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King George VI, The Early Years

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King George VI (1895-1952)

In the wide wooded grounds of Sandringham, near the lake, stood York Cottage, a country house almost as unpretending as its name. Here, on December 14th, 1895, was born Albert Frederick Arthur George, to become King George VI, second son of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.

The Prince spent most of his childhood here, with those brothers and sister, who were such a happy simple family despite their Royalty. His grandparents' beautiful country home was close at hand, in the midst of heather and trees, while across the low Norfolk countryside came the salt wind from that grey North Sea, which the Sailor Prince was later to know so well when he helped to keep watch and ward there, in the grey ships of the Navy during the Great War.

Under their governess, Madame Bricka, Prince Albert was a pupil in a small nursery school and at an early age learnt part of a Royal child's duty - to look pleasant. They were attending some local entertainment and Prince Albert felt, and appeared, somewhat bored. Whereupon Princess Mary, sixteen months his junior, nudged him, whispering loudly: "Smile, keep on smiling!" And Prince Albert obeyed.

The young Prince was only five years old when his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, died, and later in that same year, 1901, his parents went to Australia, to open the Federal Parliament, leaving their children in charge of his grandfather, King Edward Vli, and Queen Alexandra. King Edward was devoted to Prince Albert, as was the boy's own father. Concerning the latter it is said that when the Prince was asked which parent he loved best, he answered thoughtfully: 'Well, mother I think - but Daddy spoils us most.' When staying in London, the changing of the guard at St. James' Palace was a constant joy to the Royal children, and passers-by sometimes saw Prince Albert marching up and down in imitation of a Guard's sentry, whilst Princess Mary beat a drum.

It was of a certain lunch with King Edward on one of these London visits that an amusing story is told. Prince Albert, usually a shy, small boy, suddenly during the first course interrupted his grandfather's conversation and was gently reproved. Again he began: 'But, Grandpapa...' and again was reminded that children should be seen, not heard. At the end of the meal, King Edward said kindly: 'Now, what was it you wanted to say, my boy?' Prince Albert answered: 'It's no good now. It was only to tell you there was a caterpillar in your salad, but you've eaten it.'

There was a great reunion when the Duke and Duchess returned from their tour, and happy days with them at Sandringham, especially at Christmas, where the Royal children put up decorations and carried presents to all the villagers before receiving their own from the tree at night.

When nursery days were over, the Prince's real education began under Mr. H. B. Hansell, his tutor, with Monsieur Hua as French teacher. Prince Albert was an industrious boy, very persevering and steadily determined to learn, as he remained all his life. Yet, at the same time, he was very fond of all outdoor games, especially cricket and football, with swimming in summer and skating on the Sandringham lake in winter.

The best cricketer of his family, Prince Albert, when staying at Windsor Castle, did the 'hat trick,' bowling with three successive balls King Edward VII, his own father and his elder brother. The ball used for this feat was mounted and given to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Their Windsor cricket field was the Royal Household ground at Frogmore, where Prince Albert also played against elevens from Eton and St. George's School, Windsor. At Sandringham, besides cricket, he played football with the village boys, under the local schoolmaster, and so good a team resulted that they arranged fixtures against various private schools at Hunstanton and elsewhere.

In 1909, when he was thirteen years old, Prince Albert began his training for the Navy, first at Osborne, in the Isle of Wight, for two years, after which another two were spent at Dartmouth. He was keen on his work, both the seamanship and the engineering sides: indeed, his determination to learn all he could in ships' engine-rooms helped him since then to understand industrial machinery in factories, to know just why certain things happen and how various processes are brought about mechanically.

At Dartmouth, the Prince handled a boat better than any other cadet of his year, but he disliked the periodical examinations as much as many other boys, and they left him, as he said himself; 'usually at the bottom of the lists.' But he was thoroughly popular, both with his instructors and the other cadets, and described as 'a good sport' in everything, work and games alike.

While Prince Albert was still in his first year at Osborne, King Edward VII died, and his own father became King as George V. But the death of his grandfather did not change the Prince's life very much, since it was intended that he should make a career in the Navy, as his father did before him. In 1911, wearing his cadet uniform, he was one of that State carriageful of young and laughing Royalties, who, as King George's family, attracted so much attention at the Coronation of their father and mother.

Later in the summer, Prince Albert was at Balmoral and was described as playing dancing reels and flings; 'a charming, unaffected boy of fifteen, looking well in his Highland evening dress,' of Stuart tartan kilt, velvet coat and silver buttons and buckles.

In December, 1912, when he was just seventeen years old, Prince Albert passed out of Dartmouth and on January 18th, 1913, joined the county cruiser Cumberland, Captain Aubrey Smith; the cadet ship for that year, on which Prince Albert, with sixty other boys, was to gain practical sea experience before becoming a midshipman. The commander of Cumberland was an old friend of the Prince's, Commander H. Spencer Cooper; he had been one of his instructors at Dartmouth.

Afterwards Cumberland visited Cuba and Havana, then Bermuda, with its coral reefs and marvellous under-sea gardens. Here Prince Albert, who was such a keen boat-sailor, must have thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful sailing grounds of the Sounds, in the cedar-built Bermuda-rigged craft, so light that they almost seem to fly over the sea's surface.

Visits to Newfoundland and various Canadian ports completed the cruise and Prince Albert managed just to set foot in the United States by taking a trip to Niagara Falls. At the end of the tour the Prince was gazetted as midshipman to H.M.S. Collingwood, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Stanley Colville, of the First Battle Squadron. He joined her at Rosyth in September, 1913.

In October, Collingwood sailed for the Mediterranean on a two months' cruise, visiting Malta and Egypt, where Prince Albert stayed with 'K. of K.' The great soldier had won his title in that same country just after the Prince was born.

On his new ship, Prince Albert was just as popular as he had been at the Royal Naval College and on Cumberland, and, like most popular people, he received a nickname by which he was always known, that of 'Mr. Johnston'. 'Mr. Johnston' took an absolutely fair share in the ordinary ship's routine, up at six o'clock in the morning, attending classes in the school-room under the instructors, or taking his place in a working party with Naval ratings; eating a simple supper of bread, cheese, onions and beer, and slinging up his own hammock at the end of the day.

Like his father before him, Prince Albert took a hand in coaling ship, although he never chanced to cause such consternation as King George did, when, as a young naval officer, in an Eastern Port, he appeared black from head to foot with coal-dust to interview a Turkish minister, who was horrified at seeing a Royal Prince in such a state.

Prince Albert kept up his Dartmouth reputation by coming out a constant winner in sailing races, and he won especial praise, too, for his skilful handling when in charge of the picket boat. In fact, he had the all-round character of doing well whatever he undertook, of being ready to work himself to a standstill for a pal, while, at the same time, as one of his brother-midshipmen said: 'He was never one to push himself forward.'

1913 passed, and now came the year which was to mean so much for Prince Albert as for many other boys. 1914 began with ordinary Fleet exercises at Portsmouth, after which Spring and Summer training took place at Lamlash, in the Isle of Arran. By June the Fleet was back once more in Devonport, making ready for that great July Review which, as it turned out, was to be only a dress rehearsal for war itself.

Directly after mobilisation, King George visited his fleet and came on board Collingwood. After inspecting the ship, he received all the officers on the quarter-deck, the captain introducing each in turn. Quite at the tail of the line came Prince Albert, to be formally presented to the father whom he had not seen for some months. But both were disciplined sailors, so not a word passed between them. Midshipman Prince Albert clicked heels and saluted Admiral of the Fleet King George; that was all and enough.

Not more than a month after the outbreak of war, Prince Albert received the first of those heavy blows which would have knocked out a less courageous boy again and again. He was taken suddenly ill and removed to the Hospital ship, Rohilla, then to an Aberdeen Nursing Home for an appendicitis operation.

This was not all the trouble, however, as was to be discovered later, and the Prince still suffered a great deal of pain after leaving the Home and being sent to the Admiralty to work in the Operations Department. But a shore job was unbearable to a young sailor who so longed to be on active service once more. After five weeks of office work, he pestered the Naval Medical Board to such an extent that in February, 1915, they allowed him to go to sea again. So 'Mr. Johnston' rejoined Collingwood at Portsmouth, and on her went to the headquarters of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

That was only the beginning of the Prince's hard struggle against illness. For nine months he stuck to his ship, whilst she, with the rest of the Fleet, was keeping that grim watch in the North Sea. Then pain and weakness beat him for a time, and he went back to help his father in any way he could, with intervals in bed. But Prince Albert in the end got the chance he had fought for so hard and long: in May, 1916, he was allowed to rejoin Collingwood, just before the Battle of Jutland.

Collingwood was in the 5th Division of the First Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet, forming line with Colossus, the flagship, Neptune and St. Vincent on that grey and gloomy afternoon of May 31st, when the report came through that the German High Sea Fleet had put out to sea.

Visibility was bad and growing worse with the failing light; only occasional gun-flashes could be seen through the gathering mists which hid everything beyond four miles. Prince Albert was serving in Number Two Turret, 'A', 12-inch guns, the fore-turret of Collingwood, cooped up in that steel box, from which nothing could be seen and nothing heard, except the orders of an invisible gunnery officer through the telephone, giving range and direction on that invisible target. Then the great guns were swung and elevated into position; with their firing came the deafening crash, the tremendous recoil of that explosion and the turret filled with yellow smoke and acrid smells.

The gun-crew knew little more of the battle; hit or miss, they could not tell which: an enemy shell might shatter their turret at any moment. They just waited - but such waiting for part of a day and much of a night needed immense grit.

Collingwood's Division was in action for a good part of the engagement, even though the heaviest fighting was with the Battle Cruisers, Lord Beatty's great Cats, Lion, Tiger and the rest. The Fifth Squadron was attacked by enemy destroyers, and immediately afterwards Collingwood and Colossus had a close-range duel with two German Battle Cruisers, possibly Sydlitz and Derfflinger, who escaped, damaged, into a smothering smoke-screen.

The battle lasted long enough to make it almost another 'Glorious First of June' - that battle which was the most momentous fought by Britain at sea since Trafalgar itself. The Prince had played his part in it bravely and well, though it is characteristic of him and of the Royal Navy in general that afterwards the officer of Number Two Turret remarked the only thing he particularly remembered about the battle was that 'The Prince made cocoa as usual for me and the gun crew.'

Second-lieutenant Prince Albert was mentioned in despatches for his services at Jutland, and one of the things he treasured most is the White Ensign which was flown by Collingwood in the action. No wonder that he looked back upon that experience with pride, and that in his first address to the Navy after his accession he said: 'It has been my privilege to serve as a Naval officer both in peace and in war: at Jutland, the greatest sea battle of modern times, I saw for myself in action the maintenance of those great traditions which are the inheritance of British seamen.'

Article Source: This article has been adapted from an extract from King George VI, King and Emperor, 1937.


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