Capt Kenneth Cummins
Veteran of both world wars
Monday 18 December 2006
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.
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