Key.Aero pays tribute to the life, influence and military career of the Duke of Edinburgh
Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has died aged 99. He was a world figure and wartime hero, with huge personality and important history with the Navy and RAF.
The military was a key part of Philip’s life from an early stage. His grandfather had served in the Navy, and his guardian and uncle, Louis Mountbatten, served with the rank of captain. Philip found a home in the Royal Navy. In late 1938, with Britain on the brink of war with Nazi Germany, 17-year-old Philip entered Sandquay Barracks at the Brittania Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and found his academic footing. He graduated the next year, earning the King’s Dirk as the best cadet of his term along with the Eardley-Howard-Crockett Prize as best cadet at the entire college. He joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in January 1940.
Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Philip was active in the Royal Navy but classified as a “neutral foreigner,” which technically prohibited him from serving in a combat zone. However in October 1940 Italy invaded Greece, which promptly went to war on the Allied side, removing the issue surrounding Philip’s service in a theatre of war. After postings aboard the heavy cruisers HMS Kent and HMS Shropshire, Philip was transferred to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean in January 1941.
Aboard Valiant, Philip experienced action for the first time, as the battleship bombarded Italian positions at Bardia on the Libyan coast. Then, in February 1941, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant after completing the required courses at Portsmouth and he achieved the highest marks in four of the five sections. Within weeks, he participated in convoy operations during the battle for control of Crete.
A shipmate aboard Valiant remembered Philip vividly and noted years later, “I liked Prince Philip. He was a wonderful fella.” But the old rating also remembered Philip’s sharp rebuke of an opponent who continually cheated during a hockey match against an RAF team in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. “If you do that one more bloody time then I will cut your feet off you!”
On 27-29 March 1941, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, under the command of Admiral Andrew Cunningham, decisively defeated Italian naval forces in the Battle of Cape Matapan. Three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk with 2,300 killed and 1,015 taken prisoner, while the new battleship Vittorio Veneto was severely damaged. Royal Navy losses were three airmen killed when their torpedo plane was shot down, a single Royal Marine casualty, and four light cruisers damaged.
Philip’s action station was on the bridge of Valiant, and after dark he was responsible for the operation of the battleship’s port searchlight. The battle, fought off the Pelopponesian Peninsula, was a night engagement. According to sources, Philip remained quiet for years regarding his role in the battle, finally writing publicly about it in the foreword of the 2012 release Dark Seas: The Battle Of Cape Matapan. “My recollection is that Valiant was the only capital ship fitted with, what is now known as RADAR, but was then known as RDF,” Prince Philip wrote, “and was therefore stationed immediately astern of HMS Warspite, Admiral Cunningham’s flagship. As far as I was concerned, it seemed that there was little chance of our catching up with the retreating Italians, and, as it got dark there was a general air of anti-climax. Then, suddenly, in the quiet of the night, came a report from our RDF operator that he had an echo on the port bow at about 5,000 yards…”
Philip snapped on his searchlight almost simultaneously with the destroyer HMS Greyhound, and recalled, “I seem to remember that I reported that I had a target in sight, and was ordered to ‘open shutter.’ The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship.
“The next morning the battle fleet returned to the scene of the battle, while attempts were made to pick up survivors,” Philip concluded. “This was rudely interrupted by an attack by German bombers. Fortunately, they missed, although Valiant was straddled diagonally from the port quarter to the starboard bow. A Royal Marine sentry on the quarterdeck was killed by a splinter, but otherwise no damage was done. Except that the two bombs going off simultaneously made the whole ship flex along its length….”
Philip soon received the Greek Cross of Valour and was Mentioned in Despatches for his skilful handling of Valiant’s searchlight. His commanding officer wrote, “…the successful and continuous illumination of the enemy greatly contributed to the devastating results.
In June 1942, Philip transferred to the destroyer HMS Wallace, which performed convoy duty along the eastern British coastline. The following month, he was promoted lieutenant and then in October to first lieutenant. At age 21, he had effectively become second-in-command of Wallace, among the youngest Royal Navy officers ever to take on such responsibility.
A year later, the destroyer was detailed in support of Operation Husky, the Allied amphibious landings on the island of Sicily. The ships lying offshore were vulnerable to attack by Luftwaffe bombers at any time, and one night Wallace appeared to be leading a charmed life. But nobody aboard believed her luck would hold. In 2003, Harry Hargreaves, a yeoman aboard the destroyer, told the BBC the remarkable story of Philip’s ingenuity, which likely saved the ship from destruction.
“It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit,” Hargreaves remembered. “It was for all the world like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that a direct hit was inevitable.”
About 20 minutes elapsed between the determined German air assaults, and as precious moments ticked by, Hargreaves noticed Philip in conversation with the destroyer’s captain. “…The next thing a wooden raft was being put together on deck. Within five minutes they launched a raft over the side – at each end was fastened a smoke float. When it hit the water the smoke floats were activated and billowing clouds of smoke interspersed with small bursts of flame gave a convincing imitation of flaming debris on the water.”
Philip had suggested the deception in order to fool the German pilots into thinking the smoking raft was actually debris from a stricken warship. After tossing the raft into the sea, Wallace steamed full ahead for a few minutes, and the captain ordered the engines stopped.
“Quite some time went by before we heard aircraft engines approaching,” Hargreaves recalled. “The sound of the aircraft grew louder until I thought it was directly overhead…The next thing was the scream of the bombs, but at some distance. The ruse had worked and the aircraft was bombing the raft…We lay there waiting for him to leave, which he did, and, in view of the solitary attacks so well spaced apart, we were convinced he would not return. It had been marvellously quick thinking, conveyed to a willing team and put into action as if rehearsed.”
In conclusion, Hargreaves did not mince words. “Prince Philip saved our lives that night…He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly. You would say to yourself, ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ and Philip would come up with something.”
Years later, in 1952, Philip undertook RAF pilot training; he received his wings during a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 4 May 1953. Later that year, he was named Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal of the Army, and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
Through the years, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich, Knight of the Garter, Knight of the Thistle, Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, Companion of the Order of Australia, Companion of The Queen’s Service Order, Privy Counsellor, energetically upheld his obligations.
For more than 50 years, Prince Philip represented the royal family at home and abroad. One observer noted that he had quietly modernised the House of Windsor, acting without fanfare behind the scenes. Another noted, “I think he shaped the Queen’s reign very subtly, and people don’t really know what he’s done. So he’s managed to do things without being noticed, which is what he wants.”
The role of consort was demanding, publicly and privately. Still, Philip remained true to his pledge. For well over half a century, he travelled extensively to represent the crown, going alone on 637 overseas trips. He delivered 5,496 speeches and served as patron, president, or member of 780 various organisations, many of them charities. He also found time to write 14 books and carried out his final royal engagement in August 2017, at the age of 96.
Philip devoted his life to the Queen, and in so doing, did the same for his country. Amid controversy, acrimony, triumph and tragedy, he managed to maintain a semblance of self, and there is scarcely a better example of selfless service to be found.