The Bilton man who joined WW2 in his seventies and fought so bravely his friends thought he had a death wish

You might think you are brave, but you will never be '71-year-old Admiral Cowan taking on a tank crew with his revolver' brave

Thursday, 1st April 2021, 9:20 am
A 1920 portrait of Admiral Cowan, painted by Leonard Campbell Taylor, alongside HMS Princess Royal, which Admiral Cowan commanded during the Battle of Jutland.

It’s May, 1942, and in the scorching heat of the Libyan desert a Bilton man who is weeks away from his 72nd birthday becomes aware that an Italian tank is approaching.

His .455 Webley model of service revolver had been used by thousands to despatch challengers to Pax-Britannia since the Victorian era.

But despite its infamous man-stopping power, its usefulness against tanks was essentially zero.

Nevertheless, the ageing officer lines the tank up in his revolver’s sights and squeezes the trigger repeatedly until deafening bangs are replaced by mechanical clicks.

Now, to go back a few years. In March 1921 the Advertiser reported that an ‘Admiral Cowan’ gave a speech during the opening of Hillmorton’s war memorial.

Quite an ordinary affair, you might think, but last week the Admiral caught our attention with the extraordinary contents of his speech.

Highlights of his characterful talk included a suggestion that we should envy fallen soldiers and that, should another war break out, women should tell the men around them that they would not love them as much if they did not fight bravely.

The Admiral also congratulated Hillmorton for having around 10 per cent of its fighting-age men killed in action.

“This is a very good record, and I should think cannot have many equals in many villages in England,” he said.

We were perplexed by the eccentricity and forwardness of the speech, and were keen to learn more about the man who made it.

What we discovered was an extraordinary military career, beginning in the era of Jack the Ripper and ending at the start of the Atomic Age.

Admiral Sir Walter Henry Cowan, 1st Baronet, KCB, DSO & Bar, MVO (to list all of his titles) was born in Wales in 1871, but when his father retired from the Army the family settled in Alveston, Warwickshire.

Not a lot of information exists on where Admiral Cowan lived after that, although the Advertiser’s archives demonstrate that he spent some time living in Bilton in the 1920s.

Admiral Cowan began his Royal Navy Career as a teenage boy in 1884.

His 60-year military career then reads like a boys’ adventure comic from the era, spending the rest of the 1800s serving across Africa, Arabia and in India, even taking part in the Second Boer War.

Among the Admiral’s efforts during the First World War was taking command of the 26,270-tonne battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal – with the ship being heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland.

In 1919, during the Russian Civil War, the Admiral was sent to the Baltic to protect the republics of Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from being overrun by the Soviets. His role in this capacity is still remembered – with the Estonian Navy presently having a mine-hunting ship named after him.

Admiral Cowan held a range of posts in the interwar years before retiring in 1931.

But the Second World War brought him out of retirement when he was able to get a job through his friend, a fellow Naval officer and head of the new, elite Commandos.

In order to return to active service, he took the lower rank of Commander – which he had first held in the early 1900s.

In this new capacity, the Admiral then travelled to Scotland in early 1941 to help to train the Commandos.

Shortly after, he was able to travel to North Africa with the Commandos – taking part in combat in April of that year.

In May he boarded the ageing Royal Navy river-gunboat HMS Aphis with the Commandos.

The aim was to travel along the North Egyptian and Cyrenaica (eastern Libyan) coast, conducting raids.

But constant attacks from enemy aircraft scuppered the mission – with the boat eventually having to turn back, owing to a damaged rudder.

These air attacks went on for days, with bombs crashing into the sea around the boat.

Admiral Cowan’s colleagues, many being perhaps a quarter of his age, were baffled when he adopted an anti-aircraft strategy that could have come straight from the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

For days, he stood on deck with his Thompson submachine gun, rattling through magazines in an attempt to shoot down low-flying aircraft as they attacked the vessel.

So dangerous was this act, the Admiral’s colleagues believed he was purposely seeking an heroic death in battle.

In 1942, while attached to an Indian cavalry regiment, the Admiral saw action at the Battle of Bir Hakeim – and it is there where he attempted to take on an Italian tank with his service revolver.

He was taken prisoner during this incident, before being released in a prisoner swap in 1943.

The Admiral then went on to rejoin the Commandos and served in Italy through 1944 – receiving an award for his bravery.

He retired for the second (and final) time in 1945. A contemporaneous report suggests the ceremony was an emotional affair, and he was greatly admired by the Commandos he had served with.

Admiral Cowan died in 1956, aged 85.