The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 3 - June 1981

Was ‘Sos’ Cohen South Africa’s oldest fighting ‘Retread’?

by Major D.P. Tidy

Editor’s note: A ‘retread’ is the affectionate name given to old airmen who return to fly with the young, the term being derived from an old motor tyre that has been resurfaced. Major Tidy receives a fair amount of leg-pulling about being rather old for flying when he goes to the Border with his Citizen Force unit. Flying the Puma in 1978 he was thanked by a young medical officer passenger who remarked that it was the first time that he had been in a Puma. The reply was that this made two firsts because it was the first time Doug Tidy had flown a helicopter! The young doctor looked relieved when he saw that the regular pilot was to land the aircraft, but Doug reckons that at 58 he is a mere stripling compared with ‘Sos’ Cohen.

Lionel Frederick William Cohen was born in 1874 in England, but enlisted as a trooper at the age of 19 in South Africa. He fought in the Matabele Wars and led an itinerant existence until the Boer War, when he joined a ‘cloak and dagger’ commando on the Mozambique border.

After the Boer War, he became the Managing Director of the Rand Daily Mail in 1902, this paper having risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the Standard and Diggers’ News. In the summer of 1903 he dismissed an English journalist named Edgar Wallace who had been employed by the paper for a mere nine months. As the world knows he became one of the best-known writers of detective stories of all time.

Cohen took up ballooning but crashed financially and was ‘hammered’ by the Joharmesburg Stock Exchange. Many years later, when he had paid off all his debts, he re-applied for membership, was accepted, and then resigned!

After the financial crash he worked on the mines until World War I started in 1914. He again enlisted (at 40 years of age) as a trooper, and was commissioned in the 1st South African Horse in 1915. He transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service as an Observer, flying on BE2cs Voisins, and Farmans. He also served in ‘Co-force’ * was awarded a DSO and MC, and was three times mentioned in despatches.

[* Editor’s note. ‘Co-force’ was an armed intelligence ground formation.]

He returned to mining after World War 1 and joined the Stock Exchange in London in 1926. Joining the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1937, he was able to take up his commission therein in 1939 at the start of World War II, despite the fact that he was 65 years old.

He was given a job 'flying a desk’ at Coastal Command Headquarters, but managed to fly regularly, as Liaison Officer, in Lockheed Hudsons, Catalinas, Liberators, and Halifaxes.

Flying in a Sunderland that claimed a U-boat, carrying out a 21-hour patrol in a Catalina, wounded by German anti-aircraft fire during an attack on the Lutzow, and surviving a crash-landing in a Halifax, were all part of the day’s work to ‘Sos’, as he was always known in the Royal Air Force.

He flew on 69 operations and on 1st February 1944 was awarded the DFC a few days before his 70th birthday.

The citation stated that he was 58 . . . he had managed to subtract 12 years!

Wing Commander L.F.W. Cohen, DSO, MC, DFC, died in August 1960, aged 86, surely the oldest airman to fly on ‘ops’ in World War 11, or indeed, in any other war.

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