A love of the sea

Laura Elston, PA Court Reporter
·5-min read

Had the Duke of Edinburgh not become the Queen’s husband, some believe he would have been First Sea Lord – the professional head of the Royal Navy.

Philip joined the Navy after leaving school and in May 1939 enrolled at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where he was singled out as best cadet.

He rose rapidly through the ranks, earning promotion after promotion, but his life was to take a very different course.

Philip as a Commander
The Duke of Edinburgh as Commander of the Frigate HMS Magpie in 1951 (PA)

The duke’s flourishing naval career came to a premature end in 1951.

The health of his father-in-law, George VI, was deteriorating and Queen-in-waiting Princess Elizabeth was required to take on more royal responsibilities.

Philip stepped down from his active role in the forces to fulfil his duty as her consort.

His wife acceded to the throne within the year when the King died in February 1952.

Decades later, the duke revealed his disappointment at having to give up the Navy.

“There was no question of my going back, I had to do that, but at that time I had not thought that was going to be the end of a sort of naval career,” he said.

“That sort of crept up on me and it became more and more obvious that I could not go back to it,” he said.

“But it’s no good regretting things – it simply did not happen and I have been doing other things instead.”

He spoke of his fascination with the sea in a rare interview in 1998 to mark his 50 years as trustee of the National Maritime Museum.

Referring to it as “an extraordinary master or mistress”, he declared: “It has such extraordinary moods that sometimes you feel this is the only sort of life – and 10 minutes later you’re praying for death.”

The duke in Malta
Philip transferring between ships by jackstay in Malta (PA)

At the start of his service, Philip joined the battleship HMS Ramillies in 1940 in Colombo as a midshipman and spent the following six months in the Indian Ocean.

In January 1941, he served on HMS Valiant in Alexandria and two months later was mentioned in despatches for his actions during the Second World War.

He was in control of Valiant’s search lights as it fought an Italian cruiser in the battle of Cape Matapan when he spotted an unexpected second enemy vessel nearby.

Having qualified for promotion to Sub-Lieutenant, he returned home and, after taking a series of technical courses, was appointed to the destroyer HMS Wallace based at Rosyth for convoy escort duties on the east coast.

He was promoted to Lieutenant in July 1942 and then three months later was promoted again.

At the age of 21, Philip had become one of the youngest officers in the Royal Navy to be made First Lieutenant and second-in-command of a ship.

In July 1943, Wallace was dispatched to the Mediterranean and provided cover for the Canadian beachhead of the Allied landings in Sicily.

After further training, Philip was appointed First Lieutenant of the new Fleet Destroyer HMS Whelp.

Whelp sailed for the Indian Ocean to join the British Pacific Fleet.

Philip was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered on September 2 1945. He returned to the UK in January 1946.

Home leaves during the war brought invitations from King George VI to stay at Windsor Castle and soon Philip was engaged to Princess Elizabeth.

After his wedding, Philip, now known as His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, determinedly resumed his naval ambitions.

He attended the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich and in October 1949 was appointed First Lieutenant and second-in-command of HMS Chequers, operating from Malta with the Mediterranean fleet.

HMS Chequers in Malta
On board HMS Chequers in Malta – the duke and Elizabeth with a naval captain (PA)

Promotion to Lieutenant-Commander followed in July 1950 and in September he was given command of the frigate HMS Magpie.

Philip, known as “Dukey” to his men, described the period as the happiest days of his sailor life.

The Queen and Philip always held a deep affection for Malta.

Princess Elizabeth joined her husband on the tiny Mediterranean island where she was effectively able to live the relatively carefree life of a Navy wife.

It was her first and perhaps only escape from the constraints of being royal and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Living in Malta at several stages between 1949 and 1951, she went to the local hairdresser’s, to parties and picnics and joined boat expeditions and swimming parties.

The couple stayed in Villa Guardamangia, the house which belonged to Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, who was then Flag Officer commanding the First Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet.

However, with the King’s health failing, Elizabeth was needed at home to shoulder the burden of engagements and tours.

In July 1951, the couple, who by now had two children, Charles and Anne, returned home to Clarence House.

It was announced that Philip would take up no more active naval appointments.

Just months later, the King died and Elizabeth became Queen.

The duke was eventually promoted to Commander in June 1952 and then to Admiral of the Fleet on January 15 1953. His other service appointments were Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Although he gave up his career, Philip remained closely associated with service life.

  • Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps

  • Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force

  • Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps

  • Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force

  • Captain General of the Royal Marines

  • Colonel of the Grenadier Guards

  • Colonel-in-Chief of The Rifles

  • Lord High Admiral, titular head of the Royal Navy

In 1952, he became Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps.

He was also appointed Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Captain General of the Royal Marines and Colonel-in-Chief, or Colonel, of a range of British and overseas regiments.

For his 90th birthday, the Queen bestowed upon him the title of Lord High Admiral, titular head of the Royal Navy.