Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was born on Corfu, into the Greek and Danish royal families, but with his parents, was exiled after a military coup in Greece when he was only 18 months old; hence the ironic moniker Phil, the Greek1.
While I am not particularly enamoured of the British Royal Family, mostly for what they represent rather than their personalities, I must admit I have always had a soft spot for The Duke of Edinburgh, who many people seemed to think had a life only of wealth and privilege. His latter 73 years as husband to Princess, and later Queen Elizabeth certainly were decades of wealth and privilege. However, he was born the same year as my father (1921) and anyone of that vintage had to negotiate the global conflagration that was World War Two. While my father was dodging Japanese bombs in Darwin (he was a signalman attached to the artillery), Philip spent the war in the Royal Navy, mostly dodging Italian and German shells and bombs, in the English Channel, the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
Philip was a midshipman (an officer of the lowest rank) aged 19, when his ship, the ageing battleship Valiant, was involved in the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 27-29, 1941, between an Italian fleet and a British fleet to the south of Greece and Crete (Cape Matapan is a peninsula on the southern part of the Greek mainland). After a daylight encounter between British cruisers and the Italian fleet including the battleship Vittorio Veneto and several cruisers, the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable launched attacks by torpedo-carrying aircraft and badly damaged the Italian heavy cruiser Pola such that she was stopped dead in the water. At night, her sister ships, Zara and Fiume, with four attendant destroyers, were told to go back and help the damaged Pola. The British fleet detected them on radar, and because the Italian fleet did not have radar, the British approached to within 4 km undetected. That was almost point-blank range for the 38cm (15”) main guns of the three battleships, Valiant, Barham and Warspite. The Italian cruisers were illuminated by the large searchlights on the British ships (including those under the command of Philip on Valiant). The Zara and Fiume were sunk almost immediately, while the hapless Pola was sunk later by torpedoes from British destroyers Jervis and Nubian, after having its crew taken off by the British. British casualties were 3 (the crew of one of Formidable’s aircraft, which was shot down) while the Italians lost 2,303 men, mostly from the cruisers Zara and Fiume.1
In June 1942, Philip was appointed to the ageing destroyer HMS Wallace2, which acted as a convoy escort on the east coast of Britain, and later took part in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. Philip was promoted to lieutenant in July 1942 and in October of that year, he became first lieutenant (second in command) of the destroyer, and at 21 was one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy1.
During the invasion, only a few weeks after Philip turned 22 in July 1943, HMS Wallace came under repeated aircraft attack during the night and its crew realised that they would eventually be hit if these attacks continued. It was then Philip suggested to the captain of the ship, a plan to throw overboard a wooden raft with smoke floats that would create the illusion of debris ablaze on the water, often a sign of a sinking or damaged ship. The German attackers were deceived into attacking the raft while the Wallace eventually sailed to safety.
One of his shipmates on the Wallace, who kept in contact with Philip over the years stated: ‘He always had a great sense of humour and it’s got him into trouble over the years. We understood how to take it and, in those days, there were no reporters around!’3 Indeed.
Over the years, I remember being occasionally embarrassed by my father’s turn of phrase, but it was just a result of the time in which he grew up. It didn’t make me think any less of him, nor should it with Phil, the Greek. Anyone who risked their lives defending the world against the depredations of fascism has earnt our undying respect.