Admiral Sir Walter H. Cowan, Bt., K.C.B., was one of the more irascible characters to rise to flag rank in the Royal Navy. His memoirs, at the National Maritime Museum, are a delight to read: the man was seemingly always hunting or trying to go on operations with the army. One has to wonder why he, the son of an army officer, had not joined the Army in the first place.
Placed on the retired list in 1931, at the outbreak of the Second World War he first served in the Navy with the rank of Commander, and then managed to get himself attached to the Commandos formed by Roger Keyes, and sent to the Middle East. After the disbandment of the Commandos there he attached himself to an Indian cavalry brigade, and was caught up in the capture of Bir Hakeim in May 1942. For the record at this point he was just shy of his seventy-first birthday. He related what happened next in a letter to Keyes:
‘Just to account for myself to you. We were holding with 500 men an unprepared position-had come the day before. They attacked us with many tanks and a whole
Division, and the first wave went clean through and everyone near me was either knocked over or captured. I got behind an empty Bren gun carrier and they missed me.
‘After a lull the second wave came on. I’d got into the carrier. An armoured car
stopped about 40 yards off and four men got out and came at me, I let drive at them with my revolver and one dropped in front. The others ran back behind their A.C. Then the captain of it shouted and gesticulated that I should put my hands up, but this I could not do, so he fired a burst at me and missed. He again hailed me and got no response so fired another burst and again missed. I didn’t think he could, as I wasn’t trying to take cover; just stood with my revolver hanging down empty, so he had every chance and was welcome to it: but I felt after missing me twice that was enough and I got out of the carrier and pointed to my empty pistol and walked up to and asked him what he wanted. He motioned me to get up on to his car and that was the end, and I grieve that it’s all over. Have been so very happy all this time since you launched me, and I feel as things went that you pay not think the worse of me.’