On May 8, 1945, while Britan, the United States, and the rest of Europe were celebrating the end of World War II in Europe, the British military lost one of its icons, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Bourne. Bourne had been the last surviving British member of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift; he died just shy of his 91st birthday.

Bourne was born in Sussex, England in 1854 and enlisted in the British Army at the age of 18. Four years later he was promoted to Colour Sergeant, becoming the youngest NCO of this rank in the entire British Army. This earned him the nickname “The Kid.”

At first, he was nervous about his responsibilities in the unit. Although Colour Sergeants were usually older, almost like father figures, as well as tough as nails and hard-bitten soldiers, Bourne was just 23 and by his own admission “painfully thin.” 

Frank Bourne in the early 1900s.

On 22 and 23 January 1879, Bourne was part of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa. Rorke’s Drift was a former trading post named after James Rorke, an Irish merchant. A drift in South Africa is a ford located on the Buffalo River which separated British-held Natal and the Zulu Kingdom.

Bourne was the Colour Sergeant in B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, and aided Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead in organizing the defense at the mission station and the field hospital. The entire British garrison numbered about 250, with about 140 regulars, 11 colonial troops, 4 civilians, and 100 Natal Native Horse (NNH) cavalry. They were about to face Zulu warriors numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 who were approaching the British location.

The British troops barricaded themselves with mealie bags. Nearly all of the Zulu warriors were armed with an assegai (short spear) and a shield made of cowhide. Few of the Zulus had old muskets and antiquated rifles, though their marksmanship training and the quality and supply of powder and shot were of very poor.

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The Zulu warriors made a forced march of some 20 miles and went straight into battle. Throughout the day of the 22nd and night of the 23rd, the Zulus made repeated attacks against the barricades. At times the fighting was hand-to-hand, but the outnumbered defenders held out until relief arrived.

At the outset of the battle with the Zulus nearly upon them, the NNH cavalry abandoned the British. Their commander, Lieutenant Henderson, reported himself to Lieutenant Chard that the enemy were close and that “his men would not obey his orders but were going off to Helpmekaar.” That left just 150 men to defend Rorke’s Drift.

The Zulu warriors made a forced march of some 20 miles and went straight into battle. Throughout the day of the 22nd and night of the 23rd, the Zulus made repeated attacks against the barricades. At times the fighting was hand-to-hand, but the outnumbered defenders held out until relief arrived.

For his bravery in battle, Bourne received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for “outstanding coolness and courage.”

Bourne remained in the British Army, serving in India and Burma, and was promoted to Quartermaster-Sergeant in 1884. He was commissioned in 1890. 

In 1893 he was appointed as the Adjutant of the School of Musketry at Hythe, Kent, and remained there until his eventual retirement from the army in 1907. He rejoined the army during World War I, and once again served as the Adjutant of the School of Musketry in Dublin. 

During WWI, Bourne was responsible for training over 10,000 British and Irish sharpshooters. However, in an ironic twist of fate, several of these highly trained Irish infantry snipers are believed to have used their newfound skills for another use after the war ended: Many joined paramilitary and splinter groups which would then form part of what is known today as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). By war’s end, Bourne was bestowed the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel and appointed OBE.

Bourne lived in quiet retirement in Kent until his death on VE Day 8 May 1945, at the age of 90. Bourne was buried in Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery.

In the 1964 film Zulu, Bourne was portrayed by actor Nigel Green.