VICTORIA CROSS HEROES Rowland Bourke
Rejected for poor eyesight when he tried to enlist, Rowley Bourke rescued over 40 men on two separate occasions at Ostend in April and May 1918
Repeatedly rejected when he tried to enlist, he persisted and saved over 40 lives
Some men pass through life inconspicuously, while others rise to the occasion in the moments when they are needed most. Coningsby Dawson, a Canadian novelist and officer during World War I, said that war is a “test of internals, of the heart and spirit of a man”. He pointed out that these attributes were more important than anything else a man could possess on the battlefield. In the same letter, he offered a fellow Canadian, Rowland Bourke, as a prime example of a man whose heart and spirit made up for everything that he physically lacked. Ridiculed by his neighbours for wanting to enlist, Dawson said that Bourke “elbowed his way through their laughter to self-conquest” and saved over 40 lives during the two raids on Ostend in 1918.
Born in London in November 1885, Rowland Richard Louis Bourke – known as ‘Rowley’ among family and friends – moved to the remote Yukon territory in 1902. His father, Dr. Isadore Mcwilliam Bourke, a retired surgeon of the 72nd Highlanders, established the first hospital in Dawson City during the Klondike
Gold Rush. After a stint as a gold miner, Rowley Bourke turned to farming. He founded a fruit farm with two of his cousins on Kootenay Lake near Nelson, British Columbia.
One day while clearing the land, an explosion killed one of his cousins, Cecil. It also severely wounded Rowley, and he lost sight in one eye and damaged the other. He left the farm after the accident for a short time, but returned, and later operated his own motor launch.
When World War I erupted Rowley Bourke felt it was his duty to enlist. Besides the injuries he had suffered to his eyes, he was not the kind of person that immediately inspired confidence or looked the part of a soldier. An enormous pair of glasses dangled from his face, and he was described as “the kind of chap with whom girls danced out of kindness. Today he’s a hero”.
“I remember the way his neighbours used to patronise him before the war,” Dawson recalled. “They all laughed when he went to California to study for an aeroplane pilot. They didn’t try to join themselves, but his keenness struck them as funny. What could a man who was half-blind do at the war, they asked – a man who ran his launch into logs on the lake and who crashed in full daylight when approaching a wharf?”
Every attempt he made to enlist was turned down. “When he had been awarded his flying certificate at the American Air School our RFC [Royal Flying Corps] refused to take him,” Dawson recalled. “He tried to get into the infantry, into everything, anything, and was universally turned down on the score of weak sight.” After being rejected by the Royal Flying Corps, he travelled to England at his own expense. Possibly due to an oversight, he was accepted into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. “Everyone pictured him colliding with everything solid that came his way.”
But Arthur R.M. Lower, a naval officer who served with Bourke, knew that there was something special about him. He said that different men faced danger in different ways. Some couldn’t handle it and cracked, while others thrived in it. He observed that Bourke had “no physical sense of fear at all” and said that he “was exhilarated by it. Danger to him was a tonic.” He observed in one instance, during an air raid on Dunkirk, Bourke casually walked in the direction of an exploding smallarms store, exclaiming, “This is splendid, this is war. How glad I am to have been sent here, where you really see there is a war on.”
Bourke would have a chance to prove his mettle after he persuaded his commander to allow him to partake in a daring raid targeting the Belgian harbours of Ostend and Zeebrugge in 1918. The raid would cripple the ports, which 30 German submarines and the same number of destroyers and torpedo boats had been using as a base to conduct hit-and-run raids and terrorise Allied ships. During the worst period of the submarine raids, in the spring of 1917, the sea was literally covered with the debris of sunken British and French ships.
Vice-admiral Roger Keyes, leader of the
Dover Patrol, commanded the operation. His fleet was made up of an odd assortment of ships whose task was to protect Allied transports and supplies travelling to France. Keyes planned to launch simultaneous raids on Ostend and Zeebrugge from his bases at Dover and Dunkirk. He would deliberately scuttle a
“BEFORE THE WAR HE WAS THE KIND OF CHAP WITH WHOM GIRLS DANCED OUT OF KINDNESS. TODAY HE’S A HERO”
“DANGER TO HIM WAS A TONIC” – Arthur R.M. Lower
handful of old cruisers to block access in and out of the harbours and canals.
The 32-year-old Bourke commanded ML
276, one of the 59 British and French ships dedicated to the Ostend operation. Two 3,400ton cruisers, HMS Brilliant and HMS Sirius, would make the one-way trip to Ostend. Two of the 20 motor launches taking part in the mission, ML 283 and ML 532, had orders to rescue the survivors from the ships once they had been scuttled. Bourke’s motor launch was to follow close behind in case either of them was knocked out during the action.
At midnight on 23 April 1918, Keyes’s two cruisers moved forward, escorted by two destroyers. Some of the motor launches deployed a smoke screen to provide cover for the cruisers, but it was blown back by the wind and exposed the ships to the
German shore batteries. The Germans had purposely repositioned a marker buoy that had protected ships from running aground on a drifting sandbank. Both ships inadvertently ran aground on this sandbank 1,800 metres (1,970 yards) short of their objective. They were abandoned by their crews as they came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. A German gunnery officer recalled seeing tiny figures sliding down ropes and into the awaiting motor launches, some men slipping and falling into the water during the frantic scramble to safety.
ML 532 was suddenly hit by a German shell that carried away its bow from keel to deck and stunned its crew. The blast damaged both engines, and it remained immobilised. Bourke, with ML 276, raced ahead in the darkness towards the Brilliant to continue rescuing survivors. They were guided by the bright rays coming from the German searchlights and the exploding German shells. Paying no attention to the German machine gun bullets pinging off his craft and the shells crashing dangerously close by, Bourke pulled ML 276 as near as he could to the marooned Brilliant. He crammed as many men as he could fit into his motor launch, making four trips back and forth to take 38 officers and men to safety.
On his fifth trip, Bourke towed the disabled ML 532 out of harm’s way despite his motor launch being badly damaged. Commander Ion Hamilton Benn, who directed the ML flotilla, had caught Bourke’s attention by signaling ‘SOS’ from ML 532. One rope after another broke, but Bourke managed to tow the disabled motor launch about halfway back to Dunkirk. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order following the raid.
A second attempt to block Ostend took place a few weeks later. Commander Alfred Edmund Godsal and Lieutenant Commander H.N.M. Hardy, who both commanded the ships in the first raid, convinced Keyes to give it another try. Some thought it was suicidal to attempt it again, but there was no shortage of volunteers. HMS Vindictive, launched in 1897, moved into the harbour of Ostend on 9-10 May 1918, weighed down with concrete, to complete
what the Brilliant and Sirius had failed to do. HMS Sappho was supposed to accompany the Vindictive, but it blew a hole in one of its boilers on its way from Dunkirk and had to be left behind. The Vindictive, commanded by Godsal, would go alone.
The Vindictive had trouble finding its way through a dense fog that suddenly appeared, limiting its sight to about 275 metres (300 yards). Guided by a flare lit by a motor boat, the Vindictive moved forward as British aeroplanes dropped bombs to provide cover. Every German shore battery opened up on the lone ship. Godsal was killed when a German shell hit the tower. Lieutenant Commander Victor Crutchley, who took over, managed to pull the ship close to where they wanted it, detonating the 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of amatol, and ordering the men to abandon the ship. “There was a fearful din on the upper deck, as well as shrapnel,” Engineer Commander W.A. Bury recalled. As they raced to escape the ship, “the machine gun bullets were making a noise just like pneumatic caulkers”. Crutchley and those not wounded tried to keep the ship afloat long enough so everyone could be evacuated.
The two motor launches closest to the ship, ML 254 and ML 276, came to the rescue of the Vindictive’s crew. ML 254, under the command of Lieutenant Geoffrey Drummond, picked up 41 survivors, including Crutchley. Drummond was severely wounded in the leg, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Gordon Ross, and two other men were killed. He was hit by two machine gun bullets from a pier 18 metres
“THE BRAVEST OF ALL HOLDERS OF THE VICTORIA CROSS” – Admiral Keyes
(20 yards) away and fainted from loss of blood, but his crippled launch made it back to the
HMS Warwick. Drummond would later receive the Victoria Cross.
Crutchley had no way of knowing it at the time, but three more men remained behind. Wounded in the same blast that killed Godsal, Lieutenant John Alleyne and two men helplessly clung to an upended skiff in the water. ML 276 had been raking a nearby pier with a Lewis gun when Bourke ordered it to the wreckage to make sure that Drummond didn’t miss any survivors. He was getting ready to leave when he heard the stranded men’s cries. At first, he couldn’t spot anyone after moving to the rear of the Vindictive. He came back a second time, this time pulling ML 276 to the opposite side of the ship. Each time he came near the wreckage he attracted heavy enemy fire.
He discovered Alleyne and the two men hanging onto the skiff. While rescuing them, two of Bourke’s crew were killed by a German six-inch shell, but they managed to pull the men from the water and escape. ML 276, badly damaged, was towed to Dunkirk by another British vessel. “I examined her next morning,” Commander Benn recalled, “and found the mast had been shot away about 7 foot (2.1 metres) from the deck and there were 55 holes in her between wind and water.” On later inspection, they discovered that its petrol tank had at least 12 holes in it and was leaking.
The Ostend raid didn’t have the success that Keyes had hoped for, but it did temporarily delay the German raids. Those who took part in the operation were applauded for their valour and sacrifice. “To praise the skill and gallantry of the adventure would be impertinent,” journalist Leslie Cope Cornford wrote, “Such deeds are immortal”.
A total of 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to men who took part in the Ostend and Zeebrugge raids – the same number awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. Bourke was praised for his “daring and skill” and “bravery and perseverance”. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. Admiral Keyes afterwards called Bourke the “bravest of all holders of the Victoria Cross”.
Bourke returned to civilian life after the war and worked as a clerk. He enlisted a second time in 1941 and served in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War II. He lived at the same address in Esquimalt with his wife Rosalind for 26 years, until his death on 29 August 1958 at the age of 72. Misjudged by his neighbours, Bourke demonstrated that it isn’t what is on the outside that matters, but rather what is inside the person that counts.
A depiction of the Vindictive during the raid in 1918, fitted with mortars and howitzers and weighed down with concrete
LEFT: Vice-admiral Roger John Brownlow Keyes The sunken HMS Vindictive in Ostend
An aerial view of the British ships scuttled at Zeebrugge. The raid was far more successful than the raids on Ostend