James Cowan (British Army officer)

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James Cowan
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1982–2015
RankMajor General
Commands held3rd (UK) Division
11th Light Brigade
Black Watch
Battles/warsThe Troubles
Iraq War
War in Afghanistan
AwardsCommander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Mentioned in Despatches

Major-General James Michael Cowan CBE, DSO is a former British Army officer. He is now CEO of The HALO Trust,[1] a humanitarian organisation which works in post-conflict zones.

Early life[edit]

Educated at Wellington College, Cowan joined the Ulster Defence Regiment as a private soldier in 1982 during The Troubles.[2] and then studied Modern History at Pembroke College, Oxford before being commissioned into the Black Watch in 1987.

Military career[edit]

He served first in Berlin and from 1989 until 1991 he served in Northern Ireland, where he was Mentioned in Despatches.[3] He became commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) in July 2003 and in that role was deployed to Iraq for Operation Telic in Summer 2004. Towards the end of the tour, Cowan led his Battalion during Operation BRACKEN, seeing action during the Second Battle of Fallujah, for which he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.[4] He became Chief of Staff for 3rd (UK) Division and was deployed to Iraq as Chief of Staff for Multi-National Division (South East) from July 2006 until January 2007.[5]

He became Commander of 11th Light Brigade in October 2007 and in that role he led Task Force Helmand during the Helmand province campaign in 2009–10[6] which he described as his most demanding tour.[7] He had hoped that Operation Moshtarak would mark "the start of the end of this insurgency". At the very least it would become a test of whether the Afghan forces would be able to make their country peaceful and safe. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order at the end of his tour of command.[8]

Cowan went on to be head of Counter Terrorism & UK Operations in the Operations Directorate at the Ministry of Defence in 2010 with responsibility for the military contribution to the London 2012 Olympics. On promotion to major general he became General Officer Commanding 3rd (UK) Division in April 2013.[9]

Cowan was advanced to Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2013 Birthday Honours.[10]

Whilst serving as General Officer Commanding of 3rd UK Division, Cowan made national news in March 2014 after a three-page letter intended for junior officers was leaked to The Sun newspaper and subsequently covered by other national and international news outlets, at a time when world attention was focused on the sensitive political situation involving Russia and the Crimea. The letter from Cowan addressed to 'Chaps' included the order that sandwiches were no longer to be served in the Officers' Mess and that junior officers should be funny at parties.[11] The letter prompted a stinging attack by his own junior officers, on the Army Rumour Service website, where he was quickly nicknamed 'Sarnies' Cowan,[12] and which itself was reported in national press.[13] This inspired a 'Hitler Downfall parody' video, published anonymously on the Internet, also attacking the general.[14] As of 14 March 2014, sandwiches and baguettes were still being banned in the 3rd UK Division Headquarters Officers' Mess.[15]

Cowan retired from the Army in 2015, and his appointment as chief executive of the international landmine clearance charity the HALO Trust, with effect from April 2015, was announced in late February 2015.[16] When the government of Mozambique declared the country free of all known landmines, Cowan commented that "Mozambique is a compelling example of how dealing with the deadly debris of war systematically and in partnership with government, local people and donors can bring stability, recovery and growth to countries ravaged by war."[17] Interviewed about the clearance of the Baptism Site on the western bank of the River Jordan, Cowan described it as a project with "tremendous symbolism".[18]

He marked his departure from the Army with a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 21 May 2015, in which he drew on his own experience and on history to describe the nature of war.[19]


  1. ^ "HALO Appoints New Chief Executive". halotrust.org. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  2. ^ "Send-off for retiring General". Salisbury Journal. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  3. ^ "No. 52918". The London Gazette (Supplement). 12 May 1992. p. 8168.
  4. ^ "BBC NEWS – UK – Scotland – Honours for Black Watch soldiers". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  5. ^ "The Black Watch – Events Calendar". theblackwatch.co.uk. Archived from the original on 9 July 2015. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  6. ^ "11 Light Brigade". mod.uk. Archived from the original on 9 July 2015. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  7. ^ "Interview With Departing Maj. Gen James Cowan". Forces TV. UK. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  8. ^ "Maybe this is the end of the beginning". The Times. UK. Retrieved 16 January 2012.
  9. ^ Army Commands Archived 5 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "No. 60534". The London Gazette (Supplement). 15 June 2013. p. 5.
  11. ^ "Army commander bans sandwiches in attack on 'barbaric habits'". The Telegraph. 5 March 2014. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  12. ^ "Gen Cowan's Edict – A Reply – The Army Rumour Service". ARRSE.co.uk. 6 March 2014. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  13. ^ "'Really hard to eat a sandwich with knife and fork' officers tell complaining General". The Telegraph. 7 March 2014. Retrieved 7 March 2014.
  14. ^ "GOC finally snaps – Youtube". Youtube.com. 13 March 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  15. ^ "Tip off from officer at 3 (UK) Div HQ". DII email from 3 (UK) Div officer. 14 March 2014. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  16. ^ "Halo Trust appoints Major General James Cowan as new chief executive". Third Sector. 24 February 2015. Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  17. ^ "Mozambique to Be Declared Land Mine Free - Al Jazeera America". Retrieved 16 May 2016.
  18. ^ "British land mine charity made famous by Princess Diana wants to clear explosives from the site of Jesus Christ's baptism". The Telegraph. 16 May 2016. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
  19. ^ "General Assembly Video – Church of Scotland". churchofscotland.org.uk. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
Military offices
Preceded by
John Lorimer
General Officer Commanding the 3rd (UK) Mechanised Division
Succeeded by
Patrick Sanders