Prince Philip: 'An exceptional officer'

Lord Admiral Sir Alan West shares his knowledge of Prince Philip's brief career serving as an officer in the Royal Navy.

Video Transcript

- Joining me now to discuss Prince Philip and his contribution to the Navy is former head of the Royal Navy, Lord Alan West. Good morning to you.

ALAN WEST: Good morning.

- You describe him as very much a Naval man. This was his love, after the queen.

ALAN WEST: Absolutely. He was an exceptional officer. And he loved the sea, and like all seamen officers, what he wanted to do was to command ships. And of course because his career was truncated, he only actually commanded one. He commanded the ship HMS Magpie. And he was-- he helped design the royal yacht Britannia, which was so successful as a ship and so popular with Her Majesty the Queen.

And in his cabin on board there, if you went in, you found on the desk was the model of the Magpie which was to remind him of that one in command. And there's no doubt I talked to him on a number of occasions that, although he didn't make a big deal of it, you know, he did feel sad in a way that he had to give up that part of his career. But he did it because he had a sense of duty, which is-- is taught to you anyway at Dartmouth and in the Navy. That's loyalty upwards and downwards.

And he felt this sense of duty and of course, also, let's not forget, he was in love with Her Majesty the Queen. And so he gave up his Naval career and willingly did that because, you know, he felt these other things were so important. And it shows it's a measure of the man. But yes, clearly there was a little piece of him that felt, gosh, wouldn't it be nice if I stayed in the Navy? And he was on a-- he was on a sort of golden track, without a doubt. He would have certainly gone on into the very top echelons of the Navy if he'd stayed.

- And he would tell the most wonderful stories of his adventures and his times in the Navy. Can you share any of those with us?

ALAN WEST: Absolutely. I mean, he had exciting times as I suppose you could say anyone in the Navy has, but he was an officer during the Second World War. He was at Dartmouth when he first met the queen, he was only aged 17 or 18 I think. And she fell in love with him without a doubt then. And they corresponded through the war. He was a very brave officer, he was-- in a way he was quite pleased when Greece came into the war, because before that he wasn't allowed to fight on our own ships.

So they came into the war in 1940, and he then served in the Mediterranean fleet. He got a mention in dispatches, operating searchlights on HMS Valiant in the Battle of Cape Mattapan. He did all sorts of other exciting things. He saved the ship, he was a first Lieutenant off from attack by a German aircraft with glider bombers by launching a raft and having an alternate target. And he marched on, he was a very successful first Lieutenant and took the ship out to the far East. But he had he had lovely stories.

For example, in Tokyo Bay when the ship was anchored there with the American fleet as well for the Japanese surrender, he was first Lieutenant of the ship. He said he was called down to the quarter deck, because two emaciated and ragged figures had swum out to the ship and climbed the ladder onto the quarter deck. And he discovered they were two Royal Marines who'd been captured by the Japanese who were in prisoner of war camps in Japan. And he talked about looking after them, he was quite emotional about in a way.

And he then said-- and it's extraordinary-- he said I was talking at an event in the north of England in the late 1950s. And he said how this had happened, and from the back came, hey oh, that was us. And there were the two Royal Marines who were in the audience at the back of the hall. And he was quite emotional about that, because although his generation were told not to show emotion, they all called each other by surnames, didn't mean they didn't feel it.

And I was very aware that he felt strongly. One of his most favorite songs was Tom Bowling, it's that sad song about a sailor dying and going aloft. It's a lovely tune. And that he really looked pensive when that was played, he really felt it because of so many friends he'd lost in the war. So as I said, an exceptional officer and an exceptional man.

- Yes, he displayed a lot of skill in that area. Was he able to transfer those skills that he learned in the Navy to his life within the royal family?

ALAN WEST: Oh he absolutely was. And I think the other thing is, of course, he was-- he was very blunt. He called a spade a shovel. And like all sides of the Navy actually, I was getting into trouble for it. But you need to do that. If you're commanding or in a position of responsibility in a ship in war as he was, for example, on the convoys on the east coast with attacks by e-boats, submarines, there were mines around, terrible weather, risk of collision.

You've got to be able to be short, quick, and know what you're doing. And it might sound abrupt, but that's the way you have to behave, upwards and downwards. And he didn't care for flim-flammery. I tried to get for him a baton. I don't know if you know the field marshals have a baton. You carry it. It's a beautiful piece of equipment made of gold and with velvet. And there is one for the admirals of the fleet, which we haven't really issued for-- well, the last one that was issued was issued to the last Duke of Edinburgh in the middle of the 19th century.

And I thought for the bicentennial of Trafalgar, it would be nice to give the one they'd started constructing for Mountbatten-- because he was killed in an IRA attack-- to give that to him. And lots of people willing to pay for it. [INAUDIBLE] had almost made it. And I said to Her Majesty when I was having an audience with him, I was thinking of doing this. And she said, well I think we'd better ask Philip. So she did that. And back came the message that he didn't want it.

He said oh God no. He said this is going to be awful. You know, I've got to carry a sword, a wreath for the Armistice Day. I don't carry a bloody baton as well. And it was typical of him. He didn't fuss about these sorts of things, you know. He was down to earth. And as I've said, a very great man.

- Yeah, a straight talker. Lord Alan West, thank you very much for sharing your memories of the Duke with us.

ALAN WEST: Not at all.