It could be argued that The Royal Navy was the main driving force behind the British Empire becoming a dominant world presence since its expansion in the 16th century. The Navy is the oldest of the British Armed Services and was the largest and most powerful from the 18th century until the middle of the 20th century. With its fabled history, it is no surprise that the Royal Navy is a premier choice for service of The Royal Family. According to the Official Website of the British Monarchy, it states: “Throughout history, Kings and Queens have had strong links with the Armed Forces. Armies have defended and attacked territories on behalf of their rulers and have looked to them for guidance and inspiration in times of war and peace since ancient times.” Many members of The Royal Family have fought on the battlefield and on the frontline throughout history, and continue to do so today. Their military service not only solidifies their service to their nation, but helps them to understand the intricacies of military strategy, as they are often appointed to key leadership positions. In this article, we take a closer look at the military career of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Prince Philip comes from a naval family as his grandfather, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was an Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord in 1914. In 1939, at the age of 17, Prince Philip left his home and joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet at RNC Dartmouth. His exemplary naval career started off well by being awarded the King’s Dirk and a prize for being the best Cadet of his year.
During the Second World War, he was assigned to HMS Valiant in 1940 and his first duty was to operate the search light in order to find enemy ships in the darkness. The Duke documented his experiences in a forward to the novel Dark Seas: The Battle of Cape Matapan. Philip wrote: “I seem to remember that I reported I had a target in sight. I 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. At this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham’s started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke. I was then ordered to ‘train left’ and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment.”
Philip was promoted to Lieutenant on 16 July 1942, followed by First Lieutenant (second in command) of HMS Wallace. He was only 21 at the time of this promotion, which is early to achieve this rank, and was one of the many accomplishments of Philip’s career.
In July 1943, the HMS Wallace was in Sicily, assisting in the Allied Landings, when it came under attack by an enemy aircraft during the night. The attacks came quickly, one after another, and the crew knew that the next bombardment would result in a hit.
Harry Hargreaves was a yeoman aboard the HMS Wallace and recalls the night clearly, commenting: “It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit”. Hargreaves knew that the attacks happened about 25 minutes apart and they wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough in the water to escape the next one. It was immediately after the last attack that Yeoman Hargreaves witnessed Prince Philip make an extraordinary decision that would inevitably save the lives of the crew. He stated: “The first lieutenant [Philip] went into hurried conversation with the captain, and 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 in the water.” The Luftwaffe returned, as expected, but thanks to the flaming raft, the HMS Wallace was hidden under the cover of darkness and the Luftwaffe proceeded to bomb the raft-thinking it was a ship. “Prince Philip saved our lives that night”, Hargreaves recalled.
After his ingenuity on the HMS Wallace, Prince Philip was appointed the First Lieutenant of the HMS Whelp, which joined the 27th Destroyer Flotilla in the Indian Ocean. The HMS Whelp was present in Tokyo Bay during the Japanese Surrender and then transitioned to a recovery mission, transporting prisoners of war. Prince Philip served aboard the ship until January 1946 when it returned from the East.
Following his wartime service, Prince Philip was posted as an instructor at HMW Royal Arthur, the Petty Officers’ School. He then attended the Naval Staff College at Greenwich and was appointed First Lieutenant of HMS Chequers in 1949, which was the Leader of the First Destroyer Flotilla in the Mediterranean Fleet. In 1950, he was then promoted to Lieutenant Commander, followed by taking command of the frigate HMS Magpie.
Prince Philip ended his active Naval Career in 1951 at the rank of Commander. Upon the death of his father-in-law, King George VI, Philip promised to assist his wife as she ascended the throne. Although his service has ended, the Duke of Edinburgh remains devoted to the military and has received countless, well-deserved honours.