VJ Day: The story of young Prince Philip's extraordinary war

Philip Eade
·7-min read
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten pictured in 1947 - Hulton Royals Collection 
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten pictured in 1947 - Hulton Royals Collection

The war that ended with Prince Philip witnessing the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay had begun with him in a quandary. He had just returned with his mother, Princess Alice, to Greece for the first time since his family fled a colonels’ coup in 1922 when he was still an infant.

Hearing about the outbreak of war shortly after their arrival in Athens in September 1939, eighteen-year-old Philip was keen to resume his naval training at Dartmouth in England, which he had come to regard as home, and to fight on the Allied side - even though his four sisters were all married to Germans and living in Germany.

His mother though was conscious of her son’s obligations as a prince of Greece - which was then still neutral - and, as things stood, the eventual heir to that throne. As Alice explained to her brother Louis Mountbatten, Philip felt "such an utter stranger to the language and people" there that if he did not now spend some time in the country, and try and re-establish a bond with them, it would be much harder to do so in years to come.

With that in mind she had taken a two-bedroom flat for them in Athens. However, King George II of Greece (his first cousin) sided with Philip’s suggestion that he go back to England to finish his training, which the prince duly did that autumn, earning the King’s Dirk as the best all-round cadet of his term, and the Eardley-Howard-Crockett prize for the best cadet at the college.

As a ‘neutral foreigner’ he was barred from serving in a theatre of war and his uncle Mountbatten had to pull strings to secure him a posting to the battleship Ramillies, escorting convoys of Australian and New Zealand troopships bound for Egypt. However, when Italian troops invaded Greece in October 1940 and Greece entered the war on the Allied side, it was no longer imperative to keep the prince out of harm’s way. Just after New Year 1941 he joined the newly modernized battleship Valiant in the Mediterranean, and a few days later he had his first taste of action, bombarding Bardia on the Libyan coast.

The HMS Valiant on which Philip served - AP
The HMS Valiant on which Philip served - AP

After spending his leave in Greece with his mother - who bravely remained in Athens throughout the four years of German occupation, running soup kitchens and orphanages and sheltering a Jewish family in her home - he returned to Valiant, now convoying British troops from Alexandria to Crete to bolster Greek defences ahead of the expected German landings.

The only enemy force capable of disrupting the convoys was the Italian navy, and in March 1941 Valiant was one of two battleships ordered to engage the Italian fleet in an audacious night-time encounter off Cape Matapan on the Peloponnese - a spectacularly successful engagement that accounted for two Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers and effectively scuttled the possibility of any future substantial operations by the Italian fleet.

Philip’s captain mentioned him in dispatches for his direction of Valiant’s searchlights, reporting that "the successful and continuous illumination of the enemy greatly contributed to the devastating results". King George II also awarded him the Greek War Cross, although Philip later told his aunt Alexandra that ‘it was as near murder as anything could be in wartime’.

In June 1942 he was posted to the destroyer Wallace, based at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, protecting merchant convoys en route to Sheerness from German E-boats. At the request of his captain, that October he was promoted to first lieutenant, second-in-command of the ship, and at the age of 21 one of the youngest in the Royal Navy to hold that position.

It was a job that he loved and one that he was very good at. Being forced to leave the navy a few years after the war when King George VI became ill was about the only regret he would admit to in later life. And while his rebellious temperament may possibly have counted against him, it was more than conceivable that he would have gone on to emulate his grandfather and uncle in reaching the top.

"Prince Philip was a highly talented seaman," said Lord Lewin in 1992. "No doubt about it. If he hadn’t become what he did, he would have been First Sea Lord and not me."

The Duke is his Royal Navy uniform - PA
The Duke is his Royal Navy uniform - PA

In 1943, Prince Philip’s quick-thinking and resourcefulness were credited with saving his ship and its crew when they came under attack by German Stukas. Realising he had to come up with something after the initial onslaught, he ordered a wooden raft to be assembled on deck with a smoke float fastened to each end. The returning Stukas obligingly ignored the blacked-out ship and instead bombed Philip’s decoy, assuming that it was the flaming debris of Wallace which they were intent on finishing off.

In December 1944, he returned to the Indian Ocean as first lieutenant of Whelp, now deployed as part of the destroyer screen for the bombing raids on Japanese oil refineries on Sumatra. In late January, they picked up a Mayday signal from a stricken Allied bomber about to ditch in the shark-infested Java Sea.

Philip promptly activated Whelp’s search and rescue system and directed the vessel at full speed towards the spot where the bomber had gone down. The plane had quickly sunk and its two crew struggled in vain to inflate their life raft. After spending twenty minutes in the sea they were greatly relieved to see Whelp approach-ing, and an anxious-looking Prince Philip peering over the side to check they were okay. He later gave them dinner in the officers’ mess and when they eventually reached Fremantle, he suggested a run ashore, which turned into a ‘memorable bender’ in the port’s bars so one of the airmen recalled.

Both men were later reunited with their fellow pilots aboard Victorious. Nine of their comrades who had been shot down during the same raid were less fortunate. Captured and imprisoned by the Japanese, they were beheaded in Changi three days after VJ Day.

Prince Philip pictured with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten - Getty
Prince Philip pictured with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten - Getty

From Fremantle, Whelp proceeded round to Sydney and then on to Papua New Guinea with the British Pacific Fleet. From there they continued northward to the Japanese Sakishima Gunto group of islands to the east of Taiwan, where Whelp had several exchanges with the enemy, and Philip performed more acts of gallantry, taking out one of the ship’s whalers to rescue a pilot shot down and helping to save a drowning crew member clinging to a buoy. After a refit in Australia, Whelp left Sydney to escort the flotilla’s flagship, Duke of York.

They were on their way to assist in the intended invasion of Japan when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, just as they reached the American-held island of Guam, east of the Philippines, another bomb devastated Nagasaki.

When Whelp became one of the first Allied ships to enter Japanese waters, escorting the US flagship Missouri into Tokyo Bay on 2 September, it was to attend the formal Japanese surrender, the signing of which took place aboard the American flagship, with Philip watching from the deck of Whelp some 200 yards away. "You could see what was going on with a pair on binoculars,’"he later recalled. "It was a great relief."

After the surrender, Whelp took some former Allied prisoners of war on board. Philip remembered them as "naval people . . . emaciated . . . tears pouring down their cheeks. They just drank their tea, they really couldn’t speak. It was a most extraordinary sensation."