The Prince, his lover & a royal cover-up
Prince George, the Duke of Kent, was destined to become Australia’s Governor-General, but when he died in a plane crash at 39, he was mysteriously airbrushed from royal history. Seventy-five years later, Christopher Wilson uncovers the shocking truth.
He was wicked, wayward and brimful of charm – an intriguing mix of public sobriety and private bad behaviour, destined to become Australia’s Governor-General and expected to rule the country with a dance band on the radio and a cocktail glass in his hand.
Prince George, Duke of Kent, had all the raffish glamour of the present-day Prince Harry, but was far more badly behaved. Bisexual, he was a voracious womaniser who didn’t mind the occasional romance with a bloke. He drank deep, took drugs and danced the night away – but people loved him.
His premature death at the age of 39 robbed British royalty of one of its most exotic characters and remains a dark and unsettling mystery to this day.
In 1938, George – the youngest brother of Kings Edward VIII and George VI – together with his Greek-born wife, Princess Marina, were named as the next representatives of the Crown in Canberra.
Initially reluctant, they had been persuaded to take on the job by their close friend Lady Milbanke. An uninhibited London society hostess born Sheila Chisholm in Woollahra, NSW, she rose to achieve the remarkable double of being the mistress of both George’s kingbrothers. At the time of the Duke’s appointment, The Australian Women’s Weekly promised, “Lady Milbanke has been a great favourite of the Duke for many years and there’s very little she hasn’t told him about [Australia].” Hasty arrangements were made to the tidy up the ramshackle Government House in time for the Kents’ arrival in 1939 and the Duchess even got as far as choosing the curtains and soft furnishings.
Then came the war and governing Australia had to be put on hold. Prince George dutifully joined the Royal Air Force, but his service was all too short – in August 1942, his plane took off from a Scottish airfield and crashed into the side of a mountain. All but one on board were killed instantly.
Australia’s loss was not confined to its future Governor-General. The others killed included the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frank McKenzie Goyen, from Shepparton, Victoria, and the second pilot, Pilot Officer Sydney Wood Smith, from Ashfield, Sydney, as well as Sergeant Edward Blacklock from Dunedin, New Zealand.
Frank Goyen, though only 24, was already one of the war’s young heroes with more than 1000 flying hours to his credit and a service record which extended from Moscow to Alexandria, Crete to Gambia. He had been rescued twice after forced landings at sea.
In the official inquiry, he was blamed for the crash. Yet the official cover-up which followed and remains in force had nothing to do with him.
Secrets and lies
Nobody knows what happened to Sunderland Flying Boat W4026. All documentation relating to the official court of inquiry into its loss disappeared years ago. In the UK, The National Archives, RAF Air Historical Branch and Royal Archives at Windsor all deny having possession of the key records relating to the deaths of the Duke and his fellow aviators. Most significantly, the flight briefing which Frank Goyen was instructed to follow has also disappeared.
The families of the aircrew who lost their lives were plunged into a limbo which remains to this day. And, for whatever reason, Prince George, uncle of the present Queen, was suddenly and dramatically airbrushed from history.
No statue was erected to him – even though he was the only major royal in centuries of British history to give his life in warfare. No official biography was commissioned, no memorial bears his name. He was written off, discarded, forgotten.
Some years ago, I set out to write the biography of Prince George. At the heart of my quest was a desire to solve the riddle of his death. Yet the doors of the Royal Library at Windsor remained shut to me. The royal family never wanted such a book to be written about their most original son.
The fog of silence, like the fatal fog which covered the mountaintop at Eagle’s Rock, in the most remote part of the Scottish Highlands, was impenetrable. Yet, as time went on, I slowly began to discover people who wanted to talk.
First, those most closely connected to the crash – the relatives – seemed eager to tell me how they heard about it.
No statue was erected to him, no memorial bears his name.
The first account came from the Queen’s cousin, the Honourable Margaret Rhodes. As a 17-year-old, she had been invited to spend the week at Balmoral Castle in late August 1942 and was at dinner in the dining room when a page came in and whispered to King George VI’s private secretary, Sir Eric Mieville. “He got up and went out. When he came back, he whispered in the King’s ear and then the King got up and disappeared. At a dinner party for 14 people, that was unprecedented,” recalled Mrs Rhodes when I visited her before her death last year. “We knew something very serious had occurred and people were speculating whether Churchill had been assassinated, or the whole Fleet had been bombed – you could tell it was as serious as that.”
The King’s sudden exit had the effect of ending the dinner party and the Queen (later Queen Mother) led the guests back into the drawing room. “Before long, the King came back and told us the news. It was immensely shocking,” recalled Mrs Rhodes.
Nothing happened immediately.
“It’s like when Princess Diana died. The attitude was, let’s keep doing what we do normally, that’s the way to do things,” said Mrs Rhodes.
Other relatives were denied so gentle an introduction to the disaster. “Somebody rang me up and told me point-blank my husband was dead,” recalled Mrs Arielle Eweson when I visited her Newport, Rhode Island, home. “That was it – we never learned any more. But it was the war, none of us knew what the protocol would be about being informed of a death. There were a lot of deaths, you just had to accept it and carry on.”
Mrs Eweson had married Prince George’s equerry, the Honourable Michael Strutt, three years earlier. He was just 27 when he died in the crash. “I was in America at the time and it was difficult to get any news. I was never told the findings of the inquiry. No effort was made, no explanation offered as to what might have happened.”
The Goyen family learned of Frank’s death on ABC radio news. Again, no official explanation was ever offered to the family as to what happened and Frank’s brother Joe, a decorated RAAF veteran, questioned the cover-up. “He was transporting the Duke of Kent – the King’s brother. They’ve lost all the papers about it. Funny, isn’t? Strange ... and Buckingham Palace doesn’t have any records of it either. He was the King’s brother!”
So what did happen?
At the heart of the cover-up is the loss of the official records. When I visited The National Archives at Kew in London and asked for the file on the Duke’s death, I was handed a pitifully thin folder containing little more than a handful of memos between civil servants and a few press cuttings.
The Duke, it has to be remembered, was one of the most important people in Britain and his loss was both a tremendous blow to national morale and, at the same time, a bonding moment between the ruling family and those lesser families who had suffered similar losses.
It was inexplicable there could be such a pathetic representation of this disaster in the nation’s history store – unless a deliberate “weeding” of the file had taken place.
Then there’s the question of the actions of King George VI. Three weeks after the crash, he visited the site, but by that time the evidence had all been cleared away and heather replanted to try to disguise the fact there had ever been an accident. One of the rescue party who attended the site the day after the impact told me that the clear-up – unique in wartime – was on the King’s instructions.
Then I was told that many of the servicemen who had taken part in the search-and-rescue operation returned to their units with orders from their commanding officers never to discuss what they had seen. Some units were disbanded, their personnel broken up and dispersed to different parts of the country.
I tried to track down people who might have been part of the rescue parties at the crash site and, eventually, I discovered a man called Arthur Baker, who lived in eastern England.
Mr Baker had been a Leading Aircraftman in the RAF regiment whose job it was to guard Air Force bases in the UK. He had been based at RAF Skitten near the crash site and was among the first to reach the wreckage. What he saw was astonishing and, if corroborated, finally explains the desperate cover-up which has lasted from 1942 up to the present day.
“I’d just returned from leave. We were put in lorries and taken to the
The King told us the news. It was immensely shocking.
site. We were told, ‘Find the bodies, bring them here’,” recalled Mr Baker. “The site was a terrible mess – the aircraft had totally disintegrated, smashed to bloody bits.
“There was one body thrown well away. He didn’t seem very damaged, but his eyes were out, hanging on his cheeks. In his left hand, he still had a fan of playing cards – Lexicon, I think. He was lying on his back.
“It was bedlam at the [point of impact], but he had been thrown a good 50 yards from the rest of the crash, landing on thick heather. It was the Duke of Kent, instantly recognisable.
“We got him back to where the main crash was, carrying him on a piece of metal from the wreckage.
“Then we carried on the search. There was a strong smell of scent in the air and I saw ladies’ clothes lying about, and a jewel case.
“Then I saw this body, badly damaged, with one leg nearly severed. I thought, ‘That’s not a man’, and to [make certain] I opened up [the front of her clothes] and there were breasts.
“I shouted to my sergeant, ‘Woman!’, and he told me to cover her up quick and get her away, which we did. The sergeant ordered, ‘What you see here, you speak about to nobody.’ ”
If what Mr Baker discovered was indeed the body of a woman, it would explain a great deal about what happened next.
Why the cover-up?
In wartime, it was forbidden for women to fly in combat aircraft. It would be unlikely – given their precious and important cargo, the Duke – that any crew member would have smuggled a girlfriend aboard the plane. Therefore, if there was a woman on board, she had to be there by invitation of the Duke. Given his track-record of serial infidelity, that perhaps comes as no great surprise.
In 2003, the niece of the sole survivor, rear-gunner Flight Sergeant Andrew Jack, broke cover to make a startling admission. Sergeant Jack, badly burned, was taken to hospital and the first person to visit him, she said, was a senior officer, who ordered him to sign the Official Secrets Act. After that, he never spoke publicly of the circumstances of the crash, but Margaret Harris revealed that her uncle had told his brother – Mrs Harris’ father – he could no longer
keep the secret from his family. “A mysterious extra person was on the plane,” she said, without specifying the extra passenger’s gender.
When the crash occurred on August 25, 1942, the Allies’ fortunes in the war were at their lowest ebb. Tobruk had fallen, the victory at El Alamein was yet to occur. Altogether, 39,652 Australians and 11,928 New Zealanders lost their lives in the war being waged for King and country. If it had been discovered the brother of that King had wilfully breached military regulations for his own pleasure, what would it have done to servicemen’s morale?
At that most vulnerable point, could it have altered the course of the war for the worse? Could it finally scupper the House of Windsor, not six years since the abdication crisis holed them below the waterline?
The next question to be answered is, if the extra body was that of a woman – who could she possibly have been? Why did nobody declare her missing? I spent many months looking at likely candidates – women within the Duke’s circle who might have mysteriously disappeared in unexplained circumstances.
Finally, I turned to the Earl of Dudley, whose family had been close to the royals for two generations and who was the godson of George’s eldest brother, the Duke of Windsor.
Lord Dudley’s home was where the Duke and Duchess of Kent had spent the first few days of their honeymoon in 1934. He was all too aware of George’s wanderlust. Indeed, he found himself vying with the Prince for the attentions of a woman who may well have been George’s last girlfriend before his death.
“It was late 1941 and we were in the Grosvenor Square flat of Edythe d’Erlanger,” said Lord Dudley. “There was a large party of people – drinks and so on – and Edythe was playing the piano. The Duke was leaning over the piano and whispering in her ear as she played. I was intrigued by her, but she was the Prince’s inamorata during that time. She was quite a lot older than me, but I was flirting with her. However, she only had eyes for the Prince.”
In a previous life, Mrs d’Erlanger had been the celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Edythe Baker from Kansas, but had married into a super-rich banking family – her husband was the son of Baron d’Erlanger – and had settled down to a privileged life.
Although Edythe disappeared from society headlines during the war years, she survived, so cannot have been the woman by Prince George’s side when the Sunderland crashed.
The mystery continues
How could someone go missing and not be reported? One historian of the London Blitz I spoke to put forward the theory that it would be easy to transport a body back to the bombedout city and place it in a demolished house, but this seemed as unsatisfactory as the fanciful stories of George being drunk at the plane’s controls, or on a special mission to take the Nazi leader, Rudolf Hess, to a peace conference.
So, 75 years on, the answer still remains beyond reach. That there was a cover-up at the time is beyond doubt. That something irregular occurred on the flight is inescapable. That the veil of secrecy is as firmly in place as it was in 1942 is unarguable.
That Australians lost their lives alongside a more famous figure and lie forever half a world away from their natural resting-place is certainly true. Their families, even after all this time, deserve an answer.
Jeff Goyen, Frank’s nephew and today a rehabilitation consultant in Coffs Harbour, NSW, told me his father, Allan, a war hero who was incarcerated in an Austrian prison camp after the fall of Greece, made it his first duty after being freed to travel to England to talk to Andrew Jack. The whole family yearned to know the true story.
Yet Sergeant Jack, the lone survivor, had been gagged. He obstinately stuck to a number of part recollections and despite many prompts during the rest of his life, never said anything of note to anybody. Except, on that one occasion, to reveal there was an extra body on board.
A mysterious extra person was on the plane.
RIGHT: Prince George, the Duke of Kent, in 1923. BELOW: The wreckage of the Sunderland Flying Boat in which the Duke and all but one crew member were killed in 1942.
LEFT: The Duke of Kent and Princess Marina married on November 29, 1934. ABOVE: A huge crowd greeted the couple at Buckingham Palace.
Like Prince Harry (above, right), Prince George (left) was the younger brother of a king-inwaiting, charming, known for his devil-may-care attitude and popular with the public.
FROM TOP LEFT: The Duke of Kent with his dog, Dushka, in the 1920s; Prince George and his wife, Marina, at Ascot races in 1939; their son, Prince Edward, today’s Duke of Kent, in 1935; Prince George and Princess Marina on the cover of The Sketch, to mark their wedding in 1934; the royal family in 1925, with Prince George at right; the Duke of Kent about to fly back to London after an official visit to Yorkshire in 1929.
ABOVE: One of the search-and-rescue team amid the debris of the crashed Sunderland in the Scottish Highlands, in August 1942. RIGHT: The Duke of Kent (left) with RAF officers after his appointment as Group Captain, Training Command, in 1940.