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Bowen, Rowland Griffiths (1879–1965)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Rowland Griffiths Bowen (1879-1965), naval commander, was born on 14 January 1879 at Taggerty, Victoria, seventh child of David Bowen, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Hughes, both of whom were natives of Wales. His father died when he was 7 and the family moved to Petrie, Queensland, where Rowland attended the local state school; in 1895-1911 he worked in Brisbane as a railways clerk. He served in the Queensland Naval Brigade, became a sub-lieutenant in 1900 in the emerging Commonwealth naval forces and in 1911 joined the Royal Australian Navy as a lieutenant. He was district naval officer at Thursday Island until February 1914 and assistant D.N.O. in Melbourne until the outbreak of war. On 14 August, at All Saints Anglican Church, East St Kilda, he married Agnes Grace Mary Bell.

On 19 August Bowen sailed with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force which had been hastily raised to destroy German wireless stations in the Pacific. In the force's first operation in German New Guinea he led a party of twenty-five naval reservists in an attack on the radio station at Bitapaka. The party was put ashore at Kabakaul on 11 September and, while pushing forward through dense jungle, was ambushed by a patrol of native soldiers led by three German officers. In the skirmish that followed one of the Germans was wounded, and surrendered. Bowen ordered him, under threat of shooting him, to call on his comrades to surrender, for 800 Australians were advancing. Soon afterwards Bowen was shot in the head by a sniper and evacuated; he was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry and was promoted acting lieutenant-commander in November. His action in coercing a prisoner to act as a decoy was later described by the official historians as an apparent infringement, through ignorance, of the rules of warfare. Legal or otherwise, the incident had unforeseen consequences: the false report of the strength of the Australian troops reached the acting governor of German New Guinea who ordered his small force to abandon the defence of the coastal belt. The military occupation of the colony followed without opposition.

Bowen resumed duty on the Melbourne naval staff in April 1915. Six months later his wife died, leaving him with an infant daughter. In 1916 he became first State president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. Next year he was posted to Perth and on 22 November married Corinne Elizabeth Bruce-Nicol in St George's Anglican Cathedral. He was promoted commander in April 1919 and was D.N.O. in Tasmania in 1919-23 and in Western Australia in 1923-35. He retired in 1936 and settled in Sydney. An officer of the Order of St John of Jerusalem from that time, he was secretary of the New South Wales Centre, St John's Ambulance Association, in 1939-44 and first Australian registrar and priory secretary of the order in 1942-57. He retired to Canberra in 1957 and two years later was appointed O.B.E. Survived by a son and a daughter, he died on 21 October 1965 and was cremated with Presbyterian rites.

Tall and distinguished in appearance, brisk in manner and speech, conscientious and inflexibly high-principled, Bowen probably commanded respect more readily than he inspired affection. At ease with his friends, he was a man of considerable charm and had a fund of amusing stories.

Select Bibliography

  • S. S. Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul (Syd, 1927)
  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy (Syd, 1928)
  • Blue Book, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1903, vol 1
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Sept 1936
  • Canberra Times, 20 Aug 1964, 22 Oct 1965
  • Department of Defence (Navy), MP124, 6, 580/201/27 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Bowen, Rowland Griffiths (1879–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowen-rowland-griffiths-5311/text8925, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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