While I’ve been going through Stanley Christopherson’s diaries, I came across an extraordinary figure – Admiral Sir Walter ‘Titch’ Cowan. Stanley met Admiral Cowan whilst he was part of a battery in Tobruk and was astonished to learn that the Admiral was still in uniform aged 73 and that he had served with the father of two fellow Sherwood Rangers’ officers, Peter and Mike Laycock.
With interest aroused, I thought I should look him up. It turns out that Cowan was every bit as extraordinary as Stanley makes out, having first gone to sea as a midshipman in 1886, and before the century was out, commanding his own gunboat and serving on the cruiser HMS Barrosa. He also took part in the Battle of Omdurman and later commanded the Nile gunboat flotilla during the Fashoda Incident. Steadily climbing the ranks, he commanded the battleship HMS Princess Royal at the Battle of Jutland. With the First Wolrd War over, Cowan remained in the Navy and went onto command that most iconic of battleships, HMS Hood. Later, he was Naval Aide-de-Camp to King George V. Although retired before the war, he rejoined the Navy with the lower rank of Commander and became one of Bob Laycock’s Commandos. Although Layforce, as it was called, was disbanded, he remained in the Middle East and fought at Bir Hacheim during the Gazala Battles and was eventually captured whilst single-handedly manning a tank and armed with only a revolver. In 1943, he was lucky enough to be repatriated, so rejoined the Commandos and fought with them in Italy, winning a bar to an earlier DSO. Has Britain ever had a more tenacious and enduring warrior?