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Paul Cooke

Paul Cooke was born in Marylebone, London on December 18th 1916 the son of William Cooke and his wife Dora. Educated at St Edwards School, Oxford , it was here that Cooke first learned to play rugby, soon finding his place behind the scrum at half back. Remaining in Oxford to continue his education Cooke went up to Trinity College , where he soon caught the eye of the university rugby club. During the summer of 1936 he joined a British representative side that toured South America winning all ten of the matches played, taking the field with his later Oxford team mate Alexander Obolensky amongst others. After his success here he soon found his way into the Varsity team for his university during their next encounter with Cambridge .

This, Cooke’s first blue for Oxford , came on December 8th 1936 in a match played at the by now usual venue of Twickenham. The weather for the match was poor. The best that could be said was that had it not rained persistently then fog would probably have stopped the game. The wet conditions proved equally unconducive to any type of an open game and consequently the match was littered with handling errors. Despite this at the end of the day Cambridge proved to be the better attacking side, although they were forced into desperate defence for most of the match. In a game very much as close as the score implied Cambridge ’s six points to five victory was probably deserved.

Retaining his place in the Oxford side the following year Cooke returned to Twickenham on December 7th 1937 to again take on the light blues and win his second blue. In a match played in front of the King Cambridge’s possession alone should have allowed them an easy victory. Lacking imagination, however, Cambridge squandered chance after chance with futile passing down their back line. The Oxford midfield defended ferociously and counterattacked as they could. The pace of Oxford , along it must be said with a generous measure of good luck as their pack was repeatedly penalized, allowed them to draw to a seventeen points to four victory. Cooke himself scored two tries during the win, the second coming during the closing moments of the match. “Finally in the last minutes of all Cooke rubbed it in by picking up a loose ball and scoring a fifth try.”

Leaving Oxford Cooke now took up a position in the banking industry, whilst playing his rugby for Richmond at club level. The following year was a quiet one on the representative front, but this was rectified in January 1939 when Cooke was first selected to play for England , his debut cap coming against Wales at Twickenham on January 21st.

In a match played in dreadful conditions the English pack shone outscrummaging the Welsh in a game where the forwards were vital. The treacherous conditions underfoot in themselves undid the traditional flair of the Welsh backs as England won by three points to nil. During the game “Cooke lost no chances to open up an attack on the blindside” and he was generally regarded as having had a reasonably successful debut in this, the first international of the season.

England ’s next match, their fiftieth to be played at Twickenham, was against the Irish on February 11th 1939. Doubtless the English team and their supporters hoped for a good win to mark the occasion. Unfortunately the Irish had other ideas, playing a fast and furious game in brilliant sunshine the Irish outplayed the English pack and made life very difficult for both of the English half backs as England lost by five points to nil. Cooke and his half back partner G A Walker both played poorly, at times kicking ahead, throwing blind passes to each other and edging their wings into touch. Their play was noted by all, the Times saying “Cooke and his partner were gallant enough in defence but in attack and counterattack… found the worrying pace of the game too much for them.” The performance was also not lost on the English selectors and Cooke was dropped for the last match of the international season against Scotland , France at this time being also in the international wilderness amidst charges of professionalism. This aside Cooke was asked to join the Barbarians for their customary Easter tour to Wales that year, pulling on the famous black and white hoops twice, winning by eleven points to six against Cardiff on April 8th before losing by three points to twelve to Swansea two days later. It may well have been that in the fullness of time Cooke would have regained his England place, but more serious matters were soon afoot.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939 Cooke soon enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant after completing officer training on March 9th 1940. Almost immediately he left for France to join his Regiments 1st Battalion, then part of the British Expeditionary Force and at this time engaged in the lull before the storm that became known as the ‘phoney’ war. This fragile period of inaction was shattered on May 10th 1940 as the German forces launched an attack on the Low Countries . Their offensive into northern Belgium , where most of the British forces were arrayed, was largely a faint to draw attention away from their main point of attack through the poorly defended Ardennes Forrest. The British forces were forced to retreat again and again in front of the rapidly advancing German army. It was against this backdrop that Operation Dynamo was rapidly conceived and put into action, allowing the evacuation of some three hundred and thirty thousand British and French troops from Dunkirk between the 26th May and 3rd June. For the operation to succeed a fighting withdrawal towards the beaches was required to provide much needed time to the allied commanders. Towards this end on May 26th the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry took part in the defence of the Ypres-Comines canal, an engagement that lasted two days before they were again forced to retreat. Second Lieutenant Paul Cooke never made it to the beaches at Dunkirk . On May 28th he fell in action and was buried at the Comines communal cemetery.


"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

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© D A Hunter, 2008
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