How Prince Philip's time in the Royal Navy influenced his life

By Zach Harper

How Prince Philip's time in the Royal Navy influenced his life

It's a famous anecdote many royals fans know well: At just one year old, Prince Philip was carried out of Greece in an orange crate. The little boy's family was forced to flee the country following the arrest of his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, and the abdication of his uncle, King Constantine I.

What might be slightly less highlighted is that Philip was carried onto a British warship, the HMS Calypso. Displaced, Philip later settled in France before being schooled in the United Kingdom as a boy and teenager. His rescue on the British warship was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the Royal Navy that the Duke of Edinburgh maintained until the end of his life.

Philip was no stranger to seamanship or sailing by the time he came of age. At Gordonstoun, the Scottish boarding school run by German exile Kurt Hahn that Philip attended in the 1930s, he learned the importance of seamanship and service, both of which were part of the curriculum.

Philip sailing as a youth in the 1930s. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In that decade, Gordonstoun pupils were known for sailing a single-masted, small sailboat called a cutter from Hopeman, Scotland to Dornach – a distance of some 40 kilometres across both the Moray and Dornoy Firths in the country's northwest. To this day, Gordonstoun's pupils still take part in the annual Tall Ships Races, and also train to sail a 24-metre ship in Hopeman Harbour.

"I was wet, cold, miserable, probably sick and often scared stiff," Philip later told royal biographer Gyles Brandreth of his time at Gordonstoun, "but I would not have missed the experience for anything... The discomfort was far outweighed by the amount of intense happiness and excitement."

Lord Louis Mountbatten, Philip's uncle, commanded the HMS Kelly, and went on to become Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command in 1943 and was later First Sea Lord of the Navy from 1955 to 1959. That side of Philip's family had a long naval tradition – Louis's father, the former Prince Louis of Battenberg,was First Sea Lord in 1914, but had to resign from the post during the First World War due to his German background.

Louis, who did not have children, took Philip on as a mentor, and encouraged him to enrol in the Royal Navy, despite expressing an initial interest in joining the Royal Air Force.

"I contemplated going into the Air Force, and I might easily have done, but I think that it so happened that there were family reasons and connections that made it, in a sense, easier to get into the Navy," Philip later said.

And if he hadn't joined the Navy, there's a good chance he might not have ended up with the Queen or their relationship might have looked a lot different. Elizabeth and Philip had crossed paths in 1934 and 1937, and met again during her fateful 1939 trip to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with her sister Princess Margaret and parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. He was asked to take the girls on a tour of the college. After that, they played croquet in the grounds and he and Elizabeth began writing to each other.

The Queen – then Princess Elizabeth, at third from the left in the front row – is seen with her parents King George VI and the Queen Mother and sister Princess Margaret at Royal Naval College, Dartmouth on July 23, 1939. Philip is second from right in the back, laughing. His uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, is pictured to his left. Photo: © A.J. O'Brien/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1940, Philip was posted to the HMS Ramillies, a convoy ship. It was thought initially that he wouldn't see combat because still being a Greek national, he had to register in the Navy as such. But after Greece entered the war on the Allies' side, Philip was posted to the HMS Valiant, a warship in the Mediterranean.

Philip went on to be involved in the Battle of Crete and was awarded the Greek War Cross for his actions during the Battle of Cape Matapan, off Greece's Peloponnesian peninsula. On an evening in 1941, while he was in control of the ship's searchlights, he turned them toward an Italian ship, saving the Valiant from likely destruction.

A year later, he was promoted to lieutenant, being just 21 years old at the time. He was one of the youngest first lieutenants in the entire Navy. In 1943, he saved another British warship from destruction when he came up with a plan to launch a flaming raft to distract bombers during the invasion of Sicily, helping the HMS Wallace – of which he was then second-in-command – escape.

Philip at Royal Naval Officers' School in Hawthorn, Wiltshire in 1947. Photo: © PNA Rota/Getty Images

"Philip saved our lives that night," Harry Hargreaves, who was on the Wallace with the Duke of Edinburgh, told The Observer in 2003. "I suppose there might have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk."

After the Allies won the War, Philip asked for Princess Elizabeth's hand in marriage, and the two announced their engagement the following spring. They married on Nov. 20, 1947, and moved to Malta two years later as a family of three. Prince Charles had been born the previous year. After serving as first lieutenant of HMS Chequers, the lead ship in the Mediterranean Fleet, he became commander of the HMS Magpie.

Many people think Philip's naval career ended with the death of the King and Princess Elizabeth's accession to the throne. In reality, it stopped nearly two years before that.

In July 1951, Philip had risen to the rank of commander, and gave up his naval career owing to Elizabeth's increased responsibilities and the King's poor health. He was no longer in active service when the royal couple were in Kenya on Feb. 6, 1952, when he told his wife she had become Queen.

With Charles at Heathrow Airport after he relinquished command of the HMS Magpie in 1951. Photo: © Fisher/Central Press/Getty Images

That said, the same year, he was appointed Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps, and was made Admiral of the Fleet in 1953. Over a life as a royal consort that included more than 22,000 engagements, Philip maintained his close relationship with the Navy and military. And in 2011, when he turned 90, he was made Lord High Admiral of the Navy.

"Since [the Queen's] accession to the throne, [he] remained an enduring friend and supporter of the Royal Navy with a deep understanding of our ethos and values," First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin said after Philip's death.

"His humour and generosity of spirit generated great affection amongst the countless sailors and marines he met each year. His genuine empathy, affinity and engagement with the Royal Navy resonated with us all."

Philip brought the steadfastness and tenacity he learned in the Navy to his entire life, whether it was his relationship with the Queen, his service to the Commonwealth and his parenting. He also passed his legacy of military service on to his children and grandchildren.

"There was no ego in the man," former First Sea Lord Sir Jonathan Band told Sky News after the Duke of Edinburgh's death. "I think the Navy provided him with an anchor for life."

Related news