Monday 17 April 2023

Captain James Rawe - Obituary

Captain James Rawe was an English naval officer who was a veteran of the Normandy Landings. He was also a pioneer officer of the Nigerian Navy, which he played a significant role in developing during war and peace.

Captain James Rawe on his last day on duty at the naval base, Apapa, Nigeria in 1969.

Captain James Rawe, who has died aged 97, had a career which spanned service in both the Royal Navy and the Nigerian Navy.

Educated by the brothers of Our Lady of Mercy at St Aloysius’ College in Highgate, North London, the teenaged Rawe joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) during World War 2 and as a midshipman served as the navigation officer of a Mark IV landing craft tank which landed the first wave of American troops on “Utah Beach”. Travelling from an embarkation point in Falmouth, Cornwall, his passengers were a battalion of HQ Company of the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment. He was also part of “Combined Operations”, the department of the British War Office set up to carry out operational warfare missions designed to harass and degrade German positions on the European continent. He completed the commando training course near Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland. 

After the war Rawe, who specialised as a hydrographer, served on HMS Dampier, a survey ship based in Singapore. It carried out oceanographic and hydrographic surveys around the coasts of Malaya, Borneo, and Hong Kong, as well as the South China and Java Seas. He was in the Sulu Sea when he received a letter from Commander E.H. Griffiths, like Rawe, a member of the navy’s Hydrographic Service, who asked Rawe whether he would like to join him in Nigeria to “start a Royal Navy type survey service and possibly a Nigerian Navy”. Believing that it is the things one does not do which one regrets, Rawe decided not to sign on for a further two years with the Royal Navy and in June 1955 he journeyed to Lagos by mailboat.

Lieutenant Rawe became the first person, Nigerian or British, to sign up for the Nigerian Naval Force which came into being in 1956. The force was an evolution of the national Marine Department which Nigerian politicians had sought to transform into an armed service. He would go on to play a significant role in developing the force which was renamed the Royal Nigerian Navy in 1958 and the Nigerian Navy in 1963 after the country became a republic.

The early part of Rawe’s new career was spent performing hydrographic tasks along Nigeria’s extensive coastline in command first of the ship HMNNS Pathfinder and later HMNNS Penelope. He would go on to command HMNNS Nigeria, an Algerine-class minesweeper which was formerly HMS Hare. He was involved in recruitment drives for the navy and sat on several courts martial and a board of inquiry. Rawe also performed tasks associated with the visits of royalty and dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II, President William Tubman of Liberia and Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of the Defence Staff.

In July 1964, Lieutenant Commander Rawe was appointed as the Naval Officer in Command (NOIC) of Lagos, a title which due to sensitivities about his expatriate status was later re-designated as the Commanding Officer of the Naval Base, Apapa. He was in this position when the first of two army coups occurred on January 15th, 1966. Middle-ranking army officers conducted a purge of the political classes assassinating Nigeria's prime minister, two of the country’s four regional premiers and the federal minister of finance whose name had become a by-word for corruption among the political elite. Several senior army officers also lost their lives.

The coup led to Rawe’s friend Commodore Joseph Wey, the Chief of Naval Staff, becoming a senior member of a military government headed by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Changes in the navy’s command structure followed when the Indian government sent instructions to their naval training team which included a captain serving as the chief-of-staff to desist from partaking in any operational matters while seconded to a service involved in a military coup. Several British naval officers gave up their posts and abruptly left Nigeria.  

Rawe himself met with the British military attaché who, with the agreement of the British High Commissioner, advised him to leave the Nigerian Navy immediately. But Rawe strongly disagreed pointing out that his departure as the last remaining fully operational staff officer would run counter to maintaining the good name of Britain and might serve to undermine the fragile military government. Under Rawe’s command, the naval base became a sanctuary for senior military officers seeking refuge, because it had remained a stable organisation. Rawe also told the attaché that his work for the Nigerian Navy was based on a letter written by the last British Governor General on behalf of the Queen requesting that he remain in her service within the Nigerian Navy after the country became independent in October 1960. He proposed that if Her Majesty had changed her mind, he should be given a second letter which reflected her change of attitude. The attaché shrugged his shoulders and left.

During this period of tumult, Rawe effectively succeeded the Indian captain as chief-of-staff as the nominal successor, Captain Nelson Soroh, remained on his ship. Rawe, now promoted to the rank of commander, was designated as Principal Staff Officer. He would combine this position with that of base commander until he left the service in 1969. Before that, however, was the matter of a civil war.

As the Eastern region of Nigeria, headed by its military governor Lt. Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, began a trajectory toward the secession which he officially announced at the end of May 1967, Rawe’s efforts aimed at keeping the navy united was undermined by acts of sabotage on naval vessels and equipment by about-to-defect personnel who absconded to the east. Prior to the outbreak of war on July 6th, 1967, Rawe oversaw the instituting of a naval blockade of the coast of the secessionist state named Biafra. And when Ironsi’s successor as head of state Major General Yakubu Gowon instructed the naval command to draw up plans for a seaborne invasion of Biafra, it was immediately clear that Rawe, the only member of the navy to have faced gunfire while landing on a beach, would be central to the planning and execution of such an operation. Indeed, Rawe went on to plan all the landings and together with the now promoted Rear Admiral Wey would formulate overall naval strategy.

Wey, who had been transferred to the navy from the old Marine Department, had been the chief engineer on HMNNS Nigeria which Rawe had commanded. The close friendship which both men had developed had been crucial to both accepting the role reversal that ensued with the post-independence policy of “Nigerianisation”, when Wey was given accelerated promotion and seniority in rank.

Rawe’s hydrographic work on Nigeria’s coastline was another important element in his planning of amphibious operations, as indeed was his wartime training and experience with combined operations. It made him a great believer in the need for integrated operations and the need for the branches of the armed forces to work closely together and to know how the other arms operated. It was also important to Rawe that the service branches trusted each other.

Although the possibility had existed in the past of an inter-service operation: one over political tension with Cameroon and another relating to a planned invasion of Togo to aid President Sylvanus Olympio in the event of a war with Nkrumaist Ghana, the Nigerian Navy and Army had never performed a combined operation. Rawe ensured that preparations were not merely confined to military co-ordination but also involved the conscious building up of an esprit de corps between officers of both services.

Much to the surprise of Nigeria’s senior officers including Gowon, Rawe went on to develop an excellent working relationship with Lt. Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, a mercurial figure later to gain notoriety among the international press covering the civil war. Both officers formulated their battle plans for each amphibious landing and met to coordinate their plans. As Rawe later recalled they both shared “danger and discomfort” and had “complete trust in each other when in the face of the enemy”.

Acting as the forward control officer and the naval liaison officer, Rawe commanded his old survey ship NNS Penelope and beginning with the assault at the oil terminal town of Bonny on July 25th, 1967, the Nigerian Navy successfully transported, landed, and provided covering fire for troops of the Third Infantry Division commanded by Adekunle. The final amphibious landing was at Oron in 1968. The landings were crucial in ensuring the encirclement and eventual capitulation of Biafra.

Captain Rawe retired from the Nigerian Navy in 1969, after having delayed his retirement at the request of Major General Gowon.

On returning to England, Rawe joined the Probation Service in Oxfordshire in the early part of 1971. He was later appointed 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. During this time his salary had been paid by Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service. He was represented by the solicitor Sir Hugh Rossi, with whom Rawe had attended school, and the barrister Leon Brittan, who later became a prominent Tory government minister during the administration of Margaret Thatcher.

James Rawe in 2016 after receiving the Legion d'honneur.

Rawe was awarded many medals for his service with both navies. From the Nigerians he received at least six including the Forces Service Star Medal. He received the M.B.E. and O.B.E. (military division) respectively in 1963 and 1967. In 2016, he received the Legion d'honneur 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.

James Rawe was married to Irene in 1952. He is survived by his wife, three sons, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Captain James Rawe, born July 14th 1925, died April 15th, 2023.

Written by Adeyinka Makinde.

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