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A tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh with a recollection of his wartime service

Prince Philip, war hero

A 1945 photo of Prince Philip. Princess Elizabeth kept this photograph on her dressing table during the final year of the war.

You have probably already heard or read that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died on April 9, 2021, two months before his 100th birthday. Gun salutes took place across the UK and in Gibraltar at midday last Saturday. The guns fired 41 rounds at one round every minute for 40 minutes. Royal Navy ships at sea also fired the salute. The ceremonial royal funeral will be held at St George's Chapel, in the grounds of Windsor Castle, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. The prince was known as the longest-serving British royal consort, and as a man whose occasional gaffes in public were enthusiastically picked up by the media. What many people might not know is that he was also a military man through-and-through, and a war hero of WWII. In today's newsletter, we will pay tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh with a recollection of his wartime service.

Prince Philip secretly standing guard for the giggling Queen
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Prince Philip was born in Greece in 1921 as a member of both the Greek and Danish royal houses. The Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 and the attendant revolution in Greece forced the family to flee the country, and young Philip was sent to study in Britain in 1928. In 1933, the same year Hitler rose to power, he was sent to a German boarding school. The school's Jewish founder had to flee persecution and established a new school in Scotland, which was where Philip completed his school studies after returning to Britain. He received a military education at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and finished as the best cadet in his course. A young and charming man, he had relationships with several ladies over time. One of them, Osla Benning, went on to work at Bletchley Park, the famous code-breaking center, as a linguist.  With WWII already underway, Philip was appointed as a midshipman aboard the battleship HMS Ramillies in early 1940, then served on several other ships in the Indian Ocean.

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Prince Philip ("Lieut. Philip Mountbatten" at the time) inspecting his men in 1947

Fascist Italy invaded Greece in October 1940, and Philip was transferred to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean, where he fought to protect the country of his birth during the Battle of Crete. He further distinguished himself in the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941. During the battle, the Valiant and two other British battleships launched a point blank range attack during the cover of night, and then-sub-lieutenant Philip, 19 years old, was manning the searchlights used to spot enemy ships. Finding a target in the darkness, he opened the light's shutters and found that the target, an Italian cruiser, was so close to the Valiant that the searchlight was only wide enough to illuminate half of her hull. The Valiant's guns made short work of the surprised cruiser, then Philip quickly located and illuminated a second target, allowing the British battleship to sink two enemies in a matter of minutes. His actions earned him a mention in dispatches, a British distinction which means he was mentioned by name in an official report sent to high command.

The HMS Valiant at Malta

Prince Philip's brightest moment of service came when he was serving as the first lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Wallace in July 1943, during the Allied invasion of Sicily. One night, the vessel came under repeated attacks by a Luftwaffe bomber. Roughly every 25 minutes, the plane would show up, drop bombs, then return home to rearm. The time window between attack runs was not enough for the Wallace to escape, and after several runs, the crew became convinced that the next attack or the one after that will achieve a direct hit and destroy the ship. With 20 minutes until the bomber's next appearance, Philip had an idea which he shared with the captain. The crew quickly assembled a wooden raft, placed smoke floaters on it, and launched it into the sea. In the dead of night, the smoke and occasional flames from the raft could be easily mistaken as an already hit and burning ship. The Wallace steamed away for a few minutes, then killed her engines to make sure that the ship's wash did not give away the ruse. The trick worked: the German bomber mistook the raft for the destroyer and dropped its bombs on it. When it turned home, the Wallace sailed to safety.

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The HMS Wallace. It had the nickname "One round Wallace", as the very first shot it fired in the war brought down a German airplane.

Prince Philip was transferred again in 1944, this time to the Pacific aboard the HMS Whelp. There he participated in the rescue of two British airmen whose Grumman TBF Avenger bomber was shot down by the Japanese over the ocean. After directing the ship to the downed plane's location, he helped scrounge up some hot food and dry clothes for the men. The rescued airmen only realized who was helping them when they saw Princess Elizabeth's photo in his cabin – the two had been corresponding for over five years at the time, and would marry in another two.

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Prince Philip (front row, second from left) with his fellow officers aboard the HMS Whelp

Though the war was over, Philip remained a military man for much of his life. He gave up his military career when King George VI died in 1952 and Elizabeth ascended the throne, but went on to hold many honorary titles in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. He also received pilot training with the RAF, and continued flying until the late 1990s. His last public engagement in 2017 was fitting for a man of such a career: a meeting with Royal Marines in front of Buckingham Palace. Among the Marines he met were two who ran 1,664 miles over 100 days, one who swam 1,664 lengths underwater under 10 days, and one who ran 62 miles in 12 hours. After hearing about their exploits, the ever-outspoken Prince Philip jestingly remarked: "You all should be locked up."

Prince Philip's last engagement

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