Price Philip dies: First Sea Lord pays tribute and highlights his role in Battle of Cape Matapan


The First Sea Lord has paid tribute to Royal Navy veteran Prince Philip, highlighting praise he received for his ‘bravery and enterprise’ during the Battle of Cape Matapan in the Second World War.

The Duke of Edinburgh was a midshipman aboard HMS Valiant off the southern coast of Greece when he earned his honourable citation.

A young naval officer, he was praised for his actions in the decisive Battle of Cape Matapan against the Italian fleet in March 1941.

Philip had been in control of the searchlights as the ship battled an Italian cruiser when he spotted an unexpected second enemy vessel nearby.

He survived unscathed amid his shattered lights as enemy cannon shell ripped into his position.

His commanding officer said: ‘Thanks to his alertness and appreciation of the situation, we were able to sink in five minutes two 8in gun Italian cruisers.’

Shortly afterwards, he was awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour.

Today, the Navy’s most senior officer, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin added to the tributes to Philip.

After leaving school, Philip joined the Royal Navy, beginning at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in May 1939, and was singled out as best cadet

He moved up through the ranks to become First Lieutenant in the destroyer HMS Wallace, at the age of 21. Pictured here in 1945

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: Philip in 1945, when he was serving on HMS Valiant

Today, the Navy's most senior officer, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin added to the tributes to Philip

Today, the Navy’s most senior officer, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin added to the tributes to Philip

The First Sea Lord's poignant tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, released in a statement today

The First Sea Lord’s poignant tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, released in a statement today

Philip’s key role in the Battle of Cape Matapan 

The Battle of Cape Matapan was a naval conflict which took place between British Empire and Axis forces on the south-western coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece in March 1941.  

The Fleet’s brilliant commander, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, boldly decided to engage the Italian fleet at night, a tactic with which he knew the Italians were unfamiliar. 

Philip’s role was to operate Valiant’s midship searchlight which, as he recorded later, ‘picked out the enemy cruiser and lit her up as if it were broad daylight’.

Before long, one target was blazing, and he trained the light on a second, focusing on its bridge at such close quarters ‘that the light did not illuminate the whole ship’.

Broadsides were fired and, ‘when the enemy had completely vanished in clouds of smoke and steam, we ceased firing and switched the light off’.

In the fierce engagement in the dark, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk and its one battleship severely damaged. 

The Italian Navy’s morale never fully recovered from this substantial defeat in the war. 

Admiral Cunningham, in mentioning Philip in despatches, praised his skill with the searchlight. 

Valiant’s captain had reported that ‘the successful and continuous illumination of the enemy greatly contributed to the devastating results achieved in the gun action’, and ‘thanks to his (Philip’s) alertness and appreciation of the situation, we were able to sink in five minutes two 8in-gun Italian cruisers’.

Philip is said to have later ‘just shrugged’ when congratulated by his mother, Alice, and told her: ‘It was as near murder as anything could be in wartime. The cruisers just burst into tremendous sheets of flame.’

The morning after the battle Philip counted 40 rafts containing survivors and noted ‘there must have been a good many empty ones as well’.

In a statement released on Saturday morning, he said: ‘His Royal Highness served the Royal Navy with distinction during wartime, mentioned in dispatches for ‘bravery and enterprise’ during the Battle of Cape Matapan. 

‘He met the then Princess Elizabeth for the first time during his training at Britannia Royal Naval College, and since her accession to the throne remained and enduring friend and supporter of the Royal Navy with a deep understanding of our ethos and values.

‘Serving as Lord High Admiral of the Fleet and Captain General Royal Marines he involved himself in every aspect of the Royal Navy, through official visits, patronage and association with naval charities and clubs. 

‘His humour and generosity of spirit generated great affection amongst the countless sailors and marines he met each year.

‘His genuine empathy, affinity and engagement with the Royal Navy resonated with us all. He will be deeply missed.’ 

The battle in the Mediterranean, south-west of Greece, took part in March 1941, when Philip was just 20 years old. 

The Fleet’s brilliant commander, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, boldly decided to engage the Italian fleet at night, a tactic with which he knew the Italians were unfamiliar. 

Philip’s role was to operate Valiant’s midship searchlight which, as he recorded later, ‘picked out the enemy cruiser and lit her up as if it were broad daylight’.

Before long, one target was blazing, and he trained the light on a second, focusing on its bridge at such close quarters ‘that the light did not illuminate the whole ship’.

Broadsides were fired and, ‘when the enemy had completely vanished in clouds of smoke and steam, we ceased firing and switched the light off’.

In the fierce engagement in the dark, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk and its one battleship severely damaged. 

The Italian Navy’s morale never fully recovered from this substantial defeat in the war. 

Admiral Cunningham, in mentioning Philip in despatches, praised his skill with the searchlight. 

Valiant’s captain had reported that ‘the successful and continuous illumination of the enemy greatly contributed to the devastating results achieved in the gun action’, and ‘thanks to his (Philip’s) alertness and appreciation of the situation, we were able to sink in five minutes two 8in-gun Italian cruisers’.

Philip is said to have later ‘just shrugged’ when congratulated by his mother, Alice, and told her: ‘It was as near murder as anything could be in wartime. The cruisers just burst into tremendous sheets of flame.’

The morning after the battle Philip counted 40 rafts containing survivors and noted ‘there must have been a good many empty ones as well’.

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

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 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

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

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

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 duke later spoke of how he coped when his shipmates died or were wounded.

‘It was part of the fortunes of war,’ he said. ‘We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun, you know asking ‘Are you all right – are you sure you don’t have a ghastly problem?’ You just got on with it.’

At the age of 21, Philip was one of the youngest officers in the Royal Navy to be made First Lieutenant and second-in-command of a ship – the destroyer escort HMS Wallace of the Rosyth Escort Force.

In July 1943, Wallace was dispatched to the Mediterranean and provided cover for the Canadian beachhead of the Allied landings in Sicily.

Philip also served as First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Whelp in the Pacific, where he helped to rescue two airmen in 1945.

The men’s Avenger bomber crashed into the ocean during the Allies’ Operation Meridian II against the Japanese.

The duke, who was 23 at the time, sent the battleship to the spot where the plane had gone down.

The bomber had flooded and rough seas were preventing the men from getting into their dinghy.

Philip, who first spoke publicly about the incident in 2006 for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, remarked in a typically matter-of-fact manner: ‘It was routine. If you found somebody in the sea, you go and pick them up. End of story, so to speak.’

He alerted the sick bay, arranged for hot food to be waiting for them and found new uniforms for the airmen.

The men had no idea who their rescuer actually was until they were told he kept a picture of Princess Elizabeth in his cabin.

The royal wedding took place just two years later.  

Meanwhile, a former naval chief revealed today how Philip once suggested raids on smuggling ships in the Caribbean would only raise the prices of drugs in London.

Sir Mark Stanhope, who was First Sea Lord from 2009 to 2013, remembered the duke as an ‘extremely talented sailor’ who could have risen to the top of the Navy.

Instead, Sir Mark said the duke was ‘never shy’ in telling first sea lords where he thought they were failing.

‘I remember one particular conversation I had where I raised the success at the time of Royal Navy warships interdicting drugs smugglers in the Caribbean where the drugs captured were ultimately destined for the streets of London,’ Sir Mark told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘His instant response to me then was really quite challenging. He countered the then policy of such interdiction saying it simply raised the price of drugs on the streets of London and had no long lasting effect. He had a point indeed.

‘He remained pretty unconvinced I think from my arguments and with his usual wry smile said we better move on to better things. I was delighted to seek calmer seas. To this day I’m not sure whether he was winding me up or not.’  

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