"I thought, 'Is that Prince Harry?' " said one shocked student

By Simon Perry
September 28, 2015 11:15 AM
Eddie Keogh/Getty

Maybe it was the beard. Or maybe it was the sheer surprise of finding a royal turning up on an otherwise ordinary Monday.

But when Prince Harry appeared at The Duke of York’s Royal Military School, some students were so shocked that they didn’t believe it was really the big-hearted prince.

Wearing his distinctive ceremonial uniform of the Blues and Royals regiment, the former Army captain had kept his appearance at the school in southeast England a secret from all but one of the 406 students.

The only one in on the surprise? Senior Under Officer Pasangnema Sherpa, 18, who led his fellow pupils on the parade ground. “I’ve just told him who the guest is to give him a few moments to compose himself,” Regimental Sergeant Major Steff Dowle told reporters shortly before the prince, 31, landed in a helicopter on the school’s 150-acre grounds. “He’s heavy breathing at the moment.”

When Harry arrived, the stunned students still couldn’t quite comprehend what they were seeing.

“People behind me were asking who it was, and when I told them, they wouldn’t believe me,” said Bradley Benhan, 14.

Sean Dunoo, 11, was marching when the prince walked past him. “I thought, ‘Is that Prince Harry?’ Then I asked my friend next to me and he said, ‘Probably not.’ But I said, ‘Yes, it’s him!’ ” Dunoo told reporters.

Harry, who was on the losing side as he watched the England versus Wales rugby match on Saturday with brother Prince William and sister-in-law Kate, dodged media questions about the defeat.

He was at the school at the invitation of his friend Simon Daglish, cofounder of military charity Walking with the Wounded, who has a son there. Six veterans, including two from the U.S., are currently touring the U.K. in a special Walking with the Wounded hike that is criss-crossing the whole country.

He used the occasion to encourage some kids to go into the military. When one pupil, Harry Hodson, 15, told Harry that he was interesting in working in the media in television production, the prince came back with, “The Army’s not for you? Let’s talk about it.”

If Harry were still in the army, his bosses might want to talk to him about his beard, which is generally not permitted. But the well-groomed facial hair is set to be around for some time yet, with an insider telling PEOPLE that the “smart money” is on it staying.

Some young teens weren’t complaining. As he headed inside to tour the school buildings, excited girls hugged each other and jumped up and down. “Oh my God,” said one. “He spoke to me!” another screamed.

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