Prince Philip's glittering military career

Duty to the country, and the Queen: How war hero Prince Philip was honoured for saving battleship from Nazi bombers during action-packed military career… that he gave up when he married Monarch

  • The Duke of Edinburgh joined the Royal Navy in 1939 and had risen to rank of First Lieutenant by 1942
  • He saw action in the Battle of Crete and the conflict at Cape Matapan off the coast of Greece
  • Prince Philip was also there at Tokyo Bay in September 1945 when Japanese forces surrendered to the Allies
  • Philip also trained to be a pilot with the RAF and completed 5,986 hours by the time he stopped flying in 1997 

Prince Philip’s attachment to the Armed Forces predated even his 73-year marriage to his beloved wife the Queen.

The Duke of Edinburgh, who has died at the age of 99, joined the Royal Navy in 1939 – the year the Second World War broke out – when he was still a teenager.

By 1942, he had risen to the rank of First Lieutenant after bravely fighting in the Battle of Crete and the conflict at Cape Matapan.

The consort was even there in Tokyo Bay to witness the historic surrender of Japanese forces in September 1945.

His glittering career saw him amass a chestful of medals which he proudly displayed at numerous functions. 

The awards included decorations for bravery in the 1939-45 war, where he distracted Nazi pilots during a 1943 bombing raid by launching a raft with smoke floats.

He was also Mentioned in Dispatches for his ‘alertness’ in helping to spot enemy ships.

And in 1945, Philip helped to rescue servicemen who had to ditch into the ocean after their Avenger bomber was hit by enemy fire.

But it wasn’t just on water where Philip put his military credentials to good use – he trained to be a pilot with the RAF and by the time he gave up flying in 1997, at the age of 76, he had completed 5,986 hours of time in the sky in 59 different aircraft.

But after the Queen acceded to the throne in 1952, four years after their wedding, Philip had to painfully give up his career in the Navy.

In an interview to mark his 90th birthday a decade ago, he revealed how it was ‘naturally disappointing’ to have to leave the service – but the man of honour added that he accepted his ‘first duty’ was to serve the Queen ‘in the best way I could’.


The Duke of Edinburgh, who has died at the age of 99, joined the Royal Navy in 1939 – the year the Second World War broke out – when he was still a teenager. By 1942, he had risen to the rank of first lieutenant after bravely fighting in the Battle of Crete and the conflict at Cape Matapan. Left: Philip in 1946. Right: Phlip in 1945, when he was serving on HMS Valiant

While serving on HMS Whelp, the future Queen’s consort was even there in Tokyo Bay to witness the historic surrender of Japanese forces in September 1945. Pictured: Philip (front row, second from left) with his fellow officers on HMS Whelp

It wasn’t just on water where Philip put his military credentials to good use – he trained to be a pilot with the RAF and by the time he gave up flying in 1997, at the age of 76, he had completed 5,986 hours of time in the sky in 59 different aircraft

His glittering Navy career

It was after leaving Gordonstoun school that Philip joined the Royal Navy. His training began at Britannia Royal Naval College, in Dartmouth, in May 1939 – three months before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany.

The athletic and talented prince was singled out as best cadet and, after war did break out, Philip firstly served on the battleship HMS Ramillies in 1940.

The next year, in March 1941, he was serving as a searchlight control officer on the battleship HMS Valiant when he was Mentioned in Dispatches for his part in the Battle of Cape Matapan against Italian forces off the Greek coast.

British and Australian ships under the command of Admiral Cunningham decisively defeated their opponents.

Whilst just four Allied seamen were killed and only four light cruiser ships damaged, the enemy lost more than 2,000 men and five of their ships were sunk.

Philip’s role on board HMS Valiant was to pick out ships in the darkness using the ship’s spotlight.

Writing in the foreword to a 2012 book about the battle, Philip said: ‘I seem to remember that I reported I had a target in sight, and was ordered to ‘open shutter’.

It was after leaving Gordonstoun school that Philip joined the Royal Navy. His training began at Britannia Royal Naval College, in Dartmouth, in May 1939 – three months before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Pictured: HMS Whelp, which Prince Philip served on

The then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, prior to his marriage to Princess Elizabeth, working at his desk after returning to his Royal Navy duties at the Petty Officers Training Centre in Corsham, Wiltshire, August 1st 1947

Philip (fifth from left, front row) at the Royal Navy Petty Officer’s School in Corsham, Wiltshire, in 1947. Philip distinguished himself in his service in the Second World War

While serving as First Lieutenant on HMS Whelp, Philip was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the surrender agreement with Allied forces. Speaking in 1995, Philip said: ‘Being in Tokyo Bay with the surrender ceremony taking place on a battleship which was what? 200 yards away. You could see what was going on with a pair of binoculars’

‘The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship.

‘At this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham’s started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.

‘I was then ordered to ‘train left’ and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment.

‘The next morning the battle fleet returned to the scene of the battle, while attempts were made to pick up survivors. This was rudely interrupted by an attack by German bombers.

‘The return to Alexandria was uneventful, and the peace and quiet was much appreciated.’

However, he added playfully: ‘All these events took place 70 years ago, and, as most elderly people have discovered, memories tend to fade’, and that witness accounts needed to be treated as ‘faction’ – a blend of fact and fiction’.

As well as being Mentioned in Dispatches by his commander Admiral Cunningham, Philip was also awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour.

Cunningham said: ‘Thanks to his alertness and appreciation of the situation, we were able to sink in five minutes two eight-inch gun Italian cruisers.’

At the age of just 21, Philip then moved up through Navy ranks to become First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Wallace.

He was the youngest officer in the service to have an executive job in a ship of its size.

In 1947, two years after the end of the war, Philip married the then Princess Elizabeth. They moved to Malta in 1949 and lived there for two years – a period which they saw as among the happiest of their lives. Pictured: The couple during their honeymoon in Malta in 1947

While in Malta, Philip was First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Chequers, while Princess Elizabeth was a happy naval wife and mother – first to Charles in 1949 and then Anne in 1950 

Prince Philip pictured on board HMS Magpie in the Mediterranean, in the summer of 1951, when he was in command of the ship

The Duke of Edinburgh and Captain John Edwin Home McBeath DSO, DSC, RN (left), pose with Queen Elizabeth for a photograph on HMS Chequers, where Philip served as First Lieutenant

While serving on HMS Wallace, during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Philip helped to save his ship from a night bomber attack by launching a raft with smoke floats.

These distracted the bombers, allowing the ship to slip away unnoticed.

Philip was then appointed the First Lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Whelp and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the surrender agreement with Allied forces.

THE 17 DECORATIONS WHICH PRINCE PHILIP AMASSED IN BOTH HIS MILITARY CAREER AND HIS ROLE AS THE QUEEN’S HUSBAND

The Duke joined the Royal Navy in 1939, aged 18, and served throughout the Second World War and on until 1953, when he gave up his active career in the Navy after the Queen ascended the throne.

He then held various military posts, including Admiral of the Fleet and Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy.

The Duke’s medals are:

Queen’s Service Order, New Zealand: This is awarded by the Government of New Zealand for service to the country

1939-1945 Star: A campaign medal of the British Commonwealth awarded for service during the Second World War.

Atlantic Star: Awarded this in 1945 for service in the Atlantic during the Second World War

Africa Star: Awarded in 1945 for service in Africa during the Second World War

Burma Star (with Pacific Rosette): Awarded for service in the Burma Campaign in the Second World War

Italy Star: Awarded for service in Italy and surrounding areas in the Second World War

War Medal 1939-1945, with Mention in Dispatches: Awarded to those who served in the Armed Forces or Merchant Navy for at least 28 days between 1939-45.  The oak leaf on the ribbon denotes the Mention in Despatches.

King George VI Coronation Medal, 1937: These medals were made to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, 1953: A commemorative medal made to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal, 1977: A commemorative medal created in 1977 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne

Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, 2002: A commemorative medal created in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne

Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2012: A commemorative medal created last year to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne

Canadian Forces Decoration (4 Bars): This honorary award was presented to the Duke in April this year

New Zealand Commemoration Medal, 1990: This was awarded only during 1990 to around 3,000 people in recognition of contributions made to New Zealand life

Malta George Cross 50th Anniversary Medal, 1992: This is a commemorative medal awarded by, or in the name of, the President of Malta

Greek War Cross, 1950: This is awarded for heroism in wartime to both Greeks and foreign allies.  The Duke earned his for his bravery in fighting the Italians when they invaded Greece in 1941.

Croix de Guerre (France) with Palm, 1948: A French military decoration to honour people who fought with the Allies against Axis nations in the Second World War

Speaking in 1995 about his time on the ship, Philip described his experience of watching the Japanese capitulate.

‘Being in Tokyo Bay with the surrender ceremony taking place on a battleship which was what, 200 yards away? You could see what was going on with a pair of binoculars.

‘It was a great relief. And I remember because from there we went on to Hong Kong. And the most extraordinary sensation when we sailed because we realised we didn’t have to darken ship anymore.

‘We didn’t have to close all the scuttles. We didn’t have to turn the lights out. So you suddenly… all these little things built up to suddenly feeling that life was different.

HMS Whelp then took in prisoners of war who had been held in horrendous conditions by the Japanese.

In the same 1995 interview, Philip described how he and his men broke down in tears at the sight of the released prisoners accepting cups of tea.

‘These people were naval people. They were emaciated. And they set down in the mess, they were suddenly in an atmosphere which they recognised, they were back in the mess.

‘And the people, our ship’s company, also recognised that they were fellow sailors. And so we gave them a cup of tea but it was an extraordinary sensation because they just sat there.

‘I mean both sides, our own and them, tears pouring down their cheeks. They just drank their tea. They really couldn’t speak. It was the most extraordinary sensation.’

Months before the Japanese surrender, Philip helped to rescue two servicemen while serving on HMS Whelp.

The men – Roy ‘Gus’ Halliday (who went on to become Vice-Admiral Halliday) and Norman Richardson – had had to ditch into the ocean after the bomber was hit.

They had been returning from bombing the Songei Gerong oil refinery in Sumatra when the disaster occurred.

Fortunately for both men, the Whelp was on hand to rescue them from the water. The young Prince introduced himself as Lieutenant Philip and neither Halliday nor Richardson at first realised who he was.

It was only later, when the men went to Philip’s cabin and saw a photo of Princess Elizabeth that they made the connection.

In 2006, Philip met with Richardson at Buckingham Palace, where Philip joked, ‘It’s you again! Well, at least you’re dry this time.’

Speaking of the rescue, Philip recalled: ‘The decision to go and pick them up was, I suppose, ultimately made by the captain.

‘It was then up to the First Lieutenant to organise whatever needed to be done. ‘It was routine. If you found somebody in the sea you go and pick them up. End of story, so to speak.’

In 1947, two years after the end of the war, Philip married the then Princess Elizabeth.

They moved to Malta in 1949 and lived there for two years – a period which they saw as among the happiest of their lives.

While in Malta, Philip was First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Chequers, while Princess Elizabeth was a happy naval wife and mother – first to Charles in 1949 and then Anne in 1950.

In 1950, Philip was given control of the frigate HMS Magpie after being promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. He was nicknamed ‘Dukey’ by his men.

Giving up what he loved 

But Philip’s naval career had to come to an end when Princess Elizabeth’s father King George VI died in 1952 and she became Queen.

Speaking in an unusually candid interview in 2011, Philip admitted it was hard to turn his back on a life at sea after being asked by questioner Alan Titchmarsh.

‘Well, I mean, how long is a piece of string? I don’t know how difficult it was, it was naturally disappointing,’ he said.

But Philip’s naval career had to come to an end when Princess Elizabeth’s father King George VI died in 1952 and she became Queen. Pictured: Philip in 1953

Prince Philip’s glittering career saw him amass a chestful of medals which he proudly displayed at numerous functions. They included decorations for bravery in the 1939-45 war. Pictured: The Duke attending a service at Westminster Abbey in 2015

After leaving the Navy, Philip held many honorary titles, including Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force, Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps, Admiral of the Fleet and Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force. Pictured: Philip in 1969 visiting the Queen’s Royal Hussars regiment in Dorset

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, drinks whales teeth kava while watching traditional dancing on October 30, 1982 in Suva, Fiji, during a royal tour of the South Pacific

‘I had just been promoted to commander and the fact was that the most interesting part of my naval career was just starting.

‘But then equally, if I stopped and thought about it, being married to the Queen, it seemed to me my first duty was to serve her in the best way I could.’

Netflix drama The Crown depicted Philip’s frustration at having to stop his military activities.

The show’s creator Peter Morgan claimed the move led to ‘all sorts of tensions’.

‘He was forced to give up his career and become, as it were, her consort. And that led to all sorts of tensions, both within himself and within the marriage…’

He added: ‘I think he was quite reasonably expecting to have a long, successful career and reach the upper echelon of the Royal Navy.

‘But then King George became sick and died at age 56. This thing happens, bang, sooner than anyone would have expected.’

Taking to the skies 

Another period of Philip’s life depicted in The Crown was his training to be a pilot, which began in November 1952.

Likely in search of some of the enjoyment and meaning which he had taken from his Navy service, Philip began training in a De Havilland Chipmunk before moving on to a North American Harvard.

Both aircraft were produced for training would-be pilots.

At a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in May 1953, Philip was awarded his ‘wings’ by Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshall Sir William Dickson.

Three years later, he gained his helicopter wings and in 1959, his private pilot’s licence.

In November 1952, likely in search of some of the enjoyment and meaning which he had taken from his Navy service, Philip began training to be a pilot. He started in a De Havilland Chipmunk before moving on to a North American Harvard. Pictured: The Duke gets out of a plane in May 1953 at White Waltham airfield


At a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in May 1953, Philip was awarded his ‘wings’ by Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshall Sir William Dickson. Three years later, he gained his helicopter wings and in 1959, his private pilot’s licence. Pictured left: Philip at the controls of a Trident jet airliner in 1964. Right: The Duke of Edinburgh at the controls of the ‘Beverly’ Freighter Aircraft at Blackburn Aircraft Factory in 1956

In March 1952, Philip piloted a jet aircraft for the first time, flying a Comet airliner from the De Havilland airfield in Hatfield, Hertfordshire

Philip embraced his new skill as a pilot and flew for 45 years, amassing 5,986 hours in 59 different aircraft. Pictured: Philip on the day in June 1958 that he flew a Vulcan H-bomber

One dramatic, fictional scene in The Crown showed Philip following the 1969 moon landing flying a plane alongside a co-pilot.

Spotting the distant moon, he took the controls and flew straight towards it, much to his companion’s terror.

After eventually levelling off once more, he said, ‘we’ve also lived… just for a minute’.

Philip embraced his new skill as a pilot and flew for 45 years, amassing 5,986 hours in 59 different aircraft.

His final flight was at the age of 76, on August 11, 1997, when he flew from Carlisle to Islay.

The Prince’s desire to fly came despite the death of his sister Cecile in a plane crash when he was just 16.

Cecilie, who was eight months pregnant at the time, died along with her husband and two sons.

The Prince in uniform as a Queen’s guard as his wife, the Queen, walks past and enjoys a giggle in April 2003

Philip’s love of the sea never waned, competing regularly at Cowes Regatta (above, in 1979). He was Admiral of the Royal Yacht Squadron, patron of a number of clubs and president of the Royal Yachting Association


Philip during a visit to East Wretham Camp, near Thetford, Norfolk in 1958 (left) and in his Naval uniform around 1965 (right)

Despite the need to give up his military career, as part of his role as the husband of the monarch, Philip did hold honorary titles in all three wings of the military.

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

The next year he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and was appointed Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

The Duke was also Colonel-in-Chief, or Colonel, of various British and overseas regiments.

Following in their father’s footsteps 

Philip’s sons – Charles, Andrew and Edward – have all followed in their father’s footsteps by spending time in the military.

Prince Edward spent three years in the Royal Marines as a University Cadet before leaving the Armed Forces after graduating.

Prince Andrew served for 22 years in the Royal Navy and saw active service as a helicopter pilot in the 1982 Falklands War.


Philip’s sons – Charles, Andrew and Edward – have all followed in their father’s footsteps by spending time in the military. Charles jointed the Royal Air Force in March 1971 and gained his wings after a training period which saw him complete a parachute jump (right)

Prince Andrew served for 22 years in the Royal Navy and saw active service as a helicopter pilot in the 1982 Falklands War

Prince Edward spent three years in the Royal Marines as a University Cadet before leaving the Armed Forces after graduating

As for Charles, in March 1971 he joined the Royal Air Force after gaining his private pilot’s licence a year earlier.

He gained his wings just five months later after completing a parachute jump.

Prince Philip was present to watch his son receive his wings at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

Charles then entered the Royal Navy where he served on ships including the destroyer HMS Norfolk and the frigate HMS Minerva.

In June 1994, Prince Charles was at the controls when a Queen’s Flight jet aircraft crashed after overshooting the runway while coming into land at Islay in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

Three tyres burst on the £10million ‘Whisper Jet’, which also suffered damage damaging to its nose cone, landing gear and weather radar.

Fortunately, no one was injured.

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