To celebrate The Duke of Edinburgh's 99th birthday, we are sharing a feature first published in Wiltshire Life November 2017. It makes you proud to be British! How often do we say or think that? It is never more true than when we see the royal family at their very best, as we did on a special day 70 years ago, and as we will again this year on 20th November 2017. This is the day HM Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, HRH Prince Philip, celebrate their platinum wedding anniversary and, perhaps, think back to the special role played by Wiltshire.
It was the talk of the town, every town, for many months after it had been announced that Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten were to be married. They had known each other for some time, meeting at social gatherings and royal events. The war had been over for nearly two years but the scars had not yet healed. Good news was welcome and this was certainly good news but what had it particularly to do with Wiltshire?
The key is Prince Philip or Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten as he was then, who was living in Wiltshire at the time he proposed and right up to a few days before the wedding. Philip had been serving as a junior officer with the British Pacific fleet during the war, but for a year before the wedding he had been stationed at HMS Royal Arthur, a training base near Corsham. Let us go back to the beginning.
After leaving school, Gordonstoun, in 1939, Philip joined the Royal Navy, graduating the next year from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth where he was named the best cadet on his course. When the Second World War broke out he went into active service, becoming a midshipman at the start of 1940.
Midshipman Mountbatten saw plenty of action, first of all on the battleship HMS Ramillies protecting conveys in the Indian Ocean, and later in the Mediterranean on HMS Valiant. He was mentioned in despatches for his work in the Battle of Cape Matalan and received the Greek war cross of valour. Later he became a sub-lieutenant and then eventually a lieutenant in July 1942, one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy. He is credited with many courageous and successful missions and returned to the Pacific until peace was declared.
Afterwards he was posted to HMS Royal Arthur, the Petty Officers Training School in Corsham, having returned to Britain on his last ship, HMS Whelp. That was in January 1946. He made himself at home in Wiltshire straight away, instantly falling in love with the county and its people.
Meanwhile, there was another love growing in his life. In 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had toured the Royal Naval College Dartmouth where they met their distant relative Philip Mountbatten, who was asked to escort both Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Although she was only 13, Elizabeth was smitten and she and Philip began to exchange letters.
The princess was delighted when Philip was posted to Corsham, for he was safe after the horrors of the war and also was not too far from London. Gradually it became more and more of a common sight to see Philip's black MG sports car driving unannounced through the gates of Buckingham Palace.
That MG sports car, with its green upholstery, was a common sight around Corsham and was serviced reguarly by a local garage, so much so that when Philip was saying farewell to HMS Royal Arthur, he insisted on visiting the garage and shaking hands with everyone as a gesture of thanks for keeping his car in good working order.
Former town and county councillor Peter Davis recalls seeing that famous car many times during his earlier years. I've lived in Corsham my whole life and I certainly remember HMS Royal Arthur being a real presence in the town. It made a big difference to us. You used to see the recruits in their uniforms and they did settle into the local community. I especially remember seeing Prince Philip driving around in his MG. He wasn't Prince then of course but he was certainly someone you could not help but notice."
At the start of the Second World War, HMS Royal Arthur had been established at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness to train new naval conscripts but at the end of hostilities Billy Butlin wanted his camp back, as had been agreed, and the operation was moved to the outskirts of Corsham in Westwells Road.
The Petty Officers' Leadership School trained up to 40 petty officers at any one time. It was led by a team of about 15 officers and an overall Commander who eventually came face to face with a very important and even historic decision.
Philip's posting in Wiltshire meant that he became very familiar with the road to and from London with his trips to Buckingham Palace growing ever-more frequent. Princess Elizabeth was always thrilled to see him and, according to her governess, began to take a lot more trouble with her appearance, as well as frequently playing People will say we're in love on the gramophone.
Philip did not take much with him went he took leave from HMS Royal Arthur. He used to stay either with his grandmother, Princess Victoria, at Kensington Palace or on a camp bed at the home of his uncle, Dickie Mountbatten. The Mountbattens’ butler, John Dean (who later became Philip’s valet), recalled that he often turned up with nothing more than a razor and the clothes he was wearing. He also recalled that Philip never wanted a fuss to be made of his arrival.
“He was very easy to look after and never asked for much but I liked him and one thing he always had somewhere with him was a small framed photograph of Princess Elizabeth.”
Back in Corsham they liked him too, especially at the Methuen Arms where Philip and his pals spent many entertaining evenings. Philip was something or a ringleader and liked to play darts and skittles.
Joe Daymond was a local baker in Corsham and also a regular at the Methuen Arms where he organised the skittles, which resulted in a friendly rivalry between his team, the Moonrakers, and Philip's team, the Firebrands. A series of matches ensued.
“We had some great evenings,” Joe later recalled. “The matches were always very friendly but competitive and the Firebrands certainly celebrated when they won the series by just one skittle. They were a good bunch of lads and we had a farewell party for Philip when he left. He actually invited my wife and myself to the Royal wedding which was certainly a great and unexpected honour. But that was the sort of chap he was.”
What of that big decision the Commander of HMS Royal Arthur had to make? It was customary for permission to be requested of the Commander for anyone wishing to marry so Philip did indeed have to seek permission both for leave to go to London and also to be able to propose to his intended.
The Commander of course agreed, Philip drove off to London and the result is that this year, 70 years later, we shall all be joining Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in celebrating their amazing wedding anniversary.
It could be said that if Philip had continued his Royal Navy career around the world it might never have happpened. However, he didn't. He was stationed in Corsham and made very welcome. It was possibly just the right place at the right time to encourage him to pop the question.
The result? The beautiful Princess married her handsome Prince and they lived happily ever after.