Commander Rowland Bourke
After learning that Rowland Bourke had been awarded the VC for his courageous actions during the blockade of Zeebrugge-Ostend, Anglo-American novelist and soldier Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson wrote to his parents about Bourke's exploits. From the letter's tone, it appears Dawson knew Bourke personally, possibly because the Dawson family had a cottage in Roland Bourke's home province of British Columbia, and vacationed there. The letter, in which Bourke is referred to as 'R.B.', was written on 1 September 1918:
"Did you see the good news concerning R. B.? He's got his V .C. for saving life under shell-fire in Zeebrugge harbour. His M.L. was hit fifty times.
I remember the way his neighbours used to patronize him before the war. 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? When he had been awarded his flying certificate at the American Air School our R.F .C. refused to take him. He tried to get into the infantry, into everything, anything, and was universally turned down on the score of weak sight.
His quixotic keenness made less keen spectators smile. Then, by a careless chance, he got himself accepted by the R.N. V .R. [Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve] and was put on to a motor launch. Everyone pictured him as colliding with everything solid that came his way - and marveled at the slipshod naval tests. But it wasn't his eyesight and limitations that really counted - it was his keenness. In two years he's a V.C, a D.S.D. and a Lieutenant Commander. Before the war he was the kind of chap with whom girls danced out of kindness. Today he's a hero.
We were discussing him out here the other day; he's the type of hero this war has produced - a man not strong physically, a man self-depreciating and shy, a man with grave limitations and very conscious of his difference from other men. This was his chance to approve himself.
People laughed that he should offer himself as a fighter at all, but he elbowed his way through their laughter to self-conquest. That's the grand side of war - its test of internals, of the heart and spirit of a man! Bone and muscle and charm are only secondary."
In July 1916 Coningsby Dawson was selected, with twenty-four other officers, for immediate service in France. His younger brothers enlisted in the Naval Patrol, then being recruited in Canada by Commander Armstrong.
Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson joined the Canadian Army at the front in 1916, and continued in service until the end of the First World War. He served in the Somme battlefield at Albert, at Thiepval, at Courcelette, and at the taking of the Regina trench. His book Living Bayonets has been republished in a modern edition, using the original text and artwork.
Commander Rowland Bourke
At the start of World War One, few people might have guessed that a quiet, introverted rancher from the interior of British Columbia (BC) would soon become one of only four Canadian naval Victoria Cross winners. Ironically, the late Victoria, BC resident, Commander Rowland Bourke, almost never made it to active duty.
Commander Bourke was born in London, England in 1885. At 17, he came with his family to Nelson, BC. When World War One broke out, he left the family fruit farm and volunteered to enlist in the Canadian forces, but was rejected in all three arms of service because of defective eyesight. Undaunted, he returned to England at his own expense and successfully joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve to serve on the motor launches.
In April 1918, raids were arranged to block the Belgian harbour of Zeebrugge-Ostend, most heavily defended of all the German U-boat bases. Bourke, a Lieutenant at the time, immediately volunteered his vessel for the rescue of crews whose ships were sunk in the blockade effort. He was again rejected due to his poor eyesight. Despite being told most of the men would not make it back, Bourke persisted in offering his motor launch (ML) as a standby in case one of the chosen rescue motor launches was disabled.
As a result, on the night of April 23, Bourke’s launch picked up 38 sailors from the sinking blockship HMS Brilliant and towed the crippled ML 532 out of the harbour. For this latter achievement Bourke was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
When the second operation against Zeebrugge-Ostend was called, Bourke’s motor launch was found to be too damaged for the work. But Bourke was so eager to take part that he offered to give up his command in order to participate in the operation on another vessel, ML 254. Finally, however, his own ML was accepted as a standby. Bourke had just 24 hours to completely re-fit his vessel and find a new volunteer crew.
He succeeded, and on May 9-10, Bourke’s ML followed the blockship HMS Vindictive back into the Belgian harbour. While backing out after the raid, he heard cries from the water. Bourke made a prolonged search of the area amid very heavy gunfire at close range. He found a Lieutenant and two ratings from the RN ship badly wounded in the water. Bourke’s own launch was hit 55 times and two of the crew were killed. Nevertheless, he managed to bring out his vessel in one piece.
For this action, King George V decorated Bourke with the Victoria Cross. He was also presented with the French Legion of Honour. With characteristic modesty, Bourke asked his family not to inform the press of his achievements.
After the war the reluctant hero returned to Nelson, BC and married. In 1932 he and his wife moved to Victoria and Bourke started work at HMC Dockyard in Esquimalt as a civilian clerk.
He was instrumental in organizing the Fishermen’s Reserve, a west coast patrolling operation, just prior to World War Two.
He also served as a recruiting officer for a time but in 1941 again became an active serviceman, this time with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve. He served as Commander at HMCS GIVENCHY, Esquimalt, and Burrard, Vancouver.
In 1950 Bourke ended his long and dedicated career with the navy, retiring as supervisor of civilian guards. He died in August 1958 and was buried with full military honours. Bourke willed his VC and other medals to the National Archives in Ottawa.