54th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the Great War

1915 - 1919

ROWLAND BOURKE V.C. (research by Greg Scott in Nelson BC)

“I couldn’t see well enough to get out of the way”

When people in Nelson hear the words “Victoria Cross” they automatically think of hometown hero Hampton Gray. But long before him there was another Nelson Victoria Cross local hero, Rowland Bourke. Bourke won his Cross in World War One at the naval battles of Zeebrugge & Ostend, famous in their time but only vaguely remembered today.

Bourke was born in London England in 1885 and immigrated to Canada in 1902 to try gold mining in the Klondike. (1) He arrived in Nelson in 1907 joining his two cousins, Cecil Crozier, on their ranch at Crescent Bay.(2) Unfortunately not long after his arrival, while clearing stumps a premature explosion killed his cousin Cecil and severely injured Rowland.(3) The event was so shattering to the family that Cousin Crozier, his family and Rowland left Nelson & emigrated to New Zealand.(4) However, Rowland returned and farmed property at 9 Mile. At the outset of the First World War in 1914, he attempted to enlist in all three services but due to poor eyesight, possibly as the result of the explosion, he could not pass the physical and was turned down.(5) He was very patriotic and even donated a waterfront lot from his property at 9 mile to be raffled off with the proceeds donated to the Patriotic Fund (a local fund used to support soldiers families).(6) In 1916 Rowland left Nelson and returned to England where he obtained a Lieutenant’s Commission in the Royal Navy Reserve. (7)
In early 1918 it was decided that a combined operation should be launched against the German submarine bases at the Belgian Channel ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. This was to be done by the use of blockships and concurrent commando raids and Bourke, volunteering for this mission, was assigned the command of an 80 foot motor launch to take crew off the blockships when sunk in the harbour mouths.
(8) In the first engagement at Ostend, Bourke rescued 38 officers and men and received the DSO (Distinguished Service Order).(9) But it was at the second engagement, again at Ostend, that, in the words of the Admiral commanding, Bourke was “The bravest of all holders of the Victoria Cross”. (10) His citation for the Victoria Cross reads as follows:-

“Volunteered for rescue work in command of M.L. 276, and followed “Vindictive” into Ostend , engaging the enemy’s machine guns on both piers with Lewis guns. After M.L. 254 had backed out, Lieut. Bourke laid his vessel alongside “Vindictive” to make further search. Finding no one, he withdrew, but hearing cries in the water, he again entered the harbour, and after a prolonged search, eventually found Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, and two ratings, all badly wounded, and in the water, clinging to an upended skiff, and he rescued them. During all this time the motor launch was under very heavy fire at close range, being hit in fifty-five places, once by a 6 in. shell – two of her small crew being killed and others wounded. The vessel was seriously damaged and speed greatly reduced. Lieut. Bourke, however, managed to bring her out and carry on until he fell in with a Monitor, which took him in tow. This episode displayed daring and skill of a very high order, and Lieut. Bourke’s bravery and perseverance undoubtedly saved the lives of Lieut. Alleyne and two of the “Vindictive’s” Crew.” (11)

Bourke received his V.C. from King George V on Sept. 11, 1918 during an Investiture at Buckingham Palace.(12) He was also promoted to Lt. Commander and was awarded the Chevalier of Legion of Honour by the French Government. (13) With characteristic modesty, Bourke asked his family not to inform the press of his achievements. (14) Bourke returned to Nelson marrying Rosiland Barnet of Sydney Australia in 1919 and again took up fruit farming.(15) He was also very successful as a vegetable grower, and developed a technique of his own for double-cropping potatoes. He was also for a time in charge of the navigation lights in his area of Kootenay Lake under the Department of Marine.(15a) Wishing only a quiet life, fame continued to follow him as in 1920, he went to New Zealand on a lecture tour under the auspices of the Auckland Navy League. (16) In 1929, a large banquet in London England under the sponsorship of the Prince of Wales for all living VC winners was held but Bourke declined to go quoting business reasons. This, despite a public outcry led by Nelson Mayor R.B. Barnes and the offering of free transportation by the C.P.R. (17) By 1931, his eyesight had deteriorated to the point that he was afraid of going blind, so he subsequently gave up farming and moved to Victoria.(18) In 1932, he obtained a supervisory position at the HMC Dockyard in Esquimalt. In the Second World War, at a rank of Acting Commander,(18a) he was instrumental in forming the “gumboot navy” of fishermen used to patrol the coast of B.C. (19) Bourke retired in 1950, as supervisor of civilian guards. (20) He died in 1958 and was buried with full military honors at Victoria. (21) A shy man, he used to say that he won the V.C. because he couldn’t see well enough to get out of the way. (22)

For its size Nelson has also a surprising number of other Victoria Cross connections. Gordon Flowerdew, who won his posthumous VC leading the “Last Great Cavalry Charge” in WW1 homesteaded briefly in Queens Bay (23);Piper James Richardson's granddaughter inherited his personal bagpipes and learned to play them in the hills above Nelson (24); Fredrick Peters mother lived in Nelson and it was here that two senior American officers, dispatched by General Eisenhower, presented her with a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to complement the VC he won at the naval battle of Oran in the Second World War (25) . Nelson’s Ed Matheson was a gunner on David Hornell’s amphibian plane and was one of the crewmen rescued by Hornell in his VC action, himself winning the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) (26) and lastly, descendants of Major General George Pearkes live in Nelson today.

References:

1)         “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

2)                   Nelson Daily News May 3 1907

3)                   Nelson Daily News May 3,4,5 & 10, 1907

4)                   Nelson Daily News June 27 1907

5)                   CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum web site (www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/resource_pages/heroes/bourke

“Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

6)                   Nelson Daily News weeks of November 23 & December 21 1914

7)                   CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum web site (www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/resource_pages/heroes/bourke

“Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

8)                   CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum web site (www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/resource_pages/heroes/bourke

“Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

9)                   “A Thousand Brave Canadians”  Dr. John Blatherwick (1991) Page 44

London Gazette July 19 1918

Nelson Daily News July 27 1918

10)               Nelson Daily News September 5 1934

11)               “A Thousand Brave Canadians”  Dr. John Blatherwick (1991) Page 44

London Gazette August 27 1918

12)               “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

13)        London Gazette December 10 1918

“Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 98

14)          Nelson Daily News September 2 1918

15)        “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 97

15a)      Nelson Daily News January 1 1944 Page 2 & 3

16)         Nelson Daily News February 27 1920

17)         Nelson Daily News October 25, 26 & November 8 1929

18)         Nelson Daily News March 23 1932

 CFB Esquimalt Navel & Military Museum web site

19)         Nelson Daily News November 28 1950

 CFB Esquimalt Navel & Military Museum web site

19a)      Nelson Daily News January 1 1944 Page 2 & 3

 20)        CFB Esquimalt Navel & Military Museum web site

21)        “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 98

22)        “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 86

23)        “Bush Telegraph”  Stephen Hume (1999) “A Dry Day in Eden”

24)        “Off The Map”     Stephen Hume (2001)  “The Spirit of the Pipes”

25)        “Our Bravest and Best”   Arthur Bishop (1995) Page 161

26)               London Gazette July 25 1944

“Homefront & Battlefront” Sylvia Crooks (2005) Page 176

 

 Bibliography

Nelson Daily News                                 Various issues 1907 to 1944

Our Bravest and Best                             Arthur Bishop                            (1995)

A Thousand Brave Canadians              Dr. John Blatherwick                  (1991)

London Gazette                                       Issues in 1918 and 1919

Bush Telegraph                                       Stephen Hume                           (1999)

Off The Map                                             Stephen Hume                           (2001)

The Zeebrugge & Ostend Raids 1918 Deborah Lake                            (2002)

Dover Patrol 1915-1917                        Admiral Sir Richard Bacon          (1919)

Homefront & Battlefront, Nelson B.C. in World War II –Sylvia Crooks          (2005)

 

Web Sites

 CFB Esquimalt Navel & Military Museum web site   

www.firstworldwar.com  articles on Carpenter, Admiralty statements, Von Tirpitz comments, Sir Roger Keyes and the raids themselves

www.victoriacross.net/forum

www.victoriacross.co.uk/zeebrugge

Various other websites containing personal stories/reminisces including:

www.ocASSOCIATION.co.uk/newsletter%2000/drummond

www.fmft.net/archives/000946

www.rdhmedals.com

www.kilby.sac.on.ca/Activitiesclubs/cadets/history/militaryoldboys/ww1/RossGordon

www.thedorsetpage.com/history/vc/victor_alexander_charles_crutchey

www.mckenzie.uk.com.zeebrugge/Zeebrugge 

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