George Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born on 20th December 1902 at York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate. His father, George, Prince of Wales, was the son of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. At the time of his birth, George was fifth in the line of succession.
Edward VII died in 1910 and Prince George's father, George V became the new king. The outbreak of the First World War created problems for the royal family because of its German background. Owing to strong anti-German feeling in Britain, it was decided to change the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. To stress his support for the British, the king made several visits to the Western Front. On one visit to France in 1915 he fell off his horse and broke his pelvis.
At the age of thirteen Prince George went to Osborne Naval College. Later he transferred to Dartmouth College and served in the Royal Navy on board the Iron Duke and the Nelson.
In 1917 George V took the controversial decision to deny political asylum to the Tsar Nicholas II and his family after the Bolshevik Revolution. People where shocked by George's unwillingness to protect his cousin but his advisers argued that it was important for the king to distance himself from the autocratic Russian royal family. Some people questioned this decision when it became known that the Bolsheviks had executed Tsar Nicholas, his wife and their five children.
In 1924 George V appointed Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first Labour Prime Minister. Two years later he played an important role in persuading the Conservative Government not to take an unduly aggressive attitude towards the unions during the General Strike.
Prince George remained in the Royal Navy until 1929. He then held posts in the Foreign Office and the Home Office. In 1934 George married Princess of Marina of Yugoslavia. At the same time he was granted the title of the Duke of Kent. Like his brother Edward, the Duke of Kent was sympathetic to the political developments that were taking place in Nazi Germany.
George V died of influenza on 20th January, 1936. George's brother, Edward VIII now became king. At the time he was having a relationship with Wallis Simpson. The government instructed the British press not to refer to the relationship. The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, urged the king to consider the constitutional problems of marrying a divorced woman.
Although the king received the political support from Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, he was aware that his decision to marry Wallis Simpson would be unpopular with the British public. The Archbishop of Canterbury also made it clear he was strongly opposed to the king's relationship.
The government was also aware that Simpson was in fact involved in other sexual relationships. This included a married car mechanic and salesman called Guy Trundle and Edward Fitzgerald, Duke of Leinster. More importantly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation believed that Simpson was having a relationship with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador to Britain, and that she was passing secret information obtained from the king to the Nazi government.
On 10th December, 1936, the king signed a document that stated he he had renounced "the throne for myself and my descendants." The following day he made a radio broadcast where he told the nation that he had abdicated because he found he could not "discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."
George VI now became king and the coronation took place on 12th May, 1937. Later that month, Neville Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime-minister. The following year Chamberlain travelled to Nazi Germany to meet Adolf Hitler in an attempt to avoid war between the two countries.
The result of Chamberlain's appeasement policy was the signing of the Munich Agreement. George VI wrote to Chamberlain on hearing the news: "I am sending this letter by my Lord Chamberlain, to ask you if you will come straight to Buckingham Palace, so that I can express to you personally my most heartfelt congratulations on the success of your visit to Munich. In the meantime this letter brings the warmest of welcomes to one who by his patience and determination has earned the lasting gratitude of his fellow countrymen throughout the Empire."
Prince George shared his brother's view of appeasement and was considered the leader of the Anglo-German peace group. According to the authors of Double Standards (2001) the Duke of Kent met Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg during the 1930s. A report written by Rosenberg for Adolf Hitler in October 1935 stated that the Duke of Kent was working behind the scenes "in strengthening the pressure for a reconstruction of the Cabinet and mainly towards beginning the movement in the direction of Germany."
In February 1937 it was reported that the Duke of Kent had met the Duke of Windsor in Austria. Later that year a Foreign Office document pointed out that the Duke of Kent had developed a close relationship with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador in London.
By 1938 British intelligence was becoming very concerned about the activities of the Nazi spy, Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe. A report said: "She is frequently summoned by the Führer who appreciates her intelligence and good advice. She is perhaps the only woman who can exercise any influence on him." They also reported that she seemed to be "actively recruiting these British aristocrats in order to promote Nazi sympathies." (PROKV2/1696). According to MI5 the list of people she had been associating with over the last few years included Prince George, the Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, Ethel Snowden, Philip Henry Kerr (Lord Lothian), Geoffrey Dawson, Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, Lady Maud Cunard and Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild. In August 1938 French intelligence, the Deuxième Bureau, told MI6 that it was almost certain that Princess Stephanie was an important German agent.
The Duke of Kent took part in secret talks with his cousin Prince Philip of Hesse in early 1939 in order to avoid a war with Nazi Germany. In July 1939, the Duke of Kent he approached George VI with a plan to negotiate directly with Adolf Hitler. The king, who supported the idea, spoke to Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax about the plan.
On the outbreak of the Second World War the Duke of Kent and his family moved to Scotland, living in Pitliver House, near Rosyth, in Fife. He returned to active military service at the rank of Rear Admiral, briefly serving on the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty. In April 1940, he transferred to the Royal Air Force. He took the post of Staff Officer in the RAF Training Command at the rank of Air Commodore.
In 1940 the Duke of Kent travelled to Lisbon to meet the dictator of Portugal, Antonio Salazar. The Duke of Windsor, who was in Madrid at the time, planned to meet his brother while he was in Lisbon. British officials were instructed to prevent the former king from going to Portugal until the Duke of Kent had left the country.
On 10th May, 1941, Rudolf Hess flew a Me 110 to Scotland with the intention of having a meeting with the Duke of Hamilton. Hess hoped that Hamilton would arrange for him to meet George VI. According to the authors of Double Standards (2001) the Duke of Kent was with Hamilton at his home (Dungavel House) on the night that Hess arrived in Scotland. As the Duke of Kent's papers are embargoed it is impossible to confirm this story. However, we do know from other sources he was at RAF Sumburgh in the Shetlands on the 9th and at Balmoral in Scotland on the 11th of May. The following day he was at RAF Wick at Caithness. He was therefore definitely in that area during this period.
The Duke of Hamilton's diary records several meetings with the Duke of Kent during the early months of 1941. Elizabeth Byrd worked as a secretary for Hamilton's brother Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton. She claims he told her that the Duke of Hamilton took the "flak for the whole Hess affair in order to protect others even higher up the social scale". Byrd added that "he (Lord Malcolm) had strongly hinted that the cover-up was necessary to protect the reputations of members of the Royal Family".
On 25th August 1942, Prince George, Duke of Kent, took off from Invergordon in an S-25 Sunderland Mk III Flying Boat. The official story is the Duke was on a morale-boosting visit to RAF personnel stationed in Iceland. The crew had been carefully selected for the task. The captain, Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen, was considered to be Sunderland flyer in the RAF and had flown some of Britain’s politicians during the war. The rest of the crew was also highly regarded. The co-pilot was Wing Commander Thomas Lawton Mosley, the commanding officer of 228 Squadron. Mosley was one of the RAF’s most experienced pilots having completed 1,449 flying hours. He was also a navigation specialist and was a former instructor at the School of Navigation.
Officially the Duke of Kent was one of fifteen people on board the aircraft. Also on board were Prince George’s private secretary (John Lowther), his equerry (Michael Strutt) and his valet (John Hales).
The flying boat took off from Invergordon on the east coast of Scotland at 1.10 p.m. Being a flying boat, its standing orders were to fly over water, only crossing land when absolutely unavoidable. The route was to follow the coastline to Duncansby Head – the northernmost tip of Scotland – and then turn northwest over the Pentland Firth towards Iceland.
The S-25 Sunderland Mk III crashed into Eagle’s Rock later that afternoon (there is much dispute about the exact time this happened) at a height of around 650 feet. As you can see from the map below, the flying boat was well off course when the accident happened. Its 2,500 gallons of fuel, carried in the wings, exploded.
This raises some important questions. Why did the pilot take the flying boat off course? It was a clear day and he would be fully aware that he was now flying over land rather than the sea. Why, when the aircraft included four experienced navigators, did the aircraft drift a huge 15 degrees off course from its point of departure? Why did he descend to 650 feet when he was flying over high land? This is especially puzzling when one considers that the S-25 Sunderland Mk III had one major defect – it was sluggish when climbing – especially when heavily laden, as it was on the Duke of Kent’s flight.
The crash was heard by local people and reached the scene of the accident about 90 minutes after they heard the explosion. This included a doctor (John Kennedy) and two policemen (Will Bethune and James Sutherland). They found 15 bodies. This included the body of the Duke of Kent. Bethune gave a radio interview in 1985 where he described finding Prince George’s body. He said that handcuffed to the Duke’s wrist was an attaché case that had burst open, scattering a large number of hundred-kroner notes over the hillside.
The Duchess of Kent, collapsed in shock when she heard the news. The following morning the newspapers reported that everyone on board the Sunderland had been killed. Telegrams were sent to the next of kin of all members of the crew. However, later that day it emerged that Andy Jack, the tail-gunner, had been found in a crofter’s cottage at Ramscraigs. Apparently, when the flying boat exploded, the tail section was thrown over the brow of the hill, coming to rest in the peat bog on the other side. Andy Jack only had superficial injuries. What he did next was very surprising. Instead of going to the wreckage to see what had happened to his colleagues, and waiting for rescuers to arrive, he ran away in the opposite direction. This of course was in direct contravention of standard procedure – which was always to remain with the wreck. Andy Jack eventually found an isolated crofter’s cottage. The owner, Elsie Sutherland alerted Dr. John Kennedy by telephone. However, it was sometime before this information reached the authorities. Andy Jack’s sister Jean had already received a telegram telling her that her brother had been killed in the accident.
Winston Churchill made a statement in the House of Commons where he described the Duke of Kent as “a gallant and handsome prince”. Of the many tributes and messages of condolence received from other countries, the most significant was from General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the head of the Polish government in exile. The two men were very close and Sikorski sent a special dispatch to all Polish troops in Britain where he described the Duke as “a proven friend of Poland and the Polish armed forces”.
The Duchess of Kent visited Andy Jack several times after the death of her husband. It is believed that the information he provided influenced what was inscribed on the Duke of George’s memorial. This included the following: “In memory of…. the Duke of Kent… and his companions who lost their lives on active service during a flight to Iceland on a special mission on 25th August 1942”. The use of the words “special mission” is an interesting one. It was also the words used by Pilot Officer George Saunders, who also died in the crash. In 2001 Peter Brown, the nephew of Saunders, told a researcher that he was told that in August 1942, Saunders went home to see his family in Sheffield. Saunders informed his mother: “I’m just on leave for a couple of days. I’m going on a most important mission, very secret. I can’t say any more.”
A court of inquiry was held and details of their findings were presented in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair, on 7th October 1942. The conclusion of the report was: “Accident due to aircraft being on wrong track at too low altitude to clear rising ground on track. Captain of aircraft changed flight-plan for reasons unknown and descended through cloud without making sure he was over water and crashed.”
Sinclair confirmed that weather conditions were fine and there was no evidence of mechanical failure. He added “the responsibility for this serious mistake in airmanship lies with the captain of the aircraft”. It was therefore suggested that the reason for the crash was the team of four pilot/navigators drifted off course and then failed to reach the necessary height to clear Eagle Rock.
The problem is that the documents that would enable researchers to re-examine the evidence have vanished. This includes the flight plan filed by Goyen before take-off.
The secret court of inquiry should have been made available after 15 years. When researchers asked the Public Record Office in 1990 for a copy of the report it was discovered that it had gone missing. The PRO suggested it might have been transferred to the royal archives at Windsor Castle. However, the registrar of the royal archives denies they have ever had the report.
Andy Jack, the only survivor of the crash, was forced to sign the Official Secrets Act while still in hospital. He later told his sister that he could not talk about the crash because he had been “sworn to secrecy”. Jean Jack did provide researchers with one piece of interesting information about the case. Frank Goyen gave Andy Jack a signed photograph of himself just before take-off on which he had written: “With memories of happier days.” Was this a reference to the mission they were about to undertake? Does it suggest that Goyen disapproved of the mission?
Andy Jack was promoted and after the war served in Gibraltar. While he was there he was visited several times by the Duchess of Kent. Clearly, she was still interested in finding out why her husband was killed.
On 17th May 1961 the Duchess of Kent brought the case to national attention when she visited the scene of her husband’s death. This created a discussion about the crash in the media. Andy Jack now came forward to give an interview to the Scottish Daily Express. He was still serving with the RAF and not surprisingly he went along with the conclusions of the official inquiry. He retired from the RAF on a good pension in 1964. However, he drunk away his money and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-seven.
An important witness to the crash was Captain E. E. Fresson. He piloted an aircraft over the same area and at around the same time as the crashed Flying Boat. The following day he took the only aerial photographs of the wreckage. In 1963 Fresson published his autobiography, Air Road to the Isles. Amazingly, the book does not refer to the death of the Duke of Kent. According to his son, Richard Fresson, the book originally included a full chapter that covered his investigation into the crash. However, this material was removed by the publishers at the last moment.
There is also another interesting aspect to this story. Just ten days after the death of the Duke of Kent, another flying boat, also from 228 Squadron, crashed in the Scottish Highlands. The official explanation was that the plane had run out of fuel. Everyone on board was killed, including a very interesting passenger, Fred Nancarrow, a journalist from Glasgow. Nancarrow was investigating the Eagle Rock crash.