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Charles Henry Bowden BEM - Corps Drum Major

By Colin E Bowden

Charles Henry Bowden or as he was better known - 'Charlie' Bowden, not that the rank and file would have addressed him as 'Charlie', but certainly his fellow SNCOs and even Officers would use his more familiar name. He was born in Portsmouth on the 21st December 1916 in a road adjoining the Royal Marine Artillery Barracks and close enough to hear the bugle calls throughout the day. He came from a family with a very distinguished record of service in the Royal Marines. Both his grandfathers and three uncles served in the Corps and his brother Jack joined the Staff Band of the Chatham Division. Charlie's father was a Bugle Major and at the age of seven Charlie joined the RM Cadet Corps, where he made his mark, first becoming the Drum Major of the Cadet Drum and Fife Band and then the Cadet RSM. He left school at fourteen and went into civilian employment. His father, on leaving the Corps, had joined the Royal Marines Police and the family moved to Chatham.

Charlie joined the Corps in April 1940 at Arborfield as a 'Hostilities Only' Marine and was selected very quickly for promotion. Within a month he was promoted L/Cpl, three weeks later Acting Temporary Corporal and within five weeks Acting Temporary Sergeant. He was drafted into 'C' Battery of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization, better known as MNBDO and Charlie manned anti-aircraft guns during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. In April 1941 MNBDO was sent to Alexandria, but after the evacuation of British Forces from Greece the unit was moved to Crete. Within a week of arriving on the Island of Crete Charlie was in a Field Hospital suffering from Dysentery. The German airborne invasion of the Island started on the 20th May 1941 and the tented hospital, in which Charlie was a patient, was raked by machine-gun fire. The hospital was over-run by the German parachutists who rounded-up the patients and made them march, in their pyjamas and boots, into captivity.

A patrol of New Zealand troops attacked the column, opened fire and a number of men were killed. In the confusion Charlie escaped and took shelter in a cave near the beach at Suda Bay. Still dressed in pyjamas, boots and cap he later managed to locate his gun-site where he was nearly shot by a sentry. He was issued with some kit and a rifle and shortly afterwards the order was given to blow-up the guns and the Marines became an infantry platoon in a Royal Marine Battalion under the command of Major Ralph Garrett and they fought a rearguard action for four days. By then the MNBDO numbered just under two thousand men, but by the 31st May, the last full day of the German invasion of the Island, they had suffered a large number of casualties.

They retreated to the coast where Major Garrett dismissed the survivors of the Battalion telling them that they had the choice of waiting for the Germans to arrive and be taken prisoner, go into the hills and join the Cretan Resistance or try and make their way off the Island. An abandoned landing craft was found and a party of 139, including 56 Marines, some Australians, New Zealanders, a Greek and 2 Palestinians boarded the vessel. There was little fuel, food or drinking water but Major Garrett cast off on the 1st June and after an epic voyage during which two men died the craft beached on the North African coast about seventeen miles west of Sidi Barani, but not knowing if they were behind the British or the German lines. Charlie, together with a young Australian soldier set off in the darkness to reconnoiter and they came across a pipeline which led them to a British anti-aircraft battery. Transport was organized and the survivors taken into the camp.

After serving for some time in Egypt Charlie moved to Ceylon as part of a force to defend the Island should the Japanese attack. In 1944 he returned to the UK and was drafted to HMS SEA SERPENT as a Temporary Acting Colour Sergeant and shortly after promoted to Temporary Acting Company Sergeant Major. He was very much involved with the training of troops prior to D-Day and he himself crossed over to France in July 1944.

While serving at HMS SEA SERPENT he met Betty, a young Wren, and they were married in January 1946 by which time he was at the Depot Deal where he qualified as an MTI (Parade) with a Distinguished PASS mark. In 1949 he volunteered to become Drum Major of the Depot Band and a year later, when the Royal Marines School of Music moved back to Deal, Charlie was officially appointed to be Drum Major of the Depot Staff Band, later becoming the Corps Senior Drum Major. The number of very high-profile ceremonial engagements in which he led the Deal Staff Band or Corps Massed Bands are too long to relate but included twelve Royal Tournaments, five Beat Retreat ceremonies on Horse Guards Parade and six Edinburgh Tattoos in addition to Band Engagements all over the country.

In 1953, as the Senior Drum Major, he led a Massed Band at the Coronation of HM The Queen and was awarded the Coronation Medal. Four years later he was awarded the BEM. He led the band on many occasions at Wembley and Twickenham stadiums at International Games and Cup Finals. Charlie also headed the band on various overseas visits, to Canada for the British Columbia Centennial Celebrations in 1958 and the following year the band travelled to Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition.

In 1965 Lt Colonel Dunn took the Staff Band of the RMSM to the USA undertaking a three-month tour with Charlie leading the Band in the arena displays. In 1961 the band had gone to Sierra Leone for that country's Independence ceremonies during which Charlie was warned by a British Diplomat that as soon as the Union Flag was lowered the band should get out of the country as soon as possible! In 1965 the Portsmouth and RMSM bands, led by Drum Majors CH Bowden and CE Bowden and under the direction of Captain Paul Neville, massed together to participate in the funeral procession of Sir Winston Churchill.

Charlie appeared in two films - 'Thunderbirds Are Go' which closed with him dressed in full ceremonial uniform filling the screen and bellowing in his best parade ground voice, "Thunderbirds Are Go" which was followed by the RMSM Band providing the film's closing music. In the film musical 'Oliver', during filming of a Dickensian London street scene with the tune 'Who Will Buy', Charlie appears leading a drum & Fife band in period uniform throwing the staff (mace) in the air with great aplomb. The drummers were from the RMSM Band but Charlie had a few problems teaching the civilian fife players how to march. However, under his tuition, they were perfect when the scene was eventually filmed.

In 1958 Charlie's picture appeared on the front page of the Radio Times advertising a Massed Bands Beat Retreat on Horse Guards Parade. He was awarded a 'bar' to his Long Service and Good Conduct medal in 1970 and, in 1971, a public house opposite the Jubilee Gate , South Barracks, Deal, was renamed 'The DRUM MAJOR' with a pub sign displaying a painting of Charlie in full ceremonial uniform.

A new inn-sign painted by Bass Charrington artist, Mr. Bill Pearce, with the Corp's Senior Drum Major as model, c.1971

His last ceremonial parade was at the White City stadium in London in 1972 and two weeks later he retired from the Royal Marines having completed twenty-three years as a Drum Major. His total service in the Corps was 32 years and three months during which he had been an NCO for all but the first three months. His Service Certificate shows that he was never assessed below Very Good/Superior which is probably unique! On leaving the Corps Charlie became Beadle of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers and was made a Freeman of the City of London prior to finally retiring in December 1981. Betty and Charlie moved from Deal to Porlock where Charlie soon became a keen member of the Royal British Legion. He was also a life member of the Royal Marines Historical Society. Together with his wife Betty, also a member of the Society, he would take a taxi for the long journey from Porlock to Portsmouth in order to attend Annual General Meetings of the RMHS.

Betty died in 2007 leaving Charlie to look after himself. Still involved in local affairs but with health declining he was moved into a Minehead nursing home in 2010. His health continued to deteriorate and he died peacefully there on the 7th January 2011. Many former members of the RM Band Service travelled long distances from London, Deal, Portsmouth, Malvern and the West Country to attend his funeral at Porlock. The present Corps Drum Major, WO1 James Whitwham MBE, represented the RM Band Service and two buglers from CTCRM Lympstone played Last Post and Reveille impeccably.

Charlie was by any measure an outstanding Royal Marine. A fine family man, extremely generous and a true friend. He was also a very modest man who set a high standard for himself and for others to follow.

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