11 January 2008

Admiral Sir Walter Cowan

A true fighting naval officer I have recently been reading about is worthy of much admiration, and I am pleased to share with you my research into a man who is simply inspirational. So much so that I have started a new article category for him: Gentlemen of Renown and Infamy. If you have one of your own to suggest, I would greatly welcome your submission.

Admiral Sir Walter Henry "Titch" Cowan, 1st Baronet, KCB, DSO and bar, MVO
b.1871, joined the RN in 1884 (aged 13), d.1956

Early years - served in verious expeditions in West Africa, commanded the gunboat HMS SULTAN during the Battle of Omdurman and the whole gunboat squadron during the Fashoda Incident with the French during which he was awarded the DSO. Cowan then went south to participate in the Second Boer War, saw extensive sea service as a Destroyer Captain afterwards and then service the the Battlecruiser force during WW1 (including the Battle of Jutland where his ship was heavily damaged) during which he was known to be one of "the most offensively minded of the Grand-Fleet officers."

In his great book "The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command", Andrew Gordon writes:

"Walter Cowan, Captain of the [Lion class battlecruiser] Princess Royal, had been a close friend of [Admiral] Beatty's from both midshipman and Nile-gunboat days. He was a ferocious midget who loved war so much that he spent his leave periods in the trenches in France and wept when the Armistice was announced. "

It was also said that he "was the only Officer in the Grand Fleet that was sorry the war was over"

Gordon continues: "He became the scourge of the Bolsheviks in the Baltic in 1919 [As a Rear-Admiral he commanded a Light Cruiser Squadron from his flagship Delhi and sank 2 Russian Battleships and 1 destroyer], and ended his naval career as Admiral of the Fleet.[not quite true, but he was a full Admiral]"

Cowan came out of retirement in 1940, accepting demotion to the rank of Commander, to join an Indian armoured regiment in North Africa. He was captured by the Italians when he personally attacked a tank by himself armed with only a revolver! Subsequently released by the Italians on humanitarian grounds he joined the Commandos as a Naval liasion officer, aged 72. He saw further action in clandestine actions in Italy and the Med from 1943 where he won a second DSO in 1944 (more than 40 years after earning his first one) before retiring once more.

There are 2 books dedicaed to his service which would be fascinating reading:

  • Lionel George Dawson, Sound of the guns, being an account of the wars and service of Admiral Sir Walter Cowan (Pen-in-hand, Oxford, 1949);
  • Geoffrey Bennett, Cowan's war: the story of British naval operations in the Baltic, 1918-1920 (Collins, London, 1964) - reprinted in 2002 as "Freeing the Baltic" (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Freeing-Baltic-Geoffrey-Bennett/dp/184341001X)

    His Service biography is:
Naval cadet 1884; Benin, Nigeria 1887; Cdr, HMS REDBREAST, Red Sea 1893-1895; HMS BARROSA, Cape Station 1895; Brass River and Mwele Expeditions 1897; commanding gunboat flotilla, Nile during Sudan operations 1898; Aide-de-camp to Gen Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum and Naval Aide-de-camp to FM Sir Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford, during South African War 1901; World War I 1914-1918; HMS ZEALANDIA, Grand Fleet 1914; Capt, HMS PRINCESS ROYAL 1915-1917; Battle of Jutland 1916; commanding 1 Light Cruiser Sqn of the Grand Fleet 1917-1920; Baltic Force 1919-1920; Battle Cruiser Sqn, Atlantic Fleet 1921-1922; Commanding Officer, Coast of Scotland 1925-1926; Commander-in-Chief North America and West Indies Station 1926-1928; retired 1931; Commando Forces, World War II 1939-1945; liaison officer with Commando Bde, Eastern Mediterranean 1941; attached to Indian Regt, Western Desert 1941-1942; captured at Bir Hakeim 1942; repatriated 1943, Cdo forces 1943-45

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