HMS Valiant, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Barham steam in line astern. Prince Philip, then a 19-year-old midshipman on the Valiant, was manning the searchlights at the Battle of Matapan. Credit: MOD.

“Prince Philip saved our lives that night,” said Harry Hargreaves. “I suppose there might have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk.

“He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly. You would say to yourself ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ and Philip would come up with something.”

Hargreaves, a former Royal Navy sailor who served with Prince Philip aboard the destroyer HMS Wallace, was recounting the events of a fierce 1943 sea battle with the Luftwaffe during the allied invasion of Sicily, The Guardian reported in 2003.

Prince Philip, who died on Friday at the age of 99, was a decorated World War II veteran who fought in a number of naval battles.

Serving as a first lieutenant and second-in-command aboard the Wallace, Philip is credited with saving the ship from sure destruction from a menacing Luftwaffe bomber.

“It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit,” Hargreaves said.

“It was for all the world like being blindfolded and trying to evade an enemy whose only problem was getting his aim right. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that a direct hit was inevitable.

“There was no question but to accept that on the next run or the one after that we had little chance of survival. I had been through so much that the feeling of anger and frustration was as great as the fear I and everyone else felt.”

He said that in that terrifying moment, he saw Philip in a hurried conversation with the ship’s captain, presumably trying to come up with a plan of action before the bomber came back around.

Prince Philip, who died Friday at age 99, was a decorated World War II veteran who fought in a number of naval battles. Credit: MOD.

“The next thing a wooden raft was being put together on deck,” the former yeoman said.

“Within five minutes they launched the raft over the side, at each end was fastened a smoke float.”

Once the raft was in the water, smoke began to billow up, as it might from a wounded warship.

The captain relocated the Wallace and then ordered engines stopped, sitting quietly in the darkness, bracing for the next deadly attack.

“The sound of the aircraft grew louder until I thought it was directly overhead and I screwed up my shoulders in anticipation of the bombs,” Hargreaves said.

“The next thing was the scream of the bombs, but at some distance. The ruse had worked and the aircraft was bombing the raft. I suppose he was under the impression that he had hit us in his last attack and was now finishing the job.”

Hargreaves, who published a full account in a book, It Wasn’t All Mayhem, maintained contact with Philip and last met him during a royal visit to Canada.

He added: “He always had a great sense of humour and it’s got him into trouble over the years. We understood how to take it and in those days there were no reporters around!”

Prince Philip poses with his former crewmates on the HMS Whelp after the war. Credit: MOD.

Philip joined the Navy as a cadet after leaving Gordonstoun School in 1939.

In January 1941 he joined the battleship HMS Valiant in Alexandria and was in charge of its searchlight control during the night action at Cape Matapan, just off Greece on March 28, 1941, sinking several enemy vessels.

Three British Royal Navy battleships closed with Italian warships in the dark, catching the enemy force off guard. It was the kind of close-quarters gun battle that ship radar advancements would make rare.

Philip, who was then a 19-year-old midshipman on the HMS Valiant, was manning the searchlights for finding enemies that night.

“I seem to remember that I reported that I had a target in sight, and was ordered to ‘open shutter.’ The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship,” Philip recalled in the forward of the 2012 history book Dark Seas: The Battle of Cape Matapan.

Philip said that “at this point all hell broke loose as all our eight 15-inch guns started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.

“As far as I am concerned, there has never been an ‘if only’ except, perhaps, that I regret not having been able to continue a career in the navy,” Prince Phillip once said, while being candid about the loss of his naval calling to marry the young Princess Elizabeth. Credit: MOD.

“I was then ordered to ‘train left’ and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment,” he said.

During the nighttime fight, British warships sank three cruisers and two destroyers, some in a matter of minutes. One account from the battle said that “thousands of bodies were strung over fifteen miles of sea off Cape Matapan.”

For his actions during the battle, Philip was awarded the Greek War Cross, a military decoration for heroism.

After serving aboard the Wallace, he was appointed first lieutenant of HMS Whelp, supporting air raids on Japanese shore installations.

He was involved in the rescue of British air crew shot down by Japanese fighters and was in Tokyo Bay to witness the surrender of the Japanese forces.

After the end of World War II, Philip became admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, colonel-in-chief of the Army Cadet Force, and air commodore-in-chief of the Air Training Corps. The following year, he was promoted to admiral of the fleet, field marshal, and marshal of the Royal Air Force.

It was the intervention of his uncle Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, then captain of HMS Kelly, that persuaded him to follow his family’s long naval tradition.

And although the role of a fighter pilot was a more natural fit for his temperament, Prince Philip told the BBC in 2002, his chances of surviving the War would have been greatly reduced.

He took the usual path of an aspiring naval officer, entering Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, as a cadet and being commissioned as a midshipman, in January 1940.

It was there he would meet his future wife of more than seven decades, Queen Elizabeth II, as a young cadet.

Sources: The Guardian, The Observer,, BBC News,