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Naval hero was 'bravest of VCs'

Victoria Cross recipient joined U.K. force after Canadian military rejected him over poor eyesight

To mark the centennial of the Royal Canadian Navy,

Times Colonist editorial page editor Dave Obee is writing a series of retrospectives. This week: Some notable figures in the history of the navy.

To read previous columns in the series online, go to history.

A century and a half of naval and military history is reflected in Veterans Cemetery in Esquimalt -- the little patch of land surrounded by the Gorge Vale golf course and known to locals as God's Acre.

The cemetery is the final resting place for men and women from several countries and from several forces. It is still an active cemetery -- you will see the name of Myles Mansell, the bombardier from Victoria who died in Afghanistan in 2006, on one of the markers.

Mansell was just one of many people who died too young in the service of their country. That becomes obvious in a short stroll through Veterans Cemetery.

The cemetery was established in July 1868, on land the Royal Navy purchased from a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company for use as a burial ground for officers and men.

Before the cemetery was opened, officers had been buried at the Quadra Street cemetery and enlisted men were buried on Brothers Island at the mouth of Esquimalt Harbour.

In 1901, with the arrival of the Royal Artillery, the British War Office bought the eastern section of the cemetery for the burial of artillery officers and soldiers. The cemetery later passed into Canadian hands.

The graves at God's Acre bear the names of some of the legendary Royal Navy ships, such as HMS Warspite, HMS Sparrowhawk and HMS Triumph, which protected our coast before the formation of the Royal Canadian Navy. These men died in accidents or from illness rather than in warfare, but earned their spot in the cemetery through their commitment to the navy.

On Thursday, a candlelight vigil will be held in Veterans Cemetery. It is a chance for us to pay tribute to those brave men and women who were willing to die for their country.

- Rowland Richard Louis Bourke

One of Canada's greatest naval heroes in the First World War did not serve in the Royal Canadian Navy, which had no presence in the war theatre. Like many Canadians seeking to serve in a navy, Rowland Richard Louis Bourke joined the Royal Navy instead.

As a result of his actions Bourke was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was also a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, the Legion of Merit and Croix de Guerre.

In 1929 the Prince of Wales described VC recipients as "the most democratic and most exclusive of all orders of charity." Bourke was said to be the "bravest of the VCs" as a result of his actions under enemy fire.

Bourke was born in London, England, and emigrated to Canada in 1902. He moved to Crescent Bay, near Nelson to grow fruit. At the start of the war, Bourke tried to join the Canadian military but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He returned to the United Kingdom to enlist in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which did not consider his thick glasses to be a concern.

He was a 32-year-old lieutenant when the navy launched its second raid at Ostend, Belgium. The plan was to abandon obsolete British cruisers in the harbour, blocking German U-boats that were stationed in a canal farther inland.

On May 9 and 10, 1918, after HMS Vindictive's crew had been taken off, Bourke took his motor launch into the harbour to check that everybody had got away.

His initial search found no-one, but as he was leaving the harbour he heard cries from the water and turned back. He found an officer and two seamen clinging to an upturned boat and rescued them.

His motor launch came under heavy fire and was hit 55 times, once by a six-inch shell which killed two of her crew. Bourke, however, managed to take the launch to the open sea.

On his return to Canada, Bourke married Rosalind Thelma Barnet. They went on a tour of Australia and New Zealand on behalf of the Navy League, then returned to his orchard in the West Kootenay.

The Bourkes moved to Esquimalt in 1932, when Rowland joined the staff of the Dockyard.

During the Second World War, Bourke served with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. He finally retired in 1950.

The Bourkes were presented to the King and Queen during their Canadian tour in 1939. They attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, sitting in a special enclosure for Victoria Cross recipients. In 1956 they took part in a royal centenary review of VCs in Hyde Park, London.

Bourke died in Esquimalt in August 1958. A full naval guard was present for his funeral at Our Lady Queen of Peace Memorial Church on Old Esquimalt Road.

Tom Taylor, a columnist for the Daily Colonist, was an acquaintance of Bourke and served as an honourary pallbearer.

Taylor wrote that the Royal Canadian Navy was always at its best at formal occasions -- "and this was one that touched the core of its pride." At the church, he said, four navy ratings stood motionless throughout the service, symbolizing the link between the living and the dead.

Bourke was taken from the church to Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich.

"At the burial ground the scene was one to linger in memory," Taylor said.

"There was a fine dignity and grave grandeur as the white-capped gun crew slowly drew the carriage bearing the casket along the winding paths to the graveside. There the honour guard, the firing squad and the bearers formed two sides of a square, uniting with relatives and friends as the final benediction was spoken.

"Then the air crackled as the traditional volleys voiced the navy's parting salute, and the haunting call of the bugler hung eloquently in space."

Bourke's Victoria Cross and his other decorations were carried on a cushion by a sailor. "They bespoke so well the man in whose name they were fashioned," Taylor wrote.

- Eula Wolfenden

Lieut.-Cmdr. Eula Wolfenden was born Eula Winifred Ledingham. She was educated in Vancouver and took her nursing training at Vancouver General Hospital, where she graduated in 1927.

Her post-graduate work was done at California Lutheran Hospital in Los Angeles. She returned to Vancouver and became a supervisor at the hospital there. In 1929, she married Marvin Wilson in Vancouver.

Early in 1943, she joined the navy as a sub-lieutenant nursing officer, and was posted to Halifax and later made matron of HMCS Cornwallis. She was posted to Esquimalt and became matron of HMCS Naden Hospital.

Wolfenden was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1946. "For outstanding service as a Nursing Sister in the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital at Halifax, and as Matron of the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital at Cornwallis," her citation read. "Her devotion to duty, cheerful personality, keen and sympathetic interest in her patients have made her a valuable and exemplary Naval Officer."

The award was made

by the king in his birthday honours and was published in the Canada Gazette on June 15, 1946.

Wolfenden was appointed matron-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Nursing Service in March 1947 and promoted to lieutenant-commander. Her job was to run the nursing branch of the Royal Canadian Navy, and also to serve as nursing officer in charge of the navy hospital, HMCS Stadacona, in Halifax.

In the fall of 1947, she divorced Wilson. She resigned her commission on March 31, 1948, when she married Lieut. Cmdr. John Wolfenden, commanding officer HMCS Cedarwood, an experimental vessel assigned to the Pacific Naval Laboratory in Esquimalt.

Cedarwood made history in the summer of 1949 with a voyage north -- as the Daily Colonist reported that September, the Cedarwood had made it as close to the North Pole as any other vessel had ever done.

Eula Wolfenden died, after a lengthy illness, in Royal Jubilee Hospital on Nov. 22, 1954. She was just 47 years old.

Full naval honours were accorded her. After a funeral service at Sands in downtown Victoria, her body was taken to Viewmont Avenue and the Pat Bay Highway. There, it was transferred to a gun carriage drawn by members of HMCS Naden gunnery school. The party went to the Royal Oak Burial Park chapel for final rites.

There were 36 men in the gun carriage party. The HMCS Naden band was also there.

Next week: Walter Hose, the father of the Royal Canadian Navy.