Prince Philip, who has died aged 99, was a navy man. It is something his obituarists all mention. They note his passage into the Royal Navy after a rackety childhood and Gordonstoun. How he was an able cadet at Dartmouth, the top cadet of his course, and that by the time he married the then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947 he was a confident and handsome first lieutenant, whose wishes to continue his naval career were later ended by her ascent to the throne. He kept a model of HMS Magpie, his first command, in his office in Buckingham Palace in the decades that followed.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s wartime service, meanwhile, has occupied a more equivocal place. When he was first married, veterans of the Second World War were everywhere, and war service was hardly a golden ticket or a thing to boast about. It was possible, as the duke settled into supporting role as consort, to think of his naval years as having supplied him his proud military bearing, the dash to carry off appearing in public in uniform, and the opportunity to meet a princess.
The duke’s wartime service was noble in the same way that the service of millions of British, Empire and Commonwealth men under arms was. And in seeing action, and in his actions under fire, Philip won respect and notice of his own. A midshipman aboard HMS Valiant at the battle of Cape Matapan in January 1940, his control of the ship’s searchlights during a night action, illuminating Italian cruisers which were swiftly destroyed, saw Philip mentioned in dispatches.
Later, after being appointed lieutenant in 1942, Philip supported the Allied landings in Sicily the following year, aboard HMS Wallace. He was a first lieutenant at 21. By chance, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in August 1945. His naval adventures are the stories of a young man, something to which he was unable to attach a long career in command.
In his later years, these wartime stories became easier to tell and were more eagerly received. One story of Philip’s time aboard Wallace appeared in a shipmate’s memoir in 1999, and was first publicly repeated in the Observer in 2003. Harry Hargreaves, who was then 85, spoke to the newspaper about an episode which took place during the invasion, which he first explained to the BBC.
Wallace was under sustained attack by German aircraft during the Sicily campaign. To the BBC, Hargreaves said: ‘It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit.’
‘It was less than five minutes after the aircraft had departed and … we had about 20 minutes to come up with something. We couldn’t steam far in that time, not even far enough to make the aircraft think we had moved.’
He described how the first lieutenant, after ‘hurried conversation’ with the captain, conceived of a decoy. The crew assembled and dispatched a raft, with smoking floats attached at each end. It was intended to mimic floating, flaming debris. The ship then sped ahead before cutting its power, hoping to remain unnoticed. When the aircraft returned, it avoided the silent ship, instead bombing the raft to pieces before departing.
‘Prince Philip saved our lives that night. I suppose there might have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk. He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly’, Hargreaves told the Observer.
By this time, there was a place for stories like this. Philip’s public image had solidified into a one of a vigorous elderly relation – a cantankerous and amusing fixture of ceremonies, and a dutiful companion to his wife. By the turn of the millennium, as the wartime generation began to die out, stories of his heroism could prove a warm addition to his public image, a reminder of golden years; and allow him to serve as a representative of and living monument to a generation of civilian soldiers to whom the country owed so much, who were now disappearing from view.
Later still, as Philip reached a great age, he survived much of the wartime generation who constructed the world of the past seventy years. To those born at or after the end of the twentieth century, the duke became an award and a stranger, remote from modern life, his life and formative years hard to understand. His immense age made him doubly unknowable. The war in which he fought became a distant memory of those born after it.
The war holds an unmatched place in the British identity. But over time this has become a simple story barely fitting the lives of its participants. The ideals attached to its cherished image became more difficult to comprehend, let alone embody. Good triumphed over evil, but the business of war itself hardly occupies the mind.
Contemporary stories of the Second World War, like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, hardly show the enemy. Its protagonists barely fire a weapon or raise a fist in anger. The war has become a cipher, its essential aspect being the difficulty of staying alive amid flying metal and high explosive. The hope of all is to survive a war rather than to fight it.
Philip not only served in the war; he fought in it – a remote concept in a county whose wars are distant, losing, and fought by a shrinking number of professionals.
How Philip will be remembered remains in question. For the moment the Queen’s grief for her husband covers all polite discussion. But no doubt stories of his war have their place, and will be heard by some now for the first time – a relic of an unknown and barely imaginable past, now almost gone.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.