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Cumberlege, Claude Lionel (1877–1962)

by R. S. Veale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Claude Lionel Cumberlege (1877-1962), naval officer, was born on 9 June 1877 at Marylebone, Middlesex, England, son of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Bulstrode Cumberlege of the Madras Staff Corps, and his wife Emily Florence, née Broadwood. On 15 January 1891 he entered the Royal Navy's training ship Britannia as a cadet, and in 1893 was posted as a midshipman to H.M.S. Tourmaline on the North American and West Indian Station. Over the next ten years he served with the Channel and Mediterranean fleets and was promoted sub-lieutenant in 1897 and lieutenant in 1899. He held commands in the Mediterranean in 1905-11, was promoted commander in June 1911 and returned to the Home Fleet. In October 1912 he was appointed to the 4th Destroyer Flotilla in command of Lurcher, the navy's fastest destroyer.

On 7 November 1913 Cumberlege was transferred on loan to the Royal Australian Navy and appointed, in the rank of commander, to H.M.A.S. Warrego which, with the Parramatta and Yarra, constituted the R.A.N.'s first destroyer flotilla, which Cumberlege commanded from December. By temperament and personality he was well suited to destroyer command: he was handsome, unconventional, dashing and breezy, and his courage, initiative and lack of 'frill' inspired respect and affection. He expressed himself in very direct language and his letters and written reports were always precise and succinct.

When war was declared on 5 August 1914 the destroyer flotilla joined other ships of the Australian Squadron in a search for enemy warships in the Pacific. It was believed that German cruisers were based at Simpson Harbour, New Britain, and as A. W. Jose, the official historian, has written, it was 'in expectation of almost certain battle' that Cumberlege's destroyers slipped into the harbour on the night of 11 August. No warships were found and next day Cumberlege made an armed landing at Rabaul in an attempt to locate the radio station; he then resumed the search for the German Squadron.

In September his destroyers escorted the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to German New Guinea. Cumberlege was commended for his services during the capture of the wireless station at Bitapaka on the 11th: when a party sent ashore under Lieutenant R. G. Bowen came under fierce fire, Cumberlege landed a destroyer contingent, pending the arrival of reinforcements from the expeditionary force. In the summer of 1914-15 his flotilla patrolled the New Guinea coasts and surrounding islands and searched the Sepik River for German ships and installations. It left for Sydney in February after work which 'probably more than any other single factor, established British dominance in the huge area of scattered island-groups so recently taken from Germany'.

In 1915 the flotilla patrolled in eastern Australian waters and in the Timor and Arafura seas, then from November served with the Royal Navy in the Malay Archipelago. Cumberlege was promoted captain (R.A.N.) on 30 June. In January 1916 he was transferred to command the cruiser H.M.A.S. Encounter, which served in home waters. In October he took over the new light cruiser Brisbane, which joined the British Mediterranean Fleet in December, but early in 1917 was recalled to the East Indian Ocean. From October until January 1918 it patrolled in the Gilbert and Solomon Islands and Nauru and then in the Torres Strait.

Early in 1919 Cumberlege returned to the Royal Navy but in April was appointed to command the battle-cruiser Australia, flagship of the Australian Fleet. It sailed from Portsmouth, England, that month and on 1 June, at Fremantle, Western Australia, a mutiny occurred when Cumberlege refused a request from some of the ship's company to delay her departure by one day. Always imperturbable in a crisis, Cumberlege took firm action and after arrival at Sydney five of the mutineers were court-martialled. The incident caused considerable controversy but Cumberlege retained the Australia until September 1920 when he was appointed to command the Melbourne.

On 9 May 1922 he returned to the Royal Navy but soon afterwards retired. He was promoted rear admiral on the retired list in 1926. After 1922 he took paid command of a nobleman's steam-yacht which cruised the Mediterranean. He published his reminiscences, Master Mariner, in London in 1936. Little is known of his later life, but he finally made his home on a sailing craft with a shifting postal address from Ostend via Biarritz to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. He died on 22 November 1962.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918 (Syd, 1928)
  • H. J. Feakes, White Ensign—Southern Cross (Syd, 1951)
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 29 (1970), no 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jan 1916, 17, 25 Apr, 26 Sept, 21 Oct 1919
  • Dept of Defence (Navy), MP1049, 1, 15/079, 18/070 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

R. S. Veale, 'Cumberlege, Claude Lionel (1877–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cumberlege-claude-lionel-5840/text9923, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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