The darkness was thick with an hour to go to moonrise. On the bridge of the British navy destroyer HMS Petard Canadian born Midshipman Arthur Rowland strained to see the faint blue light 200 or so metres ahead marking the stern of HMS Eclipse.
“And suddenly there was this great flash of light out in the darkness. The Eclipse had just exploded.” The now 91-year old and long retired RCN Lieutenant Commander Rowland still quietly recalls that night in 1943. He was 19 years old and the black Aegean Sea night was about to bring him face to face with multiple deaths and force a teenager to make decisions no man should ever have to make.
In his book Fighting Destroyer – the story of HMS Petard, a former officer G.G.Connell tells us within seconds of the explosion Petard was brought to all engines stop “and the crowded ship listened to the awful silence that followed the nightmare destruction” of Eclipse. Rescue boats were lowered with Canadian Midshipman Rowland in command of two “whalers”.(In his book Connell inaccurately names the Midshipman “Rothwell”, an error Rowland courteously blames on the passage of time between the event and the writing.)
“For four hours, in extremely hazardous conditions, in a sea thick with oil…the young midshipman, little more than a boy, with his two whalers looked for men in the roughening sea. The casualties were terrible, out of a total of 420 men, 220 ships company the remainder soldiers being moved to a new base, only 44 were found alive. Connell writes “the tall red-headed midshipman and his boats carried on bringing back to (their) ship the few pitiful oil covered survivors” until daylight placed the Petard and its crew and decks crowded with soldiers “at unacceptable risk.”
Seventy two years later Rowland remembers with emotion his feelings as he took his last boat load of bodies and survivors back the mother ship. “We couldn’t get any more in the whaler when we were ordered back. It was an awful feeling. It bothered me for a long time but we had to carry on.””
Rowland, born in Montreal on July 7, 1924, joined the RCN in 1941 in Ottawa, was almost immediately shipped by armed merchant ship to Liverpool then on to cadet school. His first ship was the battleship HMS Nelson which he joined in May, 1942. He is still proud possessor of his navy issue Midshipman’s Log Book in which are recorded the events of almost every day of his life on the battleship where even the rigors of war in the Mediterranean were not allowed to interrupt a midshipman’s studies and regular exams.
From battleship to destroyer and then, to end his war, a period on the light cruiser Uganda which fought in the Pacific and returned to Esquimalt after a controversial on-board vote in which 605 members of the 907 strong crew declined an invitation to volunteer for continued service. Uganda arrived in Esquimalt on August 10, 1945, the day Japan surrendered.
It was while stationed in Esquimalt that Rowland met Holly Greer. They married in 1949 and raised two adopted children, a son who died age 31 a victim of muscular dystrophy and a daughter who remains a Nun with the Sisters of Charity and still teaches school in Victoria..
Between Petard and Uganda there was a change of pace from big ships to Landing Craft Infantry (light) and the matter of D-Day. Rowland kept a meticulous record: “With one hundred and ninety eight troops aboard we sailed from Southampton at about 1930 on the Fifth June, 1944…we were on our way to France…throughout the night we passed a number of major landing craft….as dawn crept in from the east we approached the minefield through which a narrow channel had been swept….”
The young officer described running in circles until the call came to land their troops. “After that had been done there were problems recovering the ramps lowered to disembark the troops and meanwhile the tide was beginning to recede…we had become well and truly stuck….As the tide went out (6ft per hour) more and more craft got stuck….Astern of us showed iron obstacles and posts with mines on top…we were extremely lucky to miss these as a great many ships either side of us did not…”
And then his diary tells us: “Since we were going to be there for some time, I went for a walk along the beach.”
The strong legs that walked a D-Day beach are no longer as sure as once they were. But with “walker aid” he still gets in a daily stroll. Come November 11 he may not be marching with the ever dwindling few,but you can bet he will be remembering that blackest of nights on the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey when the Eclipse hit a mine and sank in minutes and close to 400 sailors and members of 4th Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) perished.
And so should we all as the Last Post again echoes its loneliest of messages around the world.
(first published in 2011 but worth repeating)