The passing of Prince Philip, who died at age 99 at Windsor Castle on April 9, is the loss of an iconic being.
Philip not only was a provocative world figure as the husband of Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years, but one of the last survivors of the “greatest generation,” the noble souls who fought and won World War II.
Philip’s own war record was outstanding. He was officially cited for conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941, in which the Italian Navy lost five warships and 2,300 men against British losses of zero ships and three men.
Mussolini’s maritime ambitions had been effectively scuttled, and the Italian surface fleet rarely left port thereafter. One of the most important Royal Navy bases at that time was the island bastion of Malta, which lies at the sea lanes from Europe to Africa. Axis attacks on the island began on June 11, 1940, and continued almost nonstop for three years.
So remarkable was the defiant spirit of the island that it was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian medal. Never before had this rare honor been conferred on a group rather than on an individual.
Also remarkable were the heroic efforts of Allied forces to resupply the island. Failure of these efforts would have been catastrophic.
On Aug. 9, 1942, in Operation Pedestal, a convoy of 14 freighters and 51 warships, led by the aircraft carrier HMS “Eagle,” passed the Straits of Gibraltar en route to the Maltese port of Valletta. Among these was the tanker “Ohio,” an American-built ship that had been supplied to Britain as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program.
Modern warfare is powered by the internal combustion engine, which is powered by oil. Fuel stocks on Malta now were virtually barren, and the arrival of the “Ohio” at Valletta was absolutely essential.
Attacks on the convoy began almost immediately, and eventually destroyed nine of the 14 freighters and four of the 51 warships, including the “Eagle.” An Italian submarine torpedoed the “Ohio,” slicing a 24-foot gap in its hull, and the ship had to be held up and guided by ships lashed to its port and starboard sides.
Historians are unanimous in their conclusion that had the “Ohio” sunk, Malta would have sunk with it. Likely, there would have been no Battle of El Alamein, and no Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. Mussolini would not have fallen in 1943, and German forces in Russia and at Normandy could have been greatly reinforced.
The survival of a single ship, manned by a skeleton crew, listing perilously to stern, propped up by sister ships, sailing at a snail’s pace, and likely to explode and disintegrate at any moment, may have determined the outcome of the entire war.
There were many critical events in World War II, but none more critical than this. It is this spirit that Britain, our close and worthy ally, needs today. One wishes Queen Elizabeth well in this time of personal loss and national challenge.