The Duke of Edinburgh took the choice which, he knew, would confine him more than any other
That alternative history of the Prince might have ended as soon as it began CREDIT: Ben Pruchnie /WireImage
What might have been? No one knew fate’s twists better than the Duke of Edinburgh, whose great-grandfather was catapulted from army officer on meagre pay to sire of Europe’s second most prolific royal family when, out of the blue, he was named heir to a throne he never expected to occupy by his godfather, the Danish king. Like that distant forebear, Prince Philip experienced an almost unparalleled range of opportunity, a destiny that might have encompassed obscurity or fame; soldiering or sybaritism; wealth or poverty. His dynastic connections, far from rooting him, left him a young man with no name to call his own. Schoolmates in Germany simply called him “Greece”. But in truth, he had no nation than either. From such extraordinary liberty of options, he took the choice which, he knew, would confine him more than any other. There was of course real heroism in that, from an officer who knew much about valour. But the lives unled say much about the man, the paths untaken revealing, by their absence, the enduring strength of his commitment to life, a union, and a country that did not have to be his.
The peril of his birth That alternative history of the Prince might have ended as soon as it began, of course, when the rage of Greek revolutionaries burned brightest against Andrew, his royal father, in the wake of military catastrophe at Smyrna. British ambassador Francis Lindley worried that the worst would happen, pressed the family to escape while they could, warning that delay would be “most dangerous to their lives”. When Andrew refused he was summoned to give evidence against former comrades; soon it was he who was on trial for his life.
A one-year-old Prince Philip of Greece – his name a tactful gesture to the Greek people: Philippos, a name borne by legendary rulers of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon CREDIT: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Some 132 years after the guillotine went up in Paris, it seemed the Greeks were preparing the tumbrils for their own royal family. Would the children have been spared? The ruthless officer leading the witch hunt, Theodore Pangalos, promised they would, if in a typically heartless manner. While Andrew was in his cell, Pangalos asked how many children he had. “What a pity they will soon be orphans,” came his reply on hearing the answer. But Philip’s mother, clearly, could not be so sure and feared for her four daughters and newborn son. Only three years before, after all, her aunt, the Tsarina of Russia, had been murdered in Yekaterinburg with her young children. The twin traps of youth Having escaped, there were two great perils for a young man of Philip’s standing and family connections. The first was that, like all four of his sisters, he would find himself tied to a Germany rapidly falling under the sway of Nazism. It was only just avoided. Philip arrived at Lake Constance to attend Salem school in the autumn of 1933 just as Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations, and with his older sister Theodora, recently married to Berthold, Margrave of Baden, keen to provide him with settled existence. Four years later, when his sister Cecile died in an air crash, Philip attended the funeral in Darmstadt flanked by surviving brothers-in-law wearing the uniforms of the SA and the SS. It was Philip’s father, Andrew, who intervened to ensure that Philip had by then long-since left Germany, decreeing he should return to Britain to rejoin Salem’s former headmaster, Kurt Hahn, a Jew drove into exile by the Nazis, at Gordonstoun.
Lady Louise Mountbatten with Princess Theodora of Greece (left) and Princess Margarita of Greece (right), daughters of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, and sisters of the Duke of Edinburgh CREDIT: PA Archive
Ironically, having delivered his son from one trap, Andrew himself offered an example of that other pitfall ready to ensnare a rootless prince – that of a life frittered away in frustrated, self-loathing ease on the Riviera. As his wife succumbed to mental illness, Andrew shook off the responsibilities of fatherhood and made for Monte Carlo, where he haunted the casinos and took up with a playboy who had made a fortune from garden seeds. The diarist Chips Channon noted Andrew “philanders on the Riviera”, and Andrew found himself first living aboard the yacht Davida with an actress, the Comtesse Andrée de la Bigne, then in a villa belonging to the Hotel Metropole. He found himself trapped in Vichy during the war and after a night of partying in 1944, died aged just 62, leaving little to collect but his cufflinks. It was a warning for his son. “Andrea’s leisured existence had its compensations,” points out Philip Eade, the biographer of Philip’s early years, “but temperamentally he was not suited to prolonged spells of idleness.” Like father, like son. Fortunately, back in Britain, his son’s new life ensured he was far from idle.
The promise of the sea Above all, it was his service in the Navy that gave Philip the structure, comradeship and adventure that his restless nature craved. Of course, it was the supreme irony of Prince Philip’s life that the very route to the career at which he might have excelled in independence – Dartmouth Naval College – was also the site of his introduction to the future Queen, and so his inevitable departure from that career. Yet his attachment to the sea and brilliance in service on it show where an alternative life may have led him had his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, not so skillfully arranged his nephew’s encounter with young Princess Elizabeth that fateful day in July 1939. “As far as I am concerned, there has never been an ‘if only’ except, perhaps, that I regret not having been able to continue a career in the Navy,” Philip once said. His qualities – “unusual courage and endurance”, “exemplary” sense of justice, a “natural power of command” which ensured he was “universally liked, trusted and respected” had already been picked out by Hahn at Gordonstoun, where he was made head boy (even if Hahn also noted his hot temper).
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten resumes his attendance at the Royal Naval Officers' School at Kingsmoor in Hawthorn, Wiltshire, July 31, 1947, CREDIT: Hulton Royals Collection
Philip clearly thrived at Dartmouth and was highly regarded (winning the King’s Dirk as the best all-round cadet in his second term, the autumn that war broke out). But it was an action that he craved. Aboard the cruiser Kent in 1940, he yearned for her path to cross with that of “an enemy raider”; it didn’t. Not that it mattered. Soon enough, aboard the battleship Valiant, he was involved in bombarding the coast of Libya. Nor were the perils of action obscured. In his journal he records witnessing the destroyer Southampton “blowing up in a cloud of smoke and spray” and Gallant having her bow “blown off” by a mine before torpedo bombers attacked Valiant herself. As a young midshipman with precious little experience neither he nor his comrades could have predicted how he would react to coming under fire. The gunroom soon appreciated his mettle. It is hard to imagine the sound and scale of a major naval battle. Even a daytime bombardment could be, as Philip noted, “a very spectacular affair”. But it was night time engagements for which Commander of the Fleet, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, was famous. So it was at night that he favoured engaging the Italian fleet in March 1941. Philip operated the searchlights, and did this so effectively that one enemy cruiser was “lit up as if in broad daylight”. After it was set ablaze, he scanned forward and picked out a second cruiser so close that the searchlight beam was too narrow to illuminate the whole ship. Instead, he focused on the bridge, and vast broadsides ensued which “blotted out the ship”. “When the enemy had completely vanished in clouds of smoke and steam we ceased firing and switched the lights off,” Philip recorded, the matter of factly. On being complimented for his bravery, he merely shrugged. Yet if his courage was not in doubt it was perhaps as a first lieutenant in the destroyer Wallace that he showed that mix of ingenuity, calm, leadership and bravery that might have propelled him to the highest ranks of the Senior Service, perhaps even, like his uncle Lord Mountbatten, to the very top as First Sea Lord.
In July 1943, Wallace was covering the Allied invasion of Sicily when it was targeted at night by German bombers. After a first attack, the bombers left, and the crew knew they would return to finish the job. A grim mood swept the ship. “It was obvious we were the target for the night, and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit,” yeoman Harry Hargreaves recounts in Eade’s Young Prince Philip.
Rather than await this fate, the Prince engaged in plotting with the captain, and instantly a wood raft was bolted together on deck and cast adrift within five minutes, with smoke floats attached. Wallace raced ahead at full steam, then cut its engines, bobbing about silently in the night. The engines of the bombers returned but, as Hargreaves recalls, in the darkness they mistakenly targeted the smoking raft astern. “Prince Philip saved our lives that night,” Hargreaves said. “It had been marvellously quick thinking. He was always very courageous and resourceful. You would say to yourself ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ and Philip would come up with something.”
He was clearly bloody good company, too. In the shark-infested Java Sea, late in the war, in the Destroyer Whelp, he activated the search and rescue kit to pick up the two-man crew of a ditching bomber. The relieved crew were treated to new uniforms and dinner in the officers’ mess, but Philip’s camaraderie was perhaps best displayed a week later when they put ashore at Fremantle, and the three enjoyed “a memorable bender”.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh meets students from Pangbourne College to mark the 25th anniversary of Liberation Day CREDIT: Tim Graham
By then, though, he was already in regular correspondence with “Lilibet” and much talked of as the future consort. The life they could have led together, even after their marriage, even after the birth of Prince Charles in 1948 and Princess Anne in 1950, as exemplified by the two years spent in Malta between 1949 and 1951. Philip was given his first command, of the Frigate Magpie, and the couple was blissfully happy. The ship soon became a reflection of his own character – demanding yet excelling as a result. “He worked us like dogs but treated us like gentlemen,” recalled one rating. At the annual regatta, Magpie won six of the 10 prizes on offer. Philip was a brilliant seaman, making observers catch their breath when he navigated Magpie in Monte Carlo’s shallow harbour in such storms that other vessels dared not venture out. By 1951, though, it was clear his career in the Navy, like his blond naval beard, was no longer compatible with his royal duties. When later asked about all the paths his life could have taken, it was the one he was forced to give up in his 30th year he most lamented. “I’d much rather have stayed in the Navy frankly,” he said. Sir Terry Lewin, himself regarded as among the greatest of the Navy’s postwar admirals, is perhaps the best judge. “Prince Philip was a highly talented seaman. No doubt about it, if he hadn’t become what he did, he would have been First Sea Lord and not me.” Sir Lewin held that role from 1977 – the year, of course, that Philip was celebrating the Silver Jubilee. No wonder that, as a present for his 90th birthday, the Queen bestowed upon her beloved husband the title of Lord High Admiral. Even then, he was able to impress the then First Sea Lord that it was a title of merit, not ceremony. “He was an extremely talented sailor,” Sir Mark Stanhope, a former First Sea Lord, recalled. “There's little doubt,” Sir Stanhope added, “that if he remained in the Navy, he would have been a very very strong contender to rise to the top”. The career he never had Prince Philip was a fine athlete. The Telegraph’s own celebrated cricket correspondent EW Swanton rhapsodised about his “strokes of a pedigree not normally seen on English greens”. An all-rounder, no less than Don Bradman thought he had the “perfect action”.
Carriage driving, polo, cricket, and sailing are four sports whose profiles owe much to the Duke’s enthusiastic participation as well as to his administrative roles within their governing bodies CREDIT: Douglas Miller/Multon Archive
Meanwhile, his environmentalism, which flourished decades before it became fashionable, hinted at another direction his life might have taken. But the easiest postwar path to imagine, if not Philip the consort, is Philip the industrialist – imaginative, ingenious, ever interested in improving processes and never too grand to get to know the men on the frontline, factory floor. He disdained aloof bosses, and always enjoyed discussing detail with workers who knew their trades. It was an inventive streak perhaps fostered in him by George, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, who became guardian for Philip in his youth. The Marquess himself was enthusiastic and rapt by technology – a passion which Philip himself assumed, always snapping up gadgets, modernizing the royal estates. In the very year he was forced to give up the Navy, he noted that “the rate at which scientific knowledge is being applied in many industries is too small and too slow”, showing the bent his mind was already taking. He became fascinated by the space race, too, his imagination and appetite for discovery made plain by the tales of UFOs he swapped with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten. “There are many reasons to believe they exist,” he wrote to UFO hunter Timothy Good. But his interest and importance in post-war Britain’s conception of itself as an industrial, modern nation, were both genuine and down to earth. He toured factories and research centres to, as the historian Richard Weight put it, “turn statistics into patriotism,” and become a “Prince Albert for the jet age”.
His real ambition
In the end, however, it was not the industry's positive role in shaping Britain, but the monarchy’s role that captured and captivated him. “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in this world that is absolutely real to me,” he wrote to the Queen while courting her daughter. “My ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will have a positive existence for the good.”
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on their honeymoon at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire CREDIT: Hulton Royals Collection
That he did, instilling their partnership with his vigour and curiosity it needed to adapt and thrive, while it gave him the duty he required. As Hahn wrote of him at Gordonstoun: “He has the greatest sense of service of all the boys in the school. [He is] a born leader but will need the exacting demands of great service to do justice to himself.” He found that service and so did the greatest justice to himself. Despite all the great avenues down which his life might have led him, none was so challenging, to a man who constantly challenged himself, like the one he strode down with such great energy and devotion.