During my interview with him about the Battle of Matapan, renowned author and professor Craig L. Symonds suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Richard Porter to get a better sense of what the Duke of Edinburgh accomplished during this fateful day on the sea. Dr. Porter is Curator of The Britannia Museum at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.
Being fascinated with Prince Philip in general and his role during World War II in particular, I was extremely happy to get in touch with Dr. Porter, who kindly replied to me despite a demanding schedule. Even though the Duke of Edinburgh is no longer front and center in the news media, I’m sure all the enthusiasts of military history will appreciate this text.
Without further introduction, here is the full content of his response.
A Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life.
Prince Philip was appointed to the WW1 Battleship HMS Valiant in January 1940. He was one of 20 Midshipmen out of a crew of 1200. As he put it, a Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life. He also makes the point that with a crew of 1200 information was not easily relayed to all crew members, even so even the Midshipmen were aware that the Italian Fleet was thought to be at sea. Prince Philip thought that there was definitely a ‘special atmosphere of anticipation as the Fleet put to sea from Alexandria during the night of 27 March’. The Prince’s Action Station was on the Bridge and at night he had control of the port searchlight. From that position he managed to gather roughly what was going on.
The Prince’s recollection is that HMS Valiant was the only capital ship fitted with RADAR, which was then known as RDF and was therefore stationed immediately astern of HMS Warspite. The Prince thought that there was little chance of catching up with the retreating Italians that had been engaged in earlier skirmishes with other parts of the RN Fleet. Then suddenly in the quiet of the night came a report from the RDF operator that he had an echo on the port bow at about 5,000 yards of what appeared to be a stationary ship. Prince Philip turned on his searchlight onto the bearing given by the RDF operator in the hope of seeing the target.
At this moment HMS Greyhound turned on her searchlight and picked up what the Prince thought was an Italian destroyer but the light was enough for Prince Philip to make out a ship on the horizon. He reported that he had a target in sight and was ordered to ‘open shutter’. The beam lit up a stationary cruiser which by
that time was so close that the beam only lit up half the ship.
According to the Prince at this point ‘all hell broke loose’ as all of our eight 15” guns plus those of the Flagship Barham started firing at the stationary cruiser which disappeared in an explosion and cloud of smoke. The Prince was then ordered to ‘train left’ as he lit up another Italian cruiser which was given the same treatment. By this time the night was falloff smoke, loud bangs and flashes and the dark shapes of our destroyers appeared and disappeared.
The Prince records ‘that bit of the Mediterranean then became a very dangerous place. There must have been some twenty British and Italian warships dashing about in every direction at high speed. It was at this point that C-in-C ordered all ships not engaged in sinking the enemy to withdraw to the port east.
Bangs and flashes went on for a bit before things calmed down.
The next morning the battle fleet went returned to the scene while attempts were made to pick up survivors. This was interrupted by an attack of German bombers Fortunately, they missed although a Royal Marine sentry on the quarterdeck was killed by a splinter. Two bombs going off together did cause some very slight damage to Valiant.
For staying by his station throughout the battle Prince Philip was ‘mentioned in despatches’.
This account is taken from the Foreword by Prince Philip form the Britannia Naval Histories of WWII Dark Seas: The Battle of Cape Matapan of which I am one of the series editors. We asked Prince Philip for a foreword where we thought he might commend the series to readers, but he gave us his personal recollections of the battle, which was like ‘gold dust’ for us.