Captain FN Cook DSC RAN – A Fortunate Naval Career in WW2

Frederick Norton Cook joined the Royal Australian Naval College as a Cadet Midshipman in 1919.LeutF Cook Ceremonial adj picasa BW crop

In 1936 he served as Flag Lieutenant to the Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral WTR Ford CB, onboard HA/L4S Canberra and on promotion to Lieutenant Commander in 1936 he was posted to the destroyer HMAS Waterhen as First Lieutenant, Executive and Gunnery Officer. In 1938 he was sent to England and posted to the battleship HMS Royal Oak where his duties included Commander’s Assistant, 4″ H.A. Control Officer and Mate of the Upper Deck.

In the early hours of Saturday 14 October 1939 he was asleep in his cabin when the ship, at anchor in Scapa Flow, Orkneys, was hit by four torpedoes from a U-boat that had penetrated the Fleet anchorage. The Royal Oak went down in minutes with the loss of 810 men. Wat happened that night is graphically related in a letter he wrote to his younger brother, Bill Cook, who joined RANC in 1930, and was serving onboard HMAS Perth in Australian waters.

(Contributed by Reinier Jessuran)




  1. XI.39

My Dear Old Bill

I feel I have so much to tell you. I was very touched at the trouble you took to find out about me. Thank you very much for the kind wireless message. Bill you are an uncle once more. Your niece arrived last Saturday 4th Nov at 3 pm. She weighs 8 lbs. Is very fair, in fact the hair is a bit gingery and has blue eyes. We are very proud of her and thank God. Both are none the worse for the very nasty shock Bettie got when at 1 pm on Saturday 14th she received her first news about the “Oak” over the wireless while she was quietly knitting and waiting for lunch. It said “R.O” had been sunk & so far there are 15 survivors (these had swum ashore). It was not until 4 pm that my telegram arrived so the 3 hour wait was pretty good hell for the Darling. I wish the wireless would realize that all this sensational immediate news that arm chair critics must have always hurts the poor wretched affected ones like the devil & often quite unnecessarily.

Bill you’re dying to know my story and now I feel I can write it to you but on a separate page in case some of my and your friends in the ship might be interested. It might contain one or two Tips worth passing on – gained from my bitter experience. Thank God I am on leave at the moment, have been for nearly 3 weeks, and needed it. The reaction set in last week and the local Doctor who was attending Bettie put me to bed and gave me a tonic. I was allowed up after 3 or 4 days and have been taking things quietly but am perfectly fit again now and sleep very well. The arrival of the child who is a really healthy little person and Bettie’s marvellous recovery have made me a new man. I can’t speak too highly of your sister-in-law. She has been perfectly marvellous. All remark on it. She looked after me when I was sick and the day I got up I walked with her to the nursing home. Two days later Venetia Bonham Norton entered the world with a squeak which lifted worry off my shoulders. Bill I’ve had scores of kind letters from people I didn’t think would remember me. Capt. Harcourt, Lord Gifford, Capt. C.J.Pope, Tony Smallwood, Measles, Guinius Tanners, MacNicoll, Dowling and Eric Mayo (my term) & a letter from Bill Cook written 13th Oct 1939. You didn’t realise that allowing for the time zone your ugly old brother was swimming for dear life as you wrote.

At 01:05 AM Sat 14 Oct, (Just missed Friday 13th GMT by 5 minutes) like all off duty I was asleep in my cabin – No. 13 (on the other side of course) I woke up feeling a terrific bump and the old ship shook for all the world like a destroyer when a depth charge is let go at slowish speed. I, still in pyjamas went out into the flat asking what had caused the bump to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming, when having confirmed it I went to put on the 0600 rig & went up on the Q.D. out of curiosity. The lights below decks were still on & there were no pipes. No one realized any of the explosions were caused by torpedoes at the time as we were at anchor. I suppose I got on deck at 0110 & the OOW & most officers were trying to work out where the explosion had taken place. Our first thoughts were that a bomb had been dropped in the water near us. The ship did not list then or appear to get lower in the water. Our constant air lookouts, 1 officer + 12 soon disproved this theory. By this time we knew the explosion was not aft but forward and the faint smell of paraffin or petrol which we got aft made us all think that there had been an explosion in the Inflammable Store forward.

The 2nd explosion came 10 or 12 minutes after the 1st and was followed in quick succession by a 3rd & 4th each getting near aft and last, I saw. It sent up a dense cloud of black smoke just before & higher than the mainmast & on the Q.D. we ducked to miss falling debris. This must have been at about 0117. “R.O” started to heel over to stbd very suddenly after the 2nd 3rd & 4th explosions (stbd side). That was the 1st indication that we had that she was sinking. My job was Mate of the Upper Deck & boats so I had no cause to go below thank God. When I say that she had disappeared at about 0128 you’ll understand there was no time to launch boat. Power went off with the 2nd exp – & loud speakers. The crane & main derrick were useless. It was very dark- a few stars. The 2 seaboats are the only 2 on davits & they were turned in always to open the arcs of the 4” AA guns. One night boat being a whaler hooked on the crane. I with a party of officers and men tried desperately to launch the gig which was on the Q.D. but it was hopeless in about 3 minutes you couldn’t stand on the deck, she heeled too far. I remember I fell, crawled to the upper guard rails (Port). Kicked off seaboats, M.J. & trousers, walked on the Port Side to Port accom ladder, went hand over hand down the standing Topping lift. Men all round were plopping into the water. To my horror the port outer screw & shaft came out of the water suddenly beneath me. I couldn’t get back so let go & slid down the side (Too far to jump clear) & by the grace of God went between the shaft & the ship over the barnacles. One hand was cut about a bit but the pyjama trousers & socks did their stuff. I was so amazed when I found myself in the water unhurt that I can’t remember gasping at its coldness. The Tanky told me afterward it was 49 F (17 above freezing). Once I got clear of the ship & other swimmers I remember grabbing every chip of wood I could find – too small to hold onto – I put them up the front on my “jumper”, a sweater to be exact. I had struggled out of the pyjama trousers by this time. They acted like a life belt (Hint No 1).

I was swimming towards the drifter that had been attached to us (a Peterhead Herring Drifter) which luckily got clear of the ship. In the dark she couldn’t slip her lines, was lifted by our blister but by going full astern slipped back into the water. I determined not to over exert the old body by swimming fast but to concentrate on keeping afloat (Hint No 2).

I held on to one or two small pieces of flotsam, at one time an old stool – probably from a workshop – but I couldn’t push that through the water so abandoned it for a thin 1”  plank 5 feet x about 9” that was fine but after about 20 minutes I was feeling pretty numb. My great horror was that the Drifter “Daisy” would move off in the darkness. The tide and breeze force were taking her further from the ship & as she was hauling in men I presume she didn’t want to get closer – afraid of getting in her screw in the darkness I can remember that a heaving line being thrown at me!!!! I held it somehow & they pulled me in. Fraid I couldn’t help ‘em. I’d been in the water nearly 40 minutes. I had the worst splitting headache, we all did. My only possessions were my life, a wristwatch (oyster & still going) & a sweater. When I thawed a little (it was too crowded to get into the Blr or engine room) I asked the skipper if he had any rockets or very lights or a flashing lamp to let people know where we were. He had none so I told him to make a S.O.S. on the whistle. I found out after that the launch (full of men) had been pushed under at the boom by the foretop! when it submerged & that the P.B. at the other boom was so full of men in the darkness that she sank. Off my own bat I had put lines round all our pulling boats (loops like merchant ship’s boats) Hint No 3. As none of our boats got away properly I can only hope people made use of the lanyards. Several apparently were free & overturned.

Till 0300 we helped to drag chaps in until we were all “windy” for the stability of the Daisy. We must have had practically 300 of the 370 odd survivors. Although in the Flow we were about 8 miles from the majority of the ships with one exception. We went there in Daisy & got some few clothes. Then onto a transport at 0600. This ship was “bombed”, but missed on the Monday at 7.30 am. Tuesday we were damned glad to get over to the mainland in the little ferry steamer. On Tuesday at 8 pm we left in a special train for the south & leave & damn me if the train wasn’t bumped by another & 2 more of our chaps were hurt. We certainly had a bad spin. Now those tips Bill which God forbid you’ll use but only fools discount the possibility that their ship might be a total loss.

Hint No 4. Keep a 2 lb hammer or billet of wood under your bunk for scuttle clips.

  1. I have already ordered a Gieves waistcoat for you, some days ago, but as Gieves has some hundreds to make you’ll have to wait a bit – No don’t thank me – it’s your account. Wear it when necessary – anyhow it will be a comfort in the cabin. Mine had not arrived worse luck, anyhow make a life belt of sorts.
  2. Send all your things of value ashore, flimsies, policies, photographs, address book, presents & all plainclothes except a tropical suit & grey bags. You do wear them here even if you come over. If you all land things at the same port the Navy will make arrangements about their recovery if they are requested to.

Doubtless you keep the same anti-submarine precautions in harbour as at sea. I hope you have light secluding ventilators. Both in “Courageous” & “R.O.” the majority of survivors were the older people – perhaps they kept their heads better. So that point is essential.

All Carley floats must be in the most accessible places & fitted with slips not secured by lanyards even, as men do not carry knives at 0100 & the Carleys although mostly on the ship’s side couldn’t be freed in the 3 or 4 short minutes. Well Bill, this is the longest letter I’ve ever written you. Hope it doesn’t bore you. Leo I believe is home in Sydney. Vee sent us a telegram congratulating us on the arrival of Venetia.

Don’t let this note upset you in any way. “It may never happen” but there is nothing wrong with being prepared, it gives one a sense of security & leaves one better able to do ones job.

Tell Charles Reid we have heard from Kath just 2 days ago. She is very well & happy.

Remember me to all my friends in your ship especially the Captain, Charles Reid, Ken Watson, Braces & all the others.

Best of luck to you Bill & all in “Perth”.

Yours Fred

Bettie particularly sends her love & Best Wishes – also Venetia.

[For historical information – Edward Gibbon wrote the “Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire” at the Manor House, Buriton, Hants. – When my parents stayed in the house it was owned by Lieut. Col Algernon Bonham-Carter – relation of the actress.   Venetia B.N. Jones- daughter of FN Cook]

HMS Royal Oak 1939

scapaflow1939 chart U47 incursion 300-80 (2)

Fred Cook’s subsequent service in WW2

On completion of survivors leave Lieutenant Commander Cook was posted to the cruiser HMS CURLEW as Second in Command and Executive Officer. Soon after the famous British destroyer attacks on the German destroyers in Narvik 10 to 13 April 1940, CURLEW was sent to participate in the Norwegian Campaign which lasted 6 gruelling weeks from 9 April to 27 May 1940. From 22 to 26 May the ship was at action stations and under continuous surveillance by ‘snooper’ aircraft. The Huns made a determined effort to get rid of CURLEW with bombers attacking in waves. The ship responded with gunfire but by 26 May their ammunition ran out.  The events of this time were described in an article by Cook reporting ‘My Service in HMS CURLEW 1939-1940’ published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 100 dated 1 March 2015. CURLEW was hit by a stick of 3 bombs on 26 May 1940 and the ship sank. Thereby Lieutenant Commander Cook was sunk for the second time in seven months.

Cook was promoted to Commander and his next posting was to establish and command a commando training base at the mouth of the Hamble in Southampton Water which he named HMS TORMENTOR. In mid-January 1942 he was appointed naval commander for the highly secret Operation Biting better known as the Bruneval Raid. This raid was of vital importance in many ways. Firstly British scientists were very keen to better understand the operational capabilities of new German radars and identified an installation in Bruneval from which they hoped to raid and obtain material. Second, Lord Mountbatten who had recently been appointed head of Combined Operations wanted a victory to offset the many recent disasters and boost British morale. Thirdly Churchill wanted to put into action the newly formed parachute commandos. The plan was to parachute commandos with radar technicians into France close to Bruneval, dismantle the radar and bring it and the men back to England by sea.F.Cook with Admiral Sir William (Bubbles) James at HMS Tormentor

Cook was responsible for planning and commanding the sea operations for Operation Biting. Training was carried out in strict secrecy and encountered many difficulties. On the night of the raid HMS Prinz Albert, a Belgian passenger ship that had been requisitioned by the RN after the fall of Belgium in 1940, carried 6 Assault Landing Craft (ALC) and two Support Landing Craft, and was accompanied by six fast moving MTBs. Fifteen miles off the coast the landing craft were unloaded and made their way, with Cook embarked, to a position 1 ½ miles offshore accompanied by the MTBs. This was a tense time especially when two German single funnel destroyers and two E boats were sighted moving down the coast about a mile further out to  sea. Fortunately they moved on towards Le Havre. Waiting off shore Cook was puzzled as no communication had been received as scheduled from the beach and time was of the essence if the raiding party was to be collected and well away from the coast by daylight. Meanwhile the raiding party, having been successful in obtaining the radar parts, was fighting to maintain the beachhead and waiting for the navy while concerned about the arrival of German reinforcements. An emergency flare finally alerted the naval force and instead of two landing craft at a time going into the beach all six landed together. Amongst some confusion most of the raiders were evacuated and the radar parts transferred to an MTB. The naval force was then escorted by destroyers and spitfires as they returned to England. Much publicity was given to the success of the raid and public morale given a boost.

F.Cook in LCT

Shortly before Cook died, he wrote about the raid and it was published by The Naval Historical Society of Australia Inc. as Monogram 57 printed in 1997.  This booklet is entitled OPERATION “BITING” THE NAVAL STORY OF THE BRUNEVAL RAID 27/28 FEBRUARY 1942. The Bruneval raid and the lead up to it encompassing the discovery, development and use of radar and the establishment of airborne forces is told by Taylor Downing in his book Night Raid – The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WW11 published in 2013.

Commander Cook was awarded a DSC for conducting the naval operations of Operation Biting. Later in 1942 he returned to Australia and established a commando training base at Port Stephens called HMAS ASSAULT. From late in 1943 he served in HMAS HOBART as Executive Officer operating in Cebu, Tarakan, Wewak, Brunei and Balikpapan and was in Japan for the surrender on 2 September 1945. After WW11 he commanded HMAS ARUNTA 1947-49, then was promoted Captain and commanded HMAS BATAAN 1949-50 operating in Japan. His following appointments were Naval Attaché in Washington 1951-53 (Korean War), Captain of the Port of Sydney 1953-56, Naval Officer in Charge Northern Australia 1956-58 and CO HMAS PENGUIN 1958-60. He retired after 41 years’ service, including 10 years with the Royal Navy, on 19 February 1960. Captain ‘Freddie’ Cook died on 1 August 1985.

I am most grateful to Rhod Cook (son of Bill Cook) and to Venetia Jones (daughter of Freddie Cook) for the privilege of reading this letter and seeing the great bond between the brothers.  I wish to thank them for allowing this letter to be published and for the information they have provided about their fathers.