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July 15, 2004

A new entrant to my military idol list.

One of the reasons for a slow-down in posting, aside from a general ennui, has been a strong desire to catch up on my reading. I work through several books simultaneously, (being somewhat ADD I suspect) and one that I just about finished with is The Battle of Alamein by John Bierman and Colin Smith, published by Viking in 2002.

It takes advantage of some new archival material and access to interviews that are either new, or passed over by other authors on the same subject. Written by professional journalists, it is well written from a reader’s perspective, and in general also satisfies my historian meter. A good general read if you know nothing about El Alamein and the Brits and to some extent, German view of the war in North Africa. Their journalistic background slips in with the occasional slip-in of modern journalistic snarks regarding the essentially bloody nature of war. They are sympathetic to the cause, but can get a bit tart at times about casualties and apparent indifference to them. If you are looking for bold new insights, well, nothing like that here; nor do I suspect there are really any juicy undiscovered bits left to unearth anyway. What stories left to tell about the war in the Western Desert are the unit histories and soldier memoirs. An arab view might be interesting, too, if in the form of memoirs and not a political screed. If you already know your way around the story, it does have some new participant viewpoints and vignettes, and it is one of those that prompt this post. From the author's description of the Crusader battles comes this little snippet:

…It took the British twenty-four hours to accept that the hook around Bir Hacheim was the real thing and not a feint. By that time the 3rd Indian Cavalry Brigade had been overrun, surprised by artillery and tank fire at about 6:30AM as they were brewing tea for breakfast over sand-and-petrol fires. Eleven officers and more than 200 men were killed and many wounded. Among the 1,00-odd prisoners taken was Sir Walter Cowan, a seventy-one-year-old retired British Admiral, captured as he valiantly emptied his revolver at an oncoming German tank. His interrogators soon discovered that they were dealing with the 3rd Cavalry’s ‘liaison officer’, an ambiguous title Cowan had secured by dint of strenuous string-pulling and an unquenchable desire to smite His Majesty’s enemies.*…

Sigh. No amount of string-pulling would get you a cool job like that now, at least not with our armed forces. Gotta add Admiral Cowan to my list of military idols. He was also a Captain commanding the Princess Royal under Admiral Beatty at Jutland.

Curious about the asterisk?

Here’s the skinny on that.

*Admiral Cowan had won a first DSO fighting with Kitchener (and Churchill) in the 1898 River Nile Campaign. In 1943, declared ‘too old to be dangerous’ he was released by the Italians in a prisoner exchange and promptly joined a commando unit in which he eventually won a second DSO, forty-six years after his first.

I found some other stuff on the web that says the Bar to the DSO was for this event (Crusader), and not with the Commandos, but, good golly gee, who cares about that in terms of Is This Guy Cool Or What?