Last veteran of both world wars dies aged 106

19th December 2006

A hero: Captain Kenneth Cummins served in the Royal Navy in the First World War and in the Merchant Navy in the Second World War

The last remaining Briton to see active service in both the First and Second World Wars has died aged 106.

Captain Kenneth Cummins, hailed today as an "icon", served in the Royal Navy in the First World War and in the Merchant Navy in the Second World War.

Until his death on December 10 at his home in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, Mr Cummins was one of five living First World War veterans in the UK.

The four who survive him are: William Stone, 106, of Oxford; Henry Allingham, 110, from Sussex; Philip Mayne, 107, of Richmond, North Yorkshire; and Harry Patch, 108, from Somerset.

In the Second World War Mr Cummins survived the torpedoing of his ship, the Viceroy of India, owned by P&O but used by the military (Britain can, when it needs, use its large merchant navy as part of the Royal Navy in times of war).

Four men died in the initial explosion at 4.30am on November 11 1942 off the coast of North Africa. Mr Cummins was later rescued.

Twenty-four years earlier, in 1918 on a voyage in the First World War, Mr Cummins witnessed the harrowing spectacle of nurses' bodies floating in the ocean after a Canadian hospital ship was illegally destroyed by the Germans.

Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the WW1 Veterans' Association, said: "Ken was one of the icons. He fought in both wars, seeing action at such an early age, and towards the end of his career.

"Any death of a veteran of WW1 means the end of a unique and special generation, the likes of which we will never see again.

"It was the likes of Ken Cummins and all the vets who survived WW1 who put this country back on its feet and made Britain what it is today."

Mr Cummins applied to join P&O as a naval cadet aged 15.

In 1917, after being trained, he was put in charge of a six-inch gun on a merchant cruiser for convoy duties between England and Sierra Leone.

He never had to open fire but on a voyage in June 1918 he saw, off southern Ireland, the floating bodies of nurses from the Canadian hospital ship, Llandovery Castle.

It had been sunk by U-86 in one of the notorious atrocities of the war, when the survivors were fired on in their lifeboats. Only 24 of the 258 on board survived.

Mr Cummins recalled the sickening sight of corpses being blown across the sea by their aprons and skirts, which had formed sails. The risk of being torpedoed barred any recovery of the bodies.

He returned to work for P&O after the Second World War, repatriating troops to Italy and Africa.

Mr Cummins was born on March 6 1900 in Richmond, Surrey.

His long life, he said, was down to a good diet and the love of his wife and family.

Mr Cummins married Rosemary Byers, whom he met on a voyage from Australia in 1955. She survives him with their two sons and two daughters.

The family declined to comment today.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Dec 19th, 2006 at 12:54 PM..