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HistoryThe Gloucesters

Was Prince William’s tragic death kept secret from the Duke of Gloucester?

The third son of King George V and Queen Mary, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester was born on 31 March 1900.

He was the first son of a monarch to be educated at school and went onto study at Eton College.

His life was full of tragedy starting with not being able to continue his life with the woman he was having an affair with, Beryl Markham, and having to pay her and her husband hush-money for the rest of her life. He lost his older brother, Edward VIII when he abdicated and moved to France with Wallis Simpson and his younger brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent when he died in a military air crash. No tragedy more so than not learning about the death of his own son.

A few months shy of his 65th birthday, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were travelling home from Winston Churchill’s funeral when Prince Henry suffered a stroke resulting in a car accident. Prince Henry was thrown from the car, and the Duchess suffered facial injuries. This was only the first of many stokes. The Duke eventually ended up in a wheelchair and lost the ability to speak in the final years of his life until he died in 1974.

Two years before his death, his son, Prince William died. Prince William was President of the British Aviation Centre and a licensed pilot who loved competing in amateur air show races.

On 28 August 1972, Prince William took off for the last time at 30-years-old. He was competing in the Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green. Flying with the Prince was Vyrell Mitchell, who he often competed against.

They were flying a yellow and white Piper Cherokee Arrow. Soon after take-off, the plane banked sharply hitting a tree and plummeted to the ground.

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Derek Perton was one of three boys who tried to rescue Prince William and Vyrell Mitchell, but the flames were too big. Recalling the moment, Perton said: “We tried to break into the plane’s doors and then tried to break it in half by pulling at the tail.

“But it was no good, we had to go back because of the heat.”

Firefighters made it to the scene only a few minutes later, but by that time the heat from the fire was too much even for their equipment. The flames took two hours to get under control.

The bodies of the men were only identified by dental records the following day.

Plans for The Queen and Princess Anne to visit the Olympics in Munich were called off. The Duke of Edinburgh, who was already in Munich, returned early for the funeral.

With the Duke of Gloucester in poor health, the Duchess of Gloucester was unsure if she should tell her husband about their son’s death despite the condolences pouring in.

The Prime Minister at the time, Edward Heath, was one of the first to send a message of condolence to both the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and The Queen.

Princess Alice admitted herself: “I was completely stunned and have never been quite the same since, though I have tried to persuade myself that it was better to have known and lost him than never to have had him at all.”

In her memoirs first published in 1981 The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and revised in 1991 as the Memories of Ninety Years, the Duchess revealed that she never did tell Prince Henry that their son was killed. However, she did go on to say he may have learned about Prince William’s death from television coverage.

Prince William was buried at the Royal Burial Ground, Frogmore. Two years later, Prince Henry died and was buried at the same location, once again to be reunited.