Capt Kenneth Cummins

Veteran of both world wars


Kenneth Alfred Hugo Cummins, naval officer: born Richmond, Surrey 3 March 1900; married 1955 Rosemary Byers (two sons, two daughters); died Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire 10 December 2006.

Kenneth Cummins was the last surviving Royal Navy officer of the First World War. He also survived being torpedoed in the Second World War, during which he served with distinction in the Merchant Navy.

Cummins was born in Richmond, Surrey in 1900, during the last days of the reign of Queen Victoria. The son of a Merchant Navy officer who sailed from Liverpool, he was educated at the Merchant Taylors' School in Crosby. One of his earliest memories was of holding the rope attached to Claude Grahame-White's single-engine biplane at Blundellsands. It was tied to a stake and, when the plane had built up enough power, the young Cummins and his friends would release the rope and Grahame-White would take off. On one occasion, he saw the aviator take a pig up - just to prove that pigs could fly.

Cummins was active in his school's Officer Training Corps and was on manoeuvres with the Liverpool Rifles when war was declared in 1914. At his school he witnessed the older boys and masters leaving for war, some returning to teach minus an arm or leg.

At 15 he applied to P&O as a cadet and received a scholarship. After training, aged 18, he joined HMS Worcester, where the discipline was tough. On board the Worcester anchored at Gravesend, he witnessed a Zeppelin being shot down in flames. In Liverpool, he saw hundreds of corpses of flu victims being carried off an American troop ship.

His next posting was to an armed cruiser, HMS Morea, which sailed from England to Sierra Leone escorting troop ships to East Africa. He was shocked on his first voyage out in June 1918. "We were in the Bristol Channel, quite well out to sea, and suddenly we began going through corpses," he recalled: "The Germans had sunk a British hospital ship, the Llandover Castle, and we were sailing through floating bodies. We were not allowed to stop - we just had to go straight through. It was quite horrific, and my reaction was to vomit over the edge. "

"It was something we could never have imagined . . . particularly the nurses: seeing these bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they dried in the hot sun."

"There was no chance of rescuing them - they were all dead. As the fighting ship - which we were - we were not permitted to stop unless ordered to do so by the Admiralty."

He was to recall a feeling of numbness after the war ended. He had never come under fire and none of his family had been killed, and he was the only one of them to have served in it.

He quickly rejoined P&O and remembered transporting exuberant Australian troops back to Sydney. There was a flu epidemic on board and when they arrived in Sydney Harbour the troops were put in quarantine. This did not put off several soldiers desperate to get home - they jumped over the side even though the harbour was full of sharks.

As an officer, Cummins was on the Macedonia which brought Lord Carnarvon's body back from Egypt in a five-ton coffin. Carnarvon had died of a mosquito bite in 1923 shortly after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the P&O ships were commandeered as troop carriers. Cummins remained as chief officer on the converted liner Viceroy of India. On 11 November 1942, having disembarked troops at Oran for the North African invasion at 4.30am, the ship was hit by a torpedo while Cummins was having his coffee. "As chief officer, I was sent down to check how long the ship could stay afloat - all I had was a little flashlight," he said.

"The water was pouring in and the noise of it coming through was horrendous. I still have dreams about it. Thank God we had landed the troops, otherwise this would have been a disaster."

He then became chief officer of the Ile de France which on occasion carried as many as 10,000 troops across the Atlantic. They sailed at 25 knots, so there was little danger, as this was faster than any U-boat. In 1945 Cummins became captain of the Maloja where he was responsible for taking Italian POWs back home and Zulus back to Africa. Always a strict disciplinarian, he was much impressed by the latter and singularly unimpressed by the former.

Although he had seemed destined to remain a bachelor, at the age of 52 Cummins met and fell in love with Rosemary Byers, a passenger on a voyage from Australia. He married her in Sydney in 1955 and she undoubtedly transformed his life. When, for my book The Last Post (2005), I asked Cummins to name the most important thing for him, aside from discipline, he told me:

"I think love has been the most important thing. Not sex, although sex is part of love. Love brings contentment, which brings good health. Misery and unhappiness leads to ill-health. It's not just the love of a husband or wife, but of one's children and family."

Cummins retired from P&O in 1960. From 1962 until 1974, he was chairman of the Marlborough Rural District Council planning committee.

Max Arthur

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk