In the mid-‘90s, I was privileged one evening to dine with Sir Fitzroy Maclean. One of the amazing tales he told me was of serving with an admiral in the Commandos. I found this hard to believe as surely an admiral was too senior to take part in ground operations. Later, when I started writing, I tried to validate the information as I thought, if true, the tale would make a fantastic story. However, my research only dug up a couple of Lieutenant Commanders who had fought alongside Maclean. I assumed I must have misheard him or he had been confused as he was well into his 80s by then and, sadly, died soon after I met him.
Imagine my surprise and delight, therefore, in researching my fourth and fifth novels, set in the Baltic and Russia, when I discovered that the flag officer commanding the Royal Navy’s Baltic Fleet, Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, served in the Commandos during WW2!
Readers of my first novel, The Custom of the Trade, will recall Roger Keyes, the Inspecting Captain of Submarines who later serving in the Dardanelles campaign as a commodore. Keyes went on to be the Director of Combined Operations. He and Cowan were very good friends and, despite his retirement in 1931, in the early years of WW2, Cowan begged his old friend, Keyes, for an appointment. Keyes duly obliged in 1941 by putting him in charge of the training of the new Commando corps in small boat handling, but Cowan had to revert to the rank of commander.
At the age of 72, Cowan should have remained in Scotland when the Commandos deployed to North Africa, but wangled a way to accompany them. There Cowan was to fight with distinction and great courage alongside the Commandos ashore and in sea-borne raids.
When his Commando unit was disbanded, he joined the Indian 18th King Edward VII’s Own Cavalry. In a battle with a combined force of Germans and Italians under Rommel, he tried to take on a tank single-handedly, armed with only a revolver. When he ran out of ammunition he was taken prisoner. A year later, the Italians repatriated him to Britain as part of a swap of POWs. They thought him too old, at the age of 74, to fight again so did not stipulate he could not return to fight the Italians once more. Accordingly, Cowan re-joined the Commandos and saw action in Italy in 1944 where he won the bar to his DSO. Cowan deemed this award of less importance than his invitation to India after the war to become the Honorary Colonel of the 18th King Edward VII’s Own Cavalry.
Cowan died in 1956 at the age of 85, but his memory lives on in Estonia. In recognition of his enormous contribution to keeping their country free of German and Russian rule in 1919, the Estonian Navy named one of their Vosper Thornycroft-built minehunters, The Admiral Cowan.
My readers will have to wait until I write my fourth or even fifth book to learn more of Cowan’s extraordinary diplomatic and strategic skills in the Baltic in 1919. He was a truly remarkable man.