Obituary – Colin Cooke-Priest (LI 1952-57)

Rear Admiral Colin Cooke-Priest, CB CVO, FRAeS (LI52-57) (1939-2020)

Colin Cooke-Priest, who sadly died on 6 April, joined MC from St. Piran’s in 1952 and, after a stint in Barton Hill he moved to Littlefield where under the watchful eye of RAU Jennings he delivered academically and excelled at sports, most notably Golf and as centre forward for the Hockey XI where his ‘shot like a snake’s trail’ accounted for many a MC victory. Colin was preceded at MC by his Great Grandfather, his father attended Rossal having been unable to sit the entrance exams to MC due to Polio. Colin was followed by his sons Nick (LI 1982-85) and James (LI 1984-89), and his grandsons Will, currently in the Remove, and Zachy who will join in September this year, keeping the long MC tradition firmly intact.

Having known for as long as he could recall that he was destined for a life at sea, he joined Britannia Royal Navy College, Dartmouth from MC in 1957 with 5 other OMs bringing the total number of OMs then training at Dartmouth to twenty-three – not a bad contribution for a school with no particular naval connection! At Dartmouth, he was barely aware of aviation but the cadets were each given air experience flights in piston aircraft, a jet and a helicopter, at which point he discovered that he ‘was terribly prone to airsickness. As such he ‘… certainly never hankered after aviation as a career, I just wanted to drive a ship.’ He was commissioned two years later and served worldwide in a variety of small ships, including 14 months on the West Indies Station.

Coincidentally, the Fleet Air Arm was expanding and it was decreed that a number of long career seaman officers should be amongst the numbers – probably to bring some measure of decorum to the excitable short career aviators! Thus, against his better wishes, he started flying training as an Observer (the navy calls its air navigators Observers) in 1962 at the Naval Air Station Hal Far in Malta. ‘It turned out to be tremendous fun. We were all pressed men, all Dartmouth General List Officers, slightly older than the observer appointees and similar in rank to our instructors. We had an excellent time both in school and out. Malta was a fun place to be in those days and we lived life to the full.’ Having been horribly sea sick in his first small ship in the unquiet water off Scotland, he was also violently ill in the dreadfully unstable Sea Prince training aircraft, and whilst having no interest in helicopters, he failed the high-altitude aptitude test. Thus, ruled out of fixed-wing flying and limited to helicopters, ‘which I really didn’t want’, he was streamed for the barely accepted helicopters. However, ‘It soon became clear that we were at the very beginning of helicopter anti-submarine warfare, one of the most important aspects of naval warfare today.’ And, so, the foundations were laid for a diverse, exciting and hugely fun career path along which he bounced between sea and aviation related appointments, on each occasion bringing greater perspective and learning to the other.

It was also during this exciting time in Malta that fate played its part. As the next cohort of young trainee aviators arrived in Malta, Sue Hobler the Wren in the air traffic control tower made a bet with a colleague that she would marry the one with the brownest knees; fresh from the West Indies Station and with good tanning credentials, Colin was odds-on. Coincidentally, upon hearing the ‘golden voice in the tower’, he exclaimed ‘I will marry her’ – the rest is history! Since her father was a retired Air Vice Marshal, their wedding was at St Clement Dane’s and included an enormous 44 sword guard of honour from all 3 services.

A year later having gained his ‘wings’ he joined 814 Sqn in the Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious and for the next few years he flew in anti-submarine helicopters as the ‘brains’ who directed operations from the cabin of the aircraft. In the Carriers Victorious and Albion, he saw service in Aden, the Far East and in Borneo, during the confrontation with Indonesia, and he found that he was in his element. Navy life provided immense variety and challenge, those operating with autonomy and with initiative being not only prized but practiced daily. He mused later that ‘One day we’d be chasing submarines, then we’d be 200 miles inland putting off men or picking up urgent stores. We were not only warfare trained navigators and systems operators but we were required to be logistical organizers, despatchers, planners, and operations officers; you had to be endlessly flexible and contrive ways to get the job done’. Whilst serving in Victorious he survived the first of his two ditchings and said of it ‘I don’t suppose I was ever in real danger. In the early days of Doppler and auto-hover systems, when it’s a hot and glassy calm and there’s very little return on the surface, it takes enormous skill to slide into a hover at 40 feet. A couple of inexperienced pilots were a bit insensitive at the controls and the tail went in, followed quickly by the rest of the helicopter.’

Colin was the radar project officer for the first radar equipped Wessex squadron which was followed by a tour as the Operations Officer in HMS Russell before a fabulous Australian exchange appointment in 1967. Whilst serving with 817 Sqn in HMAS Melbourne, he suffered his second ditching while transferring stores to the destroyer HMAS Vampire, the winch cable snagged on the ship’s superstructure, snapping as the ship rolled and rebounding into the helicopter’s rotorblades, causing it to crash into the sea. He reflected years later that underwater escape drill ‘was total second nature … one just has a drink with the pilot afterwards, and that’s an end to it.’ On return from Australia, he was appointed Senior Observer of 824 Squadron in HMS Ark Royal and then as Senior Instructor at the Naval Observer School.

Colin was promoted to Commander in 1973 and commanded the frigate HMS Plymouth, taking her on deployment around the world via Suez and back through the Panama Canal, for a period, escorting the Royal Yacht Britannia during HM the Queen’s global tour. He then commanded HMS Berwick before taking over the ‘Future Helicopter’ desk in the Directorate of Naval Air Warfare where he wrote the first specification for the Sea King replacement – later the Merlin, and he served long enough to fly in the first operational variant of the aircraft.

In 1979 he had been selected for another sea command, but the ship had a serious fire while in refit. Initially this seemed like a cruel stroke of luck, but fortunately the new Commander-in-Chief Fleet, Admiral Sir Jim Eberle was seeking a Naval Assistant with both sea command and Ministry of Defense experience. Colin was promoted Captain during this appointment before returning to the MoD as Assistant Director of Naval Air Warfare during the period covering the Falkand’s War. His subsequent appointments included Director of the Maritime Tactical School; command of the frigate HMS Boxer – bringing her out of build as the first of a brand new class of ‘stretched’ Type 22 Frigates; as Senior Naval Officer Middle East he commanded the ‘Armilla’ Task Force in the Gulf during the Iran/Iraq war, an appointment briefly mentioned at the end of Paths of Progress. His fourth and final seagoing command was HMS Brilliant, as Captain Second Frigate Squadron.

Colin was promoted Rear Admiral in 1989 on his appointment to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe – SHAPE, Belgium as Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations) and Maritime Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He said ‘it was an unusual spot for a sailor but being less than half an hour from the French and German borders and a mere 3 hours from the Ardennes on a Sunday morning it had advantages, especially gastronomic ones!’

He became Flag Officer Naval Aviation in December 1990, the second Observer to command the Fleet Air Arm and served in this appointment until his retirement from the Navy in 1993; he was appointed CB earlier that year. He was the Inspecting Officer at Nick’s Passing Out Parade from Dartmouth in 1991 and on arriving to inspect Nick he quipped ‘Good Lord, I think I know your Mother’, at which point the cadet to Nick’s left nearly dropped his sword! His last official function in the RN was to present Nick with his Observer’s Wings (pictured above). A month or so later, on arriving for his Service discharge medical, a rather absent minded Medical Assistant asked his name without looking up or noticing his Admiral’s rank, he replied ‘Cooke-Priest’, to which the Medical Assistant responded, ‘great – sit down Chef, he’s 10 minutes behind schedule’; being rather amused by this and the faces of those all around, Colin duly took a seat and enjoyed a wry chuckle with the awaiting hordes!

After leaving the RN, a chance meeting led to his appointment for five years as the National Director of the Trident Trust, an educational charity whose principal activity was placing over 150,000 young people in work experience annually. This took him to the far reaches of the UK and routinely back to MC, as another feature of Trident’s work was to certificate ‘community involvement’ and ‘personal challenge’ and for 3 years between 1996-1999 he presented certificates in A House. At about the same time he was asked if he was willing and able to be appointed a Gentleman Usher to HM the Queen. Luckily, he was able to undertake both ‘jobs’ and over 14 years, has attended 134 investitures, 53 Garden Parties, five Royal Funerals, two Royal Weddings, 50th and 60th anniversaries, a Golden Jubilee and a Diamond Wedding Anniversary. On reaching 70, he retired as a GU becoming an Extra Gentlemen Usher for as long as ‘one remains upright and sober!’ That same year Her Majesty appointed him CVO, and he became the Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, the year when the Fleet Air Arm celebrated its 100th anniversary. He was President of the Marlburian Club in 2011.

He is survived by Sue, Nick, James and their 2 daughters Diana and Marina.

Nick Cooke-Priest (LI 1982-85)