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Sir Walter Cowan
Born (1871-06-11)June 11, 1871
Died February 14, 1956(1956-02-14) (aged 84)
Place of birth Crickhowell, Brecknockshire
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.png Royal Navy
British Commandos
Years of service 1884–1931
Rank Admiral
Commands held HMS Falcon
HMS Skirmisher
HMS Sapphire
HMS Gloucester
HMS Zealandia
HMS Princess Royal
1st Light Cruiser Squadron
Battlecruiser Squadron
Coast of Scotland
America and West Indies Station

World War I

Russian Civil War
World War II
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Member of the Royal Victorian Order

Admiral Sir Walter Henry Cowan, 1st Baronet, KCB, DSO & Bar, MVO (11 June 1871 – 14 February 1956), known as Tich Cowan, was a British Royal Navy admiral who saw service in both World War I and World War II; in the latter he was one of the oldest British servicemen on active duty.

Early days[edit | edit source]

Cowan was born in Crickhowell, Brecknockshire, the son of an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After his father's retirement from the Army, the family settled in Alveston, Warwickshire, where his father became a justice of the peace.

Cowan never went to school, but entered the Royal Navy in 1884[1] at the training ship, HMS Britannia, a classmate to fellow future admiral David Beatty.

Early service[edit | edit source]

In 1886, as Midshipmen, Cowan and Beatty joined HMS Alexandra, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. Cowan saw service in Benin and Nigeria in 1887.[1] He fell sick and was invalided home after less than a year, but later rejoined the Alexandra, returning with her to Britain in 1889. He then joined HMS Volage in the Training Squadron and was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in 1890. He was appointed to HMS Boadicea, flagship of the East India Station. In 1892 he was promoted Lieutenant and became First Lieutenant of the gunboat HMS Redbreast.[1] However, in 1893 he was invalided home with dysentery.

In 1894 he was appointed to the light cruiser HMS Barrosa off West Africa.[1] During this time he participated in a number of expeditions against native and Arab insurgents.[1]

In 1898, he was appointed to the destroyer HMS Boxer in the Mediterranean, but only stayed in her for six months before being given command of the Nile gunboat HMS Sultan. He took part in the Battles of Atbara and Omdurman and then commanded the entire Nile gunboat flotilla during the Fashoda Incident.[1] He received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for these actions.

Cowan then particiated in the Second Boer War, acting as aide-de-camp to Lord Kitchener[1] and then to Lord Roberts.[1]

Returning to England in 1901, he was appointed First Lieutenant of the battleship HMS Prince George. In June 1901 he was promoted Commander at the early age of thirty. He later took command of the destroyer HMS Falcon and acted as second-in-command of the Devonport destroyer flotilla under Roger Keyes, who was then developing new destroyer tactics. They became fast friends. Cowan commanded several more destroyers, acquiring a widespread reputation as a destroyer captain, and then succeeded Keyes in command of the flotilla. In 1904 he was appointed Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO). In 1905 he took command of HMS Skirmisher and he was promoted Captain in 1906. He transferred to the cruiser HMS Sapphire in 1907 and in 1908 took command of all destroyers of the Channel Fleet. In 1909 he transferred to the Reserve Fleet and in 1910 he became captain of the new light cruiser HMS Gloucester.

In 1912 he became chief of staff to John de Robeck, who was then Flag Officer Patrols.

World War I[edit | edit source]

In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, he was given command of the old pre-dreadnought HMS Zealandia.[1] Six months later he took over the 26,270 ton HMS Princess Royal[1] as flag captain to Osmond Brock. He commanded her at the Battle of Jutland,[1] where she was badly damaged. He was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1916.

The Baltic[edit | edit source]

In June 1917 Cowan was made Commodore of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron.[1] In 1918 he was promoted Rear-Admiral, staying in command of the squadron. In January 1919 the squadron was sent to the Baltic.[1] The squadron kept the sea lanes open to the newly independent Estonia and Latvia, enabling them to secure their freedom. During the course of this campaign, coastal torpedo boats attached to Cowan's command sank two Bolshevik battleships and one cruiser at Kronstadt naval base. Augustus Agar received the Victoria Cross for his part in these events. Andrew Browne Cunningham, later Britain's leading World War II admiral, commanded Cowan's destroyers in this campaign. Cowan's forceful diplomacy ensured a successful mission, for which he was promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1919 and created a Baronet, "of the Baltic", in the 1921 New Year Honours.

Between the Wars[edit | edit source]

In 1921, Cowan was appointed to command the Battlecruiser Squadron,[1] flying his flag in HMS Hood. He was unemployed from 1923 to 1925, although he was promoted Vice-Admiral in 1923. In 1925 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Coast of Scotland[1] and in 1926 Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station,[1] holding the command until 1928. He was promoted Admiral in 1927. His final appointment was as First and Principal Naval Aide-de-Camp to the King in 1930. He retired in 1931.[1]

Oldest warrior[edit | edit source]

During World War II he was given a job by his old friend Roger Keyes, then head of the Commandos. Cowan voluntarily took the lower rank of Commander and went to Scotland in 1941 to train the commandos in small boat handling.[1] He served in North Africa, where he saw action at Mechili and at the Battle of Bir Hakeim, where he was captured on 27 May 1942,[1] having attached himself to the Indian 18th King Edward VII's Own Cavalry (his commando unit having been disbanded). He was fighting an Italian tank crew single-handedly armed only with a revolver. He was repatriated in 1943 under an unusual agreement with Italy whereby some 800 Italian seamen interned in neutral Saudi Arabia from the Red Sea squadron were exchanged for a similar number of British POWs. An unusual feature was that there was no stipulation about the men’s future activities and they were free to return to action so he rejoined the commandos and saw action in Italy during 1944. He was awarded a bar to his DSO. He retired once more in 1945. After the war he was invited to become Colonel of the 18th King Edward VII's Own and visited India to receive this honour, which he considered the greatest he had received.

Tribute[edit | edit source]

In 2007 the Estonian Navy named a British-made minehunter of the Sandown class the Admiral Cowan.[2]

Memorials to the 110 men of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force killed in the Baltic action of 1919 are now in the Estonian capital Tallinn, the Latvian capital Riga and Portsmouth cathedral.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Biography, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Cowan's War, The British Naval Action in the Baltic in 1919 by Geoffrey Bennett (1964). Republished in 2002 as Freeing the Baltic. ISBN 1-84341-001-X
  • Sound of the guns, being an account of the wars and service of Admiral Sir Walter Cowan by Lionel George Dawson, (Pen-in-hand, Oxford, 1949)

External links[edit | edit source]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Roger Keyes
Commander, Battlecruiser Squadron
Succeeded by
Sir Frederick Field
Preceded by
Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt
Commander-in-Chief, Coast of Scotland
Succeeded by
Humphrey Bowring
Preceded by
Sir James Fergusson
Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station
Succeeded by
Sir Cyril Fuller
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair
First and Principal Naval Aide-de-Camp
Succeeded by
Sir Hubert Brand

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