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 Rowland Bourke, Victoria BC.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.