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date: 03 March 2021

Rowlands, Sir John Samuelfree

  • Humphrey Wynn

Rowlands, Sir John Samuel (1915–2006), airforce officer, was born in Stamford Way, Ewloe, Hawarden, Flintshire, on 23 September 1915, the son of Samuel Rowlands (d. 1919), general labourer and later mechanical engineer, and his wife, Sarah, née Evans. He was educated at Hawarden grammar school and the University of Wales, where he gained an honours degree in physics, was in the university officers' training corps, captained the football team, and played tennis. In April 1939 Rowlands joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and at the outbreak of the Second World War he was mobilized and posted to 2 School of Technical Training, then in July 1940 to 1 Armament School. In April 1941, while serving with Technical Armaments, his scientific training was put to the test when unusual features were discovered in an unexploded German bomb located at a depth of about 6 feet, with a fuse in the nose set to ignite within 72 hours, and an anti-handling device fitted with a trembler switch, which could be ignited by the slightest movement and detonate the bomb. Rowlands inserted a liquid fuel discharge in the nose fuse, neutralizing it after 30 minutes, then dealt similarly with the anti-handling device at the tail end of the bomb, which was subsequently raised up and taken away for examination. In the June 1942 birthday honours he was appointed MBE (military) in recognition of his cool courage, and on 27 June, at the Methodist church, Darlington Street, Wolverhampton, he married Constance Wight, a 22-year-old secretary in local government and daughter of Henry Rowe (Harry) Wight, a wing commander in the RAF. They subsequently had two daughters.

Rowlands's bravery was further dramatically exemplified when in June 1943, by then a wing commander, visiting a bomber station, he was told that eighteen men were missing after an explosion at RAF Snaith in Yorkshire, the result of the accidental detonation of a bomb, which damaged huge quantities of high explosive and incendiary weapons, many of them primed ready for use. Over the next ten days Rowlands and his team, working with delicacy and bravery, succeeded in making the site safe. Two months later he was awarded the George Cross for his 'conspicuous courage … in circumstances of great personal danger'. In 1943 he became superintendant of design at Fort Halstead, and during 1945 travelled to north Africa, Italy, and Germany, working just behind the allied front lines.

Rowlands was granted a permanent commission in the RAF in September 1945. He attended the Staff College course at Haifa in 1946 and in 1947 undertook pilot training at 28 Elementary Flying Training School. When the United Kingdom government decided that Britain should develop an atomic bomb William Penney was given overall control and Rowlands was appointed to lead the team at Fort Halstead in developing the device, which was successfully tested at the Monte Bello Islands on 3 October 1952, when he was senior RAF adviser. The atomic device then had to be translated into a bomb, designed by the Bomber Command Armament School which Rowlands commanded from its formation at Wittering on 1 August 1953—reversing the order of his heroic wartime disarming of weapons. The bomb was to be carried by the new generation of four-jet RAF V-bombers; all the development work was done at the school, where the first (Valiant) squadron, 138, was formed. The bomb was named Blue Danube, and weighed just under 10,000 lb. It was successfully test-dropped from a Valiant at Christmas Island on 15 May 1957.

In 1958 Rowlands was promoted group captain and posted to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston as senior RAF adviser on the thermonuclear (H-bomb) project. After some three years there he was sent to Washington, DC, as a special adviser at the British embassy. Then he took the Imperial Defence College course, and at its successful conclusion was promoted to air commodore and appointed director of technical training at the RAF College, Cranwell. In 1968, promoted air vice-marshal, he became director-general of training for the RAF. He was knighted KBE in 1971 (having been appointed OBE in 1954). His last RAF appointment was in charge of Maintenance Command, with the rank of air marshal, until his retirement in 1973.

Following a brief spell in university administration at Queen Mary College, University of London, Rowlands served as assistant principal of Sheffield Polytechnic from 1974 to 1980. He was a vice-president of the Aircrew Association and a committee member of the Victoria and George Cross Association. A keen photographer, he also kept up his lifelong enthusiasm for tennis.

John Rowlands was an exceptionally brave man, modest to a fault. His knowledge of bombs and their fiendishly intricate methods of fusing was matched by his cool courage in disarming them, when the slightest wrong move could spell disaster. Yet he never wrote, or spoke, about his heroic wartime achievements. He died of cancer of the oesophagus at Thornbury Hospital, Fulwood Road, Sheffield, on 4 June 2006, and was survived by his wife, Constance, and their two daughters.


  • Daily Telegraph (7 June 2006)
  • The Guardian (29 June 2006)
  • WW (2006)
  • RAF record of service, RAF Cranwell, Sleaford, Lincolnshire
  • private information (2010)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • [BL NSA has documentary footage]


  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£237,917: probate, 10 Aug 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)