Captain Rex Cooper, dedicated merchant seaman who helped reform the Royal Fleet Auxiliary at the time of the Falklands War – obituary

Cooper: a confident leader, well-organised and immaculately turned-out
Cooper: a confident leader, well-organised and immaculately turned-out

Captain Rex Cooper, who has died aged 84, served 37 years almost continuously at sea and helped to reform the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

In 1981-83 Cooper served as marine superintendent responsible for navigation and warfare in the headquarters of the RFA service. The service, whose shore-based management was run by civil servants, faced a number of threats at that time – including a reduction in the size of the fleet under the Nott defence review, redundancies, a “way ahead” study which suggested full integration with the Royal Navy, budgetary constraint, and the lack of a cohesive training strategy.

While the Pepysian management of the RFA gave control of policy and finance to civilians, seagoing officers felt powerless to influence or implement the many necessary reforms to create a modern service.

The Falklands War in 1982 pitchforked the RFA into providing and maintaining and managing a huge logistical shipping effort. Cooper assisted the Chief Marine Superintendent, Captain Gordon Butterworth, as the RFA dealt with preparation, support and advice to seagoers of the Merchant Navy during the war and afterwards, when there was renewed interest and awareness of the service and its essential logistics role.

Butterworth and Cooper capitalised on a new self-confidence in the RAF and pressed for reforms in training, arming the ships, and preparing the crews to man the emerging new classes of RFA. At their instigation the service was granted a new badge, showing sea tritons and an anchor, created by the College of Heralds and approved by the late Queen.

Uniform (not previously issued to ratings) was introduced, and the public began to see smartly turned-out parties of RFA personnel at national events, identified by their distinct blue uniform and mid-blue beret.

Rex Andrew Cooper was born on March 15 1938 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 competed in the Public Schools 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-ships strong, was the freighter Fort Beauharnois. His first passengers were two VIPs travelling from Gibraltar to the UK – rock apes (Macaca sylvanus) bound for Chessington Zoo. Cooper loved nature, but feeding and cleaning these monkeys for a week did not instil any affection for the species, and he was pleased to see them disembark.

In Fort Beauharnois he learnt classic seamanship and coastal and offshore navigation in the days before computerisation. The RFA took pride in the swift recognition of passing ships, and Cooper memorised the house flags and funnel colours, and mastered communication by flashing light using the Morse code.

His 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. Cooper also delivered fuel for the islands’ power station and oranges and lemons for the governor, which he delivered in the governor’s red London taxi.

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 the 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 took her crew to Hong Kong.

Cooper and his wife Pat who endured the long periods of separation while he was at sea
Cooper and his wife Pat who endured the long periods of separation while he was at sea

His last command, in 1990, was the ammunition stores carrier Regent in which he took part in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. On his last voyage, he recalled, Regent was passing Barra Head and entering the Sea of the Hebrides to make her passage through the Pentland Firth, and Cooper had just telephoned his wife to announce that Regent was nearly home, when he turned on his cabin radio to find that, by happy chance, it was playing Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave.

A confident leader, precise, reliable, well-organised and always immaculately dressed, Cooper was a man of quiet dignity. He was proud of his OBE, an honour 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.

While known to his family as “James Bond” – for his mastery of technology, aura of mystery, and habit of sending postcards from exotic places – Cooper’s love of the sea dominated much of his life. But he was defined even more by his marriage, in 1963, to Pat Young, whom he called his “Moneypenny”. Daughter of a master mariner, she shared with him 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 flourished.

He became a skilled wildlife photographer and was a staunch supporter of his parish church, St Aidan’s (built in 1818 by the Greenwich Hospital Commissioners to provide a living for former Navy chaplains after the Napoleonic Wars).

His wife Pat died in 2018; they had no children.

Captain Rex Cooper, born March 15 1938, died October 13 2022