Published 13th November 2012
The groups awarded to Major General Leslie Horace Birks CB DSO (1897-1985) and Major General David Tennant "Punch" Cowan CB CBE DSO (and Bar) MC (1896-1983) were received in recognition of their outstanding service in the North Africa and Burmese theatres.
Both men began their military careers during the First World War and during the inter war period served in India, where the families long connection was established. At the outbreak of World War Two, they further enhanced their reputations by decisive and impressive tactical command of their respective regiments.
Both officers were notable characters amongst the men they served with. Major General Leslie Birks was made a member of the Caterpillar Club after the end of the war when his plane crashed over the Alps, forcing him to parachute to safety.
We are honoured to have the opportunity to offer these military medal groups and look forward to a sucessful outcome.
During the Honiton Antiques Festival, we are holding a series of events and valuations, as well as an exhibition of medals through the ages.
A fine family group comprising,
Major General David Tennant "Punch" Cowan CB CBE DSO (and Bar) MC (1896-1983)
CB, CBE, DSO and Bar, Military Cross, 1914-15 Star, War Medal, Victory Medal with Oak leaf, Indian General Service Medal with Waziristan 1919-1921, Mahsud 1919-1920 and Afghanistan NWF 1919 bars, India General Service Medal with North West Frontier 1936-1937 bar, 1939-1945 Star, The Burma Star, War Medal 1939-45 with Oak leaf and India Service Medal
Major Michael Tennant Cowan 1/6 Ghurkha Rifles
1939-1945 Star, The Burma Star, Defence Medal and War Medal 1939-45
Corporal Anne Pamela Cowan WAS
Burma 1939-1945 Star, The Burma Star, War Medal 1939-45 with Oak leaf. With label 'now Mrs AHE Birks'
"Punch" Cowan was a legendary character of the famous 'Black cat' Division of the Indian 17th Infantry Division during the whole of the Burma campaign.
Commissioned to the 3rd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1915, he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross, transferring to the 6th Ghurkha Rifles in 1917.
Between the Wars he served in India and was again mentioned in dispatches, attending Command Staff College, Quetta at a similar time as Major General Leslie Birks CB DSO. At the outbreak of World War Two, he was Commanding Officer 1st Battalion 6th Gurka Rifles and Deputy Director of Military Training in India.
Originally posted to Rangoon as a staff officer, he took command of the 17th Infantry Division when its former commander was relieved of his duties. He remained in command for the remainder of the campaign, particularly the actions at Tiddim 1943, Imphal 1944 and the drive into Central Burma.
His son Major Tennant Cowan was killed in 1945 whilst serving in his father's old regiment (1/6th Ghurkha Rifles). Despite suffering this loss, Punch commanded the decisive Battle of Meikitila being awarded the DSO for his leadership throughout the Burma campaign.
Poised to become the Commanding Officer of the Indian section of the Commonwealth Corps for the intended invasion of Japan, he then became general Officer Commanding the joint British-Indian division BRINDIV as part of the occupation force after the Japanese surrender.
Retiring in 1947, he moved to Devon and subsequently became Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Devon, retiring from public life after the Commonwealth Games in 1958.
Both his children pursued military careers and it is most likely that during service in India the Cowan and Birks family connections were established.
A fine group awarded to Major General Leslie Horace Birks CB DSO (1897-1985)
Military KCB Star, DSO, 1914-15 Star, War Medal, Victory Medal, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45 with oak leaf, Coronation Medal 1937, with corresponding miniature group and Caterpillar Club badge, mounted in a glazed case.
Horace Leslie Birks enlisted in the London Rifle Brigade in 1915 and was commissioned to Machine Gun Corps Heavy Branch in 1917, fighting in the Battle of Cambrai the same year. During the battle of the Somme he was injured by shrapnel chipping from the internal armour of his machine.
In the inter war period he served in India and was and instructor at the Staff College, Quetta in 1937. From 1940, he took command of the 4th Armoured Brigade in Egypt and the 126th Infantry Brigade from September 1941.
As Commander of the 11th Armoured Brigade from November 1941, he led his brigade at the Battle of Tobruk. In January 1943, he became General Officer Commanding the 10th Armoured Division in North Africa and Commander of the Royal Armoured Corps for the Mediterranean Force in Italy in 1944. He became a member of the Caterpillar Club (as the club's records state) when his plane crashed in the Alps on his return from his Mediterranean Command.
Major General Birks, three brigadiers and his "servant" were flown by a crew of three in Hudson No 723 of the RAF from Naples to Berlin, when over Innsbruck the aircraft became unmanageable owing to severe icing. The passengers and crew were obliged to bail out in thick cloud, with six of the crew and passengers landing in the valley of the Vomper loch more or less unhurt. However, he and one other man came down in a neighbouring mountain with Major General Birks breaking his leg.
Founded by Leslie Irvin of the Irvin Airchute Company in 1922, the Caterpillar Club is an informal association of people whose lives have been saved by use of a parachute to exit a disabled aircraft. Members are provided with a certificate and distinctive lapel pin in the form of a caterpillar in reference to the silk threads its produces in order to make parachute silk.
Reference: 1. With thanks to Elain Thomas Sales Operations Systems UK MoD Airborne Systems Ltd.