Proud: Bob Britton with a portrait of his father, Bill


A Queenstown man’s father had two unusual encounters with Prince Philip, the first playing a crucial part in the life of the future husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

Long-time local Bob Britton tells Mountain Scene his father evacuated the prince, then aged 18 months, from the Greek island of Corfu while he was a young leading seaman in the Royal Navy.

Just as extraordinary, the two men reminisced about the incident over beer at Invercargill’s Grand Hotel more than 30 years later.

In 1922, Bill Britton was serving on the cruiser HMS Calypso in the Mediteranean when, as coxswain of one of the ship’s motorboats, he was ordered to take a small crew to Athens’ port and wait for a man and woman to turn up.

The 21-year-old was told to leave with the pair as soon as they showed up — if he didn’t, a ‘‘bomb might be thrown at the boat’’.

When they eventually arrived, he carried them back to the Calypso, which immediately steamed at full speed for Corfu.

He was later told the man and woman were Philip’s parents: Prince Andrew, the younger
brother of the king of Greece, and his wife Princess Alice.

Andrew, an army commander, had been tried after a military defeat by the Turks that had also forced his brother to abdicate.

After the intervention of the British government, the Greek junta agreed not to sentence Andrew to death if he slipped out of the country.

At Corfu, Bill was ordered to take his motorboat into the port and evacuate the couple’s five children, who were at risk of being taken as hostages.

There with his four older sisters, lying in a cot made from a fruit box, was Philip.

The family was taken to Brindisi, Italy, from where they later settled in Paris; Philip was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in England in 1928, and the rest is, well, history.

Bob tells Scene his dad, who served with the Royal Navy until emigrating to New Zealand in the late ’ 30s, had pretty much forgotten the incident until he heard of Philip’s engagement to Princess Elizabeth in 1947.

When the royal couple toured NZ in 1953-54, the Royal New Zealand Navy set up a private meeting of the prince and his father in Invercargill, near where the family was living at the time.

Bob says they talked for about an hour.

‘‘He didn’t say much about it, but he said ‘we had a few beers, talked about the navy and getting the prince off Corfu when he was a baby’.

‘‘He liked him — thought he was a nice chap.’’

His father worked for the Bluff Harbour Board for many years as a diver, apart from a stint in Auckland during WWII after being called up to the Royal NZ Navy.

He died in 1969 at the age of 68.