The forgotten prince

THE fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary, Prince George, Duke of Kent was born 100 ago on December 20, and killed in a tragic flying accident in Caithness, 60 years ago today.

The royal equivalent of a Hollywood matinee idol, he was tall, suave, charming and debonair, with the unmistakeable look of his Hanoverian forebears. Behind the facade of princely respectability, however, this largely forgotten royal son pursued a highly promiscuous lifestyle, dedicated most notably - and perhaps unsurprisingly - when in his twenties, to the pursuit of sex and drugs. Always ‘in trouble,’ as one equerry put it, George went wherever the fancy took him and with whomsoever - male or female, black or white, diplomat, aristocrat, playwright or showgirl - that same fancy directed. In fact, said the same equerry, so many of Prince George’s fancies were chased out of the country, that ‘the palace stopped counting’.

Yet if there would nearly always be a whiff of scandal about George of Kent, coupled with what was described as ‘a clear tinge of narcissism,’ his beginnings were unremarkably conventional for a man of his time and position. Born at York Cottage on the Sandringham estate of his grandfather, King Edward VII, Georgie, as he was called, was the fifth child of George, Prince of Wales and his wife May, the former Princess Victoria Mary of Teck. Ahead of him in order of birth were his two eldest brothers, David and Bertie, both of whom would eventually succeed their father as king, reigning as Edward VIII and George VI respectively. Then came Mary, who was later created Princess Royal, and Henry, or ‘Harry’, who became Duke of Gloucester. After Georgie came the Wales’s sixth and last child, Prince John. Discovered to be epileptic, this young prince spent most of his short life of 13 and a half years apart from his family, looked after in his own separate establishment at Wood Farm, again on the Sandringham estate.

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Before being packed off to the Royal Naval Colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth, something for which, although academically bright, he was physically ill-suited, George was educated at St Peter’s School, Broadstairs, on England’s south coast. At the age of nine, in 1911, the schoolboy prince made his first public appearance when he attended his parents’ coronation; his father having succeeded to the throne as King George V, the year before. For the diarist, Lord Crawford, the coronation was made yet more memorable by a spontaneous performance staged, on their way back to Buckingham Palace, by the new King’s younger sons, George and Harry.

‘One of the great successes of the Coronation,’ Crawford wrote, ‘was a standup fight between the two kilted princes after the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. By some imprudence the Prince of Wales and his sister were sent in a State Coach with the younger brothers, but without a controlling prelate or pedagogue. When fairly started from the Abbey, a free fight began to the huge delight of the spectators in Whitehall... Peace was ultimately restored after about fifty yards of hullabaloo.’

Unlike his brothers, Prince George was not afraid of his father’s quarter-deck bluster, which cowed David and Bertie and reduced Harry to tears. Nor was Georgie above responding to it. At Balmoral on one occasion, when the King was admonishing one of his sons for not wearing the skean-dhu, George commented that he never knew ‘what to do with the knives and forks and other odds and ends demanded by the kilt’.

For a man who was more at home in the worlds of music, antiques and the decorative arts, a naval career, which his father insisted he should follow, was anathema. Plagued by sea-sickness and insomnia from the very start, life aboard ship threatened to exacerbate the digestive disorder with which he was afflicted and severely undermine his health. Acknowledging that he was not cut out for a life at sea, the King finally acceded to Prince George’s wish to enter the Civil Service, first on attachment to the Foreign Office and later, when George pressed for an active, hands-on role, with the Home Office Factory Inspectorate, responsible for reviewing working conditions in factories throughout the country.

By now, George had moved out of Buckingham Palace and into the nearby York House apartments of his eldest brother. As Duke of Windsor he would one day write, ‘Although George was eight and a half years my junior, we became more than brothers - we became close friends’. As friends, the two princes shared a very particular love of nightlife, enjoying many a long evening out on the town in one another’s company. In the small hours of one particular morning, jazz musician Tiny Winters recalled seeing the heir to the throne and his younger brother chasing one another down the street, having been the last to leave the famous Embassy Club in London’s West End.

Less innocent was George’s drug addiction. In the late 1920s, by which time his amorous involvements had ranged from No‘l Coward and the son of the Argentinian Ambassador, to the black review artiste, Florence Mills, the Prince was further seduced by the hedonistic lifestyle of colonial Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley Set’. Composed at that time of British aristocrats and expatriate Americans, it was Kiki Whitney Preston, known as the ‘girl with the Silver Syringe’, who introduced her royal lover to cocaine and morphine.

Marriage, regarded by certain sections of society as the path to redemption - or, at the very least, a state of unquestionable respectability, behind which all manner of indiscretions might be kept from view - was the course now advocated for Prince George. At 32, he took the plunge. His bride was a Greek born princess who, because of her country’s on-off relationship with its own monarchy, had spent the past 12 years in Parisian exile. A godchild of Queen Mary, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark was the third and youngest daughter of Prince and Princess Nicholas of Greece. Four years younger than Prince George, Marina was everything Britain’s royal womenfolk at that time were not. Tall, dark and strikingly good-looking, she was also stylish, cultured, and incredibly glamorous; the perfect partner for Prince George, whom the King now created Duke of Kent.

Married at Westminster Abbey in November 1934, George and Marina set up home in an impressive townhouse in London’s Belgrave Square. It was there, in October 1935 that the first of their three children, Prince Edward, the present Duke of Kent, was born; followed on Christmas Day 1936, just two weeks after the abdication of George’s beloved brother (Edward VIII), by the birth of Princess Alexandra. By then, Prince George had inherited ‘Coppins,’ a sprawling, multi-gabled Victorian house, just outside the Buckinghamshire village of Iver, and it was there in July 1942, that Marina gave birth to her third child, Prince Michael.

But for the outbreak of the Second World War, George would have become Governor-General of Australia. Instead, hostilities found him posted first to the naval intelligence division of the Admiralty and then to the Royal Air Force. To some extent, Prince George’s duties in the RAF - inspecting air bases, training schools, aircraft factories and the like at home, in the United States and in Canada - were a reflection of those he had undertaken for the Home Office Factory Inspectorate.

By late August 1942, when he was scheduled to travel up to Invergordon, his point of departure at the start of an inspection tour of RAF bases in Iceland, Prince George, recently promoted Air Commodore, had flown more than 60,000 miles on active service. A further 1,800 miles would have been added to his record had the Icelandic mission been accomplished according to plan. That plan 60 years ago was fated to go tragically wrong and result in the deaths of Prince George, Duke of Kent and all but one member of the highly experienced crew of Sunderland flying boat W4026 DQ-M.

Precisely what did happen some 30 minutes after the Sunderland had taken off at 1.10 on the afternoon of Tuesday, 25 August 1942, remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. What is known is that, once airborne and flying between the Sutors at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, the aircraft turned north-east to follow the coastline. Within that first half hour, while flying through a dense mist or haar, at an inexplicable altitude of only 700 feet, it ploughed into a gently sloping hill to the east of Eagle’s Rock, an 800-foot promontory on the Duke of Portland’s Langwell estate. At the moment of impact, 2,500 gallons of aviation fuel exploded. The only survivor was the badly burned rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Andrew Jack. The body of the Duke of Kent, thrown clear of the wreckage, was clearly identifiable to those who scrambled to the scene, though his identity bracelet, which read, ‘His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent, "The Coppins", Iver, Buckinghamshire,’ dispelled any doubt.

The official version or, more correctly, the extract from the official Court of Inquiry into the accident that appeared in Hansard, put the blame squarely on the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frank McKenzie Goyen, because it said, ‘the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated in the flight plan given to the pilot, and at too low an altitude to clear the rising ground on the track…’ Yet, what that flight plan was, and there was more than one option, nobody may ever know. For like the full version of the findings of the official Court of Inquiry - custody of which has been denied by the Public Record Office, the RAF Historical Branch and the Royal Archives at Windsor - the flight briefing has apparently vanished into thin air.

Along with unproven but inevitable conspiracy theories, many suggestions about how and why the accident occurred, have been submitted through the years. These range from the effects of down-draughts on the aircraft or the influence of magnetic rocks on its compasses to plain sabotage. Some theories seemed plausible enough, while others were just pure fantasy. It has to be said, however, that none has withstood the test of time or survived intense scrutiny.

If marriage and family life had brought greater stability into the private world of Prince George, Duke of Kent, the demands of war had done much to shape his potential as an increasingly prominent player, not least in the world of royal diplomacy. But as with his life - and it is telling that his family has never given its blessing to, much less commissioned, a biography of him - there is much we may never know about the cause of his death.

Christopher Warwick is the authorised biographer of Princess Margaret and author of George & Marina, Duke & Duchess of Kent. He is the author of Princess Margaret - A Life of Contrasts (Andre Deutsch), available in bookshops nationwide.

♦ Death at Eagle’s Rock, tonight, BBC2, 6.30pm