Our thanks to Peter Hore, naval obituarist for the Daily Telegraph.
Captain Rex Cooper, who had died aged 84, served thirty-seven years almost continuously at sea in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
Rex Andre Cooper was born in Paignton, where he spent much of his free time swimming, sailing, and rowing. When his father’s electrical business moved to Clapham, Rex and his brother Lawrence took to the Thames. He was educated at Emanuel school, Battersea where he excelled in maths and classics and in 1953 sailed in the Public-School Firefly Sailing Championships. After his ‘O’ levels Cooper took the junior course at King Edward VII Nautical College in East London where aged 16 he was offered a cadetship in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
His first ship, when the RFA fleet was 70-ship strong, was the freighter Fort Beauharnois: his first passengers were two VIPs travelling from Gibraltar to UK, rock apes bound for Chessington Zoo. Cooper loved nature, but feeding and cleaning these apes for a week did not instil any affection for that species in him and he was pleased to see them disembark. In Fort Beauharnois he learned classic seamanship and coastal and offshore navigation in the days before computerisation. The RFA took great pride in the swift recognition of passing ships, and Cooper learned to recognise house flags and funnel colours to communicate by flashing light using the Morse code.
Cooper’s career mirrored the Cold War: He was off Cyprus in the fleet support tanker Wave Master during the EOKA crisis, and off Suez in 1956 during the crisis there. In 1958, his tanker, Cedardale, was off Abadan in case evacuation was required for Britons in Baghdad and Basrah after the Iraqi revolution.
In 1973, Cooper gained his first command, the coastal stores carrier Robert Middleton. By 1979 he was master of the tanker Tidepool, present in the Falklands when Sir Vivian Fuchs opened the new Stanley airfield, when Cooper also delivered fuel for the islands’ power station and oranges and lemons for the governor, which he took in the governor’s red London taxi when he called on him. In 1986, after his stint at headquarters, Cooper commanded the oiler Bayleaf on a circumnavigation of the world in support of a Royal Navy task force, when he experienced super typhoon Peggy off the Philippines. Cooper navigated round the typhoon, one of the strongest on record, in the South China Sea, organised the search and rescue for the sinking Taiwanese cargo ship Hwa Lie, and safely delivered her crew to Hong Kong.
His last command, in 1990, was the ammunition stores carrier Regent in which he took part in Operation Desert Storm during the [1st] Gulf War. He recalled on his last voyage that Regent was passing Barra Head and entering the Sea of the Hebrides to make her passage through the Pentland Firth, and he had just phoned his wife to announce that Regent was nearly home, when he turned on his cabin radio which by happy chance was paying Mendelssohn’s s Fingal’s Cave.
A confident leader, very precise, reliable, well-organised and always immaculately dressed, Cooper was a man of quiet dignity and gravitas. He showed off, modestly but proudly, his OBE, which he received partly for his dedication to the RFA service, but primarily for his role in financing and setting up the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Association, founded in 2002. Chairman of the local Conservative party, he was rarely lost for an opinion on political and naval affairs, and gave to a range of charities including his old school, Emanuel, although he had become disillusioned with what he considered to be the ‘wokeish’ direction of its ‘transformational’ agenda.
While known to his family as ‘James Bond’ for his mastery of technology, an aura of mystery, and ceaseless postcards from exotic places, Cooper’s love of the sea dominated much of his life. However, he was defined even more by his marriage in 1963 to the woman he loved, Pat Young. He called her his ‘Moneypenny’. A daughter of a master mariner, they shared their interests in golf, cars and antiques, and happily they endured months of separation, though Pat was able to accompany him on his circumnavigation. For a man born and bred to the sea, his retirement choice of inland Tarset in Northumberland seemed unlikely, but there the Coopers were able to spend the time together that they had missed during his long, seagoing career. He planted trees and developed their land into a sanctuary where deer, hedgehogs, red squirrels, badgers and birds were fed. Animals and birds had no fear of him, and he became a superb wildlife photographer. He was also a staunch supporter of his parish church of St Aidan’s.
Pat predeceased him in 2018.
Captain R A Cooper, born March 15, 1938, died October 13, 2022.