John Osborn looks back on seafaring days with Prince Philip

John Osborn
John Osborn with a book on Britannia

When Rockingham man John Osborn heard the news that Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh had died, it brought back a flood of happy memories from his days when he served as an able seaman on the royal yacht Britannia.

“I was absolutely devastated when I learnt the Duke of Edinburgh had passed away, I had bought him a 100th card for his birthday in a few months’ time,” John said.

Surrounded by memorabilia, John recalls the times he sailed the world with the Duke and, sometimes the Queen, on board, along with their two eldest children Prince Charles and Princess Anne. There were also tours with the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother.

“The Duke was a really nice guy, there was no put-on, he was very competitive, inquisitive and knowledgeable,” John said. 

Born in Lincolnshire on 31 May 1935 John grew up with his four sisters on a small farm but his parents didn’t want him to have a tough farming life so when he was 14 he applied to join the Royal Navy and was accepted, joining HMAS Ganges at 15.

“I did nine months’ training there and then went to the training ship HMS Indefatigable for 12 weeks before being posted to HMS Suberb which went to the West Indies. I then volunteered for the royal yacht Britannia and was interviewed in London with the first trip to Tobruk with a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne on board. There we met the SS Gothic which the Queen and Prince Philip had used for their Commonwealth tour. On the way back to the UK we called at Gibraltar.”

 In 1955 John was on board Britannia when Princess Margaret visited the West Indies to a joyous reception. Several photos of the princess show her greeting navy personnel, a dainty figure in fashions of the time.

the Duke of Edinburgh greets sailors at Christmas
The Duke of Edinburgh greets sailors at Christmas

John’s first real taste of mixing with royalty was the State visit to Norway in 1955 with the Queen and Prince Philip.

“The Prince played deck hockey and was very competitive and took part in all sports on board,” John recalled. 

John joined Prince Philip on a trip to Denmark and, in 1956–57, embarked on the four-month South Atlantic world tour.

“There was a beard-growing competition on board and the Duke told me he didn’t want to see me taking part as I had a head start with a very bushy beard,” John said.

The trip to the Antarctic culminated in Prince Philip opening the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956 with John meeting Australian runners Shirley Strickland and Betty Cuthbert who showed him around the Olympic village.

During the Antarctica trip crew members on board the Britannia met with Norwegian sailors for a football game. There was also an art poster drawn by Prince Philip commemorating crossing the Antarctic circle on 1 January 1957.

John has a framed copy bearing his name in his study. Among his onboard hobbies John enjoyed putting ships in bottles while other sailors did painting and making wool rugs.

On a trip with Prince Philip to the South Sea Islands in 1959 the prince shot a crocodile on the River Gambia.

“We saw him almost every day on board,” John said.

“A hectic Canadian visit by the Queen in 1959 saw her give us an extra’s fortnight’s shore leave because we had worked so hard.”

When John’s sister, Mary, who worked schooling the royal polo ponies at Windsor Castle, was kicked in the face by a horse, the Duke was extremely concerned and followed her recovery.

Recalling his naval service, John says he spent 10 years in the navy with only one Christmas at home but he loved what he was doing. When he broke his right arm while taking a boat to shore, a young Princess Anne signed her name on the cast along with crew members.

The Britannia generally had 240 naval personnel on board with two-thirds permanent and the remainder casual. During his naval years, John met Lord Louis Mountbatten and King Hussein of Jordan among many dignitaries including the Queen Mother who loved fishing. John was on board Britannia when she visited Northern Ireland in 1958.

In 1974 John, his late wife Betty and their two sons David and Andrew moved from Britain to Victoria, later settling in Perth where John took up a position for 15 years as a supervisor at Garden Island. He married Lillian in 2015.

“It has been a real privilege to know the people I have met,” John said.