Patrick McGowan

Rifleman Patrick McGowan of the Royal Ulster Rifles died before World War Two in the Battle for Shanghai in October 1937. His death caused political outcry.


Patrick McGowan

Rifleman Patrick McGowan of 1st Royal Ulster Rifles died in a Japanese attack on the International Settlement during the Battle for Shanghai on 24th October 1937. His death would have far-reaching political impact.

Rifleman Patrick McGowan served in 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles before World War Two. For many years, his story and final resting place in Shanghai, China were unknown.

Known to family and friends as Paddy, McGowan grew up raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends. His mother died when he was a young boy and his father moved out of the family home, remarried and went to live in Buncrana, Co. Donegal.

Times were hard in the newly formed Northern Ireland after the Wall Street crash. Paddy’s elder brother John joined the army to escape financial hardship. Looking up to his brother, Paddy would go on to join the same regiment.

He was due to take leave from the army in December 1937 to be best man at his older brother’s wedding. After that, Paddy would serve another couple of months and he would have served the time he enlisted for. He then planned to start a new life in England. After leaving the army, John ran a chip shop at Messines Terrace, Derry, Co. Londonderry.

In 1937, McGowan and the Royal Ulster Rifles were on the outskirts of the International Settlement of Shanghai, China. Their role was to prevent illegal entry into and to keep fighting out of the international safe zone. The British soldiers there went above and beyond their call of duty. As desperate Chinese civilians struggled to escape the violence, the men of the Rifles would often help. This meant venturing into no man’s land to carry out rescues.

Royal Ulster Rifles Graves including Patrick McGowan in Shanghai, China

Funeral service with full military honours for four men of 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles killed in the Battle for Shanghai. Flowers mark the grave of Rifleman Patrick McGowan, killed a few days earlier. Copyright Royal Ulster Rifles Museum.

Death in Shanghai

Patrick McGowan died during the Battle for Shanghai on 24th October 1937 aged 25 years old. His death came as a Japanese plane attacked the western boundary of the International Settlement along Keswick Road. The Rifles manned a line of sandbag outposts from the Woosung Creek, near Jessfield Park to the Hungjao area. Here, entrenched French troops took over defences. The plane made three attacks under fire from Lewis guns.

The first attack from the Japanese plane killed five Chinese civilians. At this time, Lieutenant Commander Burnett of HMS Cumberland, two leading businessmen, and three lawyers had taken a horse riding trip. They threw themselves from their ponies and scrambled for cover. With them was leading jockey Jimmy Yuan, who had won the Shanghai Hunt Club Championship 24 hours earlier. Bullets from the Japanese plane killed the champion horse as well as three other horses and an Australian thoroughbred owned by TV Soong.

A mafoo, or stable boy, fell as his mount reared amidst the chaos. Rifleman Patrick McGowan raced from his position and Post Q to carry the young man back to the safety of the sandbagged shelter. As the plane made its third sweep, McGowan died instantly, struck by a 0.404 bullet.

Eight more bullets tore up the asphalt at the entrance to Post Q. One man escaped injury as a bullet tore up his packet of cigarettes leaving him uninjured. Another bullet passed through the leg of a man already stretcher-bound from the first attack.

Eventually, the Royal Ulster Rifles drove the plane off with Lewis gunfire. Their job was difficult due to a lack of anti-aircraft mountings. They fired guns from their comrades’ shoulders but the death of McGowan brought about a change in attitude. Soon, anti-aircraft guns were in the hands of all troops and many of them wanted revenge.

At the time, his death caused political outcry and carried huge international significance. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden discussed the death in parliament. Paddy was among the first British servicemen to die at the hands of the Japanese.

The party took cover in a British military post just within the perimeter. The aeroplane circled round and made a direct attack on the post with machinegun fire. The attack was repeated three times and Private McGowan, of the First Royal Ulster Rifles, was hit and, I deeply regret to say, died shortly afterwards. Three of the horses were killed and only by great good fortune did the remainder of the party and other soldiers at the post escape without injury. The aeroplane then carried out a machine-gun attack on three other British military posts along the perimeter and just within it. No casualties resulted in these instances. After the first attack the British post opened fire on the aeroplane.

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden – October 1937

Finding Patrick McGowan

Patrick McGowan’s funeral took place a few days later in Shanghai, China with full military honours. Both Chinese and international mourners attended. His grave lay next to those of four other men from the Royal Ulster Rifles who died in separate attacks. James Mellon, William Christopher Howard, and Robert Delaney died in a bombing attack on 29th October 1937. Joseph O’Toole died the same day in a separate incident as a shell hit the Honeyland Bar where some off-duty Rifles were having a drink.

In the years following the Second World War, these resting places became lost. During the cultural revolution, the Chinese under Mao Tse-Tung destroyed many headstones of foreign troops. In later years, they replaced many. However, names of fallen soldiers came from shattered fragments and often led to mistakes by Chinese stonemasons. One such mistake was the changing of Paddy’s name to “McCowan”.

Reports from China suggested the graves of the men moved several times but were never destroyed as some reports indicated. Another letter from the Chinese government suggested a multi-storey carpark now occupied the burial site. Several cemetery names were put forward such as Bubbling Well Cemetery, which closed in 1954. Men buried there were to be removed to Dachang Cemetery. This cemetery was built over by factories.

Sara Moran from Derry, Co. Londonderry made it her mission to track down her uncle’s grave and find out his story. Sara was the daughter of Paddy’s elder brother who had first joined the army. He was deeply affected by the death and rarely spoke of it. After more than 60 years, this mission was quite a challenge. In 2013, she wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron and worked with consular officials in Shanghai.

Help came from Matthew Forbes, Deputy Consul General in Shanghai and Mark Logan, Head of Communications. British Shanghai-based historian Mark Felton provided invaluable assistance. Finally, they located Patrick’s burial site after extensive searches through local authority records. The graves of Patrick McGowan and James Mellon were in Song Qingling cemetery within 10 metres of each other.

After the finding of the graves of the Royal Ulster Rifles’ men, a ceremony took place at the burial site at 1500hrs on 11th December 2013. At the time, HMS Daring was in port at Shanghai and members of the crew attended including Rear Admiral Matthew Parr.

2017 saw the release of a 60-minute documentary film named ‘Finding Wee Paddy’ directed by Peter Roch and Jason Davidson of Squeaky Pedal. It screened in The MAC, Belfast on 21st October 2017, almost 80 years to the day after McGowan’s death.

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