In July 1939, as the storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (better known to us as the Queen Mother) were taken on a tour of Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. They were accompanied by the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, and it was during this fateful visit that the 13-year-old Elizabeth got to know a handsome, 18-year-old cadet, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. The future Queen Elizabeth II could never have guessed this meeting would sow the seeds of the longest marriage in British royal history.
As for Philip, the college would prove to be a huge professional turning point as well as a personal one. Graduating as the best cadet of his class, he would embark on a dramatic naval career which would see his quick thinking saving an entire ship, the HMS Wallace, in July 1943 – almost exactly four years after he charmed the future Queen over croquet.
Thousands of bodies were strung over fifteen miles of sea off Cape Matapan
Philip saw plenty of action before that life-or-death crisis on board the Wallace. Early on in the war, he served as a midshipman on the battleship HMS Ramillies, tasked with escorting convoys in the Indian Ocean. Stints on other vessels followed, and he was in the thick of things during the Battle of Cape Matapan, which took place off the coast of Greece and delivered a catastrophic and bloody defeat for Italian forces. One grisly report recounted how ‘Thousands of bodies were strung over fifteen miles of sea off Cape Matapan, there sometimes being groups of 100 or more at one spot. Many of the bodies were half clothed.’ Manning the searchlights on the HMS Valiant, Philip would be awarded the Greek War Cross for heroism.
Aged just 21, Philip was duly made one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy. His ship, the HMS Wallace, was part of the Allied invasion of Sicily – a pivotal moment in the war, coming hot on the heels of the Allied victory over Axis forces in North Africa. Involving an vast amphibious assault on the island, the invasion of Sicily was a monumental undertaking, comparable to the more famous D-Day landings, and involving some audacious espionage in the lead-up. (The British fooled the Germans into thinking the invasion would take place elsewhere by planting fake documents on the body of a dead homeless man from Wales, whose corpse was dressed up to look like an officer and then dropped into Spanish waters so the false information could fall into the hands of Nazi intelligence.)
More than 3,000 ships were involved in the invasion of Sicily – among them, the HMS Wallace, whose crew included Prince Philip and a yeoman called Harry Hargreaves. Much of what we know of the nerve-jangling incident that unfolded on the Wallace comes to us courtesy of Hargreaves, who decades later would recount how their ship came under attack by a Luftwaffe bomber.
‘It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit,’ Hargreaves remembered. ‘It was for all the world like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right.’
The bomber was flying in circles around the ship, swooping down to attack again and again, leaving the crew feeling helpless, frustrated and furious: sitting ducks. It was while awaiting the next attempted strike, with around 20 minutes before the bomber was due to be overhead again, that first lieutenant Philip had his brainwave.
Hargreaves saw the prince in close conversation with the ship’s captain. ‘The next thing, a wooden raft was being put together on deck. Within five minutes they launched the raft over the side, at each end was fastened a smoke float.’
As soon as the raft hit the water, plumes of smoke spiralled up, accompanied by flickers of flame that, to a bomber pilot flying high in the night sky, looked like debris from a stricken ship. Having laid the bait, the Wallace sailed at full speed away from the raft for several minutes before the captain ordered the engines stopped. ‘We lay there quietly in the soft darkness and cursed the stars, or at least I did,’ Hargreaves recalled. ‘Quite some time went by until we heard aircraft engines approaching.’
The crew of the Wallace braced themselves, wondering if the ruse would work. They heard the ‘scream of the bombs’ – but not overhead. Philip’s plan had indeed done the job, and the bomber had aimed at the raft rather than the Wallace.
‘Prince Philip saved our lives that night,’ Hargreaves would later confirm. ‘He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly. You would say to yourself “What the hell are we going to do now?” and Philip would come up with something.’
Though thousands of Allied lives were lost, the invasion of Sicily would be a success, leading to the collapse of Mussolini’s regime and paving the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland. As for Philip, his ingenuity on the Wallace was arguably the most glittering moment of his distinguished wartime service.