REMEMBRANCE EXHIBITION; One Man’s Burma Campaign: David Tennant Cowan

REMEMBRANCE EXHIBITION; One Man’s Burma Campaign: David Tennant Cowan

by Dr Robert Lyman FRHIstS

The Burma Campaign was the longest campaign fought by the British Commonwealth during the Second World War. Only a tiny handful of soldiers served throughout the entirety of the campaign. One was the Gurkha officer David Tennant Cowan.

The Burma Campaign began for Cowan, universally known by his nickname ‘Punch’, when, as a Brigadier, he left his job as Deputy Director Military Training, Indian Army, to be the Brigadier, General Staff (BGS) of 17 Division, in Burma, in January 1942. The GOC of the division was Major General Jackie Smyth VC. When the all-Gurkha division had arrived in Burma in January it was with only one of its brigades: the other two had been sent to Singapore. Unprepared, the British and Indian troops in Burma struggled to deal with a savage and decisive Japanese offensive. At the Sittang Bridge shortly after the first waves of General Iida’s 15th Army came across the frontier from Thailand, the 17th Division was destroyed by a series of mistakes that led to the premature blowing of the bridge. The division, which had been brought to strength with Indian and Burmese reinforcements, went from 16,000 men to 3,500 overnight. Smyth was sacked and Punch Cowan was promoted to take command. He was to lead it to the end of the war.

With the Sittang Bridge disaster as a backdrop, Cowan did a remarkable job of bringing the remnants together and, within 1st Burma Corps, now commanded by his old friend and fellow Gurkha Bill Slim, conducting a successful fighting withdrawal back to India. Fascinatingly, while Burma 1942 was a defeat for Britain, several successful engagements against the Japanese were carried out by men of the 17th Division, proving that well-led and equipped, British, Indian and Gurkhas troops were more than a match for the Japanese. These small victories were to prove the seeds of victory in 1944 and 1945. Lieutenant James Lunt, who experienced the retreat from Burma described Cowan as ‘one of the finest fighting commanders ever produced by the old Indian Army.’[i] He was awarded a DSO for his role in the longest retreat in the history of the British Army.

In 1943 his division remained on the frontline in the northern Chin Hills, garrisoning the mountain villages of Kennedy Peak and Tiddim, denying the region to the Japanese. In March 1944 he conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal of his division from Tiddim to Imphal, and then in 1945 took his men back into Burma as part of Operation Extended Capital, playing a significant role in Slim’s savage defeat of General Kimura at Meiktila in February and March 1945. A fellow Gurkha officer on his staff recalled that by 1945 everyone else in the Indian Army was green with envy at Cowan’s ‘Black Cats’: it had won more VCs and killed more Japanese than any other division in the 14th Army.[ii] Cowan received a bar to his DSO for his command of the division in 1945.

Tragedy struck, however, on the cusp of 14th Army’s great victory. His precious only son, Major M.H.T. Cowan, serving with 1st Battalion 6th Gurkha Rifles, was killed on 6 March 1945 during the attack on Mandalay. Hugh Pettigrew recalls that Punch was ‘stricken with grief… but he took it magnificently like the fine soldier he was.’ Cowan went on to lead his division into Rangoon in May 1945 and took it to Japan as part of the occupation forces at the end of the war.

Cowan was one of a bevy of Gurkha officers, many of whom had served in 6th Gurkhas, nicknamed ‘The Mongol Conspiracy’ in the Indian Army by virtue of the number of senior officers it produced, who dominated Slim’s 14th Army in 1944 and 1945. It was Cowan and men like him who took the British and Indian armies from profound defeat in 1942 to overwhelming victory in 1945.

[i] James Lunt A Hell of a Licking (1989), p. xviii).

[ii] Colonel H.R.C (Hugh) Pettigrew It Seemed Very Ordinary (Privately Published, 2017), p. 309.

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The medals of the Cowan Family pictured above were purchased for the Museum with the help of the 6th Gurkha Rilfes Regimental Association.

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