Rear-admiral, who was court marshalled following an accident in Valletta Grand Harbour in the 1970s, dies

The Daily Telegraph publishes a lengthy obituary about Rear-Admiral Richard Cobbold, who died on 24 April 2022. Rear-admiral Cobbold was described as “energetic and effective director of the Royal United Services Institute“. His merits in the Royal Navy were that “he generated more income, recruited new staff and restored the RUSI’s reputation as a leading defence think tank“. In 1978, he had an incident in the Grand Harbour. The frigate Mohawk, which was under his command “was caught in a strong gust of wind and crunched her bows on the steps under the Barrakka Lift. She was a single-screw ship, difficult to handle at slow speed and in a crowded harbour.” Cobbold was court marshalled as a result of this incident. Perhaps, such a story would have caused the end of the career for many but not for Cobbold who showed resilience and the capacity to continue moving on in the navy to the rank of rear-admiral.

The obituary follows hereunder:

Richard Cobbold in command
Richard Cobbold in command

Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, who has died aged 79, survived being court-martialed for a collision in his ship in 1978 and, post Cold War, revitalised the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) as its director from 1994 to 2007.

The RUSI, founded in 1831, is the world’s oldest defence and security think tank. But when Cobbold took over he found it moribund, dependent upon the Ministry of Defence for speakers, and with the bulk of its funds consumed by building maintenance. It had lost ground to newer more academically energetic organisations.

Cobbold was also frustrated by his trustees who had presided over the institute’s decline. Gradually, with new, more sympathetic trustees, he began to generate more income, some from overseas sources such as Singapore, Qatar, Taiwan and the UAE. Other funds came from industry, including BAe Systems, and more from conferences and the institute’s first-ever donors’ campaign.

With new funding Cobbold refreshed his research staff and widened their remit, splitting the studies section into two departments, military sciences and international security, and later adding a third – focused on homeland security.

He also oversaw the computerisation of its records, something regarded at that time as revolutionary.

He wrote numerous articles for the RUSI journal and other publications, contributed to the national and international media on defence and security issues, and wrote a regular column in a Japanese journal.

During the same period, he was also a specialist adviser to the House of Commons’ Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, impressing MPs by his independence of mind, free of MoD prejudice. Academics found him unstuffy and easy to work with.

Reforming RUSI was a slow process, and at the end of his thirteen-year term as director he felt he had more to do. Nevertheless, he had laid the groundwork for his successors to reclaim the institute’s position as Britain’s leading defence think tank.

A youthful Richard Cobbold (left)
A youthful Richard Cobbold (left)

Richard Francis Cobbold was born on June 25 1942 in Dartmouth, where his father taught mathematics, and was educated at Bryanston school, Dorset. Among his ancestors were the poet and writer Elizabeth (née Knipe) Cobbold (1764–1824) and her son Richard (1797-1877) author of the History of Margaret Catchpole. The family name lived on in the Ipswich brewers Tolly Cobbold.

Richard Cobbold receiving the Queen's Gold Medal
Richard Cobbold receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal

Cobbold entered Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in 1960 as a supply officer, coming top in the passing out examination and winning the Queen’s Gold Medal. In his first ship, however, he was so seasick that one of his father’s former pupils wrote to his parents querying whether a life at sea was the right choice. But Cobbold was so determined that, citing Nelson who had also suffered seasickness, he overcame all objections.

He had been selected to study Law at Cambridge to become one of the Navy’s barristers when, while serving ashore at the Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton, he realised that the young aviators around him did less work than he did, were paid more and had more fun.

Cobbold succeeded in transferring to the Fleet Air Arm as an observer [navigator]. In 1970-72 he served on loan to the Royal Australian Navy, formative years in which he made life-long friends, with one of whom, a keen amateur pilot, he flew a small plane around Australia.

He also developed a keen sense of fun and adventure and formed a team of runners to race overland against the Australian carrier Melbourne on her passage from Melbourne to Sidney, his runners arriving on the quay in time to take the carrier’s mooring lines.

Richard Cobbold, centre, with other aircrew
Richard Cobbold, centre, with other aircrew

Cobbold served in several naval air squadrons until in 1977 he attended the Royal Naval Staff College and was promoted to commander.

From 1977 to 1979 he commanded the frigate Mohawk, but in 1978, while in Valletta harbour, Malta, she was caught in a strong gust of wind and crunched her bows on the steps under the Barrakka Lift. She was a single-screw ship, difficult to handle at slow speed and in a crowded harbour.

Told he was going to be court-martialed, “at least to find out what went wrong,” Cobbold, with his career at risk, replied: “I should like to know too!” The court established that, under the circumstances, the order to sail should have been delayed and Cobbold was given a reprimand (the lightest sentence).

From 1979 to 1983 he was a desk officer under the director of naval plans, then on the staff of the assistant director defence concepts, and in 1984 a student at the Royal College of Defence Studies, before returning to sea to command the frigate Brazen.

Richard Cobbold meeting Sarah, Duchess of York, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince William
Richard Cobbold meeting Sarah, Duchess of York, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince William

Prince Andrew was the flight commander, and a highlight of Cobbold’s command was a visit by the prince’s wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, his sister-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, and the three-year old Prince William. 

Promoted to captain in 1987, Cobbold’s intellect was recognised by a return to the MoD as director of defence concepts. He became Captain 2nd Frigate Squadron in 1989 and commanded the frigate Brilliant, one of the first ships to carry women at sea.

His time with Brilliant was marked by tragedy when in May 1989 the ship’s helicopter crashed outside Mombasa, killing nine men who were on their way to holidays with their families. Cobbold’s humanity and leadership during this time, and that of his wife, Marika then and afterwards, was remarked upon and commended, but the tragedy continued to haunt him.

Cobbold was promoted to rear-admiral in 1991 and became Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Operational Requirements) looking at the Navy’s future equipment needs and, after another reorganisation in the MoD in 1992, looking at joint service requirements.

 A keen rugby player and cross-country runner in his youth, Cobbold played hockey and boxed for the Navy, and in his 50s he took up running again and completed several marathons. He also enjoyed theatre, ballet, opera and musicals, and delighted in quoting from books and poems.

He had met the teenage Marika Hjörne, scion of a Gothenburg press family, when the helicopter cruiser Blake visited Sweden in 1974. They married a year later but divorced in 1995, by which time Marika had become an award-winning author. They had a son and a daughter.

Rear-Admiral Richard Cobbold, born June 25 1942, died April 24 2022

One thought on “Rear-admiral, who was court marshalled following an accident in Valletta Grand Harbour in the 1970s, dies

  1. If according to the article that Rear-Admiral Richard Cobbold became captain of HMS Brazen between 1984 and 1987 is correct, then he was in command when HMS Brazen visited Malta back in 1986. I guess, in entering and manoeuvring once again in the Grand Harbour, while also berthing at close proximity, (just a few meters away) from where the incident happened in 1978, brought his some nerving memories, while later, he must felt relieved and revenged when he sailed out uneventful. May he rest in peace.

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