Obituary – Major Derek Cooper, MC, OBE, World War II hero who espoused the Palestinian cause

There was no more improbable sight in Beirut during the brutal Israeli siege of 1982 than a graceful and elegant English couple scrabbling through bombed buildings to rescue injured children. Derek Cooper was 70 and his second wife Pamela 72 when they went to Lebanon to alleviate some of the suffering that Ariel Sharon’s onslaught was inflicting on its Palestinian and Lebanese victims. With his cavalry officer’s moustache and lanky, tall form, Cooper represented to many Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese what was best about his country. His sense of decency and fair play – like his puckish humour – never deserted him.

Cooper, who battled his way across France and Belgium to Germany in 1944 and won a Military Cross in Palestine, spent most of his post-military life attempting to undo the damage he believed Britain had done to the Palestinian Arabs. His devotion to his regiment and then to the Palestinians was superseded only by the love he bore Pamela. To his unbearable anguish, she predeceased him last year.
George Derek Cooper was born in 1912 in Bromley, Kent, the third of four children of Stanley Cooper and the former Clara Tilling. The Coopers were gentlemen printers and the Tilling family owned one of London’s largest horse-drawn bus companies that made the transition to motor-drawn omnibuses by 1914. His father was killed while serving with the Royal West Kents at Jhansi, India, when Derek was only three. Two “Muhammadan” soldiers had run “amok” and killed five Britons, including Captain Cooper – a legacy that failed to make his son anti-Muslim.
At the age of seven, Derek was sent to board at Kent House School in Eastbourne and then to Eastbourne College. His mother married her husband’s old comrade from India, Major George Dominic Heyland, who moved the family to Ballintemple, his family property in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In Ireland, Derek developed his love of fishing, caring for the land and raising animals.
In 1930, Derek Cooper became an apprentice civil engineer with the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Company at Greenwich. The company sent him in 1932 to the British Mandate Territory of Palestine for the construction of a new harbour at Haifa. Cooper displayed none of the usual colonial prejudices against the Arabs and Jews among whom he worked. In 1933, when Palestinian Arabs protested against the increased Jewish immigration from Europe that they sensed would soon displace them, he was enlisted as a Special Constable. Issued a baton, he was proud that he did not use it. When the port was complete in 1934, he returned to Ireland to run the estate for his mother, whose second husband had died. In Ireland, he met and married Pamela Armstrong-Lushington-Tulloch in 1937. They had two children, Jennifer-June in 1939 and Michael in 1944.
At the urging of friends in the Irish Guards, Cooper took a commission as 2nd Lt, or ensign, in the Guards in October 1936 and was mobilised for active service on 2 September 1939. He worked to construct the Brown’s Line defence against the expected German invasion after the fall of France in 1940. Seeking more active engagement, he volunteered for the Second Household Cavalry Regiment and landed in Normandy on 13 July 1944. His squadron immediately engaged German forces at Herouvillette and Caen.
1st Lt Cooper wrote in his diary for 3 September of an encounter at Tournai in Belgium, when Belgian civilians covered his tanks and armoured cars in “two feet of flowers” and two girls in Belgian national dress offered him a tray of champagne.
We eventually broke away and round the next corner were in time to join in with one of our tanks blazing away on three enemy half-track armoured cars down the main street at about 20 yards’ range, with civilians cheering from their doorways and windows – such an unnatural strange situation with all the flowers and wine, I didn’t feel very happy or comfortable about it. Seven Germans were killed and the remainder scattered and surrendered.
This was followed by the battle for Nijmegen Bridge, during which Cooper remained at a forward outpost for 24 hours under fire to direct artillery against German positions on the other side of the river. He fought in Germany until VE Day. In 1946, he was transferred with the Life Guards to Egypt and the next year to Palestine.
Service in Palestine undoubtedly changed his life. In April 1947, while Zionist forces were massacring Palestinian Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, Cooper wrote, “We tried to send a relief force but the roads were blocked and there was heavy fighting in the area . . .” When the Zionists attacked Jaffa two weeks later, the British government ordered a defence of the city. Cooper led a convoy of armoured cars and tanks, with infantry support, into Jaffa. “It was street and house fighting and therefore slow, going on for several days,” Cooper wrote. Although the British delayed the expulsion of Jaffa’s Arab population, the exercise seemed pointless and people were being killed or wounded unnecessarily. It was obvious now that the Jews would take Jaffa as soon as the British withdrew. Most of the civilian population had by now left, but to make sure, loudspeakers from the Jewish side announced “get out with the British, remember Deir Yassin”.
Most of Jaffa’s Arabs left when the British withdrew on 10 May 1948, for which Cooper wrote that he “felt a sad helplessness.” None the less, he received the Military Cross for his actions there.
His final posting was as second-in-command of the regiment in Germany. The Duke of Marlborough, who served with him in the Middle East, Germany and Britain, wrote that Cooper “was a model regimental second-in-command: like a wise elder brother he maintained the regiment’s reconnaissance professionalism, was an enthusiastic supporter of the regiment’s pack of hounds, and modestly claimed that he only captained the regimental ski team because he was the senior officer present”. Cooper would have commanded the regiment had he not retired in 1953.
His first marriage had broken down, and his wife had married again. Derek then met Pamela Hore-Ruthven, whose husband, Patrick, son of the Earl of Gowrie, had been killed in Egypt during the war. She was living with her two young sons, Greysteil and Malise, at Windsor Castle, where her father-in-law, was deputy governor. Although the couple fell in love immediately, Pam’s religious convictions delayed her decision to marry a divorced man. After much anxiety and difficulty with the royal family, particularly the censorious Princess Alice of Athlone, Derek and Pam married in July 1952.
They moved to Dunlewy, Co Donegal, where they had just purchased a Regency lodge with about 4,000 acres of what Pam called “hills, lakes, streams and bog”. They settled there with their children for a life of farming, riding, fishing and Austrian ski holidays, until their idyll was interrupted by the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
With Hungarian refugees fleeing from the Soviet invasion, the charity Save the Children asked the Coopers to go to Austria to help. In a Land Rover bought for the purpose, they set up camp in Austria, aiding in the escape of Hungarians, as well as housing and feeding them when they arrived. In 1960 and 1961, they performed similar services for Palestinian refugees in Jordan. So impressive was their performance in both countries that Save the Children invited the Coopers to Iran, where they brought assistance to victims of the massive 1962 earthquake that killed 12,000 people and left another 22,000 without shelter. Five years later, they offered their services to Jordan in the humanitarian crisis caused by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that caused a second massive wave of refugees to flee Palestine.
In Amman, Derek Cooper directed the British Aid to Jordan Fund, the beginning of 25 years’ assisting Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. After conducting surveys of refugee conditions for Oxfam and the International Committee for Palestinian Human Rights, Derek Cooper was appointed OBE. The Coopers’ work on behalf of the Palestinians led Derek into open confrontation with the Israeli authorities, who detained and interrogated him.
In 1982, Derek and Pam Cooper went to Beirut to assist the Palestinian refugees whose camps were being bombarded throughout that summer’s invasion and culminated in the notorious massacres at Sabra and Shatila camps in September. Although both in their seventies by then, they made little of the risks they took and much of the plight of the Palestinians. They continued to work for the Palestinian cause in the years that followed, helping to establish the important charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). MAP was instrumental in treating wounded Palestinians in the mid-1980s during the Syrian-supported bombardment of the camps by the Shiite Amal militia, and also provided care to Palestinians in the occupied territories during the uprising of 1987 and after.
The Coopers moved into semi-retirement in Wiltshire in the 1990s, but they retained their commitment to justice for the Palestinians. When my ex-wife and I visited them near Tisbury, when they were in their eighties and nineties, we would usually find Derek fishing beside the river or, machete in hand, clearing brush to force a path to the woods. It was only when, in her last few years, Pam lost her eyesight that this most vibrant of couples began to slow down.
My best memories of him remain seeing him outside his old house in Ebury Mews. He usually awaited our arrival with a glass of champagne or port, when we were about to go together to a wedding or party. He was always making sure Pam was content, telling stories about Palestine or seeing to it that the glasses stayed full. He had charm, he had luck and he had courageous honesty. A self-effacing and gentle man, he was one of the best of a generation Britain will be poorer without.
Two books on his life appeared in 1997 – his Second World War diary, Dangerous Liaison; and John Baynes’s touching biography, For Love of Justice: the life of a quixotic soldier.
George Derek Cooper, army officer and campaigner: born Bromley, Kent 28 May 1912; MC 1948; OBE 1969; married 1937 Pamela Armstrong-Lushington-Tulloch (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1951), 1952 Pamela, Viscountess Ruthven of Canberra (née Fletcher, died 2006; two stepsons); died Amesbury, Wiltshire 19 May 2007.