- Milson, Scott
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2, Obituaries
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The youngest officer to command an Australian destroyer during WW2, Bill Cook, has died aged 87, after a notable naval career and having forged a second equally distinguished career at the heart of the Sydney legal world. He was a familiar figure on the Anzac Day marches, leading the veterans of the N-Class Destroyers, the last surviving skipper of those five ships.
Bill Cook was born in Numurkah in northern Victoria in 1916 and followed his elder brother Fred into the Royal Australian Naval College, in the face of fierce competition. He was one of just 12 boys in the 1930 intake, a class that was to produce a crop of fighting commanders, a state governor and two admirals. Graduating as a midshipman in 1934, he joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. In those far off days when Britannia still ruled the waves, the newly-minted midshipman did see the world, with his first posting taking him to England, followed by two years service in the Mediterranean. Then followed a year at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where meals were taken in Wren’s magnificent Painted Hall under the portraits of Drake and Nelson.
He was serving in the new light cruiser HMAS Perth on passage home from UK when war broke out, but in mid-1940 he was posted as First Lieutenant (XO) in the destroyer HMAS Voyager, based in Egypt. The ship operated in support of the Army in North Africa, including the supply runs, often under near constant air attack, into besieged Tobruk. The most sustained operation was the Greek campaign in mid- 1941. Voyager was in the thick of it but one of the lucky ones to survive. For his services, Cook was Mentioned In Dispatches.
In 1942 he was posted as First Lieutenant of the new fleet destroyer, HMAS Nizam and a busy 18 months followed, serving in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Cook was posted to his first command in 1944, taking over the troop-carrying destroyer HMAS Vendetta, one of the escorts at the Australian Army landing at Jacquinot Bay, New Guinea. He had barely unpacked his sea-chest before he was promoted to command his old ship Nizam. It was a singular honour, for at 28 he was the youngest destroyer captain in the Navy. As operations moved ever northward in the Pacific campaign the RAN encountered their first kamikaze attacks, a constant danger even after Japan surrendered in 1945. Nizam, along with others received the memorable signal: ‘Any enemy aircraft approaching the Fleet is to be shot down in a very friendly manner‘. On the eve of the formal surrender on-board the battleship USS Missouri a month later, Nizam was the first RAN ship into Tokyo Bay.
After the war, Bill Cook served as First Lieutenant in the improbably-named research ship HMAS Wyatt Earp on the first postwar Australian expedition to the Antarctic in 1947-8. Later his outstanding personal qualities no doubt helped his selection as RAN Escort Officer for HM the Queen’s 1954 Tour, for which he was appointed a Lieutenant in the Royal Victorian Order (LVO). For the next three years he helped oversee the fitting out of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and on commissioning in UK as the RAN’s new Flagship, became her Commander (XO). In 1960, Captain Bill Cook resigned from the RAN, ushering in his second career.
He finally retired in 1985, though the term was relative. Bill was a stalwart of the Naval Historical Society (serving as President from 1994-97), the N-Class Destroyers Association and the RAN Ski Club until his death in November 2003. There were few parts of Australia he had not travelled through or hiked over. To the end he was a man who grasped life with both hands and lived it joyously to the full. Family and friends, old shipmates and former work colleagues farewelled him at a packed-to-capacity and moving Memorial Service in the Naval Chapel, Garden Island.
(This edited Obituary reproduced by kind permission of the author, Mr. Scott Milson, and originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald Christmas Weekend edition 26-28 December 2003. Ed.).