The Naval Historical Society was recently favoured with copies of two volumes of an unpublished five volume set comprising the autobiography of Rear Admiral Cumberiege. The volumes came from his grandson Marcus Cumberiege and cover the period the Admiral served with the RAN. It appears likely that these volumes, written in the early 1930s, were the basis for an intended autobiographical work which never surfaced.
Claude Lionel Cumberiege was born in London on 9 June 1877, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Cumberiege of the Madras Staff Corps2and his wife Emily. This was a time when Britain and its Empire were nearing their zenith and the world was tinged in pink, emphasising its extent. A time when the burgeoning Royal Navy could do no wrong and when it had to have a fleet at least twice the size of its largest opponents, which then meant France and Russia.
What an exciting moment, on 15 January 1891, when 13 year old Claude entered the Royal Navy as a cadet in the training ship HMS Britannia. The tailor who measured him for his first uniform was none other than Mr. James Gieve, who gave his name to the iconic naval outfitters known to generations of naval officers. Two years later he was posted as a midshipman to the corvette HMS Tourmalineon the North Atlantic and West Indian Station. He developed into a tall, well built and handsome young man, good at sport, popular and attractive to the fairer sex.
After progressing to lieutenant, at age 23 on 11 September 1902 he received his first command, to HMTB 90. In Gibraltar the following year he married Miss Sarah Laetitia Crossley Couldwell, not surprisingly from a naval family. In 1905 he was appointed in command of the destroyer HMS Banshee, followed by similar postings to the destroyers HM Ships Locustand Albatross. In 1908 as a Senior Lieutenant3he received the accolade of commanding the yacht of the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, HMS Hussar.
His memoirs start here, perhaps too frankly, when after two successful years in Hussarand five years overall on foreign-service, he takes three months home leave. There is no mention of his wife and their two children, as an enjoyable sojourn is taken visiting previously unexplored parts of his homeland in the company of another younger woman, who stayed until funds ran dry.
Although a proud ‘Salt Horse’ Claude saw the benefits of modern technology and while past the normal age for specialist training, volunteered for gunnery courses at Whale Island. He did well and found himself, with a number of other lieutenants, appointed to the elderly cruiser HMS Hogueon the staff of the Admiral Inspector of Target Practice. With his colleagues he was sent to various ships of the Home Fleet to supervise gunnery practice. Claude discovered the joys of riding powerful German motorcycles that could take him to partiesanywhereinthekingdominafew hours. He also developed a taste for London clubs which greatly increased his growing circle of influential friends.
Early in 1911 it was back to small ships with command of an old torpedo gunboat HMS Speedy, then being converted for minesweeping. But at the age of 34 came his promotion to Commander and he was moved to the destroyer HMS Kaleand then the delightful yacht-like HMS Fury.In October 1912 another opportunity came his way when he took command of HMS Lurcher.The latest offering to the Admiralty from the famous Yarrow shipbuilding yard, shewas the RN’s fastest ship, capable of 37 knots
Here Claude was in his element when he became flotilla leader. On seeing an advertisement for an experienced destroyer captain to take command of the recently formed Royal Australian Navy destroyer flotilla, he successfully applied. Without family, he took passage to Australia in the liner SS Orontes.His fellow passengers were his first introduction to Australians and he found their accent grating, but after a while came to appreciate their lack of formality and genuine friendship, and once he got to know his men he very much appreciated their directness and general can-do attitude.
To welcome his new recruit the Australian Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Sir George Patey arranged for HMAS Warrego to be at Adelaide when Orontes arrived. Claude was able to get a feel of his new ship by a short passage to the Spencer Gulf. Later in Melbourne, on 13 December 1913 he took command of the destroyer.
It did not take Commander Cumberiege long to cross swords with the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) then domiciled in the temporary federal capital of Melbourne. Cumberiege’s Admiralty appointment was to command Warregoand the Royal Australian torpedo boat destroyer flotilla. Locally the ACNB had provided a dual appointment to the captain of the cruiser HMAS Melbourne who was also nominated Captain (D) conducting administration of the small flotilla from his ship.
As Cumberiege had been leader of a destroyer flotilla of up to 20 ships he did not take kindly to having to report to another captain for control of his then two ship flotilla (HMAS Parramattawas in refit). The matter was sorted out, with administration for the flotilla being transferred to the flagship with operational control being left to Cumberiege.
This was a busy time with the new ‘Wallaby Navy’ being shown off to the Australian public with numerous port visits, interspersed with exercises and a hectic social program. In June 1913 the Admiral took the fleet to Queensland and later made Palm Island, then uninhabited, the local headquarters. At the end of July, with war clouds looming the fleet was ordered toSydney and a few days later came news of mobilization in Germany, France and Russia, finally leading to a state of war declared between Great Britain, Germany and Austria. The Empire, including Australia, was now at war.
Having reached Brisbane on her way south, Warrego’sorders were changed to make full speed for Thursday Island to intercept a British oil tanker. The fully laden tanker Physa, on passage from the Dutch East Indies to New Zealand, was stopped and commandeered for naval use. At the same time, on leaving Sydney Melbourne intercepted the collier Alconda,which was bound for the Philippines, and took her to coal the cruisers. The Fleet, together with their recently found supply ships, made for Rossel Island off the southeast of Papua where they rendezvoused on 9 August.
New Guinea Campaign
The first landing in enemy territory was on the morning of 11 September by naval parties from Warregoand HMAS Yarra. With minimum casualties to both Australian and German colonial forces, the objective was achieved in two days when the union flag flew over German New Guinea.Warrego, then on patrol in New Ireland, captured the German coastal vessel Nusa which was later armed and for a number of years formed part of the local colonial forces. For his part Commander Cumberiege was Mentioned in Dispatches.
Loss of AE1
In relation to the recent important discovery of wreckage of the submarine AE1a verbatim copy of the record made by Commander Cumberiege is shown below.
One day one of our two submarines was missing. Customarily the submarines used to go out in turns, partly for individual exercises. I don’t know what conclusions the enquiry into the loss brought forth, but it is probable that she over-dived herself and couldn’t recover. Shipwreck can be ruled out as the weather was absolutely perfect and the sea as flat as a board, but it is possible that she hit a rock while submerged or ran into a coral wall while under water.
Besides combing the seas for days in the hope of finding her possibly broken down and drifting with quite strong currents known to be prevalent in those parts, I had searches made of lee beaches and reefs where some evidence might be expected in the way of floatable objects. Not a sign.
I went to a group of islands near which we know she must have passed and anchored by three boats in a perfect little natural harbour half a cable from the shore. I ordered a search of the fringing reef of the main island, which by the way, was flat and covered with coconut palms, while I went away in the little German yacht (Nusa) to search the ramifications of reef strewn waters.
Warren, Captain of the Parramatta with a party had landed and were engaged searching the beach when Warren happened to turn his view landward, when to his astonishment what should he see but a big yellow funnel plainly showing through the ranks of palm trees on the other side of the island. Without a moment’s hesitation he made his way back to the ship, wirelessed me the news and immediately manned and armed the boats of the flotilla, hiding however, the rifles in the bottom of the boats and hoping to make it seem as if the boats were merely landing a bathing party.
Getting round a little point which formed a charming tree-fringed bay, he judged he must be near the hidden ship and without any more camouflage gave the order and the boats raced for the presumed spot. There she was, a German Lloyds steamer, completely hidden by foliage with palm trees lashed to her mainmasts. Instantly this ship was in his hands. Hurrying back in the Nusa yacht I got on board. The German skipper, a very pleasant fellow, seemed almost relieved at being caught.
‘Three times I ventured out in the hope of getting clear away and each time I have seen one of your infernal destroyers and have had to return and replace my decorations’, he said.
That his screen of foliage and trees was admirably designed may be judged by the fact that no sign of her was evident from the place we were anchored not five hundred miles (yards) away. In an hour or so she was steaming out in company with the flotilla to be added to the collection at Rabaul harbour. I would she had been the submarine.
Now that it had been determined that the German East Asia Squadron was not in these waters the fleet was moved to Fiji, the Admiral and his cruisers chasing von Spee further east and the destroyer flotilla convoying our single submarine for the long haul to Sydney and refit after an absence of four months, with Christmas at home.
Back to New Guinea and beyond
Not long after arrival in Sydney a report was received from a POW of a plan to base a German auxiliary cruiser in the Sepik River. In less than a week the refit was stopped, leave cancelled, and the flotilla was stored and on its way back to New Guinea. En route they picked up the handy little steamer Nusa.While locals were sceptical of naval vessels hiding in the Sepik they acknowledged that the armed auxiliary Ryjasanhad hidden on the coast while the flagship HMAS Australiahad steamed past less than five miles away. Ryjasanmade her escape after dark but, short of coal, was forced into then neutral American Guam where her crew latter scuttled her.
WithNusa sounding ahead the flotilla cautiously made its way up river dodging logs and shoals, proceeding above the last major settlement of Angorum. Not wishing to risk his destroyers Commander Cumberiege trans-ferred to Nusaand achieved the remarkable featof navigating 200 nm (370 km) from the river mouth until shallows forced them to return.
With no enemy sighted it was back to Sydney for a well-earned rest and a now long delayed refit. Another vague report was received of possible German commerce raiders operating out of the neutral Dutch East Indies. Having completed its refit, the flotilla was sailed to investigate. With its strength being increased by the addition of the captured German governor’s yacht which had been armed and renamed HMAS Una,and taking along their tanker Esturia,they called at Timor, the Dutch East Indies and Singapore with final calls intended in French Indo-China. As Cumberiege had been promoted Post Captain it was time for a career move and he was offered the old cruiser Encounter. As she was in the vicinity Encounter was diverted to Saigon where he took command on 16 January 1916.
In another suspicious incident, naval intelligence became aware of messages filtering through from aboriginal sources in northwest Australia of a submarine hiding in a remote bay. Naval Intelligence had by now worked out a well-rehearsed answer to all its problems of ‘Sending a Gun Boat’. Accordingly Encounter,being on the west coast, was dispatched with her collier Kanna. Could this be AE1? Needless to say nothing was found except a small unknown Portuguese mission that had picture books which they sometimes showed their flock. These books had pictures of ships including submarines! An unexpected discovery was two ancient cannons thought to be Spanish or Portuguese. These were found by a boat party on an unnamed island, now called Carronade Island. Endeavourbrought the cannons back to Sydney and they are now part of the Naval Heritage Collection.
His posting to Endeavour did not last long as on16 October that year he transferred to command the new ship HMAS Brisbane, then completing building at Cockatoo Island. Here go-slow tactics were being used by dockyard workers and there were suspected cases of sabotage. He had armed parties patrol the ship which helped deter some of these problems but there were further delays in the fitout of control systems, with insufficient expertise being locally available. As a result it was decided to sail the ship to Malta for completion.
During this passage Claude telegraphed his wife, who he had not seen for over three years, suggesting she might join him in Malta. For some unknown reason the message was not received and the family reunion did not occur. With the ship now fully fitted out they were ordered to backtrack through the Canal to Colombo as they were the only 6-inch cruiser available to help find a raider called Wolf.
Before departure a Sopwith Pup was embarked to help increase their radius of action. After days of searching very large areas and finding nothing of note, suddenly news was received that Wolf was a clear 5000 miles away. They were recalled to Fremantle where a convoy of great ships had been assembled awaiting clearance, despite the presence of two Japanese cruisers.
With little further activity they were more than happy to make for the Solomon Islands where there had been some unrest. Their faithful collier Kanna came along but luckily further stocks of coal were found at Ocean Island. They then visited the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu); Cumberiege really enjoyed the simplicity of life in his time here and made the point that he hoped tourist steamers never discover them.
It was back to Sydney for refit and then at long last they were on their way to England via Suez. We were on passage through the Red Sea on 11 November 1918 when news was received that the war was over. New orders were received to proceed to Mudros and after a few days to join the fleet at Constantinople. Then to Sebastopol where we were potted at by a few Bolshies, and the remains of the Russian fleet with ships half sunk was visible.
Next it was full speed down the Dardanelles and through a mined channel to Smyrna where a number of nations were trying to help, or confuse, the French who were asserting authority over this part of the old Turkish Empire. When this frustrating time came to an end they made for England.
Suddenly through a dense blanket of fog there loomed Portsmouth where our Australian ship was cheered alongside. For the first time in over five years I set foot on my native soil and saw my wife, children and mother. As a new Captain had been appointed to take Brisbane back to Australia I was on the beach.
It was then I met one of the most loveable and one of the most extraordinary characters, John Saumarez Dumaresq, who had recently been appointed in command of the Australian Squadron flying his broad pennant in the battlecruiser Australia. He was looking for a Flag Captain and told me his first choice had turned down the job, but that because of my experience he would be delighted to have me on board.
John Dumaresq was born in Rose Bay, Sydney on 26 October 1873. From a landed family in New South Wales, he was taken to England as an infant to be raised by his mother’s family. He entered the Royal Navy in 1886, later specialised in both torpedoes and gunnery and was instrumental in a number of important improvements to weapon control systems. In February 1917 he transferred on loan to the RAN as Captain of HMAS Sydney, then serving with the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron. On 22 March 1919 he was appointed Commodore commanding the Australian Squadron, being charged with bringing Australian ships back to their homeland. It was to be another two years before we had a fleet commanded by a flag officer when Dumaresq was promoted to this rank in June 1921.
The Commodore was of small stature, but intense and one of the hardest workers. His pace was frantic and he was forever making and implementing policies which resulted in mountains of paper being showered on his staff. But those close to him realised he was a sick man with a hacking cough, and he could not forever hide blood-stained handkerchiefs which wiped away blood from his lungs. While Cumberiege tried to make him take some rest for a few hours every day he knew time was limited and was impatient to achieve as much as possible. While it could be easy to think some of the pain was self-inflicted the Commodore did not have a mean streak and neither smoked nor touched alcohol.
Portsmouth at this time was full of Australian ships being readied for their return, including the light cruisers Brisbane and Sydney and the battlecruiser Australia. In addition there was the submarine depot ship HMAS Platypus and her six J-class boats gifted to the Australian people by a grateful British Government.
In Australia, as with most of the RAN’s capital ships, the senior officers and NCOs were predominantly from the RN while the junior rates were mostly Australian. There was an air of grievance within the lower ranks who had mainly signed on for the duration of the war, or for five years, and now wanted to go home as quickly as possible. Many had had a boring war with not much happening when patrolling the North Sea and morale suffered. Disciplinary problems were increasing, with the greatest number of malcontents in the largest ship, Australia.
On 9 April 1919 Platypus and her brood were first to leave, escorted by Sydney. A week later on 17 April the flagship Australia sailed, accompanied by Brisbane. The two contingents caught up at Aden where Brisbanetook over the escort of submarine J5 which she towed most of the way home. At Aden, where only officers and petty officers were granted leave, departure of the flagship was delayed by one day to entertain a local dignitary. After making Colombo, the intended next port of call for Australia was Melbourne, where time-expired men would be discharged. However the program was changed to first visit Fremantle, giving the West Australians a chance to see their flagship.
They arrived at Fremantle on 25 May, which was the first homecoming for most of her ship’s company in more than four years. Because of scheduling changes the ship’s stay was shortened to three days. The Australian waterfront was notorious for poor industrial relations, and unfortunately this visit coincided with a dock workers strike, with the workers winning even more concessions. As a result the ship could not go alongside and was moored offshore.
After arrival, representatives of the ship’s company requested to see their Captain asking if sailing could be delayed one day so that as many as possible could have leave to visit friendsand families. The Captain replied that the request could not be considered owing to a very strict timetable of port visits.
As expected there was a huge party with thousands queuing to visit the great ship. Two days later many were reluctant to leave when there was a delay as the car bringing the Commodore back aboard had broken down. About a hundred sailors again requested their departure be delayed one further day so they could have one final run ashore to thank their hosts. Captain Cumberiege, now with his Commodore embarked, rejected the request. There was now a temporary stand-off as stokers refused to man the boiler rooms. With a couple of hours delay temporary staff was found to man the stokeholds and the ship sailed.
At the next port of call, Adelaide, the flagship anchored off Glenelg instead of the outer harbour because of a supposed influenza outbreak. The real reason was mutinous behaviour, however this and the subsequent visit to Melbourne passed without incident.
Following an investigation 32 men who had refused orders to man the engine-rooms were placed under arrest and the majority were summarily sentenced to naval imprisonment of 90 days cells. The five alleged ringleaders were court-martialled, not for mutinybutwiththelesserchargeof ‘joining in a mutiny, not accompanied by violence’.
n 20 June 1919 under the presidency of Commodore John Glossop (formerly captain of Sydney). The five accused pleaded guilty and asked for leniency. Four of the five were represented by a civil lawyer and Commonwealth Parliamentarian, Richard Orchard. The fifth man was represented by another civilian lawyer and a naval officer acting as his friend. All received prison sentences varying from one to two years to be served at Goulburn Goal.
Dumaresq regarded the matter as one purely involving naval discipline and when the alleged ringleaders were released from prison through political pressure, in an unprecedented move both he and Rear Admiral Edmund Grant, the First Naval Member of the Australian Naval Board, tendered their resignations. After intense political intrigue their resignations were later withdrawn. It may be a moot point but at the time of the mutiny Australia was under Admiralty control as the ship did not revert to Commonwealth control until 1 August 1919.
Of this incident Captain Cumberiege wrote: The law, at any rate, had been upheld. Our yardarm had been cleared, though I shall always regard the whole episode as being no more than sort of schoolboy escapade and I, for one, was quite unconcerned, when a year later a Labor government released the prisoners.
Shortly after these occurrences I happened to be walking along Elizabeth Street, Sydney, when a decently dressed man, looking across the road at me, raised his hat. Not being able to place him I returned the salute and stepped across. He held out his hand, which I took, and he said: ‘You don’t remember me, sir, my name is Rudd.’ It was the ex-hero of Zeebrugge, Dalmorton Rudd,4 one of the five charged. We stepped inside for a couple (a pub for drinks).
The End is Nigh
The post-war Navy was not a happy place with cuts and more cuts and little money for fuel to take ships on exercise. The highlight of Australia’s service on return to home waters occurred in May 1920 when she led the fleet for review in Port Phillip Bay by the Prince of Wales embarked in HMS Renown.In September 1920 the Admiral transferred his flag to the more economical cruiser Melbourne and Cumberiege went across with him as Flag Captain. Australia’s days were now numbered, she decommissioned on 12 December 1921 and was placed into reserve.
In October 1921 the Admiral called me for a not unexpected interview when I was asked to make way for a younger Australian officer. The parting was swift and shortly passage was booked upon a liner which landed us at Tilbury in time for a Christmas homecoming. Here I commenced six months paid leave, a generous parting gift, after spending seven years representing Australian naval interests. A charming letter was received from the Secretary of the Admiralty offering a couple of hundred a year extra pension if I quit at once, or stay on half-pay and be automatically retired at the end of a couple of years. With restrictions being made everywhere I quickly accepted the former offer.
Rear Admiral Dumaresq was caught in conflict with the Australian Government as he sought to protect naval interests from stringent financial cuts. With his return to the Royal Navy on 29 April 1922 the RAN lost a very competent officer who had brought the fleet to a high standard of efficiency despite severe restrictions. During his return home with his invalid wife in the Japanese liner Tango Maru he fell ill with pneumonia and died in the American Military Hospital, Manila on 22 July 1922. He was buried with full military honours provided by American forces in that foreign land.
Claude Cumberieige had two marriages: the first in 1903 to Sarah Couldwell ending after 25 years with her death. This marriage produced two children, a son Claude (1905-1945) and daughter Diana. His first wife saw little of her husband but she did come to live in Sydney during the latter stage of his career. He later married Nora Kirby by whom he had a further four children. His son from the first marriage, Claude Michael Bulstrode Cumberiege was never known by his first name but always as Michael or Mike. Michael joined the merchant service and later the RNR where he served with great distinction as an agent with the Special Operations Executive. LCDR Claude Cumberiege, RD, DSO and Bar was captured behind enemy lines after the fall of Greece where he was tortured and executed. He was in charge of a small fleet of caiques used to infiltrate enemy lines and was caught when attemptingto lay mines to deny the enemy use of the Corinth Canal. Michael had married a Canadian, Nancy Wooler, and a son Marcus was born in 1938.
On 11 July 1922, at age 45, Claude Cumberiege was placed on the Retired List, ostensibly at his own request. He was advanced to the rank of Rear Admiral on the Retired List, dated 7 August 1926. In retirement Claude became a recreational sailor and, gaining a Foreign Going Masters Certificate, he sometimes skippered chartered yachts around the continent. He acquired a former Ostend pilot boat and renamed her L’Insoumise (The Rebel) which he used in the Mediterranean. In 1931 he exchanged her for a smaller schooner, Westward, which was renamed Fleur de Lys (an emblem depicted on the Cumberiege family crest). One of his children was born in Fleur de Lys when she was storm bound.
In 1936 Cumberiege published a book, Master Mariner, a story said to be based on the life of a seafaring uncle who sailed around much of the world in a small trading brig Josephine. The following quote provides a flavour:
Knocking about the world as he did, he met all sorts and conditions of men and women. From divas to derelicts, and emperors to inebriates, maybe I have learned a bit from all of them, but most I have learned from sea captains who have told me things no shore-going loafer could ever hope to know, like the way of a ship at sea.
Was the Admiral really talking of his uncle or of life as he saw it? In Master Mariner there is possibly the first reference to the expression ‘…running around like a blue-arsed fly’, favoured by another carefree seafaring man, the Duke of Edinburgh.
On the Mediterranean coast the family entered into an active social life and went into various holiday business ventures. Cumberiege again offered his services in 1939 when aged 62 but with a surplus of retired admirals no suitable appointment was available; he then joined the Home Guard. On 22 November 1963 Claude Cumberiege died in the Balearic Islands, Spain aged 86
A Final Word
Claude Lionel Cumberiege was one of the most capable naval officers to have paced upon the quarterdeck of a warship on the Australian Station. A century has passed and he is now largely forgotten, but during his prime, covering a period of more than seven years, he commanded just about every ship in the Australian Fleet. His influence on the officers and men who followed him was immense but surprisingly there is little mention of Cumberiege, the man, and his achievements. In history he is best known with Dumaresq for involvement in the unfortunate mutiny onboard Australia. Was his lack of recognition the fault of too many commands (overall he commanded 13 ships, ranging from torpedo boats to a battlecruiser), providing an unshakeable aura of self-confidence, and possible lack of respect for others of lesser capabilities? Or was he, an upper class Englishman from the Victorian era, possibly out of touch with a new nation finding its way in a world experiencing rapid social change? According to his grandson, the Admiral would have liked to have moved to Australia in his retirement, but things didn’t work out that way when his second family appeared.
It has been a pleasure to interpret this work into a reduced format that a current generation may find of benefit. Original copies of the Cumberiege manuscript, encompassing more than two hundred pages, are held in the archives of the Naval Historical Society.
- The family history spells the name Cumberlege but in the Official War History of Australia (1914-1918) and the RAN Navy List it is spelt Cumberiege. The latter spelling has been used throughout this paper.
- In the 1870s the Madras Presidency covered most of southern India with its own extensive army.
- A Senior Lieutenant with eight or more years seniority wore two stripes with a thinner stripe in between. In March 1914 the distinction disappeared when the rank of Lieutenant Commander was introduced.
- In February 1918 volunteers were called for a dangerous venture and Rudd, then a Leading Seaman in HMAS Australia, was one of those selected. The mission was a raid on the German U-Boat base at Zeebrugge in occupied Belgium, which resulted in heavy casualties amongst the raiding party. For his bravery during the operation Rudd was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Afterwards he returned to Australia.