Obituary: Former teacher who lived incredible Boys' Own naval adventure

A painting of the MV JOHN BISCOE, the Antarctic supply vessel that Ronald Cox (pictured) sailed on during the 1940s

A painting of the MV JOHN BISCOE, the Antarctic supply vessel that Ronald Cox (pictured) sailed on during the 1940s - Credit: Cox family

A former Norfolk physics teacher whose 'Boy's Own' naval career saw him involved in Cold War spy expeditions, rescued from the Antarctic ice and carrying out ocean salvage missions, has died aged 96. 

Ronald Victor Cox was born into a third-generation naval family on May 2, 1926, in Portsmouth. 

He grew-up and was educated in the port city and was described as an “academic genius” who excelled and came top in all of his classes – setting high standards he would keep for the rest of his life. 

Against his mother’s wishes, in 1943 he signed up with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVS) at the age of 17, in a bid to avoid his fate of becoming a Bevin Boy, conscripted to work down the coal mines.

While enlisted as a volunteer reservist, he was offered a place at Trinity College in Oxford to study physics.

The family of Ron Cox has described him as "a gentleman, a scholar, and very modest - a wonderful father"

The family of Ron Cox has described him as "a gentleman, a scholar, and very modest - a wonderful father" - Credit: Cox family

Over the next five years, he completed his degree while also embarking on a naval career which can only be described as a Boy's Own adventure.

Despite his age and relatively lowly rank, Mr Cox ended up commanding submarines, including a German vessel seized off the coast of Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

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On another occasion, after the end of the Second World War, he was sent on a top-secret mission aboard the survey ship HMS Challenger to spy on the Soviets, by monitoring radiation levels to determine if the country had nuclear capabilities.

The mission - which was covered by the Official Secrets Act - saw the vessel sent to the North Pacific, between Hawaii and Guam, where tests detected Russian nuclear activities.

The ship was also asked to conduct another task in the area: to carry out survey work at the Mariana Trench - the deepest location on earth, which lies around 200 miles from the coast of Guam.

The deepest point, the Challenger Deep, was named after an earlier survey, in 1875, by a previous HMS Challenger, which saw the depth measured with a weighted rope.

On another occasion, Mr Cox was third in command on voyage from London to Antarctica to assist the British Antarctic Survey.

The cargo on the ship, John Biscoe, included 20 live sheep and various provisions for a scientific team working there.

On the journey home, the vessel became stuck in ice and the crew was forced to kill and eat penguins and seals after running out of food. They were eventually freed by, ironically, a Russian ice-breaker.

A painting by artist Kenneth Grant, commissioned by the Cox family, of the MV JOHN BISCOE

A painting by artist Kenneth Grant, commissioned by the Cox family, of the MV JOHN BISCOE, the Antarctic supply vessel that Ronald Cox sailed on between 1947 and 1948 - Credit: Cox family

The final drama of the trip included assisting the United States government in towing a frigate, which was ten times bigger, back to South America.

As it was a salvage mission, Mr Cox was rewarded with a bounty that would be worth £15,000 in today’s money. 

Following this eventful, but brief, naval career, Mr Cox returned to collect his degree despite not sitting his finals.

He was awarded it nonetheless, both as a reward for his service to his country and the fact that he had completed all of the required work. 

After graduating he spent a short time at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, before his future wife, Heather, persuaded him to take up teaching. 

The couple married in December 1951, in Portsmouth. They had met at a dance when Mr Cox was a junior officer and Heather had been playing the piano. 

The couple went on to have four children: Judith (born in 1952), Jenny (1956), Jeremy (1957), and Jeffery (1968). Heather died in February 2011. 

From 1951, he taught at Bradford Grammar School, before applying to become a physics teacher at Gresham’s School, Holt, in 1959. 

He had it to the final two candidates, who were both were neck and neck.

The school’s former headmaster, the late Logie Bruce Lockhart, picked Mr Cox as he had serendipitously wore blue socks that day, rather than the other interviewee who wore yellow. Mr Lockhart took it as an omen, due to his Scottish roots.

Ronald Cox during his time in the navy during the 1940s

Ronald Cox during his time in the navy during the 1940s - Credit: Cox family

During his 30 years at the school, Mr Cox became head of physics, librarian, co-ordinator of the sailing club, and led navigation courses.

He introduced electronics to the curriculum and wrote physics textbooks that sold in their thousands across the globe.  

He also became the head of many examination boards for physics and would put together exam papers, never setting the same question twice. This was something he did until the age of 95, although he officially retired in 1989.

He also became chair of the British Physics Olympiad, allowing him to take physics all over the world. 

During his time in Holt, he was very active in the town. He was chair of Holt Round Table, Holt Rotarians, and St John Ambulance, the latter of which he raised thousands of pounds for. 

In his later years, he became a churchwarden and lay preacher at St Mary’s Church, High Kelling, for 15 years, and ran the Georgian market town’s bed and breakfast, Three Corners, which is still run by his family today.

Then in 2015, he was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for his services to education and to the community in Holt and Kelling.

It was an honour he first declined, saying there were more deserving people, but his family eventually persuaded him to accept the accolade. 

He lived with prostate cancer for more than 30 years. 

Ron Cox BEM, MA, RNVR (Retd) died on June 20. He leaves behind his children, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and step-great-grandchildren.