5 – The fifth in a series about NI people on D Day. John Cumming from Newtownards was in HMS Sumatra (above) which was scuttled to protect an artificial Mulberry Harbour
John Robert Cumming joined the Royal Navy in 1940, shortly after he turned 18.
The first vessel he served in was the destroyer, HMS Volunteer, and he spent three years escorting naval convoys, many of which brought him to Russia.
In a BBC interview in March 2013 when he received his Arctic Star, he recalled, “You had a lot of things to contend with apart from U-boats. The north Atlantic in the winter time – the storms there sometimes have to be experienced to be believed. Quite hairy.”
He added that the summer months offered little respite, because the Luftwaffe launched air attacks from German-occupied Norway.
Conditions on board were basic and there were times when they ran out of food and fuel. “Some of the things that happened on some of those convoys – I saw some good ships coming down and blokes swimming in the water through thick oil fuels and so forth,” he said.
In the build-up to D-Day he was drafted to HMS Sumatra.
During a visit to Normandy in 2009 he recalled, “Our ship was manned by both Dutch and British sailors and there was a great camaraderie on board.”
He added,. “I joined the crew in April 1944 and we lay off the coast of Scotland for over a month. It was clear we were waiting for something, but we didn’t know what.
“Then on 4 June, we got our orders to set sail for France – the D-Day operations were underway. We arrived off the coast of Ouistreham, code named Sword Beach, on the evening of D-Day.
Sumatra after she had been scuttled
“I can still remember my feelings of fear and excitement. We were bombarded by heavy German artillery from the shore and our ship was a sitting target for their attacks. Sumatra was one of 30 old warships and merchant vessels whose job it was to scuttle our ships so they were all resting firmly on the bottom of the sea in a line. The ships created a temporary breakwater, so that the inshore waters would be smoother for the soldiers as they jumped from their boats. We could see the army boys as they struggled onto the beach up to their waists in water, and we watched in horror as many collapsed on the beaches and died there.
“It was sheer luck that our ship wasn’t hit and all my pals survived, but it makes me so sad to think of all those men who gave their lives on that day – so I came back to Normandy to remember the sacrifices they made… When I think about the terrible loss of lives and the slaughter that happened on that day I feel so much sorrow. I pray that it never happens again.”
Sumatra was scuttled off the coast of Normandy on 9 June 1944 at Ouistreham, as part of a gooseberry pier to protect an artificial Mulberry Harbour built by the Allies as part of Operation Overlord.
John was 92 years old in November 2014 when he received his Ushakove Medal for service in the Russian convoys.
Belfast Telegraph 01/11/2014, Heroes return web site, IWM photos