United Kingdom

PETER HITCHENS: Prince Philip was a naval man like my father

Like almost everyone else in the world, I never met the Duke of Edinburgh. I once watched him and the Queen pass by in a car at distance of about 20 feet, and that was the closest I ever came to him. I claim absolutely no inside knowledge. I have no idea if the mass of gossip about him was true or untrue or half-true. Yet I also have a very strong impression of what sort of person he was.

This comes, of course, from the incessant coverage of his life. But it also comes from an identification which I think men of my generation are entitled to make. This is part of the nature of the British monarchy, that the existence of a Royal Family tempts and encourages us to see our own small lives reflected and paralleled in those of that family.

The Duke was of roughly the same vintage as my father, who was born in 1909 and died in 1987, many years before I even began to understand or value him properly. The Prince’s exceptionally long life carried him deep into the modern age which my own father largely missed, and emphasises the vast chasm between the stoical, terse, self-disciplined lives of such people, and the way we live now.

The Duke, right, was of roughly the same vintage as my father, Eric, left, who was born in 1909 and died in 1987, many years before I even began to understand or value him properly

In another coincidence to which I probably attribute far more significance than I really should, Prince Philip and the then Princess Elizabeth lived on the Mediterranean island of Malta at roughly the same time as my parents. My father, too, was a naval officer. He was not the dashing, aristocratic sort, like the Prince. He had entered the service from Portsmouth Grammar School and worked his way to the three stripes of a Commander through slog and diligence, spending the worst years of war in great peril on the Russian convoys.

But at the end of the 1940s, when Clement Attlee’s Britain was dark, dingy, cold and rationed, he was a recently married man with one small son and one new baby, living a life of comparative comfort and plenty, in a handsome stone-faced house near the sea.

And it has always amused and pleased me to think that, not far away, the future Queen and her consort were doing much the same thing. There was never a time when the present Royal Family lived so close to the ground, and in such comparatively ordinary and modest circumstances, guarded by the Navy, and by their distance from England, from the perils of being mobbed and pestered which would have existed if they had tried the same thing in, say, Chatham.

Malta had been terribly bombed in the war and in those days was always known as Malta GC , thanks to the George Cross awarded to the whole island by George VI in recognition of the bravery and endurance of its people under fire. It was and remains one of the foreign countries which are especially close to and friendly to Britain. I have visited since and found a haunted place, where nearly two centuries of British imperial presence are inescapable but also elusive.

When I looked for the first time over the Grand Harbour at Valletta, one of the great natural harbours of the world, I instinctively felt that something was missing. And so it was. The place had looked much better in the days when the might, majesty and power of the British Mediterranean Fleet lay there at anchor. I had seen this in old films and pictures but also in that strange inherited memory, which I sometimes experience, of things I cannot possibly have known but seem all the same to have experienced.

In another coincidence to which I probably attribute far more significance than I really should, Prince Philip and the then Princess Elizabeth lived on the Mediterranean island of Malta at roughly the same time as my parents

Malta still whispers, in its honey-coloured stone streets and squares and its rocky blue inlets, the last enchantments of the British Empire. Here, a fierce and rather dour northern people ruled the globe like demi-gods, in crisp summer uniforms of white and gold, while their giant warships rocked gently at anchor behind them, ready to crush any whiff of challenge.

And there, amid the duty-free gin and Admiral’s parties of the suddenly peaceful and optimistic post-war world, Prince Philip was what I suspect he always most wanted to be, a hard-working, open-minded, innovative and ambitious naval officer with a young family and a beautiful wife. Paradise. And every time I saw him on public parade or heard of his latest so-called ‘gaffe’ – a word no normal person ever uses – I think of that young officer, and I sympathise.

It’s almost all gone now. They wear baseball caps on Royal Navy bridges these days, and talk in metres and kilograms. They even say they serve ‘on’ their ships, which in my father’s days gave you away as a hopeless landlubber. He was always ‘in’ his ships, and attached to that was a whole separate language of life, of crushers, duff, nutty, uckers, blokes, stone frigates and gash, some of which just about still survives.

But the Navy was the absolute core of Britishness, a place where, if (for example) someone’s head was removed by an enemy shell when he was standing beside you, it was more or less permissible to swear, and swear with great power and inventiveness, but where understatement was much preferred to exaggeration, where foolishness of all kinds was dismissed with a brief quip, grim humour was the best humour, and an icy calm the best response to any kind of trouble.

Ships were under the command of captains with faces like teak from decades spent under tropical suns, and voices like fine sandpaper, given to issuing terse, prosaic-sounding orders such as Bernard Warburton-Lee’s dying command at the first battle of Narvik in 1940, ‘Continue to engage the enemy’, which in a more excitable Navy would probably have been expressed as ‘Death or Glory!’

But the ships were actually run by solid, unromantic Petty Officers, the Navy’s NCOs, men from modest brick terraces in Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham, or from Glasgow tenements, who made sure the guns kept firing and the engines kept turning to the end, even when some political idiot had sent them to their deaths at the hands of Japanese bombers.

Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh on board HMS Ranger while he conducted a review of 200 vessels owned by Squadron members of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, Isle of Wight off Cowes in Portsmouth

Each ship was Britain in miniature. What a perfect place this must have been for an unsure young man, a homeless child of minor vagrant royalty with no proper country of his own, officially Greek but actually Danish, to become fully naturalised as British. I often think the Duke of Edinburgh was a sort of ideal Briton, the personal distillation of those old, forgotten virtues. And because he learned these things as a foreigner and as an outsider, he appreciated them and treasured them, as the rest of us no longer do.

The foolishly named ‘gaffes’ were mainly things every sane person thinks, and only sound wrong when they are deliberately stripped of the humour and self-mockery with which they were delivered. The occasional grumpy complaints were those permitted to a man who had to spend all his life more or less silenced on matters of public affairs, of which he knew much but could not really speak. The understated but obvious contempt for trivial people and silly complaints about minor problems was normal among those who have seen the face of battle and done hard service in a world where duty is the beginning and the end of every day, not an occasional extra.

And if anyone doubted his intellect, remember that, on a long-ago visit to Canada, he made one of the wisest and most profound statements about monarchy that anyone has ever uttered: ‘It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people. If at any time any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.’

I think that all his critics, and indeed all those who tried to attack the monarchy through him, or worked so hard to misunderstand the plain dutiful nature of our current Queen’s reign, need to understand a simple thing. When Prince Philip swore in Westminster Abbey to be the Queen’s ‘liege man of life and limb’, he meant exactly what he said.

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