The odysseys and adventures that shaped Prince Philip, before he met the Queen

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Chris Leadbeater
·13 min read
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Prince Philip, pictured before his marriage to the Queen - Getty
Prince Philip, pictured before his marriage to the Queen - Getty

It is natural, when a major figure dies, to focus on their health in their final days. The coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death will be no different – and the images of him looking frail on his release from hospital last month will linger in the public imagination.

But this should not disguise the fact that he led a remarkable life – not least during his Twenties, when his travels took him to many corners of the world in the heat of war. Obituaries will talk of Prince Philip as a loyal husband and father whose 73 years of marriage made him the longest-serving royal consort in British history. Yet the younger man should also be remembered – not on a palace balcony, but up on the deck of a ship.

Indeed, the fascinating early parts of his story would shape him for the responsibilities of the later chapters – and bear re-telling, even as the country dwells upon the sad news of his death.

His first 25 years were a blur of motion which carried him from the Ionian Sea to the Moray Firth, and from a Germany falling into step with Nazism to a Japan wrestling with its own demons. Indeed, his wedding day, November 20 1947, might almost be described as the first moment he halted in his tracks. Prior to that, he had barely stopped. Even his first footsteps were an international affair – a tottering through the cross-fire of one of Europe’s bitterest conflicts, which ended up carrying his family far from home pastures.

It is not hard to find the place where Philip was born in the middle of 1921. Mon Repos is still there on the south edge of Corfu Town; an elegant 19th century villa which had been a summer residence of the British Lord High Commissioner during the half-century in which the United States of the Ionian Islands – a short-lived (1815–1864) protectorate – held sway in this corner of the European landmass. But by the time Philip was delivered, Corfu (and with it, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkada, Paxos, Kythira, and Zakynthos) had itself been delivered, into local control – and was now a retreat for the Greek royal family. Of which Philip was a part – although he could claim lineage with several of the continent’s regal houses. His mother, Alice of Battenberg, was a British-born princess of the German Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine; his father was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark – the fourth son of George I of Greece, but a man in line for the throne of both nations. He would ascend to neither – but the family had position and influence nonetheless. When Philip breathed his first, it was his uncle who wore the crown in Athens, as Constantine I.

Had the future Duke of Edinburgh been able to look through his nursery window and understand what was visible to the east (the view was always better in that direction, and certainly is in the present day, with Corfu’s international airport now fanning out less than a mile from the west perimeter of the property), he might have appreciated that he was staring at two different countries. The border between Greece and Albania cuts its dash almost directly opposite Mon Repos – across the sheltered waves of the Corfu Channel.

However, it was the enmity with another neighbour that would dramatically influence the baby Philip’s youngest hours. By June 1921, the Greco-Turkish War – that grim aftershock of the First World War – was into its third year. It would be over in another 16 months, but not without cost. Greece suffered a crushing defeat. Constantine bore some of the brunt of public anger – and was forced to abdicate on September 27 1922. But it was the events of November 15 which underscored the severity of the situation. The notorious “Trial of the Six” saw Georgios Hatzianestis – the commander-in-chief of the failed campaign – and five senior politicians executed for treason. Prince Andrew, arrested on the same charge and dragged to Athens from Corfu, only escaped the same fate when he was found to be “completely lacking in military command experience”. His initial death sentence was commuted to banishment. By December 4, he, his wife and children were shipping out on the British rescue vessel HMS Calypso. Philip left the isle of his birth in a wooden vegetable box in lieu of a cot, bound for Brindisi, and then Paris.

The French capital was rarely the least troubled of places during the first half of the 20th century, but its inter-war years at least provided Philip with a certain stability. The Greek refugee royals washed up in Saint-Cloud, a gilded district out in the western suburbs of the city, where the child’s aunt, Princess George of Greece and Denmark – also known as Princess Marie Bonaparte – had a house. Marie was quite the character – a society figure, a wealthy heiress, an acolyte of Sigmund Freund, and a diligent researcher into female sexuality and sexual pleasure. Her money helped to pay for Philip’s schooling, and provided a platform for a childhood which never settled in one place for any great period.

Prince Philip (second from left) with schoolmates at the MacJannet American School of St Cloud - Getty
Prince Philip (second from left) with schoolmates at the MacJannet American School of St Cloud - Getty

Philip’s formal education began at The Elms, an American school in Saint-Cloud. But by 1928, he had crossed the Channel to the UK, where his time was divided between Cheam School in Hampshire and Kensington Palace – where he lived with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten. Again, this would prove a temporary situation – but also a respite from wider problems. By 1930, his parents were estranged – his mother diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a sanatorium in Switzerland; his father decamping to Monte Carlo. By 1933, Philip was on the move again, this time to Germany – his fourth country of residence, by the age of 12. The Schule Schloss Salem, almost on the shore of Lake Constance, would continue his learning – but only for a few months. In the July of that year, the school’s Jewish founder Kurt Hahn – an outspoken critic of Hitler, who was briefly imprisoned for his unabashed opposition – was forced to flee to Scotland. Philip would soon follow him, to his new creation – Gordonstoun School, near Elgin, where the Scottish mainland is split by the v-shaped wedge of the Moray Firth. This semi-remoteness would allow the young man to see out his school years in relative peace – and would shape both him and his family (Prince Charles would go on to attend).

It is not difficult to see Philip’s itinerant adolescence as the ideal preparation for the career path he would follow in his early Twenties. From Gordonstoun he went south to Dartmouth, and a cadetship at the Royal Naval College. It was 1939. The threat of war was burning the horizon – and this rootless 18-year-old would be thrown into the thick of it. He graduated at the top of his year, and went aboard HMS Ramillies. When he arrived as a midshipman, this Revenge-class super-dreadnought and First World War veteran was docked in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in the capital Colombo. It and Philip would spend the next six months operating carefully in the Indian Ocean, shepherding the Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Forces on their way to Egypt, and the Battles of El Alamein.

Prince Philip, sailing at Cowes in 1958 - Getty
Prince Philip, sailing at Cowes in 1958 - Getty

Philip would also make a switch in Egypt, from the Ramillies to HMS Valiant – another doughty relic of the earlier global conflict, but now part of the British Mediterranean Fleet. It would sail into the fiery waters of 1941 – and the Battle of Cape Matapan, off the southern tip of the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula. If this collision between the combined might of the British and Australian Navies and their Italian counterparts (March 27–29 1941) was a solid Allied success, the subsequent Battle of Crete (May 20–June 1 1941) was definitively not. Over the course of 13 days, Greece’s biggest island was swamped by German paratroopers, in an invasion which took out 33 RAF aircraft and 19 Allied ships. HMS Greyhound was dispatched to the seabed by Stuka dive-bombers on May 22 as she attempted to escort other members of the Mediterranean Fleet through the Aegean.

HMS Valiant was struck by two bombs in this hellish fortnight, but limped away. The experience would embolden Philip, who would receive three promotions in the following 17 months, to Sub-Lieutenant, then Lieutenant – and to First Lieutenant in October 1942. The latter role would find Philip on the deck of HMS Wallace, steaming towards Sicily – as the Allied assault on the Mediterranean’s largest island dominated the summer of 1943.

It was here, in Italian waters, that one of the most impressive events of Philip’s military career took place – although it would not be revealed for a further 60 years. In 2003, the BBC put out a request for stories from the conflict – particularly from those who had witnessed it first-hand. This produced a remarkable submission from 85-year-old Harry Hargreaves – who had been a 25-year-old yeoman on the Wallace – detailing how Philip’s quick thinking had saved the ship and most of its crew from certain death in an inky sea.

HMS Wallace had sailed east from Bone (now Annaba), which sits towards the eastern end of Algeria’s long Mediterranean coastline. It had carried the First Canadian Division to the landing beaches near Pachino, at Sicily’s southeastern tip – and had then stepped back to provide anti-aircraft cover during the advance. But somewhere in the black early hours of July 10–11, Hargreaves recounted, the ship was deep in trouble. One of the warplanes lending air support to the Italian and German troops entrenched on the island had identified the vessel’s location, and was circling it with intent. Two bombing runs had already failed, but Hargreaves was horribly aware that the enemy would keep returning until its job was done. “It was obvious that we were the target for tonight, and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit,” he recalled. “It was for all the world like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right.”

Prince Philip engaged in many overseas Royal Tours – pictured here on the island of Kiribati in 1983 - Getty
Prince Philip engaged in many overseas Royal Tours – pictured here on the island of Kiribati in 1983 - Getty

“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that a direct hit was inevitable,” he continued. “It was less than five minutes after the aircraft had departed – and, if the previous space in time was approximately the same, we had about 20 minutes to come up with something.”

It was Philip – second in command on the Wallace – who, Hargreaves said, came up with that “something”. As the Luftwaffe plane flew around, he had the brainwave of putting a “smoke-raft” into the water. This was a rudimentary diversion; a raft with two “smoke floats” – basic pyrotechnic devices – attached to each end. It was unlikely to bear up to close inspection. But on a darkened sea in the fury of war, it had the potential to buy time.

So it proved. “The first lieutenant [Philip] went into hurried conversation with the captain, and the next thing a wooden raft was being put together on deck,” Hargreaves explained. “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 in the water. The captain ordered full ahead, and we steamed away from the raft for a good five minutes. Then he ordered the engines stopped. The tell-tale wake subsided, and we lay there quietly in the soft darkness and cursed the stars. At least, I did.

“Quite some time went by until we heard aircraft engines approaching. The sound of the aircraft grew louder, until I thought it was directly overhead, and I screwed up my shoulders in anticipation of the bombs. The next thing was the scream of the bombs, but at some distance. The ruse had worked. The aircraft was bombing the raft. I suppose he was under the impression he had hit us in his last attack, and was now finishing the job.”

By then living in Ontario, Canada, Hargreaves maintained contact with Philip over the years, and was still convinced that the plan saved the ship. “It had been marvellously quick thinking, conveyed to a willing team, and put into action as if rehearsed,” he said.

Its near-miss behind it, the Wallace almost made it to the end of the war – it was scrapped in April 1945 after a collision with another Royal Navy vessel. Philip was no longer on its bridge. In 1944, he moved to HMS Whelp – which, freshly constructed, had only just slipped out of its shipyard at Hebburn on the River Tyne. A W-Class destroyer, its first few months were frenetic – a mid-June dash to Spitsbergen to resupply the Allied garrison on the Norwegian Arctic island; a covering role in Operation Dragoon (the Allied invasion of southern France, on August 15); an onward voyage into Asian seas, docking at Trincomalee on Ceylon on September 12. October and November saw it involved in Allied attacks on Nancowry in the Nicobar Islands, and the oil refinery in the port of Pangkalan Brandan, on (Indonesian) Sumatra. And when the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was formed on November 22 – with Japan in its sights – HMS Whelp was part of the club.

The ship’s movements would send Philip to the Second World War’s endgame. In March 1945, the BPF joined the American Fifth Fleet in the preparations for the invasion of Okinawa, neutralising airfields on the Sakishima Islands. It remained on the periphery of the fight against Japan for the next five months, but was present in the final hour. On August 27, two weeks after the second atomic bomb had been dropped, on Nagasaki, Whelp was the first Allied vessel to enter Sagami Bay, the gateway to Tokyo – leading the British battleship HMS Duke of York and its US colleagues Iowa and Missouri. It and Philip were docked in the city on September 2 as Japan’s formal surrender was accepted, and again in Hong Kong on September 16 when the Japanese forces in the port conceded.

Philip’s journeys would soon take on a less adventurous hue. In 1939, during his first term at Dartmouth, George VI had toured the Royal Naval College with his two daughters. Philip was asked to escort Elizabeth and Margaret around the complex. It was the start of an alliance that would survive the war via the exchange of letters – and lead to the naval officer asking for the future queen’s hand in the summer of 1946. The world would still beckon, but for the refugee baby turned military veteran, it would do so with more pomp and ceremony, and far less danger, than it had in his first quarter of a century.