- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- 19th century wars, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Captain John Cooke, HMS Bellerophon || Killed at Trafalgar 1805
In a small column of the Sydney Morning Herald on 14-15 May 20051 a plaintive request was noted trying to trace the descendants of Captain John Cooke, commanding HMS Bellerophon at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was a conscientious and unorthodox officer, who made an unusual arrangement on the eve of Trafalgar: With his next-in-command he took turns at the watch – a duty that senior officers seldom bothered with.
ONE OF NELSON’S ‘Band of Brothers’, Captain John Cooke of the Bellerophon2 (74) was amongst one of those favoured by the Commander-in-Chief, together with Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (who commanded the rearguard of the British Fleet), with an invitation to dinner with Nelson onboard the flagship, HMS Victory (104).
While Bellerophon was leaving her place in the line to close the flagship, her First Lieutenant, William Cumby, spotted a signal flying at the masthead of HMS Mars, the nearest other ship of the line. He called it to Cooke’s attention and they both studied it through their telescopes. Cumby was certain it was signal 370 (‘Enemy is coming out of port’) but Cooke could not be sure, as only the topsails of the Mars were visible over the horizon and the colours were difficult to make out against the sun. Then Mars made her ‘Distant’ signal (which was expressly designed to be seen at extreme long range – a flag, a pendant and a ball, hoisted at different mastheads). It was 370.
Just as the Bellerophon was about to relay the message, Victory signalled her acknowledgement, having made out the signal herself. Another flag from Victory cancelled the dinner, and the next one ordered ‘General Chase, South East’. The roadstead at Cadiz was fifty miles away; the intelligence that the enemy Combined Fleet was leaving port had been passed all that distance in less than two and a half hours from the time the first British frigate had observed it.
Captain Cooke ultimately shared the same fate as Nelson. At nearly the same moment that Nelson was shot, Captain John Cooke himself was hit by a cannon ball. He had just killed a French officer on the Aigle’s quarterdeck and was reloading his pistol when he was struck. His First Lieutenant went to take him below to the surgeon. ‘Let me lie a minute’, said Cooke, and died.
Captain George Duff of the Mars suffered a similar death. When his ship came between the French ships Fougueux and Pluton, their combined broadsides destroyed most of the British ship’s rigging and decapitated her captain. His officers covered the body with the Union Flag until the battle was over.
‘My dear Mamma’ Duff’s son, Norwich, who was a midshipman in the Mars, wrote home the next day, ‘you cannot possibly imagine how unwilling I am to begin this melancholy letter . . .’
Fighting Sail – Time-Life Books 1979
The Wooden Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy AD 1897 – 1860 by E.H.H. Archibold (Blandford Press, London, revised edition 1972)