Was the death of the Queen’s favourite uncle in a 1942 plane crash covered up by the Palace because he’d smuggled his lover aboard? Prince George, Duke of Kent, was one of 15 accounted for – so who was the ’16th’ passenger, asks CHRISTOPHER WILSON
- The Queen’s uncle died in 1942 when his RAF flying boat crashed in Scotland
- Prince George’s death became the highest-profile fatality of Second World War
- No royal prince had given his life in defence of his country for 500 years
A sunny afternoon at the private chapel of Windsor Castle and a christening celebration for the child who grew up to be Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s 79-year-old cousin.
As the family party broke up that day in 1942, the newborn’s father kissed goodbye to his niece, the young Princess Elizabeth, and promised to visit her at Balmoral in the coming weeks but first he must go abroad on duty.
However, she never saw Prince George, Duke of Kent again.
Within days the future Queen’s favourite uncle was dead, killed when his RAF flying boat crashed into a Scottish mountainside, its 2,400 gallons of fuel erupting in a horrifying fireball. All on board, except one, perished instantly.
The death of the Prince became the highest-profile fatality of the Second World War – no royal prince had given his life in defence of his country for 500 years.
But after three years of conflict, the Royal Family joined with tens of thousands of families in mourning the loss of a loved one – bringing rulers and ruled that much closer.
Georgie Kent was a wildly popular figure – glamorous, debonair, sexy. At the time of the Abdication, six years earlier, it was thought in court circles that he might succeed the throne in preference to his elder brother Bertie.
In 1942 the Queen’s favourite uncle was killed when his RAF flying boat crashed into a Scottish mountainside with its 2,400 gallons of fuel erupting in a horrifying fireball. See box below for royal party
Georgie’s elegant wife Marina, granddaughter of the king of Greece, had borne him two sons and a daughter and many favoured a male line of succession which Bertie could not provide.
Decorated with the Order of the Garter, and a rear admiral in the Royal Navy, Georgie was a vital asset to an embattled Royal Family still struggling to wipe the slate clean after his eldest brother Edward VIII’s shabby escape to foreign parts with his American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Georgie’s death at the age of 39 was a colossal shock to the nation. Yet, after a hastily arranged funeral held just four days later, no public memorial was erected in memory of him – no statue, no official biography, no charity bearing his name.
He was airbrushed from history.
But now I can reveal that the Establishment’s connivance at a cover-up may well have been because the Prince had secretly –and illegally – smuggled a woman lover on board the fatal flight.
The known facts about that journey are scant. Namely, that the Short Sunderland flying boat W4026 took off from Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth on the east coast of Scotland, at 1.10pm on August 25, 1942, on its way to Iceland – ‘the frozen north’, Georgie called it – where he was due to inspect bases.
Thirty minutes later, a huge explosion was heard in the village of Dunbeath, 60 miles from Invergordon. In a thick cloud of sea mist, the aircraft had ploughed into a craggy hill called Eagle’s Rock.
A court of inquiry was set up, held in private, and a brief résumé of its findings read out in the House of Commons.
Families of the 14 dead were not allowed to attend the court and in some cases had difficulty gaining access to any information about the loss of their loved ones. Later it emerged that all documentation relating to the court of inquiry had mysteriously gone missing.
The National Archives, the RAF Historical Branch, the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Archives at Windsor all deny having possession of the key records relating to the death of George V’s son and his fellow aviators.
Significantly, the flight briefing which the pilot, Australian Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen, was instructed to follow by superior officers has also disappeared.
Who’s who at the royal party
This is a very surprising vacuum of information – after all, the Duke of Kent’s death was the most talked-about British fatality of the Second World War – and, inevitably, has spawned countless conspiracy theories over the years.
Was the Duke at the controls when the plane crashed? Was he drunk? Was the flying boat shot down by a stray German fighter – or worse, by one of our own, mistaking it in the mist for a Luftwaffe bomber?
Was he eliminated by British intelligence because of his perceived sympathies towards Nazi Germany? Or was he on a secret mission to Sweden to try to broker peace with the Nazi high command?
Whatever the truth, the fortunes of war were decidedly against Britain in the summer of 1942 and successive military losses and victories quickly dominated the news again. Prince George was forgotten – the circumstances of his death left undisturbed.
But some years ago, while conducting research into the crash, I was contacted by Leading Aircraftsman Arthur Baker, service number 1505244, who told me he’d been part of the RAF search-and-rescue team sent to retrieve the bodies on Eagle’s Rock that hot August afternoon.
I met him in Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, where he proudly laid out his medals and photographs of himself as part of the RAF Regiment’s 2847 Squadron B Flight, based at Skitten near the crash site. He reeled off the names of his comrades and his Flying Officer leaders before telling me what he witnessed. ‘I’d just returned from leave,’ he recalled. ‘We were put in lorries and taken up to the crash site. We were told, “Find the bodies, bring them here.”
‘The site was a terrible mess – the aircraft had totally disintegrated, smashed to bloody bits. There was one body thrown well away. He didn’t seem very damaged but his eyes were hanging on his cheeks. In his left hand he still had a fan of playing cards – Lexicon, I think – and he was lying on his back.
‘He’d been thrown a good 50 yards from the rest of the crash, landing on thick heather. It was the Duke of Kent, instantly recognisable in his flying suit.
‘We got him back to where the main crash was, carrying him on a piece of metal from the wreckage. Then we continued with the search. There was a strong smell of scent in the air and suddenly I saw ladies’ clothes lying about – and a jewel case. Then I saw this body, badly damaged with one leg nearly severed. I thought, that’s not a man, and, to make certain, I opened up the front of her clothes and there were a woman’s breasts. I shouted to my sergeant “Woman!” and he told me to cover her up quick and get her away, which we did.
‘Then the sergeant ordered, “What you’ve seen here, you speak about to nobody.” ’
During the war, it was forbidden for women to fly on operational missions. It would be unlikely – given their precious and important Royal cargo – that any crew member would have smuggled a girlfriend aboard the plane. Therefore, if there was a woman aboard, she had to be there at the invitation of the Duke. Given his well-documented track record of serial infidelity, that would come as no great surprise.
On the evening of the tragedy, the King’s punctilious private secretary, Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, noted the loss of the Duke of Kent in his diary, adding, “There were 16 people in the aeroplane.” Yet only 15 have been officially accounted for – the Duke plus 13 RAF dead, and the one survivor, rear-gunner Flight Sergeant Andy Jack.
Who was the 16th?
In 2003, Andy Jack’s niece, Margaret Harris, broke the eerie silence over the Duke’s death. She recalled that her uncle, badly burned, was taken to hospital where the first person to visit him was a senior officer who ordered him to sign the Official Secrets Act. Later, Jack was promoted to officer status. After that, until his death in 1978, he never spoke of the circumstances surrounding the crash, but his niece revealed that he had told her father – Jack’s brother – he could no longer keep the secret from the family.
‘A mysterious extra person was on the plane,’ she said, without specifying the extra passenger’s gender. If it was a woman, who could it have been and why did nobody declare her missing?
As I pursued my researches, I spoke to the now-dead Earl of Dudley, whose family had been close to the Royals for two generations and in whose home Prince George and his wife Princess Marina spent part of their honeymoon.
He spoke freely of Prince George’s love of women and, in particular of one ‘inamorata’, the American jazz pianist Edythe d’Erlanger.
Lord Dudley described one occasion, in late 1941, when the Prince ‘leant over the piano and whispered in her ear’ as she played at her London flat. ‘She had eyes only for the Prince,’ he said.
But it wasn’t Edythe d’Erlanger in the plane. She survived the war and died in 1971.
Who, then, could it have been – and why was the woman’s death never reported? Why did her family not come forward?
The only conclusion to be drawn – if Arthur Baker’s testimony about finding a woman’s body among the wreckage is to be believed – is that the same figure who silenced Andy Jack visited the dead woman’s family and put to them the undeniable fact that she had broken the law, compromised a military operation and, by accepting a lift in the flying boat, had brought shame upon their family and, incidentally, the Royal Family, too.
Georgie’s elegant wife Marina (pictured together), granddaughter of the king of Greece, had borne him two sons and a daughter and many favoured a male line of succession which Bertie could not provide
That, in a high-born aristocratic family – and Georgie didn’t bed any other kind – might just be enough to silence them.
A number of unanswered questions hang in the air to this day. The crash occurred at about 1.40pm, yet the Duke’s brother, King George VI, holidaying not far away at Balmoral, was not informed until around 8.30pm, when a courtier interrupted a family dinner to break the news.
Why was the tragedy kept from him? Was it because senior officers needed time to decide what to do with the ‘extra person’?
Three weeks later, the King visited Eagle’s Rock to inspect the hillside. All evidence of the accident had been removed, with heather replanted and turf relaid to expunge the horrors of that day.
It is the only example I could find during the whole of the Second World War where such remedial action occurred after an aircraft crash. Why was it done?
I have spoken with the families of two others killed in the crash.
Arielle Eweson was married to Michael Strutt, the Prince’s equerry at the time and another of the fatalities.
She said: ‘Somebody rang me up and told me point-blank my husband was dead. And that was it – I never learned any more.
‘I was never told about the findings of the inquiry. No effort was made, no explanation offered as to what happened.’
After the war, Allan Goyen, brother of the pilot, Frank Goyen, made it his first duty to travel to England from his home in Australia to talk to the sole crash survivor, Andy Jack. But Jack dodged his questions and stuck to a number of part-recollections.
Why was he so evasive?
The cover-up was complete. And repeated requests to government and military departments by researchers, biographers and journalists since 1945 have failed to establish why such a determined news blackout was put in place, apparently to protect the reputation of the most famous casualty of the Second World War.
Having written about royalty for much of my professional life, I considered writing a book about what I knew, but the story is so fantastic that a mere biography could not do it justice.
So, adding my own belief of what actually happened, I’ve turned it into a novel, Burying The Crown, written under my fiction name TP Fielden.
Today, who knows the truth about the death of the Duke?
Georgie Kent had three children – Prince Michael of Kent, the present Duke of Kent, 85, and Princess Alexandra, 84. If they know, they’re not saying.
And the Queen? When she thinks back to that summer day at Windsor when, as a 16-year old, she said goodbye to her uncle for the last time, does she ever wonder what really happened?
Or does she know?
- Burying The Crown, by T P Fielden, is published on July 22 by Thomas & Mercer, priced £8.99
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