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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 January 2006, 11:58 GMT
A right royal rescue
By Sian Price
Producer, Tinderbox Productions

Lieutenant Philip on HMS Whelp
The future Duke of Edinburgh (front centre) with fellow officers
In January 1945, Air Gunner Norman Richardson and his pilot were shot down by a Japanese fighter plane, to be rescued by the young naval officer who would become HRH Prince Philip.

Some 60 years after he was plucked from the sea off Sumatra by a Royal Navy destroyer, Norman "Dickie" Richardson meets his rescuer at Buckingham Palace. The men are older, but their memories are fresh and vivid as they launch into wartime reminiscences.

    "Good morning Your Royal Highness."
    "It's you again! Well, at least you're dry this time."
    "Do you remember the last time we met?"

They first met during the largest air strike ever launched by the Royal Navy. Planes from four aircraft carriers of the British Pacific Fleet launched a decisive attack on two Japanese-held oil refineries on Sumatra, causing damage which virtually stopped the supply of fuel to South-East Asia, a crucial factor in bringing about the end of the war in the Pacific.

But there was a cost for the attackers. "It was a bit on the dangerous side" says Dickie, recalling the obstacles faced - balloon cables, anti-aircraft fire and Japanese fighters, one of which shot his plane down.

The plane was hit in the hydraulics, and a fire broke out on board. Underpowered and rapidly losing height, Dickie and his pilot, Roy "Gus" Halliday, made for the Java Sea where the plane crashed. The previously untold story of how they survived is recounted in a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

All but sunk

"I was relieved to make it over the jungle - you didn't want to crash there. Aside from the wild animals, there were a lot of wild people as well," says Dickie, who says captured aircrews faced beheading and torture by the Japanese.

At the palace 60 years on
A story went around that you personally lent me a pair of shorts
Dickie Richardson to Prince Philip
The plane hit the water about a mile from HMS Whelp, part of Force 63, a group of destroyers whose job it was to patrol the waters around Sumatra.

As the downed men struggled to inflate their life raft, and with the plane rapidly filling with water, the first lieutenant of Whelp dispatched a rescue boat to haul them to safety.

"The first lieutenant was leaning over the rail and introduced himself as Lieutenant Philip," recalls Dickie. He arranged clean, dry clothes for them, and ensured they were fed and watered. At the time, they had no idea who he was - but his friendliness and efficiency remained with them.

It was some time later that Dickie discovered the true identity of his rescuer when a friend told him about the framed picture of Elizabeth that Prince Philip had in his private cabin. The royal wedding would be two years later and at the time, he was still Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Greece, aged 23.

Close to the throne

Halliday also recalls the first meeting: "He didn't explain that he was very closely connected to Buckingham Palace - he was very discreet."

Elizabeth and Philip leave Westminster Abbey
The royal wedding in 1947
He became friendly with Prince Philip on the passage to Western Australia. "He was willing to talk about anything that might interest two blokes who - let's face it - were of a very similar age. Still are."

The 21-year-old pilot went on to become Vice-Admiral Sir Roy Halliday, but not until after one more royal rescue. Upon arrival in Freemantle, Prince Philip took him ashore for some celebratory drinks - and ensuring that he made it back to the ship after a number of customary rums.

The men retain a humility and modesty about their roles, seeing themselves as just one of many fighting to bring about peace. As Prince Philip recalls of his part in the rescue: "I was just another naval officer."

A Right Royal Rescue is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT on Friday 27 January, or listen online afterwards on Radio 4's Listen again page.

Hear Prince Philip talk about the rescue


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