Through history, the British Royal Family has lost any number of men to active combat, but it’s a number that has dwindled considerably in more recent centuries. The last king to die in battle was Richard III in 1485; the last king to actively participate in one was George II in 1743. Since then, the trend has been to preserve monarchs and from there direct heirs to the throne. Younger sons have a bit more wiggle room, most recently evidenced by the top secret deployment of Prince Harry last decade.
The most recent war casualty of a senior British royal was Prince George, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary, during World War II. Aged only 39, George died from an airplane crash near Caithness, Scotland on August 25, 1942 during non-operational duties.
The death sent shockwaves through Britain. At the time of the accident, George’s older brother, George VI (privately known as Albert), had been on the throne for less than six years following the abdication of Edward VIII. Edward (privately known as David) was living in the Bahamas as its Governor, a role given to him during the War for debatable reasons. The third brother, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, had seen active duty throughout the war, though George’s death would put a swift end to that.
Personally, George left behind his wife of eight years, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and their three young children, Edward, Alexandra and Michael, the last of whom was born only seven weeks before his father’s death. His six-year-old son, Edward, succeeded him as Duke of Kent, while Marina continued to serve as a trained nurse through the rest of the war, focusing her remaining years on raising their children and carrying out engagements on behalf of George VI and then Elizabeth II.
The death itself, however, is not without controversy – more specifically, there are many who still believe something untoward happened. That, perhaps, George’s death was ordered by the British government with oversight by none other than Winston Churchill.
Some of this stems from the fact that George led a controversial and dramatic personal life. Publicly he was known as a handsome and dashing war hero, married to his beautiful and glamorous wife and a devoted father to a young family. Privately, he was once addicted to cocaine and morphine and carried on a number of reckless and indiscreet affairs with men and women. Likely bisexual, one of his more famous rumored liaisons was with the noted playwright, Noel Coward.
Then there was the fact that Nazi sympathizers weren’t unheard of within European royalty, even Britain’s. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, as Duke and Duchess of Windsor, met with Adolf Hitler in the late ‘30s and even during his brief stint as king, there were rumored concerns about where his and Wallis’s sympathies lay, ministers editing what they shared with the King for fear of him consorting with spies, even Wallis. There is a school of thought that the plane’s crash had more to do about George’s potential politics than actual mechanical failure or human error.
Whatever the case was, the aircraft, an RAF Sunderland, was on its way to Iceland and went down soon after taking off from Cromarty Firth. The aircraft was meant to fly over water, not land, and its intended flight route was to follow the coastline and then turn north for Iceland. As of when the collision occurred, the plane had deviated from its course. After crashing, the fuel tank ignited and exploded, leaving all but one passenger dead. Flight Sergeant Andrew Jack somehow survived the collision; he wandered around the area aimlessly in the fog – disoriented and burned – until he was discovered by chance the next day. Even so, many still question the details of the accident.
An official investigation was launched into the crash by Parliament, its findings presented by the House of Commons’ Secretary for Air with:
“First, that the accident had occurred because the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated on the flight plan given to the pilot and at too low an altitude to clear the rising ground on the track; secondly, that the responsibility for this serious mistake in airmanship lies with the captain of the aircraft; thirdly, that the weather encountered should have presented no difficulties to an experienced pilot; fourthly, that the examination of the propellers showed that the engines were under power when the aircraft struck the ground; and fifthly, that all the occupants of the aircraft were on duty at the time of the accident.”
But conspiracy theorists have always questioned how such experienced pilots made such basic mistakes and veered from the planned route?
And if there was a special mission, then where is (or was) the documentation?
Then there is Jack who was visited by two senior Royal Air Force officials while he was convalescing in hospital. No one knows what was said by either side, but Jack refused to answer any questions about the flight for the rest of his life, only once alluding that he disagreed with the investigation’s findings that the crash was the result of pilot error. Instead, he blamed it on the plane’s captain, but without context.
And this begs the question, who did he mean? At the last minute the flight crew had been joined by Wing Commander Thomas Mosley, who outranked the pilot. But then, so did George as an air commodore.
Bizarre theories have emerged that George was “taken out” because he was in favor of some sort of conciliation with Germany. A largely implausible book was written years ago alleging that George had traveled with a briefcase of krona, which weren’t usable in Iceland, indicating the destination was a cover for another mission altogether.
Less outlandish is the suggestion that foreign interference played a role, given what moving targets George and his brother, Henry, symbolized when they saw active duty.
As for the suggestion that the British government played a role – all evidence in the months and years leading up to George’s death indicate that he was closely aligned with his brother the King, as well as Churchill and his government. There is little to no evidence to suggest he questioned Britain’s approach to the War once it was underway.
George VI was distraught by his brother’s death. The funeral was held four days later at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor and proved an emotional affair, particularly by royal standards. Marina fell to her knees before George’s casket and openly wept, while the King had visible tears in his eyes when he dropped earth over the coffin at burial.
Marina had to be escorted from the chapel by Queen Elizabeth, while George’s mother, Queen Mary, took the King’s arm.
Twenty-six years after George’s death, his body was moved from St. George’s to Frogmore House. The site of his death on Eagle’s Rock is marked with a simple white cross, a memorial that George VI visited privately the following year.
Marina lived until 1968 when she passed away from a brain tumor at Kensington Palace. Two of the couple’s three children are full-time members of the current British Royal Family, carrying out engagements and attending functions on behalf of their cousin, the Queen.