The Tragedy of Young Prince Philip: The Nazis, the Navy and the Broken Home

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is one of the most recognisable men in the world. As the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, he has represented the British monarchy for over sixty years and is the longest-serving consort of a reigning British monarch. Along with the queen, he has done much to represent the royal family as an unchanging institution in a world that has changed almost beyond recognition since Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1952. However, on Philip’s part this security is in deep contrast to his early life, which was formed by war, neglect, tragedy and dogged endurance. In many ways his long, successful marriage and subsequent family have compensated for the trials of his youth.

Philip was born on 10 June 1921 on the Greek island of Corfu at Mons Repos, the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg who already had four daughters: Cecilie, Sophie, Margarita and Theodora. Although typically seen as British today, Philip was born as Prince of Greece and Denmark. This dual title was reflected in his name. He was christened ‘Philippos’ but he belonged to the Danish-German House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. To add to the confusion Philip was not a British subject at birth but did have family ties to England. His maternal grandfather Prince Louis of Battenberg was a naturalised British citizen who had adopted the surname of ‘Mountbatten’ during World War I. Philip was related to the British royal family through Queen Victoria but he was also sixth in line to the Greek throne and his paternal uncle Constantine I was the ruling king. Nevertheless, his wider European connections would soon come in very handy for Philip as he was born during a turbulent time for Greece, and his stay in the country of his birth would not last long.

'Portrait of Prince Andrew of Greece', father of Prince Philip, by Philip de László, 1913
‘Portrait of Prince Andrew of Greece’, father of Prince Philip, by Philip de László, 1913

Philip’s father Andrew was absent at his birth as he was away fighting in the Greek army during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). During this conflict Andrew was the commander of the Greek Second Army Corps, but he proved to be an ineffectual general. At the pivotal Battle of Sakarya on 19 September 1921, he refused to obey the orders of his superior officer and tried to work to his own battle plan. Unfortunately this lack of co-ordination and communication contributed to a battlefield stalemate, and subsequently the war was lost. Andrew was relieved of his command and a year later he was arrested as part of the 11 September 1922 Revolution. This was a revolt of the Greek armed forces against the government, who they held responsible for the Turkish victory. It led to the downfall of the Greek monarchy and the abdication of King Constantine. As the brother of Constantine and a disgraced army commander, Andrew was in deep trouble. He was accused of treason and initially sentenced to death. General Pangalos, the Greek Minister of War, asked him, “How many children have you?” When Andrew replied Pangalos reportedly said:

“Poor things, what a pity they will soon be orphans.”

When Princess Alice heard of Andrew’s plight she travelled to Athens to plead for his life but she was not permitted to see her husband, so she turned to her British relatives for help. King George V, who was possibly haunted by not allowing his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family to seek asylum in Britain during World War I, urged for a British intervention to evacuate the family. A Greek court banished Andrew from Greece for life and he was released in December 1922. He was lucky: six other senior members of the government were tried and executed. Soon afterwards a Royal Navy gunboat, HMS Calypso, evacuated the family from Corfu. Prince Philip, who was still a baby, was reputedly carried out to the ship in a makeshift cot made out of an orange box. For the infant child it was the start of decades of stateless wandering. From the moment Philip left Corfu on 3 December 1922 until he moved into Clarence House as Princess Elizabeth’s husband in the late 1940s, he had no permanent residence.

Prince Andrew (left), with his older brothers, the Crown Prince Constantine and Prince Nicholas, sometime around 1901
Prince Andrew (left), with his older brothers, the Crown Prince Constantine and Prince Nicholas, sometime around 1901

The family tried to settle in France at Saint-Cloud near Paris where Andrew and Alice borrowed a house. From the start they lived in relative poverty. Alice was able to keep the family together on a limited allowance from her brother and Andrew was able to contribute a small legacy that he had inherited, but they mostly relied on borrowed funds and hand-me-downs. A wealthy relative paid for the children’s school fees and Philip received his early education at the MacJannet American School in Paris. Philip’s life was already in a confused state as he was a Greek prince living in France but being educated in a British fashion. His stateless identity meant that he could formulate his own, which he later explained:

“If anything I’ve thought of myself as Scandinavian, particularly Danish. We spoke English at home. The others learned Greek. I could understand a certain amount of it. But then the conversation would go into French. Then it went into German, because we had German cousins. If you couldn’t think of a word in one language, you tended to go off in another.”

In 1928 Philip went to Britain for the first time to attend Cheam School. He appears to have been a somewhat boisterous child that needed some discipline. Alice wrote to the school in 1929 asking his tutors to form a Cub Scouts company for her son with a hint of anxiety:

“The training would have such an excellent influence on him… I should be infinitely grateful if you could manage it as soon as possible.”

By this stage Philip’s family life was already beginning to collapse. Alice, who had been born deaf, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. There has been much speculation as to what caused this. It has been variously attributed to the ordeal of the family’s exile from Greece, the regular separations from her children as they attended different schools, a traumatic menopause, manic depression and even a possible religious crisis. It may have been one or a combination of these factors, but for whatever reason, Philip’s mother was placed in a Swiss sanatorium in 1931.

Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of Prince Philip, with her daughters and Philip's eldest sisters, Princesses Margarita and Theodora of Greece and Denmark, 1910
Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of Prince Philip, with her daughters and Philip’s eldest sisters, Princesses Margarita and Theodora of Greece and Denmark, 1910

At around the same time Philip’s sisters all married within nine months of each other between 1930-31 and moved away to settle in Germany. Prince Andrew, who had spent more and more time away from the Parisian family home, finally left altogether and moved to the south of France with a mistress. One relation said he was, “a deeply unhappy man”. Philip’s sister Sophie said, “Then we all sort of disappeared and the house in Saint-Cloud was closed down.” His parents had effectively relinquished responsibility for their son. This does not mean that they did not care for him – indeed, by all accounts he was much loved, but the circumstances of their own lives meant that they were unable to look after him properly. He was just ten years old and would receive no word from his mother between 1932 and 1937. When Philip was asked about this time years later his reply was stoic and pragmatic:

“It’s simply what happened. The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the south of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.”

In the aftermath of this disintegration, the British part of Philip’s family took a large part of responsibility for his care. His maternal grandmother, Princess Victoria, sent him to live with his uncle George, Marquis of Milford Haven. He was Philip’s guardian for the next seven years and became a surrogate father to him. Philip would become close friends with George’s son David, who later was best man at his wedding to Princess Elizabeth. The two boys attended Cheam School where Philip excelled at sport. The Marquis would often come to watch him and his son play in school matches. The Milford Havens gave Philip a sense of stability that was lacking elsewhere but he remembered the upheaval as confusing. When he was later asked what language was spoken at home he replied, “What do you mean, at home?”

In 1933 Philip’s second sister Theodora reappeared in his life and set him down the path towards a different education and introduced him to a significant mentor: Kurt Hahn. Theodora had married Berthold, Margrave of Baden whose father had been Imperial Germany’s last chancellor. Hahn had been the chancellor’s personal secretary and knew the family, but he was also a committed educationalist. He was Jewish and a German patriot who had been involved in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. He had been so upset at the Allied treatment of post-war Germany that he helped to coin the term, ‘Kriegsschuldluge’ (‘The lie of war guilt’). Ironically, the deeply anti-Semitic Nazi Party would use this message as an explosive slogan for revenge and rearmament, which was not Hahn’s intention.

Hitler Youth members performing the Nazi salute at a rally at the Lustgarten in Berlin, 1933
Hitler Youth members performing the Nazi salute at a rally at the Lustgarten in Berlin, 1933

In 1920 he and the Baden family founded a school at Schloss Salem in Baden-Württemberg and it was here that Theodora sent Philip in autumn 1933. It was an anxious time to move to Germany as Adolf Hitler had recently come to power. He had only been in office for a few months but it was enough to create political tensions, with Hahn himself being arrested for protesting against the Nazis. For Philip the move was bad timing and his brother-in-law admitted, “He wasn’t really integrated into the community. He had little opportunity to make real friends, and he spoke very little German. He was really very isolated.” In a sinister twist the Nazis promoted the Hitler Youth Movement within the school, where participants would use the Nazi salute. Philip apparently laughed at this, as the salute was the same gesture that the boys at Schloss Salem used to indicate that they wanted to go to the toilet.

By 1934 Philip was sent back to Britain and was sent to a new school in Scotland that had been established by the now exiled Hahn: Gordonstoun. The teaching methods developed by Hahn were radical and innovative. He believed that adolescents should be respected but were also susceptible to the corruptions of society. Hahn postulated that there were was a six-fold decay of civilisation, which he called, “The Six Declines of Modern Youth”. They were the decline of: fitness, initiative and enterprise, memory and imagination, skill and care, self-discipline, and compassion. Gordonstoun pupils were taught to counter these declines. For instance, they rose at 7am each day, donned shorts and ran barefoot for 300 yards to the washroom where they showered in cold water both in winter and summer. Philip was hardy, energetic and competitive, and flourished under this apparently tough regime. He excelled at hockey and sailing and in his last year became Head Boy. Hahn’s philosophy had a great impact on Philip and many years later he called on him to help found the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme. Today the award scheme is active in 144 countries and recognises young people’s achievements in self-improvement based on Hahn’s Six Declines of Modern Youth. Such was Hahn’s influence that when he died in 1974 Philip read the story of the Good Samaritan at his memorial service.

Despite Philip’s achievements at Gordonstoun, he could not escape the fact that he was still very isolated. In the five years that he attended the school neither George Milford Haven nor Philip’s other British guardian Lord Louis Mountbatten visited him. This is an extraordinary lapse for men who were technically responsible for him. During term-time there were long discussions about where Philip would go for his holidays. Towards the end of his time at Gordonstoun Philip was hit by a family tragedy. On 19 November 1937 his pregnant sister Cecilie was killed in plane crash in Belgium, along with her husband, two children and unborn child. She had been flying to England to attend a wedding. Hahn conveyed the news to Philip, but the 16-year-old did not break down, which led his headmaster to recall, “His sorrow was that of a man.” Nor did his fellow pupils remember Philip showing any signs of grief with one remembering, “I suppose he just buried his feelings.” Philip travelled alone to attend the funerals in Germany. It was a tragically strange occasion. Nazi officials surrounded the funeral parties but it was also the first time that Philip’s parents had seen each other and their surviving children for years. They were the worst circumstances for a reunion, but Philip returned to Britain to fend for himself again.

A newspaper cutting from the crash that killed Prince Philip's sister, Princess Cecilie, Duchess of Hesse
A newspaper cutting from the crash that killed Prince Philip’s sister, Princess Cecilie, Duchess of Hesse

The next year, 1938, brought new purpose to Philip’s life in more ways than one. Under the advice of his father and Lord Mountbatten, Philip decided to join the Royal Navy and enrolled at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He excelled at naval training and almost passed with top marks. His contemporary Terence Lewin who later became First Sea Lord said, “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.” This was an intense time to join the Navy as Britain was on the brink of war with Germany, but Philip’s time at Dartmouth coincided with the first meeting of his future wife. In July 1939, Philip was put in charge of entertaining his distant cousins, 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret when they visited the college. They had met in 1934 and in 1937 at George VI’s coronation but on this occasion Elizabeth fell for Philip. Over the next few years they would write letters to each other but for the moment there were other priorities. There was a war to be fought.

Philip’s war service began when he was posted to HMS Ramillies in Ceylon in January 1940. In the early days of the war he was posted far from action as Greece was not at war, and as a Greek prince the British did not want him to be killed on a Royal Navy ship. However, this changed when Italy invaded Greece and Philip became an active participant on the Allied side. At the Battle of Cape Matapan off the Greek coast in March 1941, Philip served as a midshipman on HMS Valiant where he was in charge of operating the ship’s searchlight to pick out ships during the night. He recalled:

“I reported that I had a target in sight and was ordered to ‘open shutter’. The beam lit up a stationary cruiser and at this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship, plus HMS Barham’s, started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke. I was then ordered to ‘train left’ and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment.”

'The Battle of Cape Matapan, 29 March 1941' by Charles David Cobb © the artist's estate. Photo credit: National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth
‘The Battle of Cape Matapan, 29 March 1941’ by Charles David Cobb © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

The ships identified by Philip were two of five Italian warships that were sunk by the British with the loss of 2,300 sailors. It was Italy’s greatest naval defeat and Philip was mentioned in dispatches for his courage and awarded the Greek Cross of Valour.

The next year, at the age of 21, Philip was promoted to become one of the youngest first lieutenants in the navy and in July 1943 he was once again in action, this time aboard HMS Wallace taking part in the Allied invasion of Sicily. During a night attack Wallace came under bombardment from a German plane. One yeoman sailor aboard the ship, Harry Hargreaves, recalled in a 2003 interview:

“It was obvious that we were a target and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit. It was like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that a direct hit was inevitable.”

During a lull in the attack Philip acted quickly. “The first lieutenant (Philip) went into hurried conversation with the captain, and the next thing a wooden raft was being put together on deck.” This raft was attached with smoke floats that created the illusion of debris ablaze on the water. The German plane was fooled into attacking the raft and the ship slipped away under the cover of darkness. Hargreaves praised Philip’s initiative:

“It had been marvellously quick thinking. Prince Philip saved our lives that night. I suppose there would have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk. He was always very courageous and resourceful.”

Philip himself later talked about his plan in a BBC interview, describing it as, “a frightfully good wheeze… we got away with it.” Despite his nonchalance even he conceded, “It was a very unpleasant sensation.”

Representatives of the Empire of Japan stand aboard USS Missouri prior to signing of the Instrument of Surrender.
Representatives of the Empire of Japan stand aboard USS Missouri prior to signing of the Instrument of Surrender.

Philip ended his war aboard HMS Whelp, which was one of the ships that took part in the formal surrender of Japanese forces on 2 September 1945. He recalled, “Being in Tokyo Bay with the surrender ceremony taking place in the battle ship, which was what, 200 yards away and you could see what was going on with a pair of binoculars, it was a great relief”. After the surrender his ship took on former prisoners of war and he was shocked by their appearance. “These people were naval people. They were emaciated… tears pouring down their cheeks, they just drank their tea, they couldn’t really speak. It was a most extraordinary sensation.”

Now that the war was over he expected to continue in his naval career, but fate had determined a different future for him. He had kept in touch with Elizabeth and in 1946 he proposed. Elizabeth’s father George VI initially objected to the match despite liking Philip. The prince had an excellent war record but he wasn’t British and didn’t belong to the Church of England. He didn’t even have a surname and ‘foreign’ marriages were viewed with caution, particularly in the wake of the 1936 Abdication Crisis. Philip formally asked George for permission to marry Elizabeth and the king agreed on the proviso that he wait for an official engagement until Elizabeth turned 21 in April 1947. On 9 July of that year the couple’s engagement was announced. Philip threw himself into becoming a British subject: he renounced his Greek and Danish titles, converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism and took his mother’s maiden name, Mountbatten.

His marriage was going to be a fresh start away from his own dysfunctional family. He had still not escaped its tragedy, as his father Andrew had died almost penniless in 1944 in Monte Carlo. He had not seen his son for over five years and Philip couldn’t reach him as Monaco was under occupation. Similarly, his mother Princess Alice had been working for the Red Cross in occupied Athens, where she had helped to shelter Jews from the Nazis. Meanwhile his surviving sisters were all in Germany and they would be prevented from attending his wedding, as the Nazi associations were deemed inappropriate.

Prince Alice of Greece with her grandchildren, Prince Charles and Princess Anne
Prince Alice of Greece with her grandchildren, Prince Charles and Princess Anne

Philip’s destiny was confirmed in November 1947 when he married Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey. George VI gave him the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich as well the style, ‘His Royal Highness’. Philip now had purpose and a surname, but more importantly, he attained a permanent home and love. His devotion to Elizabeth was expressed in a letter to his mother: “Cherish Lilibet? I wonder if that word is enough to express what is in me.” Alice was the only member of his immediate family to attend the wedding.

Philip had triumphed over the traumas of his early life and remarkably there was little bitterness. Indeed, he brought his mother to live with him in Buckingham Palace where she died aged 84 in 1969. Despite the long absences there was still a bond between them and shortly before she died Alice wrote to her son:

“Dearest Philip. Be brave, and remember I will never leave you, and you will always find me when you need me most. All my devoted love, your old Mama.”

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