Fighting Admiral at Risalpur

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on a man who served in two world wars and simply did not know how to give up

Fighting Admiral at Risalpur
I recently came across a set of photographs of the Installation Ceremony of the Colonel of the Regiment of 18th Cavalry in Risalpur in 1947. Colonel of the regiment was – and still is in the Pakistan Army – an honorary appointment given to an officer who had an intimate connection with the regiment. He is normally chosen from amongst senior retired officers of the regiment after a consensus from the serving officers, but occasionally the regiments look outside for appointing a distinguished personality like Admiral Cohan. This ceremony marked the culmination of a very unusual and unique association that developed in North Africa during the Second World War, between an admiral of the British Navy and a regiment of the Indian Armored Corps.

Sir Walter Henry Cowan 1st Baronet, KCB, DSO & Bar, MVO, was known as “Tich” Cowan because of his short height and was a gallant officer and a legend in the British Armed Forces. Born in 1871 he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15 and took part in a number of colonial skirmishes. In 1898 he earned a DSO while commanding the Nile Gunboat Flotilla and during the First World War he commanded a battle cruiser during the famous Battle of Jutland. In 1921, Cowan was appointed to command the Battle Cruiser Squadron, flying his flag on HMS Hood which for 20 years was the largest and most powerful warship in the world with her prestige reflected in her nickname “The Mighty Hood”. It was sunk during the Second World War by an equally famous German battleship, the Bismarck. Cowan retired as an admiral in 1931 but nine years later at the age of 71 he was back in service. His old friend Admiral Keyes was responsible for the training of the newly formed Commandos, and Cowan (who voluntarily took the lower rank of commander) had himself attached to this force during its training in Scotland. He then managed to accompany the commandos to Egypt as a Liaison Officer and went with them on a couple of raids on the German-held coast of North Africa. These raids were unsuccessful and this is where Cowan’s wartime history and that of 18th Cavalry merge.

Admiral Walter Cowan reviewing 18th Cavalry at the Installation Parade in Risalpur, March 1947

The regiment of the Indian Armoured Corps was 18th Cavalry, which traces its origin to the 8th and 16th Regiments of Bengal Irregular Cavalry which were raised in 1842 and 1846 respectively. They were later re-designated as 6th Bengal Cavalry and 7th Hariana Lancers which in 1922 were amalgamated to form the 18th Cavalry. At the opening stages of the Second World War, the regiment was part of the famous 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. One of the only Indian officers posted to the regiment at this early stage of the war was Lieutenant Sahabzada Yaqub – Jacob to his friends and later Lieutenant General as well as Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Having mechanized as a motor cavalry regiment, 18th Cavalry arrived in Egypt in February 1941 and within two months had its first encounter with the newly formed German Afrika Korps at Mekili. Mounted in trucks and armed with only small arms and 2-pounder antitank guns, the brigade broke out of encirclement with great difficulty and substantial losses in men and material. While the other two regiments of the brigade withdrew eastwards, 18th Cavalry went north to become the reserve of the Australian division defending Tobruk. The regiment was caught in the siege and occupied a 5 km section of the perimeter from north of the Derna road to the sea. For the next four months it was constantly engaged with Axis troops while fighting defensive actions, conducting raids, patrolling, etc.

Three months later it received 78 reinforcements from the Commandos whose force had been disbanded and they were formed into an additional squadron. The soldiers were mostly from the British Guard regiment and were accompanied by Sir Cowan who had persuaded the captain of a destroyer that was ferrying troops to take him to Tobruk, where he managed to attach himself to 18th Cavalry. According to the War Diary of 18th Cavalry, the admiral was:

“Just about the most unassuming and modest person one can meet with perfect manners which at all times are an example to us[...] He is now a permanent member of the Regiment and goes everywhere with us, does everything with us and is forever proclaiming his gratitude for being allowed to be with us.”

On the other hand, the regiment considered it a great honour to have in their midst an illustrious admiral with an illustrious service record and who was present at Scapa Flo where the German Fleet surrendered in 1918.

The regiment was relieved in August 1941 and sailed to Alexandria accompanied by the admiral and after being refitted, rejoined the brigade. The battle in North Africa ebbed and flowed and in May 1942 at the opening stages of the Battle of Gazala, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was thrust into the eye of the impending storm. Sir Cowan had now been with the regiment for nearly a year. Now better equipped with 6-pdr antitank guns and supported by the 25-pdrs of the 2nd Indian Field Artillery Regiment, the brigade took the brunt of the attack by the Afrika Korps on the first day of the battle. The brigade was overrun but not before it held part of the Korps for over two critical hours and in the process destroyed a large number of Axis tanks. One estimate places the figure at 60, of which 20 lay in front of or within the position of 18th Cavalry.

Over 20 officers of the brigade were captured including Lt. Col. Hugh Fowler, the commanding officer of the 18th Cavalry who was subsequently awarded the DSO. The PoWs also included the admiral who, refusing all cover, stood in the open engaging passing tanks and armoured cars with his revolver. An Italian armored car stopped 40 yards in front of him and Cowan drew his revolver and fired till it was empty. A captain in the armoured car then fired at him with a machine gun and missed. With no cartridges left, Cowan dropped his gun and walked up to the captain and asked him what he wanted and the Italian motioned to him to get in his car. In a letter to 18th Cavalry sent from a PoW camp in Italy the following month, the Admiral wrote,

I would like you to know I did not put my hands up, and did run out of cartridges – didn’t want to disgrace the regiment. Walter Cowan”.

In 1943, on account of his age, he was released from Italy in a PoW exchange but the admiral was not yet ready to go home. The motorized brigade had been reassigned to the Middle East which was an inactive theatre and possibly for this reason the admiral rejoined the commandos and was in action in Italy during 1944 where he was awarded a bar to the DSO. He retired again in 1945, being one of the oldest active duty servicemen.

At the end of the war, 18th Cavalry arrived at Risalpur under the command of 3rd Armored Brigade. Risalpur had been established as a cavalry station following the 1903, reforms of the British India Army by Lord Kitchener. A regular division was formed at Peshawar designated as the 1st (Peshawar) Division with its infantry brigades based at Peshawar and Nowshera. However, there was no accommodation for the cavalry brigade, for which land was purchased east of River Kabul. Being very close to Nowshera, it was initially named the Nowshera Cavalry Cantonment but to avoid any confusion with the Nowshera Cantonment, the name was subsequently changed to “Risalpur” and notified in Indian Army Order of August 1910. The cavalry brigade was designated as the 1st (Risalpur) Cavalry Brigade, and a major part of the accommodation including the officer’s mess was constructed between 1916 and 1920. By this time, Risalpur had grown and had an airfield for the Royal Flying Corps that after Independence provided the framework for establishing an officers academy for the Royal Pakistan Air Force.

The armoured brigade was commanded by Brig. Walter Loaring, ex 19th Lancers and 18th Cavalry was commanded by Lt. Col. Arthur Goring. His second-in-command was Maj. Yousuf Khan (known to his friends as Joe) who retired as lieutenant general and was subsequently a diplomatic par-excellence. The regiment decided to invite Admiral Cowan to become the Colonel of the Regiment of 18th Cavalry. It was a great honor for the regiment when the Admiral accepted his appointment and travelled from England to Risalpur for the Installation Parade in March 1947. As part of the ceremony he took the salute at a march past, addressed the Durbar and met the veterans. On this occasion he presented some of the flags he had flown on the ships he commanded in action. Throughout his stay at Risalpur the admiral wore the uniform of the Colonel of Regiment.

Cohan remained as Colonel of the Regiment for the next ten years till he passed away in 1956. In accordance with his will, a silver salver that he had been presented by the regiment during the ceremony was returned. His biography, which was very appropriately named Sound of the Guns, was published in1949.