In my humble opinion, one of the aspects that deserves the most interest about the Duke of Edinburgh was his military service in the Royal Navy during World War II. As I’m right into reading the French edition of Professor Craig L. Symonds excellent book World War II at Sea (Oxford University Press, 2008, published in French under the title Histoire navale de la Seconde Guerre mondiale and published by Éditions Perrin at the beginning of this year), I submitted a few questions to this internationally renowned specialist about maritime warfare and the significance of Prince Philip’s service in the Royal Navy. Professor Symonds generously accepted to respond to my questions and I am extremely pleased, on this very day when we bid a final farewell to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to share this exchange here.
Anyone interested in learning more about the naval dimension of World War II should definitely get a copy of his insightful and well-written book.
The strategic significance of the battle of Cape Matapan was that it dissuaded Italian naval authorities from attempting to exert influence in the eastern Mediterranean afterward.
In your book, you explain that the Battle of Cape Matapan – in which the late Duke of Edinburgh took part – clipped the wings of Mussolini’s Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. In the larger context of the war, could you tell us more about the significance / importance of the battle?
Cape Matapan is the middle of the three peninsulas that jut out into the Mediterranean from the Greek Peloponnesus. South of that cape on March 27-29, 1941, the Royal Navy squadron of Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham ambushed a major portion of the Italian surface navy and achieved an overwhelming victory, sinking three heavy cruisers and two destroyers, while suffering no losses of their own. A key reason was British radar, which allowed British battleships to close in on unsuspecting Italian cruisers at night, as well as accurate gunnery.
Could we say that the battle was a turning point and, if so, why?
The strategic significance of the battle was that it dissuaded Italian naval authorities from attempting to exert influence in the eastern Mediterranean afterward. The Italian Navy (the Regina Marina) already suffered from a dearth of fuel oil as well as questionable support from the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica). Their one-sided defeat at Cape Matapan ended their efforts to influence the naval war east of the narrows in the Central Mediterranean.
When Churchill nominated Bruce Fraser to be First Sea Lord in 1944, Fraser turned it down, telling Churchill that Cunningham was the one Admiral who had the full support and respect of the fleet.
Compared to other famous sea dogs of World War II, how would you rate Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Cunningham, under whom Prince Philip served on board HMS Valiant and in whose dispatches he was mentioned for his role in the battle?
Admiral Cunningham was arguably Britain’s greatest admiral during World War II. Churchill was irritated when Cunningham, instead of attacking the French warships in Alexandria after the fall of France in 1940, chose instead to employ diplomacy to disarm and neutralize the French Fleet. Cunningham’s success in doing so proved that he was right and Churchill was wrong. In addition to such soft skills, Cunningham was also a fierce and determined warrior. He had the better of it in the Battle of Calabria (July 9, 1940); he used his fleet to cut Italian supply lines in North Africa; and he dispatched the aerial attack on Taranto in November 1940. And, of course, won the Battle of Cape Matapan in March of 1941. When Churchill nominated Bruce Fraser to be First Sea Lord in 1944, Fraser turned it down, telling Churchill that Cunningham was the one Admiral who had the full support and respect of the fleet.
Without the Royal Navy, even that might not have saved the nation, for it was the Navy that kept the sea lanes open and maintained control of the Channel.
The Duke of Edinburgh served in the Navy both in the Mediterranean and the Pacific fronts. His role and contribution mirrored those of entire generation of young Britons. How crucial was, in your opinion, the contribution of the British Navy to the Allied victory in World War II?
The Royal Navy an essential element in the eventual Allied victory because it kept the Axis at bay during the crucial year between the fall of France in June 1940 and Hitler’s foolish invasion of the Soviet Union one year later. The Royal Air Force deserves all the credit it has been given for winning the Battle of Britain, but without the Royal Navy, even that might not have saved the nation, for it was the Navy that kept the sea lanes open and maintained control of the Channel.
Based on what you know, how would you rate Prince Philip’s service of the Royal Navy during World War II?
I know almost nothing about this. I suggest you contact Dr. Richard Porter and the Britannia Royal Navy College, who may be able to help you.
Prince Philip was a serious and accomplished naval officer before he was a member of the Royal Family.
As a historian and an academic, I am wondering if you would agree to express what the military service of the Duke of Edinburgh means for the younger generation that is increasingly remote from the military experience?
It is a tradition of the Royal Family for its males to serve in the military and particularly in the Royal Navy. All three of Elizabeth’s sons attended Britannia, though both William and Harry attended Sandhurst. Their grandfather was a serious and accomplished naval officer before he was a member of the Royal Family and he was a serious and effective officer. The evidence suggests that it was a genuine sacrifice for him to give up his naval career. His devotion to his duty, both as a naval officer and a Royal should inspire the newest generation.
Finally, for anyone seeking to know more specifically about the Battle of Cape Matapan, what books / articles would you recommend?
The most comprehensive study is:
G. H. Bennett, G. H. Harrold, and R. Porter, Dark Seas: The Battle of Cape Matapan (Plymouth Press, 2012).
Two older works that are still useful are:
Ronald Seth, Two Fleets Surprised: The Story of the Battle of Cape Matapan (London, 1960).
S. W. C. Pack, The Battle of Cape Matapan (New York, 1961).
Good accounts of the battle are included in both Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea (London, 1954), volume II, and Craig L. Symonds, World War II at Sea (New York, 2017).