The World War II hero: How Prince Philip's quick thinking saved his ship from German bombers off Sicily

Patrick Sawer
·4-min read
prince philip ww2 world war two
prince philip ww2 world war two

Quick thinking and no small measure of bravery by Prince Philip saved dozens of lives during the Second World War, earning him a lifelong debt of gratitude from his comrades at arms.

During the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily, the 22-year-old, then a first lieutenant in the Royal Navy, foiled a Luftwaffe bomber that looked almost certain to destroy his ship.

But the story of how the Duke of Edinburgh saved the ship only emerged in recent years when veterans began to talk publicly about the incident.

He was second-in-command of the destroyer HMS Wallace during the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943 when the ship came under repeated attack. Undaunted, he quickly devised a plan to throw a smoking wooden raft overboard to create the illusion of debris on fire in the water as a decoy, successfully distracting the enemy.

Harry Hargreaves, a yeoman on board the ship, revealed the story in 2003 during an online BBC event capturing people's stories of the war. The veteran recalled how the crew had only 20 minutes before the next bombing run to come up with an idea.

Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, husband of Princess Elizabeth resumes his attendance at the Royal Naval Officers' School at Kingsmoor in Hawthorn, Wiltshire. July 31, 1947 -  PNA Rota/ Hulton Royals Collection
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, husband of Princess Elizabeth resumes his attendance at the Royal Naval Officers' School at Kingsmoor in Hawthorn, Wiltshire. July 31, 1947 - PNA Rota/ Hulton Royals Collection

After a "hurried conversation" between Prince Philip and the ship's captain, a raft was thrown over the side with devices at each end imitating flaming debris. The captain ordered the ship to sail away before stopping the engines to hide the wake.

"The next thing was the scream of bombs, but at some distance," Mr Hargreaves said. "The ruse had worked and the aircraft was bombing the raft. Prince Philip saved our lives that night. I suppose there might have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk. He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly."

Recalling the incident that almost claimed his own life and that of dozens of other comrades, Mr Hargreaves said of the young Prince Philip: "You would say: 'What the hell are we going to do now?' and Philip would come up with something."

It was a far cry from the start of the war when the Duke, who graduated from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth as the best cadet in his class, feared he would languish in the backwaters of battle without ever seeing real action.

Owing to his status as a "neutral foreigner", he was barred from serving in a theatre of war. Instead, on January 1, 1940, he was posted as a midshipman to Ramillies, an old battleship based in Colombo, tasked with escorting convoys of Australian and New Zealand troopships bound for Egypt.

Further peaceful stints followed onboard the warships Kent and Shropshire before Prince Philip, the son of Prince Andrew of Greece, was transferred to HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet in January 1941.

Prince Philip top stories read more
Prince Philip top stories read more

It was three months after Greece had entered the war on the Allied side, and he was soon thrust into the action he craved.

In March 1941, Valiant took part in the Battle of Cape Matapan, during which a number of Italian ships were sunk or severely damaged, leading to Admiral Cunningham mentioning Prince Philip in dispatches for his skill in handling the searchlights.

His captain recorded that "thanks to his alertness and appreciation of the situation, we were able to sink in five minutes two eight-inch gun Italian cruisers". As a result, Prince Philip's cousin, King George II of Greece, awarded him the War Cross.

In May 1944, Prince Philip was posted to the Far East as first lieutenant in the new destroyer Whelp, during which time he and Princess Elizabeth – who he had met while at Dartmouth – began a regular correspondence.

In January 1945, while operating the Whelp, he helped save the lives of two airmen after their plane was hit by Japanese fighters. He immediately activated a search and rescue operation, directing the ship at full speed towards the spot where the bomber had gone down. The Whelp was able to pick up the two airmen, who had been struggling in vain to inflate their life raft.

Prince Philip arranged clothes for them and made sure they were looked after, and was awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour by George II.

He saw out the remainder of the war in the Far East, where he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.