How Prince Philip's Lifelong Connection to the Military Began When He Was Just a Toddler
As a young boy, Philip was rescued from Greece by the Royal Navy. He later served with distinction throughout WWII in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean
Prince Philip enjoyed a deep, lifelong respect for the military.
Throughout his near-century-long life, the Duke of Edinburgh held honorary positions within the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force, and across numerous Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Yet it's the Royal Navy that was closest to his heart. The Duke of Edinburgh, who died on April 9 at the age of 99, first sailed on a British battleship at the age of 18 months when he was forced to flee his native Greece in a makeshift cot fashioned out of an orange crate.
He later served with distinction throughout WWII in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, ultimately ending his wartime service in Tokyo Bay to witness the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.
"Prince Philip saved our lives," crewmate Harry Hargreaves told The Observer about Philip's heroic wartime exploits in 2003. "You would say to yourself, 'What the hell are we going to do now?' and Philip would come up with something."
Philip joined the Royal Navy straight from Gordonstoun school as a dashing 18-year-old cadet in 1939, just as storm clouds were gathering over Europe. It was during this time that he first met a 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth when she toured the training facility with her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and her younger sister, Princess Margaret.
The duke graduated one year later as the top cadet in his class and was initially posted to the battleship HMS Ramillies performing the dangerous task of escorting supply ships across the Indian Ocean.
In March 1941, Philip found himself in even more peril when he took part in the Battle of Cape Matapan on board the battleship HMS Valiant. At just 19, the duke operated the searchlights during the battle against the Italian Navy off the southern coast of Greece, winning the Greek War Cross Of Honour for his bravery.
He later said that "all hell broke loose" during the fight, which saw the British inflict a heavy defeat on the Italian navy.
By July 1943, Philip had been appointed first lieutenant – and second-in-command – of the destroyer HMS Wallace as it supported the Allied invasion of Sicily. It was a role that almost ended in disaster after the ship came under sustained attack from German bombers, rendering it defenseless as the dark of night approached.
"It was for all the world like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right," Hargreaves told BBC's People's War series in 2003. "There was no doubt in anyone's mind that a direct hit was inevitable."
With the clock rapidly ticking, Philip — just 21 years old — "went into hurried conversation with the captain," added Hargreaves. Minutes later a wooden raft was lowered into the water fastened to a smoke float to imitate flaming wreckage in the water.
"The captain ordered full ahead and we steamed away from the raft for a good five minutes and then he ordered the engines stopped," said Hargreaves. "The sound of the aircraft grew louder until I thought it was directly overhead and I screwed up my shoulders in anticipation of the bombs.
"The next thing was the scream of the bombs, but at some distance. The ruse had worked, and the aircraft was bombing the raft."
"It had been marvelously quick thinking," Hargreaves added.
Following his life-saving exploits on HMS Wallace, Philip was appointed first lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Whelp and returned to the Indian Ocean as part of the British Pacific Fleet. It would prove to be just as dramatic as his service in the Mediterranean.
"While we were there, the first of the atomic bombs was dropped," Philip told BBC reporter Richard Astbury in 1995. "Almost immediately, we sailed from Guam to re-join the big American fleet off Japan of which the British Pacific fleet formed one task group out of six.
"We hung about there until the second bomb was dropped and then it was announced that the Japanese decided to cease hostilities."
HMS Whelp then escorted the U.S.S. Missouri to accept the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, with Philip just 200 yards away from the historic scenes. "You could see what was going on with a pair of binoculars," Philip told Astbury
Yet it was no time for celebration. Instead, Philip had the heart-wrenching task of escorting Japanese prisoners of war from Tokyo Bay.
"That was very emotional," he added. "Our ship's company recognized that they were also fellow sailors, so we gave them a cup of tea. They just sat there, both sides our own and them, tears pouring down their cheeks.
"They really couldn't speak. It was the most extraordinary sensation. It affected everybody."
With the prisoners safely cared for, Philip had the much more pleasant task of going home to the UK without having to fear for his life for the first time in years.
"It was a great relief," he told Astbury. "It was a wonderful feeling.
"We went on to Hong Kong and the most extraordinary sensation when we sailed, we suddenly realized we didn't have to darken ship anymore, we didn't have to close all the scuttles, we didn't have to turn the lights out.
"We actually stopped in the South China Sea and piped hands to bathe…[you] couldn't imagine doing that in the Mediterranean, when the heat was on, you couldn't do anything like that.
"Suddenly, all these little things built up to suddenly feeling that life was different."
In 1946, Philip asked King George VI for his permission to marry Princess Elizabeth. The following year, with the war safely behind him, the royal couple married at Westminster Abbey — with Philip dressed in his naval officer's uniform.