Sunderland-born Mordaunt Cohen, the UK's oldest Jewish war veteran, dies aged 102

Sunderland-born Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen, the most senior Jewish Second World War veteran in the UK, has died at the age of 102, his family have announced.

Sunday, 17th March 2019, 11:44 am
Updated Sunday, 17th March 2019, 12:23 pm
Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen, the UK's oldest Jewish war veteran, has died at the age of 102.

He passed away at the Royal Free Hospital in London the early hours of yesterday morning. He is survived by his two children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Saul Taylor, his oldest grandson, made the announcement on Facebook on behalf of the family, saying “our very special father, grandfather and great grandfather, Lt. Col. Mordaunt Cohen MBE, passed away peacefully during the night.”

Lt. Col. Mordaunt Cohen received an MBE in the 2018 New Year Honours list. He receivedhis award fromthe Queen at Buckingham Palace.

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He told Jewish News: “Our whole family have always been and will always be proud of him and his achievements. We are all benefiting today, as a direct result of what he and his comrades did for this country, all those years ago. He was one of a kind, an extraordinary man and true fighter.”

Lt. Col. Cohen was brought up in Sunderland and qualified as a solicitor in 1938 at the age of 21.

Shortly after this, a Jewish Refugee Hostel was established in Sunderland.

He learned from the refugees the great suffering that was going in Europe, so in 1940 decided to enlist, rather than wait to be called up. He felt it was his duty to serve his country and his people.

Lt Col. Cohen was awarded an honorary fellowship by Sunderland University, for his distinguished military service, his contributions to the city and the university.

He started his Army service as a gunner, but his leadership skills were recognised early, and in 1942, after receiving his commission as an officer, he was sent to Nigeria to command a unit which was part of the Royal West African Frontier Force, which was 80% Muslim troops.

Lt. Col. Cohen left Nigeria in 1943 and headed for Bombay and onwards to Burma, where the war was particularly brutal, and he had to cope with extreme climatic conditions.

As part of the ‘forgotten army’ he continued fighting the Japanese after the war ended in Europe, and finally returned back home to Sunderland in December 1945.

He was subsequently mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service in the Burma campaign, and in 1953 received the Territorial Decoration (TD), for long dedicated military service, following a period in the Territorial Army.

Resuming his legal career, he threw himself into community life in Sunderland. For the next 45 years, he became one of the most well-known figures in the town, serving in many areas.

He was chairman of the Sunderland Education Committee, and in 1969 was appointed founding chairman of the new Sunderland Polytechnic, which became Sunderland University in 1992.

It was in 1992 that Sunderland University honoured his late wife, Judge Myrella Cohen QC, the first female judge in the North East and third in the UK, by awarding her an Honorary Doctorate of Law.

In November 2017, Lt. Col. Cohen was awarded an honorary fellowship by the University, for his distinguished military service, his contributions to the city of Sunderland and to the university.

In retirement, Lt. Col. Cohen took on the national chairmanship of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen (AJEX) and was then made its Vice President.

For about 60 years he led the No 1 Battalion at the AJEX Parade on Whitehall. He only stepped down from the role three years ago due to difficulties in walking the required distance, but still played an active part in the parade.

Lt. Col. Cohen was well aware of his place as one of the last surviving senior officers who served in the Second World War, and one of the last few who could tell the story first-hand.

He spent much of his time telling his military story, and over many years was one of the most active and high-profile veterans, speaking all over the country.

He saw it as his duty to inform young people of what life was like in the war, and the importance of remembering those who sacrificed their lives so future generations may live in peace.

He was particularly passionate of teaching about the Jewish contribution to the war effort, with 60,000 Jews serving in the Second World War. All of this was done with dignity and a profound sense of duty.

For the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, Lt. Col. Cohen produced a series of online videos, to educate people about his time fighting the Japanese. The main video was viewed more than 170,000 times and helped raise awareness of this important day.

It was this work, educating people about the war, which led to him receiving an MBE in the 2018 New Year Honours list. He received his award from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on June 1, 2018.