Representative of the wartime generation, the Duke kept buggering on
Late in the evening of 28 March 1941, about a hundred miles off the southern tip of the Greek mainland, a small flotilla of Royal Navy battleships surprised part of the Italian Mediterranean fleet, and inflicted severe damage on it. The encounter formed part of the Battle of Cape Matapan. Among the officers decorated for their role in the action was a young sub-lieutenant from HMS Valiant, Philip Mountbatten, later Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose death has been announced today.
Philip was on active service for almost the entire Second World War, in several theatres, and as many tributes have pointed out, could have risen very high in the post-war Royal Navy, had he not been obliged to withdraw from normal service when his wife became Queen Elizabeth II. It can’t have been easy, for a vigorous and assertive young man, recently appointed to his first command, to take a more quietly supportive and limited role as consort. And yet he did, stepping away from his own career to support his wife.
He never publicly complained about having to take a back row seat in this way. In his generation, for good or ill, such grumbling would be considered self-indulgent and undignified. And I suppose when you have spent long months on North Sea convoys, with constant danger from mines and submarines, or dodging Japanese and Italian dive bombers, very few other duties will seem unbearably onerous. As the Australian cricketer and Second World War pilot Keith Miller once observed, when asked about whether he felt pressure when batting: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not”.
The loss of Prince Philip is the loss of one of our last links to a generation where such attitudes were widespread. With the fading from the scene of the wartime generation, we are losing something valuable. I wouldn’t call it stoicism, exactly, but rather the sense that there is great value in just getting on with things and not dwelling on your own troubles or problems, and not inflicting them on other people. Winston Churchill, no stranger to genuine mental health struggles, used the acronym KBO, or Keep Buggering On.
Strikingly, what this doesn’t seem to have meant in Philip’s case is personal insensitivity or harshness. Stories abound of his good treatment of staff and servants, always an important test of a man’s character. Lynwood Restray, an African-American butler at the White House, tells the anecdote of how the Duke of Edinburgh made time for a quiet drink with him during an official reception. It’s well known that, having been one himself, he was kind and supportive to “outsiders” marrying into the royal family, such as Diana or more recently Catherine Middleton and Meghan Markle.
With her husband gone, the Queen now stands almost alone as a standard-bearer for the old Britain, of duty above all, of service and tradition, and quiet humour and determination. There are some in her family who still embody those virtues — Charles and Anne, and in the younger generation the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — but the departure of Philip feels nevertheless like a momentous event, symbolising the end of a particular chapter in British history, and a change in the British character.