David Tennant Cowan

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This article is about a British Indian Army soldier. For other people of the same name, see David Cowan.
David Tennant Cowan
Nickname(s) "Punch"
Born 1896
Died 1983 (aged 86 or 87)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1915–1947
Rank Major General
Commands held Indian 17th Infantry Division

World War I World War II

Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Military Cross
Mentioned in Despatches

Major General David Tennant Cowan CB, CBE, DSO & Bar, MC (1896–1983), also known as "Punch" Cowan, was an officer in the British Army and British Indian Army in World War I and World War II. He was distinguished for leading the Indian 17th Infantry Division during almost the entire Burma Campaign.

Early career and inter-war years[edit]

After serving in World War I during which he was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches, he joined the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Between the wars, he served on the north-west frontier (where he was again mentioned in despatches for service in Waziristan) and in various staff positions. From 1932 to 1934, he was the Chief Instructor at the Indian Military Academy and in 1937 he was once more mentioned in despatches during a further tour of duty in Waziristan. By the outbreak of World War II, he was in command of the 1st Battalion of his regiment.

World War II[edit]

Promoted brigadier, he was Deputy Director of Military Training in India. When the Japanese invaded Burma, he was posted to Rangoon, initially as a staff officer in Burma Army HQ with rather ill-defined duties, but took command of the Indian 17th Infantry Division when its commander was relieved after a bridge was blown behind the retreating division and much of it was cut off.

He remained in command of the division for the rest of the Burma Campaign: during the retreat into India, the fighting around Tiddim in 1943, the Battle of Imphal in 1944 and the drive into Central Burma in 1945. Early in 1945, his son was killed whilst serving as an officer in Cowan's old unit (1/6 Gurkha Rifles). He fought the decisive Battle of Meiktila having suffered this loss, although only a few close friends were aware of it. For his leadership in Burma he was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His army commander, Bill Slim, was later to write about Cowan's handling of the Meiktila battle:

Cowan's handling of this difficult and divided battle was impressive...throughout he was alert to every change in the situation on any sector... his firm grip on his own formations and on the enemy never faltered.[1]

He was intended to lead the Indian army contingent of the Commonwealth Corps being tentatively formed to participate in the planned invasion of Japan. The surrender of Japan changed these plans, and Cowan instead led the joint British-Indian division BRINDIV, part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, in Japan. In 1947, he handed over command of this force and retired from the army.

Career summary[edit]

  • Commissioned 3rd Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (1915)
  • Transferred to 6th Gurkha Rifles, British Indian Army (1917)
  • Attended Command and Staff College, Quetta (1927–1928)
  • Assistant Military Secretary, India (1930–1932)
  • Chief Instructor at Indian Military Academy (1932–1934)
  • General Staff Officer 2, India, Waziristan (1936–1938)
  • Commanding Officer 1st Battalion 6th Gurkha Rifles (1939–1940)
  • General Staff Officer 1, India (1940–1941)
  • Deputy Director of Military Training, India (1941–1942)
  • General Officer Commanding Indian 17th Infantry Division, Burma (1942)
  • General Officer Commanding 17th Indian Light Division, Burma (1942–1944)
  • General Officer Commanding 17th Indian Division, Burma (1944–1945)
  • General Officer Commanding Force152 (1945)
  • General Officer Commanding BRINJAP Division, Japan (1945–1947)
  • Retired (1947)



  1. ^ Slim 1956, p. 447.