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


“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


(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

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