Reflecting on Prince Philip
A guest blog from Major General Tim Cross, from a talk given in Aldershot on 14 April
One the greatest privileges of serving in the Army for over 40 years was the opportunity to meet members of the Royal family for one reason or another, both here in the UK and when deployed abroad. So, whilst I’m not convinced that what I’m about to say will add much to the corpus of knowledge that you will all have gained over the last few days from reading the papers and listening to the TV and radio broadcasts about Prince Philip’s life, I’m nonetheless humbled to have been asked to offer a couple of thoughts.
My abiding memory of Prince Philip comes from the commemorations for the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. The UK’s 3rd Division, whose predecessors had landed on Sword and Gold beaches back in June 1944, were given the responsibility of organising a week-long series of events - from celebrating the securing of Pegasus Bridge with a parachute drop by the then 5 Airborne Brigade based here in Aldershot, to commemorating those who had died in the months following D-Day in the war cemeteries in Bayeux and elsewhere.
I was lucky enough to be made responsible for the culmination of events - the final parade of the veterans at Arromanche, when around 11,000 gathered on the beaches from all over the UK; many for the first time since 1944.
Apart from the mechanics of organising the whole event – particularly trying to ensure that we got everyone off the beach before the tide came in and drowned large numbers of veterans who had survived the original landings - for me the most worrying thing was that there were going to be more members of the Royal family on foreign soil than at any other time in history. Every senior member, other than the Queen Mother, who was poorly, were there - with the Queen and Prince Philip taking the salute from the back of a Landrover that drove along the beach in front of the parade.
Prince Philip clearly thrived on being with the veterans. All the Royal family were wonderful with them, but his easy warmth as he chatted and swapped stories was evident to everyone he spoke with. Apart from the Queen herself, he was of course the only family member who had lived through those heady days.
He had fought with great courage as a Sub-Lieutenant on the battleship HMS Valiant at the battle of Cape Matapan in 1941, when, together with her sister ships - Warspite and Ramillies - Valiant destroyed two Italian heavy cruisers in less than five minutes, to be followed by a third, along with two destroyers.
Two years later, during the invasion of Sicily, he was the First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Wallace, saving the ship from a night bombing raid by launching a raft, using smoke floats as a decoy.
He also served in the Far East on the destroyer HMS Whelp, helping to rescue two men shot down by Japanese fighters; subsequently meeting one of them, Petty Officer (Airman) Norman Richardson at the Field of Remembrance in Westminster Abbey in 2013. And he was on board HMS Whelp in Tokyo Bay on 2 Sep 1945, when the Japanese Foreign Minister surrendered on board the USS Missouri; and later he recalled the horrors of seeing former POWs returning from their camps.
One of the last British servicemen not only to have seen action in World War Two, but to have literally witnessed its end, he ended the War as one of the Navy’s youngest First Lieutenants. And, if he had stayed in, he would almost certainly have gone on to have a glittering naval career.
Like many in the military he, and, I have to say, Princess Anne, didn’t suffer fools gladly. Living under relentless scrutiny, there were times when the media tried to stir up trouble, but unlike so many public figures who find it difficult to speak out without parroting the latest woke views, he spoke common sense in plain English; which I for one found refreshing.
His Awards Scheme is perhaps the best example of his combination of humanity and effectiveness. Millions of young people around the world have taken on the personal challenge, including my eldest son, Alexander, who completed the Gold Award alongside thousands of others. Apparently, the Duke once scolded a boy he found walking in the grounds of Balmoral, telling him that ‘you can’t just wander about anywhere, you know’. Asking the boy what he was doing, I sense a wry smile from the Prince when he was put back in his box by the reply that the lad was doing ‘My Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme’!
There was an evident toughness about him. I remember him being admitted to hospital suffering from a bladder infection the day after he stood outside in a strong wind and cold, heavy rain on a barge on the Thames alongside the Queen in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee. And how, at the age of 85, he flew out to Iraq to visit the Queen’s Royal Hussars in his role as the Regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief. And how, as the Captain General of the Royal Marines, he stood in the pouring rain on the forecourt of Buckingham Place for his last formal duty, at the age of 96.
Alongside this toughness, he displayed moral as well as physical courage. As a schoolboy at a German boarding school in the 1930s, he courageously stood up for an older Jewish boy being persecuted in the increasingly Nazified atmosphere. This moral courage mirrored that of his mother, whose deep religious faith meant that she saw nothing unusual in later bravely sheltering Jews in Greece from the Germans during the occupation.
Greek Orthodox until he converted to Anglicanism on marrying the Queen, Philip’s ties with eastern Christianity remained. His great-aunts – Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine and Tsarina Alexandra - are both martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church, having been murdered by the Bolsheviks. And his mother went on to become an Orthodox nun and a 'Righteous Among the Nations' for her actions in saving Jews.
His bluff manner concealed a remarkably thoughtful man, with considerable interest in theology and an impressive knowledge of the Bible - as shown in his many books, lectures and exchanges about religious issues with the Right Reverend Michael Mann, the Dean of Windsor - published as A Windsor Correspondence. Added to that, he was known to take copious notes whilst listening to sermons, before grilling the preacher afterwards; hopefully he would have cut me some slack!
In one of those books, he wrote that ‘religious conviction is the strongest and probably the only factor in sustaining the dignity and integrity of the individual.’ His childhood and family experiences in WW2 prove the truth of that statement, as does a 1930s Nazi poster I have at home which declares that you can’t be a Christian and a good German.
In 1966 he founded St George’s House, Windsor – still a centre for meetings between different religious faiths and denominations; scientists and other believers alongside agnostics, humanists and atheists. It was a bold move back then – but it epitomised the reality that ultimately everyone is a person of 'faith'. We all see the world through the prism of our beliefs, and we make our moral and ethical choices based on those beliefs. The Windsor conversations allowed participants to explore those choices, and their eternal consequences.
Finally, alongside his toughness and a love of sport, adventure and challenge, what sets him apart from many was his sense of duty. The motto of the Royal Military Academy up the road at Sandhurst is ‘Serve to Lead’. In my experience, great leaders are ambitious first and foremost for their people and the cause – not for themselves. Adhering to core values, they keep an absolute and clear distinction between 'what we stand for' - which will never change - and 'how we do things' - which never stops changing.
A deep desire to serve; ambition for the cause; adhering to core values but constantly adapting to meet the constantly changing environment - are all epitomised by the Duke of Edinburgh, and of course by Her Majesty - who has served for almost her entire life: served her God and her people - in that order; modelling Jesus’ teaching that: ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’. He of course was the greatest servant leader.
In a world that increasingly focuses on ‘self’ – the iPhone; iPad, iPod, the selfie – the idea of being a ‘servant’ to anything - except to ourselves and material things - doesn’t sit easily for many today. But, between them, the Queen and the Duke have nurtured the spiritual heart of the monarchy over their 70 years in service together.
I have often said in various interviews that the British Army is a deeply flawed organisation, because it’s made up of people like me. All of us are flawed – including Prince Philip. Shakespeare said that 'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.' But somehow, I don’t think that will be the case for the Duke of Edinburgh. Flawed he may have been, but as Sir John Major said of him, Prince Philip 'was the ballast in our ship of state'.
Indeed, he was; and I for one am going to miss him.
Reproduced with permission