On 26 August 1942, newspapers in London and throughout the world were reporting the tragic death of Prince George, the Duke of Kent (and younger brother of King George VI) in an air accident over the north of Scotland. The Duke (who held the rank of Air Commodore in the RAF and was attached to the staff of the Inspector-General of Air) had been en route to Iceland, in a Short Sunderland flying boat, W4026, on the afternoon of 25 August, ostensibly to carry out a tour of inspection of bases there. Interestingly , the Prince, who was very keen to take on a role as a liaison officer between the British and American air forces, had also arranged to hold a second meeting at a US air base in Iceland with the US Air Force General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz. This was to finalise matters discussed between the duo at their first meeting, a week earlier, at a London restaurant in Mayfair, the Bon Viveur. Of those on board (some sources say fifteen, others sixteen), only one survived the air accident-the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Andrew Jack. He was badly burned as he attempted to pull bodies from the wreck. Among those killed were the Duke’s Private Secretary, Lieutenant John Lowther, His Royal Highness’ equerry, Pilot Officer the Hon. Michael Strutt and Prince George’s valet, Leading Aircraftman John Hales.
The aircraft had taken off from Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth shortly after 1pm. It has been noted that there was low cloud along the south coast of Caithness that day. After clearing the Cromarty Firth, the airplane turned north-east to follow the coastline. Around thirty minutes later, just inland from the village of Berriedale, in north-east Caithness, some shepherds, David Morrison and his son Hugh, heard the aircraft approach from the sea, although they could not physically see it owing to the foggy conditions. However, a loud explosion soon followed, as the Sunderland, having cleared the 2000 feet summit of Donald’s Mount, then somehow lost height and, at an altitude of approximately 700 feet, ploughed into a hillside to the east of Eagle’s Rock, eventually sliding down a hill on its back. Hugh Morrison ran to collect his motorbike and sped westwards to the hamlet of Braemore to raise the alarm. The police at nearby Dunbeath were also alerted and soon several search parties, including local crofters, headed for the hills. When the wreckage and bodies of the deceased were found (not an easy task in the dense mist that pervaded the area) the Duke’s body was easily distinguishable from the identity bracelet he was wearing.
King George VI received the news that evening by telephone from Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air (and also-by coincidence-a Caithness landowner), just as he and the Queen were enjoying dinner at their Scottish estate at Balmoral on Royal Deeside. It so happened that one of the guests was the King’s younger brother, Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, who was accompanied by his wife Alice. Both of the brothers and their wives were stunned at the news. The King then had to consider how best to inform his sister-in-law, Princess Marina, of her husband’s death. This was a particularly delicate undertaking for the Duchess of Kent was Greek-born and not on particularly close terms with her British in-laws. The task of arranging this was given to Eric Miéville, the King’s Assistant Private Secretary. Miéville telephoned Coppins, the Kent’s residence near Iver, and ascertained from the butler, Booksmith, that the Duchess had just retired for the evening, but was not yet asleep. He also learned that Miss Kate Fox, Marina’s aged, devoted former nurse was also present, as she was helping with the care of the Kent’s seven-week-old son, Michael. Miéville must then have imparted the sad news to the trusted retainer hoping, no doubt, that she would then gently inform the Duchess that her beloved husband had been killed. However, ‘Foxie’ could not bring herself to climb the stairs, doubtless realising the dreadful trauma this information would inflict on Marina. Instead, she telephoned Zoia Poklewski, a close friend of the Duchess, who lived in a cottage nearby on the Coppins estate, and urged her to come over to the main house at once. When Zoia arrived, Miss Fox related the tragic news as quietly as she could. Nevertheless, Marina must have heard something, for she soon shouted from the landing above, “What are you talking about?” Madam Poklewski then braced herself as she ascended the stairs to convey the harrowing message. According to Marina’s biographer, Stella King, the news of her husband’s death ‘produced a reaction in his widow which was dramatic in its intensity’. Unfortunately, all of Marina’s own family-to whom she was devoted and would, in normal times, have turned to for comfort and courage-lived overseas: her mother, Princess Nicholas (Grand Duchess Helen), was living in Athens, which was occupied by the Germans; her eldest sister, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia, was currently a ‘political prisoner’ of the British government in Kenya; while the middle sibling, Princess Elizabeth, was married to a German, Count Toerring, and lived in Bavaria. Nevertheless, both the Queen (Elizabeth) and Queen Mary (Prince Edward’s mother) would later make the journey separately to Coppins to offer Marina their condolences and support.
Meanwhile, in the north of Scotland, the Duke of Kent’s mortal remains were removed from the hillside and transferred to Dunrobin Castle where Eileen, the Duchess of Sutherland (ironically a friend of the late Prince George) arranged for local undertakers to provide a coffin, which was duly sealed and remained-guarded by RAF personnel-in a flower-filled sitting room for nearly two days. It was subsequently transported by rail from the local station, close by the Highland castle, to London’s Euston Station. The Duke’s body was then taken by car to Windsor Castle to lie in the Albert Memorial Chapel. Soon thereafter, Princess Marina, accompanied by a Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Mary Herbert, arrived at the chapel bearing a bunch of red and white roses from the garden at Coppins. She asked to be left alone with her late husband for a private farewell. After some fifteen minutes, Marina emerged and returned home to Iver.
In the interim, the King, through the office of the Lord Chamberlain, commanded that there should be four weeks of court mourning. He had travelled south from Balmoral, arriving by special train in London, on 27 March, accompanied by the Queen and the Gloucesters to prepare for the funeral. The Member of Parliament and socialite, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, who was a good friend and onetime London neighbour of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, noted that everyone was ‘shocked and depressed’ at the news. Channon also observed that the death of Prince George’s ‘tactful and efficient’ private secretary, John Lowther, meant that dealing with administrative matters, including the arrangements for the funeral, was to prove more difficult for the late Duke’s office than would otherwise have been the case. Some of those who were to attend Prince Edward’s funeral received their invitation by telegram.
As the morning of 29 August dawned, Marina prepared herself for husband’s funeral. She was supported throughout the service in St George’s Chapel by the Queen and Prince George’s mother, Queen Mary, the dowager queen. Although the latter was privately distraught, for the Duke of Kent was said to have been her favourite son, the old Queen maintained a stoical stance that day, her face shielded-as was Marina’s-by a thick black veil. Atop the coffin was a simple wreath of flowers from Coppins, together with Prince George’s Air Commodore’s cap. Among those attending were the Dutch Queen (Wilhelmina), the Kings of Norway, Greece and Yugoslavia, as well as the Prince George’s personal detective, Evans, and his chauffeur. Particularly poignant was the presence of Mrs Charlotte ‘Lala’ Bill, the Duke’s childhood nurse, who had travelled down from her home at West Newton on the Sandringham estate. The Duke of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII and the brother to whom the Duke of Kent had been closest in the past) who was currently serving as Governor of the Bahamas, was represented, at the King’s personal direction, by Sir Lionel Halsey, a distinguished seamen and retired Vice-Admiral, who had served in Edward’s household (when Prince of Wales) as Comptroller and Treasurer.
At the end of the service, writes Stella King somewhat melodramatically, ‘it seemed at one moment that [Princess Marina] would have hurled herself into the [royal] vault’ beside her husband’s body’ had it not been for the ‘restraining arms’ of the Queen. The same source provides a clue as to why this was so: it seems the Duchess of Kent had not wanted her late husband’s body placed in the vault of St George’s Chapel at all, preferring a grave in the open air, such as was to be found at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore. Evidently, the Duke of Kent had hated ‘gloomy royal vaults’. King George VI-who cried openly at the funeral-would later write movingly that, ‘I have attended very many family funerals in the Chapel but none…have moved me in the same way…’ Subsequently, on the afternoon of 13 September, following Sunday lunch with Grand Duchess Xenia (who had temporarily relocated to Scotland during wartime), the King travelled north from Balmoral for an overnight stay at Dunrobin, so as to view the site of the air crash and personally thank the locals who had worked so diligently to recover the bodies of the deceased. His Majesty was particularly struck that a piece of ground some 200 yards in length by 100 yards across was so badly scorched (unsurprising given that the plane had a fuel load of around 2,400 gallons) and noted that ‘the impact must have been terrific.’
To this day, the accident has been a cause of endless speculation in various publications and on-line discussion forums. These include the theory that the Duke had been killed on the orders of British Intelligence due to his alleged pro-German views. Another postulation was that Prince George had been at the controls himself, a view restated through BBC Wales, in December 2003, by Margaret Harris, the niece of the sole survivor, Flight Sergeant Jack (who died in 1976). Mrs Harris was quoted as saying that her uncle had told her late father ‘in confidence’ that he had pulled the Duke ‘out of the pilots position’. Yet, in an article for the Daily Mail in July 2021, the author Christopher Wilson states that he had once spoken to a Leading Aircraftsman Arthur Baker, who informed him that he had been a member of the RAF search-and-rescue team sent to retrieve the bodies from the crash. Baker apparently stated that the Duke of Kent’s body (recognisable from his flying suit) was found some 50 yards from the wreckage on a bed of heather. Prince George, he claimed, had a pack of playing cards (perhaps Lexicon) still in his left hand. So the evidence from these two sources alone is contradictory. However, according to Arthur Baker, he also found the body of a woman at the crash site. When he informed his Sergeant of this, he was evidently told “to cover her [remains] up quick” and remove them from the site. Baker was also told “What you’ve seen here, you speak about to nobody.” Interestingly, according to Margaret Harris, her uncle, Flight Sergeant Jack had also alleged that ‘a mysterious extra [sixteenth] person’ was on board the flight that afternoon. However, in this case, no mention was ostensibly made as to the sex of the person. It certainly seems probable that there were indeed sixteen people on board the flight, for that is the figure written at the time in the personal diary entry for 25 August of Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, Assistant Private Secretary to the King, who was known to be punctilious in such matters. However, to this day, there has been no indication as to who that sixteenth person was.
What is indisputable today, is that many still wonder how an experienced crew captained by an Australian Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen, with around 1000 flying hours on ocean patrols, could have made such an error as to descend into low cloud, when the normal procedure would have been to try and gain altitude. One commentator, Roy C Nesbit (a former RAF navigator) stated in the January 1990 edition of Aeroplane Monthly that the crash was caused by instrument error, probably the new gyro-magnetic compass. A few years earlier, when the journalist Robin McWhirter investigated ‘Crash of W4026’ for a radio broadcast, he found that all the documentation relating to the Court of Enquiry was no where to be found. However, it has to be noted that just weeks after the crash, on 7 October 1942, Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Air Minister, outlined to the House of Commons, the salient findings of the Enquiry. These are detailed in the official record of the House, Hansard. Sinclair noted that ‘the accident occurred because the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated in the flight plan given to the pilot…’. Blame was placed on Flight Lieutenant Goyen with the observation that ‘the weather encountered should have presented no difficulties to an experienced pilot.’ It was further observed that the engines were ‘under power’ when the aircraft hit the ground.
No doubt the conjecture and theories will continue, but for the British royal family, and more particularly for Princess Marina and her children, the Duke’s death was a loss that was and, no doubt, continues to be felt keenly to this day.
Robert Prentice is a biographer and regular contributor to ‘Majesty’ magazine in the United Kingdom. His biography of the late Duke of Kent’s sister-in-law, ‘Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times’ is available to purchase in hardback or as an e-book through Amazon.