Cometh the hour, cometh the veteran of the Somme

The wreckage of Portsmouth Harbour station in August 1940 and, below, Victor Cowan and the notes he received for his heroism
The wreckage of Portsmouth Harbour station in August 1940 and, below, Victor Cowan and the notes he received for his heroism
Passchendaele. Picture: Imperial War Museum

Pompey Pals will lay wreath at Guildhall Square for Passchendaele dead

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The picture above shows the devastating result of an air raid on Portsmouth Harbour station.

I published the picture earlier this year and said the date of the raid was August 13, 1940. It wasn’t.

jpns-21-11-14-052 rw 2''Ticket collector Victor Cowan

jpns-21-11-14-052 rw 2''Ticket collector Victor Cowan

RN Cowan put me right when he dated it to August 12. And he should know because, as he says, ‘it was a day, which as a schoolboy, I remember vividly’.

He and his mother emerged from the air raid shelter about 1pm when a neighbour told them the Harbour station had been hit.

That was where Mr Cowan’s father Victor worked and where he had been on a 6am-2pm shift that day.

Mr Cowan says: ‘As we stood waiting, my mother, sick with worry, suddenly there was dad walking towards us.

jpns-21-11-14-052 rw air raid letter''Victor Cowan's letters of thanks from Southern Railway after the bombing of Portsmouth Harbour station

jpns-21-11-14-052 rw air raid letter''Victor Cowan's letters of thanks from Southern Railway after the bombing of Portsmouth Harbour station

‘Nothing was said at the time, at least not to me, except I remember he gave me sixpence to buy some sweets.’

Victor, of Lyndhurst Road, North End, started as a signal lad at Portsmouth Harbour signal box in 1904, worked at all of Portsmouth’s stations, and retired after 52 years when he was 65 in 1956.

Although he did not speak of the raid at the time, his son says that gradually little pieces of information seeped out.

He adds: ‘Apparently at the time of the raid children from the Railway Orphanage at Woking were on their way back to Woking.

‘My father shepherded the children into what was the waiting room and made them lie down around the walls, saving them from certain death.’

Only the children and the accompanying staff who were there know what really happened.

But for his quick thinking and action ‘Young Vic’, as he was nicknamed, received two notes from the divisional superintendent of Southern Railway thanking him for his ‘meritorious work performed during the air raid’.

Mr Cowan continues: ‘My father never spoke of this again, most probably because he had seen it all before on the Somme in 1918.

‘But the image of him turning the corner of the road, face covered in dust and soot will always remain with me.’