My one brief meeting with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh occurred almost 25 years ago. One of his many titles was Patron of the Burma Star Association and I was a lowly scribbler. We coincided at London’s Imperial War Museum for a reunion of Wingate’s Chindits who had got behind Japanese lines and wrought havoc. ‘You’re obviously an imposter,’ he accused me as he effortlessly table hopped around. ‘You’re much too young to have been a part of this lot.’ As I said this was a long time ago. I explained I was working on a biography of Orde Wingate, the Chindits’ founder, and was interviewing veterans. ‘Then you’d better get your facts right,’ he said. ‘Otherwise this lot will have your guts for garters. They didn’t do so badly for a bunch of pongos.’
Prince Philip of course was Royal Navy and this was high praise for the army. Even more so from a sailor who, by anybody’s standards, had had a good war. But at first Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, as he was known in 1938 when aged 17 he entered Dartmouth naval college, wasn’t allowed to fight. Greece was neutral. For a product of the German Jew Kurt Hahn’s Gordonstoun school and a staunch anti-Nazi it was, to say the least, frustrating. Although he had a Greek title and birthplace he didn’t have a drop of Greek blood. No recent Greek king ever did. He was an offshoot of the Schleswig-Holstein Sonderburg-Glucksburg, a Danish -Hessian lineage aristocratic rivals tended to regard as good looking but pitifully poor. In desperation three of his four elder sisters had all married German aristocrats who became ardent member of the Nazi party.
Then in October 1940 Hitler’s ally Mussolini obligingly invaded Greece putting it on the same side as Britain. Five months later the young officer was awarded a Mention in Despatches for the courage and skill he had displayed aboard the battleship HMS Valiant as midshipman in charge of searchlights during a night action in southern Greek waters when four Italian warships were sunk. In the course of it most of his lights had been shot to pieces by heavy machine-gun fire but he emerged from their wreckage with only minor cuts and bruises. Asked in what passes for a gentler age whether this sort of thing might have caused post-traumatic stress disorder he replied: ‘It’s all the fortunes of war. We didn’t have counsellors running around every time somebody let a gun off. You had to get on with it.’
His next ship was HMS Wallace, an elderly escort destroyer defending Britain’s East Coast convoys from attacks launched from German occupied Norway. At the age of 21 he became the Wallace’s first lieutenant, the youngest second in command in the navy, and was still aboard when in 1943 she sailed to the Mediterranean for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Here on a moonlit summer’s night he won the admiration of his crew by decoying bombers that had already come close to hitting them with a rapidly constructed raft emitting smoke and flame which the Luftwaffe triumphantly bombed to pieces. ‘He was always very courageous and resourceful,’ a surviving shipmate told the BBC 60 years later when the true worth of the world’s most famous husband was getting better known. He spent the rest of the war on another destroyer fighting the Japs in the Pacific and was in Tokyo for the surrender.
The man who became our Queen’s Consort was born at the family’s summer villa in Corfu. It obviously came as a bit of a shock to his mother Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great granddaughter of Queen Victoria, because it occurred on the dining room table. Christened Philippos he was the fifth child and only son of Alice and the Danish Prince Andrew of Greece, a professional soldier. These were turbulent times for Greece. In 1922, after its disastrous war with Turkey there was a military coup. Several generals were shot and his father was banished. Prince Philip first came aboard the Royal Navy at 18 months when in an orange box serving as a crib he was delivered to the cruiser HMS Calypso which was taking his parents into exile in France.
It was the beginning of the end of his parents’ marriage. His mother, though strikingly beautiful, was congenitally deaf and she also began to develop psychiatric problems which much against her will involved long stays in various sanatoriums. His father retired to Monte Carlo with his mistress and died there in 1944. After a referendum restored the monarchy Alice returned to Greece in 1935, converted to the Orthodox faith – she was born a Catholic – then founded a nursing order devoted to looking after the poor and remained there throughout the war. During the Nazis’ roundup of Athens’ Jews she hid a Jewish widow and her five children who survived. Princess Alice’s name is listed at Israel’s Yad Vashem among thsoe Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save others.
After the German withdrawal and the start of the Greek civil war between communists and royalists Harold MacMillan, then Britain’s Minister to the Mediterranean, reported she was living in ‘squalid conditions’. Nonetheless, in November 1947 she attended her son’s wedding to Princess Elizabeth having contributed some stones from what was left of her jewellery to her daughter-in-law’s engagement ring. Twenty years later, after another Greek junta had deposed the monarchy, she came to live with them at Buckingham Palace for the last two years of her life.
The Duke of Edinburgh, a title bestowed by George VI before he married his daughter, would be with us for another 74 years. He was probably the only royal to write most his own speeches, and apart from his sporting successes as a yachtsman and polo also popularised the more egalitarian equine pursuit of carriage driving where he counted some descendants of Britain’s gypsy community among his friends. Teenagers in 144 countries took up his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme founded on the encouragement of adventure and public service he learned at Kurt Hahn’s Gordonstoun in the 1930s. When his official retirement was announced in 2017 a guest at a cocktail party that followed one of his last public engagement told him how sorry he was to learn he was standing down. ‘Standing down?’ he said. ‘I can hardly stand up.’
We wont’s see his like again.