Walter Henry Cowan was born on 11th June 1871, son of Walter Frederick James Cowan, a Justice of the Peace from Avleston in Warwickshire.
On joining Britannia as a naval cadet in 1884, Cowan found David Beatty as one of his term-mates. On leaving Britannia he was posted to H.M.S. Alexandria in the Mediterranean. Beatty also was posted to Alexandria and others aboard included Reginald Tyrwhitt and Richard Phillimore. All four would reach Flag Rank. Returning to home waters in 1887 Cowan served on H.M.S. Temeraire. Never the greatest of scholars, it was 1892 before he gained promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. Then, in 1894, came the posting to the South Africa station that was to offer the young Cowan the opportunity to more than make up for this lacklustre performance in naval examinations. Posted to the light cruiser Barossa, he was to prove his mettle in expeditions led by Rear Admirals Bedford and Rawson against native and Arab insurgents. Later for his part in the Benin expedition, again under the command of Rawson, Cowan was mentioned in dispatches. These early adventures led to a fine collection of medals.
In 1898 Cowan found himself in command of the Nile gunboat flotilla when Sudanese operations began. He was present at the Battles at Atabra and Khatoum and received the DSO for his service.
His notoriety spread and at the end of 1899 he was selected to be ADC to Lord Kitchener in the Boer War and later Naval ADC to Lord Roberts. When promotion to the rank of Commander came in June 1901 he had more than made up for his slow start.
Following his return from South Africa he was appointed to command H.M.S. Falcon and, having proven his skill with small craft, was appointed Commander (Destroyers) in 1905. Promotion to the rank of Captain came in 1906 when, still in destroyers, he was Flag Captain to Rear Admiral Montgomerie in H.M.S. Sapphire. This was followed in 1908 by a period with Beresfords Channel Fleet.
1910 saw Cowan transfer to the Home Fleet and the Cruiser H.M.S. Gloucester then, early in 1914, came a move to the Third Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet as Captain of H.M.S. Zealandia. 1915 saw a renewal of his association with his old Britannia term mate Lord Beatty, with a move to the Battlecruiser Squadron as Flag Captain to Rear Admiral Osmond de B. Brock in Princes Royal, in which he was to serve at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.
1917 saw his appointment as Commodore 1st Light Cruiser Squdron in H.M.S. Caledon. On 2nd September 1918 came promotion to Rear-Admiral.
1919 saw the Squadron ordered to the Baltic with Cowan flying his Flag in the cruiser H.M.S. Curacoa. They were faced with an extremely complex situation in which several different groups were attempting to gain control of Latvia, the independent status of which had been agreed under the Treaty of Brest Litovsk and had been subsequently endorsed by the British Government. The posting saw Cowan join forces for the first time with another of Hood's Admirals, the then Captain Andrew Cunningham who was serving as Captain (Destroyers). On the voyage to Libau Cunningham was impressed by Cowan's methods of achieving the task set as the fleet was ordered to continuing to steam at 22 knots despite dangers posed by thick fog and minefields. Cowan's forceful brand of diplomacy saw the objective of the exercise achieved and the safe return of the fleet.
On 5th July 1920 Cowan's association with the Light Cruiser Squadron came to an end as his Flag was hauled down from H.M.S. Dehli.
On 31st March, 1921 Cowan took up post on H.M.S. Hood. This was not to be the happiest period either for Hood or Cowan himself. He brought with him from H.M.S. Dehli as his Flag Captain, Geoffrey Mackworth. Both men were strict disciplinarians, possessed of short tempers and apt to quick judgement. Within two months of Cowan's appointment, Hood found herself at Rosyth where her crew was to protect essential services in the event of a General Strike. There was already disruption in the mines and on public transport. Dissatisfaction spread to Hood and when some of the seaman's messes were found decorated with red bunting Cowan and Mackworth took it as in incitement to mutiny. The sentencing of the Master-at-Arms to three years penal servitude did not make for a happy ship.
Summer of 1921 and 1922 saw Cowan sailing Hood to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. Then, in September of 1922, they crossed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro to join the celebrations of the centenary of Brazilian Independence. Cowan's diplomatic skills were, however, able to calm a difficult situation, when a boxing contest between British and American sailors nearly ended in a riot. In company with H.M.S. Repulse, Hood returned to Devonport via the Caribbean. Cowan's final cruise with Hood was to be to Gibraltar in the Spring of 1923.
In common with many other high ranking officers, Cowan then had a period on half pay until June 1925, when he was appointed Superintendent of Rosyth Dockyard. Twelve months later came a further period of sea going command as Commander in Chief, North America and West Indies Station. His association with Andrew Cunningham was here renewed as Cunningham accepted Cowan's invitation to become his Flag Captain. However, by the time of this appointment Cowan's name had been associated with mutiny on more than one occasion. In addition to the events on Hood described above there had been incidents during his time on Zealandia and again in 1921 aboard Dehli when the Destroyer Flotilla returned from the Baltic. In his biography of Cunningham, John Winton comments that it would have been understandable if the up-and-coming Cunningham had, for this reason, preferred not to have renewed his association with Cowan. Winton further comments that, although Geoffrey Mackworth seems to have been more directly responsible for the events on Dehli and Hood, Cowan could have done more to avoid the situations that arose. In his own memoirs however, Cunningham make clear the high regard in which he held Cowan and the many lessons he learned from him during their two periods of service together.
Life on the North America and West Indies station consisted mainly of "flag showing" cruises. Early in the appointment there were visits to Canadian ports and Newfoundland. Later came visits to the United States where Cowan met President Coolidge. Cowan must have been one of the earliest British enthusiasts of the game of American Football. After watching a game he commented that it had the advantage over his own native game of Rugby in that "one did not have to wait until a man had was in possession of the ball before you could scrag him".
On 1st August 1927 Cowan was promoted to the rank of Admiral. 1928 saw extension of the station to include the whole of South America. A long cruise down the West Coast of that continent followed passage through the Panama Canal.
Although August 1928 saw Cowan haul down his Flag for the final time as he was relieved as Commander in Chief of the Americas and West Indies station, this did not put an end to his adventures.
The outbreak of War in 1939 saw Cowan, now aged 68, petitioning the Admiralty for a post. In 1941 he was posted as liaison officer with the Commando forces in North Africa. In 1942 he saw action at Mechili and Bir Hacheim but was unfortunately captured after the latter of these two battles. In 1943, following his repatriation, he was awarded a Bar to the DSO he had won more than 40 years before. Few others can have seen so large an interval between the award of DSO and Bar.
His war was not yet finished however, as in 1944 he returned to Italy to serve with the 2nd Commando Brigade.
Returning to England after the war, Walter died at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire on 14th February 1956 at the age of 84.
Sources and References:Bennett, G: Cowan's War: The Story of British Naval Operations in the Baltic 1918-1920 (Collins, 1964)
Chalmers, WS: The Life and Letters of David Beatty, Admiral of the Fleet (Hodder & Stoughton,1951)
Cunningham, Admiral of the Fleet AB, A Sailors Odyssey (Hutchinson, 1951)
Dawson, L: The Sound of the Guns (Pen in Hand, 1949)
Roskill, SW: Naval Policy Between the Wars.
Winton, J: Cunningham: The Greatest Admiral since Nelson (John Murray, 1998)