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The Naval Career of HRH Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visiting Dartmouth in the early 1950s
12 April 2021
The Royal Navy has been in the blood of the Duke of Edinburgh from his earliest days, through service in the Mediterranean and Pacific during World War 2, to post-war command and honorary roles with the Fleet and Royal Marines up to his retirement from public duties.

Aged just 18 months, he was evacuated with his family in cruiser HMS Calypso when the Greek royal family was forced to abdicate amid revolution in the country.

The prince’s Royal Navy career began aged 17 when he attended Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon, the spiritual home of the officer corps. Two months later he famously escorted a then 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Princess Margaret when their parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Dartmouth.

The college was in the middle of a chicken-pox and mumps epidemic and it was necessary to keep the princesses away from the risk of infection.

Prince Philip was excused from training and given the job of hosting the princesses, which included a game of croquet in the Captain’s garden. 

While this was not the first time Philip and Elizabeth had met, popular consensus is that this was the first time that the princess had ‘noticed’ the prince.

Prince Philip passed out of Dartmouth at the beginning of 1940 after eight months’ training. He enjoyed his time at the college – and excelled there, receiving the King’s Dirk and the Eardley Howard Crocket prize for best Cadet of his entry.

From Dartmouth, the young midshipman was appointed to veteran battleship HMS Ramillies in the Indian Ocean, escorting troops from Australia to Egypt, before joining cruisers HMS Kent and Shropshire in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the end of 1940 he was appointed to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean which saw action off North Africa but in particular in the victory over the Italian Fleet at Cape Matapan in March 1941.

Prince Philip was Mentioned in Despatches for “bravery and enterprise” in controlling the battleship’s searchlights in the night action which “greatly contributed to the devastating results achieved” by the guns.

At the beginning of 1942 he joined destroyer HMS Wallace and spent most of the year escorting coastal convoys off the east coast of the UK before the ship dispatched to the Mediterranean to support the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, where she helped cover the Canadian landings and was damaged during air raids.

Contemporary reports from his commanding officers praise Prince Philip’s practical seamanship skills, high intellect, good judgement, strong character, zeal, and great charm. He was described as an “officer of unusual promise” and it was predicted he would “make his mark in the Service”.

Was searchlight control midshipman during the Battle of Matapan. The successful and continuous illumination of the enemy greatly contributed to the devastating results achieved in the gun action.

Captain Charles Morgan, Commanding Officer, HMS Valiant

His next seagoing appointment was as First Lieutenant – second in command – of new destroyer HMS Whelp which sailed to the Far East for the final year of the war with Japan as part of the escort for the capital ships.

Aboard Whelp, Prince Philip was present in Tokyo Bay in September 1945 for the formal Japanese surrender – the last act of World War 2. The destroyer finally returned to the UK in January 1946 having helped with the repatriation of Allied servicemen.

He spent the next 3½ years ashore at various Naval establishments helping to train new sailors joining from civvy street and petty officers as well as studies at the Naval Staff College in Greenwich – interspersed with his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in November 1947.

In October 1949, Prince Philip returned to sea as First Lieutenant of destroyer HMS Chequers in the Mediterranean and the royal couple lived in Malta between 1949 and 1951.     

After being promoted to Lieutenant Commander in July 1950, Prince Philip was given his first sea-going command, 11 years after joining the Royal Navy.

He commanded anti-submarine frigate HMS Magpie from September 1950 until July 1951, taking her to ports around the Mediterranean including Izmir, Livorno, Tripoli, Athens (Princess Elizabeth joined the ship for the passage through the Corinth Canal), Monaco, and Gibraltar.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s active naval career ended as a commander in January 1953, after almost 14 years.

He was promoted Honorary Admiral of the Fleet and added the title of Captain General of the Royal Marines in June of the same year – a position he held until December 2017.

Other titles bestowed upon him during the period of transition from Service to royal life included Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps.

Despite his retirement from active service, Prince Philp remained both interested and involved in the Naval Service through official visits, patronage of, and association with, naval charities and clubs, time spent in the Royal Yacht Britannia and in instances where his overseas visits were escorted by Royal Navy ships.

His long-standing connection with the Senior Service was recognised in June 2011 when The Queen conferred the title and office of Lord High Admiral to him upon his 90th birthday.

For more than eight decades, Prince Philip’s generous spirit and genuine understanding of the Royal Navy, its values, and traditions have been an asset to the Service.   

So it was fitting that his final public engagement in August 2017 to review a parade by Royal Marines at Buckingham Palace.

With thanks to the Naval Historical Branch.

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