly established a reputation for eccentricity. John Lodwick, a fellow cast member, recalls in his Raiders from the Sea how Cumper enjoyed deflating the ego of fellow Officers. When he walked into the ex-ranker’s office for the first time, still wearing the rather garish and ostentatious uniform insignia of 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 S.A.S. memoirs and histories recall comparable occasions, one in particular involving a rather grandee-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 Malcolm James 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 team.

For his own part, as recounted in Alan Hoe’s authorised biography, Stirling reckoned that Cumper was ‘the best and most ingenious explosives man’ ‘L’ Detachment had. A ‘likeable chap,’ Stirling continued, ‘he took on all the explosives training and improved our techniques tremendously.’ Fitzroy Maclean, in his Western Approaches, clearly agreed, having himself come under Cumper’s instruction: ‘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.’

And, as evidenced by his M.C. for the famous Benghazi raid, Cumper was never adverse to joining the sharp end of ‘L’ Detachment’s activities, famously being heard to observe on the eve of such operations, “Not for me, mate; I’m too old. What time do we start?” Indeed it was Cumper who 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 Seekings at the wheel, amidst heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, he told the latter, undoubtedly within earshot of his C.O., “If this is the bloody S.A.S. 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 receiving a broadside when he was unceremoniously ejected from the back; they all made it home.

But the obvious pressures of operating far behind enemy lines never dampened Cumper’s irrepressible humour – nor the famous and harrowing six-jump parachute course attended by all would-be S.A.S. officers. Cutting up a pair of parachute wings into six pieces, he would enter the Mess after each jump 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?” 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.”

Undoubtedly to the regret of the colourful cast of characters who constituted the clandestine inhabitants of Cairo, Cumper’s expertise was eventually shifted to H.Q. Raiding Forces in September 1943, with whom he served until September of the following year, an appointment that witnessed further clandestine operations - no less than 30 of them, according to Simiomata – A Greek Note Book 1944-45. Among them was the raid on the Greek island of Simi 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 …’

Cumper, who was re-employed in the S.A.S. between August 1945 and January 1946, prior to returning to regular duties with the R.E., was finally released from military service in December 1948 in the honorary rank of Major, having been awarded his L.S. & G.C. Medal the previous March. Tragically, having retired to Rhodesia, he died suddenly of a stroke at Bulawayo in December 1954, leaving a widow and a son - the latter’s godfather was David Stirling.

The group is sold with a good quantity or 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.