A COPP officer in Malta – A brief history of COPP and their operations from Malta.

An article written to commemorate the 80th Anniversary Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (1943-2023)

by Kurt Degabriele

COPP - The secret is uncovered

During the 1950s the first information about the Combined Operation Pilotage Parties (COPP) was officially approved for public access, uncovering years of military secrecy and top secret missions carried by a group of men unknown to the world’s modern military era. Since the start of World War 2, the idea of having a secret unit with beach reconnaissance capabilities was unheard of within the British Military; up until Nigel Clogstoun Willmott and Roger Courtney came into the picture.

Roger Courtney with his dog in 1943. (Special Forces Roll of Honour website © John Robertson)
Nigel-Clogstoun Willmott. (Stealthily by Night – Ian Trenowden)

Establishing a secret unit to infiltrate the enemy beaches

Both Roger Courtney and Nigel Clougstoun Willmott had one thing in common, they were both seeking to set up a unit that can secretly and stealthily infiltrate enemy beaches, retrieve geographical information and return safely back home to utilize the information for beach assaults and landings prior to an invasion. Being an avid canoeist, Courtney immediately suggested to Willmott that canoes were ideal for such missions. Willmott loved the idea and therefore got cracking on developing beach stalking skills in conjunction with the use of a canoe. To put their ideas into practice, Willmott and Courtney managed to get permission from higher authority, to carry out an ‘unofficial’ recce mission on the occupied island of Rhodes in 1941. Sailing via submarine and then continuing via canoe, the recce proved quite challenging and nearly fatal to both, however this was the first step towards bigger challenges for the years to come.

To cut a long story short Courtney was requested to set up the Special Boat Section (SBS) as an army commando and cater for most of their original ideas. Although this might have seemed the end for Willmott, he still tried to gain leverage from the Royal Navy’s top brass in London, insisting that a specialized beach reconnaissance unit was still required since aerial reconnaissance photography was not sufficient to provide a good 3D picture of beach geographical data.


Hayling Island yacht club

In 1942, Willmott started setting up the first model of COPP on paper with the aim of receiving official approval from higher authority. It was difficult on paper but it was even more difficult in practice to organize such a unit. Alas, in November 1942 the Operation Torch landings (North Africa allied landings) opened a window of opportunity for Willmott. With a few men at hand interested in being part of future COPP unit, they were again allowed to carry out beach reconnaissance missions on the beaches of North Africa. Due to poor training, lack of proper equipment and bad weather, the recce missions weren’t much successful, resulting in increased lack of interest from higher authority to help set up COPP. However, by the end of December 1942, the admiralty in London finally gave Willmott an official and formal approval to put COPP into full action and further recruit men into COPP. The reason for such a change in mind by the admiralty, was that the tide of war in the Mediterranean was favouring the allies and the next step was to prepare for the liberation of Europe. Plans for Operation Husky (that is, the allied invasion of Sicily) were already laid on the table and COPP was going to be part of it.

Officers joining the unit did so on voluntary basis. The dangers of serving in COPP were always presented prior to recruitment, advising that missions carried out were not for the faint hearted. Despite the latter, Willmott still managed to recruit a handful of men, some of whom were already close colleagues and did help Wilmott with trial recce missions in the past. Nigel requested that primarily Royal Navy Officers trained as navigators or hydrographers constitute COPP, however officers and ORs from other military branches (such as Army and SBS) did form part of COPP due to the multidisciplinary skills required. To maintain the unit’s activity and whereabouts secret, Willmott managed to requisition a yacht club house on Hayling Island (east of Portsmouth) offering the ideal training grounds for canoes and also being remote, away from public eye.

Hayling Island yacht club utilized as COPP Headquarters (Stealthily by night – Ian Trenowden)
Re-enactors from Malta Command WW2 Living History Group, portraying COPP in Malta together with a scratch built museum quality replica of a Mk1** canoe, which was utilized by COPP in 1943. Photo credits: Mario Mifsud

COPP dispatched to the Mediterranean

In January 1943, the first groups of COPP were dispatched to the Mediterranean as the Middle East groups (ME), based in Algiers & Alexandria. Other COPP groups were undergoing training at Hayling Island. The plan was to keep the ME groups based in the Mediterranean and conduct training, however the equipment required for their missions was still lacking and primitive. Their training was disrupted suddenly, when they were called to relocate to the island of Malta, after it was decided that ME COPP groups were to commence operations over Sicilian beaches. Groups from Alexandria were sent to Malta and COPP 3 & 4 were also dispatched to Malta. Initial beach reconnaissance missions from Malta were a fiasco, with a very high rate of casualties and poor outcomes. Nearly all the officers were lost, resulting in loss of highly vital naval officers. Willmott was shaken by the results, worried to the point that COPP would be shut down for good, especially after the doubtful results attained by the idea of beach reconnaissance formulated through the years. Lesson learnt, Willmott ensured that this time round training programmes were stepped up and better equipment was to be provided to all COPP teams prior to being dispatched for military operations. Missions from Malta continued further after COPP 3 was disbanded and amalgamated with COPP 4. COPP 5 and 6 were dispatched between April and May of 1943 to continue on the work of previous groups.

A pencil sketch of Valletta Grand harbour created by R N Stanbury. Extracted from Survey by Starlight, 1949.

Malta and COPP

This brings me to discuss COPP officer Ralph Neville Stanbury, a key figure in Malta’s military and COPP history. Stanbury was born in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India on September 14th 1917. He was the eldest son to a younger brother (Richard Vivian Macaulay Stanbury [1916-2008]) of Gilbert Vivian Stanbury (1891-1973) and Doris Marguerite Schmidt (1891-1975). Ralph arrived in the UK (from Durban, South Africa) via Balmoral Castle ship, on March 14th 1938, however prior to his arrival he had enlisted (in 1935) as a RN cadet and later achieved the rank of Lieutenant on 1st June 1939, as described in the navy list Volume II of July 1945 (Officers in order of seniority). Since the start of his RN carrier, Ralph underwent training on cruisers, battlecruiser (HMS Repulse) and destroyers, qualifying as a Navigation Officer (NO) and then commenced combined training at HMS Monck and HMS Quebec (1942-43). In February 1943 Ralph Neville joined COPP and his first deployment was Malta. On the 25th of May 1943, Stanbury left UK for Malta as the CO of COPP 5, joining the CO of COPP 6 Lt. Donald W. Amer, already stationed at Għajn Tuffieħa barracks(later both teams were stationed at HMS Talbot).

Survey by Starlight

Stanbury’s time in Malta is immortalized in his authobiographical publication Survey by Starlight (published 1949). In his chapters on Malta, Ralph offers the reader a sense of compassion and honour towards the islands, writing: ‘’I could not help but feel proud that I was British and that this battered little bastion of the Empire was to be the headquarters from which we should operate’’. Malta had just endured two years (1941-42) of harsh blitz, depleting its resources and quality of life. For Ralph the Maltese way of life was close to a biblical passage, as he frequently travelled through some of the villages and island’s outskirts, to Valletta. In Valletta he and some of his team members used to visit the submarine base, meeting with a naval officer to discuss when they would be heading out at sea to commence the reconnaissance operations. The whereabout of COPP in Malta was totally top secret, no one knew of them and they didn’t know much of what was happening around them, except that Sicily was the target.

In one of his chapters Stanbury writes about a motorcycle accident he experienced, whilst driving towards Valletta. After a child ran across the street, breaking off a massive crowd by the waterfront, he slid off his bike and injured his feet. After a Maltese policeman helped him to his feet, he and his colleage who was driving a few meters away from him, wondered why so many people where eagerly present in large numbers facing the Grand Harbour area. King George the IV had arrived in Malta (a Royal visit that took place on the 20th of June 1943) and both knew nothing of it. In Stanbury’s own words: ‘’We had received no news of the visit, which was not really surprising, considering the isolated  position of our camp. Both Andrews and I felt embarrased among all the flags and finery – clothed as we were in dusty khaki shirts and oil stained trousers. So we placed ourselves inconspicuously at the back of the multitude that was swarming on the pavements and overflowing on the roadways, and waited for the royal procession’’.

COPP 5 become operational

It took some time before COPP 5 became operational, giving time for both COPP teams to continue training and exploring life on the island. Stanbury describes the peacefulness and quiet starry nights spent at their Villa in Għajn Tuffieħa or at a hotel close by, killing time and eagerly waiting for something to happen. Like many other officers on the island, Ralph also described how he once got close to a Maltese girl that he met in Valletta and starting building a romance, which as expected didn’t last long after finally being called into action.


A group photo of COPP 5 in Hayling Island after completing their training programme. Ralph Neville Stanbury standing in the middle sporting a beard, acting CO (Stealthily by Night – Ian Trenowden)

Reconnaisance off Syracuse

Ralph Stanbury and his team had their fair share of the war, when on the 24th of June COPP5 commenced reconnaissance missions on the south coast of Syracuse. On the night of the 25th-26th June Stanbury together with Lt. ‘’Duggie’’ Denton (RNVR) carried out a recce at the mouth of the river Cassibile. The next night another recce was carried out on the beach of Avola by Stanbury and Capt. P D Matterson (RM). Last and third mission was carried out during the night of the 27th-28th June by Lt ‘’D’’ Denton and A/L Sea. AJ Thomas from COPP 5. Further missions were also carried out on the 24th of July, 26th July, on the night of the 29th-30th July and during the night of the 2-3rd August. Stanbury also writes that beach surveying was carried out from submarines, sailing close to the Sicilian coast and using the periscope he would observe beach geography, structures and obstacles present. He would then sketch the details out and return them to base for analysis. Nonethless to say, all missions were risky and hazardous, with very high risk of capture and things could go wrong anytime. Travelling in a submarine for long hours was in itself exhausting and therefore Stabury captures the distress and strain that all men of COPP had to undergo. One can go on writing a great deal about the details offered in Stanbury’s book but unfortunately word limit does not permit me to do so.

Operation Husky in full swing

When Operation Husky was in full swing, Stanbury and his colleauges from COPP 6 did more than just beach reconaissance and surveying. They were tasked with installing special beacon buoys twenty-four hours before the landings. These buoys would sink to the seabed and next day a special mechanism would relase them to the surface (moored to the bottom via a stout cable) to emit a radio signal, which was picked up by the approaching ships and landing craft for the invasion. Using canoes or motorboats, COPP 5 and 6 would provide guidance via Infra-red signalling equipment to approaching landing craft and ships, guiding landing parties to the right beach. After the Husky landings, Stanbury continued beach reconnaissance missions on Italian beaches for the preparation of the Salerno beach landings. The results acquired from Malta and in Italy were so positive that COPP were selected to lead the D-Day landings and provide the primary beach geographical data required, including Stanbury to act as a Staff Officer for the Juno beach. On the 7thDecember of 1943, as described in Section 2 of Admiralty fleet orders of 23rd December 1943 (Honours and awards-‘’London Gazette’’ supplement of 7th Dec. 1943), Stanbury was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).

In 1944, Stanbury was first married to Patricia G Corlson at St John’s Wood Church, London. In 1955 he re-married to Margaret Isabel Jamieson in Bodmin district, Cornwall. After the war Stanbury remained in the RN and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. During 1955-56 he was on staff of Flag Officer (Air) Mediterranean at HMS St Angelo (aka Fort St Angelo, located in Birgu, Malta). During my research I noted that in 1960 Stanbury was residing in Surrey and later that year he left for Nigeria via the ship Winneba, on June 17th 1960. During this time he must have joined the Royal Nigerian Navy, however I didn’t find information about his time in Nigeria. In 1961-62 Stanbury acted as CO for HMS Penelope, his last naval posting. It is also recorded from Trenowden’s book that in 1961 he worked as a personal assistant to physicist and radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lowell. His return to England isn’t recorded, however information extracted from The London Gazette’s from the 70s/80s indicated that Ralph N Stanbury was residing at 10 Gibbets, Farnham Lane, Langton Green, Kent and formerly residing at 21 Asher Reeds, Langton Green. At this time Stanbury was operating a beauty salon business by the name: The Beauty Box in Langton Green. Stanbury passed away on 12th May 1998 in Turnbridge Wells, Kent and was buried on 20th May 1998, Kent, England.


Malta Command WW2 Living History Group. Website: http://maltacommand.com/

COPP Survey. Website: https://www.coppsurvey.uk/

 ‘’Prima dell’ínvasione: l’ attività dei ‘’Combined Operation Pilotage Parties’’ (COPP) brittanici [nel] Mediterraneo dal 1941 al 1944’’. Joseph Caruana, 2004.

Stealthily by Night – Clandestine beach reconnaissance and operations in World War II. Ian Trenowden, 1995.

Survery by Starlight. Ralph Neville Stanbury, 1949.

The Cockleshell Canoes: British Military Canoes of World War two (most secret). Qunetin Rees, 2008.

The Secret Invaders. Bill Strutton & Michael Perason, 1959.

World War II unit histories & officers. Website: https://www.unithistories.com/

Special thanks to Langton Green Village Society Webmaster together with Mr. S Cheney for helping me with documentation and information regarding Ralph N. Stanbury’s life in UK.

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