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Musing on the death of Prince Philip

Brittania in Kieta Harbour  Prince Philip on board   April 1971 (Terence Spencer)
Brittania in Kieta Harbour with Prince Philip on board,   April 1971. It is anchored behind a freighter waiting to dock at Kieta wharf (right) (Terence Spencer)


NOOSA – Early on the morning of Wednesday 17 March 1971, the black-hulled royal yacht HMY Brittania slipped slowly into Kieta harbour through the narrow main channel abeam of Pok Pok Island.

On board was Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visiting for a two night stay on Bougainville after a voyage through the Panama Canal and the Pacific islands and on to the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

That Wednesday morning heralded one of those sublime tropical days in Bougainville you wished would go on forever.

The Brittania anchored behind a small freighter waiting for a vessel to vacate Kieta’s tiny wharf.

Radio Bougainville’s staff had arrived early at work to prepare for our coverage of the Duke’s visit to be broadcast on the Government Broadcasting Service. We had an outside broadcast team on the harbour foreshores adjacent to the jetty from which the Duke and his party would make their landing from the royal barge.

And, aboard a small launch in the harbour, we had the skipper and a two-man team to broadcast the entry of Britannia into harbour and the Duke’s short trip to shore.

Duke parabolic microphone
Parabolic reflector and microphone

I’d received ample warning of the royal visit and asked our headquarters in Port Moresby to send a wireless microphone and a parabolic dish to enable us to broadcast from the launch.

Both items of equipment were new to the broadcasting service and had never previously been used in action. We trialled the new-fangled equipment the day before the Duke arrived.

There was a wireless microphone, something we’d never set eyes on before, which would transmit a radio signal to shore where the parabolic dish, about one meter across, would capture and focus the sound waves into a microphone facing the centre of the dish.

The dish was connected to the announcer-operated outside broadcast panel, itself linked to a telephone line to carry the broadcast signal to our transmitters at Toniva, just south of Kieta, from where it would be disseminated to Bougainville and beyond.

Royal barge brings the Duke ashore
The royal barge brings the Duke ashore (Bill Brown)

In addition to the two presenters on the launch, we had a larger outside broadcast team onshore ready to cover the Duke’s arrival at the small jetty near the centre of town. 

He was scheduled to spend the day visiting the Panguna copper mine, St Joseph’s Catholic School and, in the evening, a reception at the District Commissioner’s home on a ridge high above Kieta with a grand view of the harbour.

The announcers on the Radio Bougainville launch described the entry of Brittania to the harbour with a flawless running commentary. We onshore smiled at each other with quiet satisfaction. The broadcast, reliant on a technology we had not previously used in action, was perfect.

Then abruptly the voices coming from the launch dissolved into ugly static. It took us just a few seconds to work out why. The launch had disappeared behind the small freighter both out of sight and out of the line of sight of the parabolic dish.

The signals from the wireless microphone were now presumably bouncing off the freighter’s steel hull and bouncing back off Brittania in an endless repetitive loop going nowhere. And there was no way we could communicate with the guys on the launch to tell them to move into our line of sight.

Duke justin kil
Justin Kili OL MBE at the time the Duke of Edinburgh visited Kieta in 1971

Onshore, announcer Justin Kili, new in the job at the time but later to become a much loved radio voice throughout PNG, launched into a creative impromptu commentary about the cloudless sky, the swooping seabirds, the gentle wind, the sparkling water, the brightly-coloured crowd and the well-clad dignitaries who were just starting to arrive to greet the Duke …. anything he could discourse on.

Eventually the royal barge  bearing the Duke emerged from behind the small freighter and made its way to the shore. 

The dignitaries assembled in a neat line in front of the jetty and at the end of this line, I rubbed my eyes, yes, it was Justin Kili, neatly dressed as usual, holding a microphone with a long cord stretching back to our broadcast position and continuing his commentary.

Justin was still in the line as the Duke came ashore. He shook hands with the dignitaries one by one and, when he came to the end of the line, also shook hands with Justin and chatted with him awhile. I don't know what the protocol officer thought about this unexpected interview with the Duke, but he probably didn’t approve.

Duke and Bill Brown - Kieta foreshore
Bill Brown guides the Duke along the Kieta harbour foreshore (Bill Brown)

The Duke then set off on the rest of the day’s itinerary accompanied by District Commissioners Des Ashton and Bill Brown. 

Later in the day, as eminent a group of people as Bougainville could muster at the time attended a late afternoon reception for the Duke at the District Commissioner’s residence.

Ashton had been due to leave Bougainville in January but delayed his departure so he could participate in the royal visit. He left on leave the following day.

Brittania in Kieta harbour
A fully dressed Brittania in Kieta harbour, its signal flags fluttering from bow to stern in celebration of the visit (Bill Brown)

Brittania graced Kieta harbour in the afternoon light and the small township directly below us was of picture postcard beauty. No thunderstorm threatened. It was colonial life at its most idyllic.

As I stood there sipping on the free beer, the Duke circled towards me for a chat, beginning by asking me what was my purpose on the island.

When I told him I was the manager of Radio Bougainville, he responded, ‘but you’re so young’.

I jokingly retorted that after the perils of broadcasting his visit here I didn’t feel so young. We laughed, spoke a short time more and the Duke moved on to the next conversation

At that time, I was 26. If I’d better educated myself, I would have realised that, when Prince Philip had been my age, he’d packed in much more adventure and achievement than many people do in a lifetime.

As a Royal Navy sub-lieutenant he’d been mentioned in dispatches for his courageous action while under fire controlling the searchlights of the battleship HMS Valiant during the battle of Cape Matapan against the Italian fleet.

A year later he was promoted to first lieutenant and second in command of the destroyer HMS Wallace, at 21 he one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy.

Duke Prince Philip when a Royal Navy officer in World War II
Prince Philip when a young Royal Navy officer in World War II

During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, he saved Wallace from a night-time bomber attack by loading a liferaft with smoke flares and propelling it away from the vessel, successfully deceiving the bombers and allowing his ship to slip away unnoticed.

On the destroyer Whelp, his final posting in World War II, he was present in Tokyo Bay in September 1945 when the Japanese surrender was signed.

He returned to England the following year to ask King George VI if he would agree that he, Philip, could take Princess Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.

The king agreed but first told Philip he must renounce his royal title of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and become a British subject.

At the time he married the princess who became Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip was just 26. So young.


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Bill Brown

You left out the story of the Avis lady's flustered reply to the Duke at the reception. When asked what her role was in Kieta, she responded, "I'm the Avis rent-a-girl."

Martin Hadlow

On 22 February 1974 HMY Britannia returned to Kieta, this time carrying HM the Queen, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, HRH the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) and her (then) husband Captain Mark Phillips. Completing the official party was Lord Louis Mountbatten.

At the time, I was station manager of Radio Bougainville, having taken over from Keith, who had gone on to higher roles at NBC headquarters in Port Moresby.

Given the magnitude of the whole royal tour, someone (not Keith) in Port Moresby had decreed that, rather than trusting local broadcasting stations with on-air commentary duties, a group from HQ, comprising a manager/producer, announcers and technicians, would follow the royal party around PNG.

Prior to the visit, the manager/producer visited Kieta and caused immediate offence to our professional team by dictatorially issuing instructions (which made little sense) about how our station was to be subservient to his demands.

This person, who had extremely limited (if any) practical broadcasting skills later went on to cause a massive on-air blunder during the royal visit to Rabaul when his voice echoed around the stadium as he instructed a technician to place the microphone closer to the Queen.

Keith has previously written (in PNG Attitude) of this incident when, if I recall correctly, the words "stick it to the Queen" were heard by all present, including the Royal party, after the producer inadvertently used the public address system to relay his message.

The one day Bougainville visit involved the Queen, with Princess Anne and her husband, doing the Kieta, Toniva, Arawa circuit, while Prince Philip and Lord Louis undertook the trek up the hill to the Panguna mine-site. Everywhere swarmed journalists, photographers and TV crews from Fleet Street and Australia.

One of my abiding memories of the day is of the Queen meeting school children and other members of the public at a very crowded sports ground in Arawa.

The British press had demanded a prime location above the melee to report the occasion, and were rewarded with the construction of a raised wooden platform (with steps attached) which looked suspiciously to me like the foundations and flooring of a standard Administration house.

Indeed, I was later told (hopefully correctly) that the PWD had simply used the materials destined for the construction of the house of a kiap at an outstation in Bougainville to build the platform.

Thanks to a two-hour Royal visit to 'meet the people', the kiap would have to wait another few months for his new home.

Unfortunately, no chance for any of us in Kieta to enjoy drinks at sunset with Royalty as the entire group was back on the Britannia before dusk and, no doubt, swigging G&Ts as the ship steamed from the harbour heading for Rabaul.

The 'stick it to the Queen' comment was indeed made and inadvertently broadcast throughout PNG. It was made by the abrasive manager of Radio Rabaul, Paul Cox, who had been assigned as broadcast supremo for the royal visit. Cox was summarily relieved from this position and soon departed the NBC - KJ

Arthur Williams

On my August 1970 ASOPA course was another Pommie who had once been in the crew of the Britannia. Blowed if I can recall his name. Tony English may recall.

My brain tells me I watched Phillip and Elizabeth's wedding on black and white television. Would that have been available in the UK in 1947?

One thing I do recall, perhaps from the press, was a shadowy picture of Princess Alice, the Duke's very unhappy mother. Personally I think hers is a far more interesting story than her son's.

It is worth a read especially if interested in the misogyny of the early years of the twentieth century. Amazingly she was once even titled Princess Andrew of Greece.

Regular television broadcasts in the UK started in 1936. The BBC broadcast its first colour pictures in 1967 - KJ

Philip Kai Morre

Prince Philip was a role model and a man of dignity that every royal family should follow.

The Queen should declare a holiday to celebrate the life and death of the Duke of Edinburgh. May God grand him eternal peace.

Paul Oates

Phil, referring to your original Macedonian namesake, Philip, this could well be just an example of a minute part of the greater human passing parade of cultural heritage.

I remember noting on this very site some years ago, having just returned from that part of the world, that I committed the gravest of errors by writing in a 'visitors book' in the museum at Olympia, Greece, the sentence, 'Thank you for looking after our history'.

The young Greek tour guide arced up at that and said: 'It's our heritage, not yours.'

I suggested to her that it all depends on your individual viewpoint. If you look at how human history has evolved and developed, every part of the story of our human history is a integral part of the whole picture.

A 'grump!' was all that I then received at that suggestion.

Yet it all depends on what coloured glasses you put on. Rose coloured or grey?

It's been said before that it behooves us not to speak ill of the dead. 'Phil the Greek' had many good ideas and energetically promoted beneficial activities. It can't have been an easy role.

The current obsessive media feeding frenzy about Prince Philip is merely a follow on from the current media obsession about the pandemic that has cluttered the air waves with ongoing 'up to the minute' reports to the point where opinions seem to mean more then clear, medical experience.

Before that we had the 'woke' media frenzy and before that.....

What I what to know is, when the next 'Good News' story might struggle to the surface of social media to gain some attention and allow some rational and relaxed humour to penetrate the global psyche.

Chris Overland

I tend to agree with Phil that the late Prince Philip was not especially relevant to my life either.

However, he was a constant if distant presence in my life, as the Queen has been. In fact, being born in 1951 I have literally never known any Monarch other than the redoubtable Elizabeth II.

Given my various infirmities and the Queen's spectacularly good genetics, I may well expire before she does. I am slightly surprised to outlive Prince Philip who, until recently at least, seemed as indestructible as his wife.

I think that the media coverage of Prince Philip's life has been somewhat overwrought and overdone but his war record in particular seems to me to be worthy of note.

Sadly, it is probably his penchant for making ill advised comments, mostly in a humorous vein, that will be most remembered.

Still, he stuck gamely to the task of being a Royal for virtually the whole of his life and I think that that deserves a degree of admiration.

The price of Royal privilege is a relentless series of engagements whereby one has to be polite to a vast array of people, most of whom are too overawed or intimidated to do much more than engage in a meaningless exchange of pleasantries. This sounds like hard work to me.

Anyway, the good Prince has now departed this life and my sympathies lie with his wife and her family who will miss him very much.

So vale Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Greece, Denmark and Britain, Duke of Edinburgh. A long life, well lived. We should all be so lucky.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Prince Philip married Elizabeth, the future queen of England, on 20 November 1947. I was born 7 months later.

After the royal marriage, besotted young mothers in England and elsewhere started naming their sons Philip. My English mother was one of them.

I don’t think my Irish father had a say in the matter, he didn’t get that choice until my sisters came along.

For a half Irish kid inclined to be sympathetic with my paternal origins I’ve had to live with knowing who inspired my name ever since.

I’ve got nothing against Prince Philip. He and the other overly indulged royals have been and still are utterly irrelevant in my life.

Not that people ever ask, but if they did I think I’d stress the Grecian origins of my name, someone fond of horses, as indeed I am, especially Irish horses.

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