Wednesday 21 December 2022

Captain Reuben James Rawe: Veteran of the Normandy Landings and Nigerian Naval Pioneer

Commander Reuben James Rawe walks behind Commodore J.E.A. Wey, the Nigerian Chief of Naval Staff, during a passing out parade of one hundred non-commissioned naval personnel in April 1967 (Still from a Reuters newsreel).

I have always wanted to piece together a sketch of the career of Reuben James Rawe, an expatriate English naval officer of whom I had only the skimpiest of memories from my childhood in Nigeria. But the memories have been lightened in recent years as I discovered old newsreel footage to do with the Nigerian Navy, an organisation within which my Father made a career and of which Rawe helped develop from its early years. Rawe, I have since discovered, was a participant in the Normandy invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as a ship’s commander during the Nigerian Civil War. He also won a libel action against a prominent author who had referred to him in a book as a “swashbuckling mercenary.” In 2016, at age 90, Rawe was among the ever-decreasing number of World War 2 veterans who were honoured for their roles in the D-Day landings by receiving the Legion d'honneur medal.

The earliest record that I have of Reuben James Rawe is among the names of temporary Midshipmen contained in a list provided by the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). A Midshipman is the lowest rank of an officer, and Rawe, who would have been at least eighteen at the time, has his date of entry as January 20th, 1944. Less than five months later, First Lieutenant Rawe would serve as the navigating officer on a Mark IV Landing Craft Tank (LCT 977) during the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. His vessel had been earmarked to land at Utah Beach, a task that was fraught with great obstacles amid the chaos of war. He offered the following recollection to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in 2018:

As dawn broke, we moved to our allocated area. We had a Battalion of HQ Company of the US 12th Infantry on board commanded by a Colonel Luckett. As the first waves of troops started their dash to the beach the Colonel got reports of how easy it was but the beach control party had made a mistake. We were landing in the wrong place, between the beaches scheduled as Utah and Omaha. When we got to the final departure point 1000yds from the beach, landing was temporarily stopped. The beach was coming under heavy fire, but the Colonel decided he had to get in and find out what was happening. I heard later that out of the 180 men we landed, only 27 survived the first 14 days and Colonel Luckett took over command of the Division as the senior surviving Officer.

A photograph taken of Rawe soon after his return to Portsmouth from Normandy in HM LCT 1051 appeared in the Portsmouth Evening News.

Rawe stayed on in the Royal Navy until 1955 when he opted to find employment with the naval force of the British colony of Nigeria. The role of a naval officer in West Africa is one which appealed to some about-to-retire British naval officers and others who aspired to nautical careers. The young Graham Greene for one nursed alternate ambitions after completing his degree at Oxford University. One was to join the colonial service, while the other was to join the “Nigerian Navy.”

In the 1920s, the yet to be constituted Nigerian Naval Force was known as the colonial Marine Department of the Royal Navy which in 1959 was redesignated as the Royal Nigerian Navy. By 1960, the year Nigeria would obtain its independence from Britain, the nascent navy had few Indigenous officers. In his 2019 paper titled “Historicizing the Development and Intensification of the Nigerian Navy between 1956-1958” for the International Journal of History and Cultural Studies, Dr. William Abiodun Duyile notes that the navy had one Nigerian officer in the executive branch, three in the engineering branch and five in the supply branch. “The rest of the officers were retired Royal Navy officers.”

As was the case with the Nigerian Army, independence brought with it a policy of rapid “Nigerianisation.” But the necessity of foreign input through the secondments and training teams provided by Britain and India was a given. As a “military brat” I came to know some of these figures, officers such as Captain Ian Wright and Commodore M.P. Singh who were around in the 1970s. Prior to them was Captain James Rawe.

Rawe appeared not to be merely an expatriate on secondment but in fact, an integrated member of the more or less fully indigenised naval force which had dropped the “Royal” prefix when the nation became a republic in 1963. His promotions were announced alongside Nigerian Navy promotions within the Nigerian government's official gazette. For instance, he was promoted to the rank of Substantive Captain in June 1969 on the same day that Nelson Soroh was promoted to Substantive Commodore. This, incidentally, was the same day that my Father was promoted to Substantive Lieutenant Commander along with Ebenge Okpo and Alfred Diete-Spiff, the military governor of the old Rivers State.

Also, whereas British military officers recommended to receive medals on the British honours system were referred to as been “on loan to the government of the Federation of Nigeria”, the award of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) to Lieutenant Commander Rawe at the beginning of 1964 referred to him as an officer of the Royal Nigerian Navy, while the 1967 award of the Ordinary Officer of the Military Division of the said Most Excellent Order (O.B.E.) to Commander Rawe referred to him as an officer of the Nigerian Navy.

Newsreel clips capture Rawe’s service at various official and ceremonial engagements usually shadowing the Chief of Naval Staff, Commodore (later Vice Admiral) J.E.A. Wey, to whom my Father served as Flag Lieutenant. There is film of Rawe as part of the entourage greeting Lord Mountbatten, then the Chief of the Defence Staff, while on a visit to Nigeria in October 1964. Another piece of footage shows Rawe accompanying Wey during a passing out parade of a hundred non-commissioned naval personnel in April 1967, and in October 1968, Rawe was part of the ceremony surrounding the award of the Nigerian Navy its first colours by the head of the Federal Military Government Major General Yakubu Gowon.

But Rawe’s tasks were more than ceremonial. He engaged in steering the development of the military capabilities of the navy during politically volatile circumstances of the 1960s. Although the navy was not involved in the violent uprisings of January and July 1966 which were the fruit of conspiracies within the army, the navy gave legitimacy to the military governments formed respectively by Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon.

With its personnel largely drawn from the south of the country, the navy was not subject to the intense rivalry between army officers and men from the Eastern Region and the Northern Region. Nonetheless, the wider tensions in the country brought about a policy of separating sailors of Igbo origin who began to be suspected of planning a mass defection to the about-to-secede Eastern Region. Acts of sabotage were committed on onshore equipment, as well as on electrical and electronic equipment on almost all the ships in April 1967, with most Igbo personnel defecting that month.

Commander Rawe was involved in the commencement of and the maintaining of the naval blockade instituted by Federal Nigeria against the secessionist state of Biafra which was headed by the former military governor of the Eastern Region Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. He took command of NNS Penelope, a survey ship, which performed reconnoitring duties. And given his experience during the Normandy Landings, it is likely that he would have been a key advisor to Lt. Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, Commander of the Third Infantry Division, prior to the seaborne assault on the oil terminal town of Bonny. The subsequent amphibious landing in July 1967 was the first of its kind ever to be attempted by African troops.

Rawe was awarded a series of medals for his services between 1966 and 1970. They include the General Service Medal, the National Service Medal, and the Defence Service Medal. He would also receive the Tenth Anniversary of the Republic Medal, the Independence Medal, and the Forces Service Star Medal.

Rawe retired from the Nigerian Navy in 1970. The Official Gazette of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (No.46/Vol.57, published in August 1970) records his leaving the employ of the Ministry of Defence on March 25th 1970. On returning to England, he joined the Probation Service in Oxfordshire in the early part of 1971. The Justice of the Peace (Vol.135/Iss.47-53, Page 847) records his appointment as the Principal Probation Officer at Henley Magistrates' Court. 

In April 1974, Captain Rawe won damages and costs from the author John de St. Jorre and Hodder and Stoughton Publishers. De St. Jorre’s book, The Nigerian Civil War which had been published in 1972, suggested that Rawe “walked around with a heavy pistol strapped to his thigh”. The implication that he was a soldier of fortune, or as the Sunday Telegraph report of Tuesday, April 30th, 1974, put it “a swashbuckling mercenary", offended Rawe who showed the court that he had been a member of the Royal Nigerian Navy and the successor Nigerian Navy for many years prior to the war. He was represented by the barrister Leon Brittan, who later became a prominent Tory government minister during the administration of Margaret Thatcher.

He has lived a long life and it must have been personally gratifying for him to have received the Legion d'honneur medal from Sylvie Bermann, the French Ambassador to Britain, a few days before the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, during a ceremony at the French embassy in Kensington, London.

It would be an honour and a delight to speak with him if he is still alive.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2022).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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