Patrick Boniface on the deaths in combat of regal warriors.
Prince George, Duke of Kent
The door clicked shut behind him. HRH The Duke of Kent had left the warmth and comfort of his family home in Buckinghamshire. From within, his wife Princess Marina of Greece and his three young children, Edward, Alexandra, and Michael, all watched as he walked away to his waiting staff car.
It was the autumn of 1942, and this was a scene being played out at airbases and homes across the country. But the Duke was a member of the royal family – and this was the last time his family would see him alive.
The 39-year-old Prince George had, in his short life, earned a notorious reputation as a cad, a chancer, and a playboy – and his death remains to this day shrouded in controversy due to the destruction of all official documents about the incident.
The Duke had a reputation for being seriously troubled. He had had relationships with both men and women, and was known to have experimented with drugs in his early years.
His liaisons were rumoured to include art expert and spy Anthony Blunt; playwright Noël Coward; Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia; African American cabaret star Florence Mills; musical performer Jessie Matthews; and socialite Margaret Whigham.
Such were the circumstances surrounding the Duke’s death that many believe a conspiracy existed to assassinate him. On paper, his mission was a simple one: as an Air Commodore in the Welfare Section of the RAF Inspector General’s Staff, he was to fly to Iceland on a tour of RAF units stationed on the icy island and offer moral support to the troops. Additionally, the trip would provide excellent public relations material for a press desperate for good news stories.
The staff car drove the Duke to Euston railway station in London, where he boarded a steam train to Inverness. It was planned that he would then travel to Cromarty Firth at Scotland’s northern tip, to board the Sunderland Mk III flying boat W4026 of 228 Squadron, which would fly him to Iceland.
The Short Sunderland Mk V – a variant of the Mk III, the type of plane the Duke of Kent was flying in during his ill-fated journey.
The Shorts Sunderland was a sturdy and generally reliable aircraft that had been proven in war. The type was rugged, and could take a lot of punishment from the elements and the enemy alike.
Armed with eight machine-guns, the Sunderland’s reputation even extended to Nazi Germany, where it earned itself the nickname Fliegende Stachelschwein, or ‘Flying Porcupine’. For the royal passenger, there were precious few creature comforts on offer, with only a small mess room and bunks on the lower deck.
But the Sunderland had one major flaw in its design: it was severely underpowered for its size. The four Bristol Pegasus XVIII engines could get the stocky aircraft up to a top speed of 120 knots. This was considered adequate for an aircraft that would spend most of its time operating over water. Overland missions, however, saw the aircraft flying at the extreme of its operating window.
For this reason, the route chosen for the Duke’s ill-fated flight avoided the forbidding heights of the Northwest Highlands. It saw the Sunderland take a course well offshore until abeam of the village of John O’Groats, and then north-west for the remaining 650 miles to Iceland.
As the Duke relaxed in his first-class accommodation on the steam train heading north from London, aircraft mechanics worked on the Sunderland at Oban, where the aircraft was based, 300 miles from Cromarty Firth. After pre-flight checks had been completed, Australian pilot Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen and his crew were told there would be no deviation from the pre-planned track.
For the flight, Goyen was joined by commanding officer Wing Commander T L Moseley. The briefing also highlighted some abysmal weather conditions, with unseasonal low cloud, rain, and mist on high ground.
This should not have been a problem, because the Sunderland was routed well over the sea. The Met Office did, however, indicate a steady improvement as the aircraft neared the Faroes.
On 25 August 1942, Goyen, Moseley, and the other air crew departed Oban on schedule and, when Prince George arrived at the Cromarty Firth base at Invergordon, they were waiting for him. Once the Duke was safely on board, the Sunderland got under way immediately, with the aircraft having been heavily loaded with 2,550 gallons of fuel.
The royal party comprised the Duke’s private secretary John Lowther, his equerry Michael Strutt, and his valet John Hales. In addition to her cargo of the Duke, the Sunderland still had her usual load of anti-submarine depth charges on board, should a German U-boat be discovered en route.
The aircraft took more than a mile to take to the air from the narrow waters at Cromarty Firth. Within minutes, it was flying over Tarbetness and the Dornoch Firth, as she slowly climbed to an altitude of 1,200 feet.
The weather prevented Goyen from keeping an eye on the surface, however, and for some inexplicable reason he drifted off the planned course and came closer inshore than had been authorised.
Soon the aircraft was not merely hugging the coastline, but flying over land – strictly against standing orders – leading to unconfirmed speculation that the Prince had taken the controls to fly over his cousin’s lodge at Langwell Estate, Berridale.
In good visibility flying in the Highlands is a challenge, but with the poor visibility of 25 August 1942, flying conditions were extremely dangerous. The relatively low land around Cromarty Firth quite quickly transformed into the purple, heather-covered granite of Scotland’s highest mountains.
One of the highest peaks in the region is Eagle’s Rock, just to the north of the village of Berridale. This isolated community of sheep farmers had rarely seen an aircraft, much less one as large as a Sunderland flying boat.
Two men, farmer David Morrison and his son Hugh, were near Eagle’s Rock when they heard the unmistakeable noise of aero engines, followed by the screech of metal cracking sharply against the solid granite of the mountainside. The Sunderland smacked the mountain head on and, with all the extra fuel on board, exploded.
The flight to Iceland should have taken seven hours; instead, after just 32 minutes, it had ended in disaster and the death of HRH the Duke of Kent.
Miraculously, the rear gunner, Andrew Jack, was thrown clear of the impact and survived the crash. He was, however, in a state of shock and badly burned. After hours of aimlessly wandering, he was discovered by a hastily assembled rescue party.
The party found the wreck at midday on 26 August, and the body of the Duke, lying relatively unmarked, some distance from the rest of the men – all of whom had been killed. A week later, the Duke was laid to rest with full military honours in Windsor’s royal vaults.
George with his wife, Princess Marina of Greece.
Still there was the mystery of why the Sunderland crashed at all. Andrew Jack’s evidence at the inquiry was crucial in piecing together the sequence of events. The inquiry established that Goyen saw the peak of Eagle’s Rock and managed to fly over it, but at the cost of air speed.
Trying to gain more air speed, Goyen then put the aircraft into a dive – only to strike a ledge 100 feet below the peak. The impact inverted the aircraft, sending it to its fate in the rain-soaked heather below.
Frank Goyen was found solely responsible for the crash due to his refusal to stick to the correct course over water. Controversy continued to spread, however, when it was suggested that the Prince had a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist full of 100-krona notes that were useless in Iceland – leading to speculation that the Sunderland was, instead, on a secret mission to neutral Sweden.
As all documentation of the crash and subsequent inquiry has been lost, this is one mystery that may never be resolved.
This article is an extract from the September 2018 issue of Military History Monthly.
Click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.