Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Alex Wernher - A close friend of the Duke of Edinburgh

It is a simple white grave marker at the Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery in Béja, Tunisia, that marks the final resting place of George Michael Alexander Wernher.  A plaque on Alex’s grave reads: “In ever loving memory of George Michael Alexander (Captain 17/21 Lancers), only son of Sir Harold Wernher, K.C.V.O., who died on active service at Béja. 4 December 1942.  Aged 24.  Buried in Military Cemetery Medjez-el-Bab Cemetery.”

Alex Wernher took part in several battles that began in mid-November 1942 when a German military delegation arrived in Béja and issued an ultimatum to the city’s mayor: surrender the city.  The mayor got word to a civil governor who sent the message to British military officials in Algiers.  The following day, November 17, British battalions began parachuting into the hills, just north of the city.    Two days later, the Germans began bombing Béja.  During the next three months, fierce battles ensued, as the Allied forces were determined to defend the city.  The Germans began their final assault on February 28, 1943, to no avail.  They were forced to surrender in April.         
The British sustained 1,800 casualties including Captain Wernher, whose death was reported on December 24, 1942, in The Times’ “On Active Service.”

Alex’s death was a “cruel blow to his many friends,” a friend wrote in a personal tribute nearly six weeks later.   The friend noted that Alex was a “keen soldier, and was loved and respected by all who served with him.  His buoyant spirits and charm of manner were among his finest qualities.  Invariably cheerful, even under the most difficult conditions, he had the gift of inspiring others and was equally at ease with young and old in all walks of life.  He seemed to radiate an atmosphere of sunshine and happiness.”

Embed from Getty Images 

Alex’s friend (the writer is not identified) did not mention was the young man’s illustrious and well-connected family. His uncle, Sir Derrick Wernher, was the second Baronet, and the father of a daughter, who could not succeed to the title. Alex’s father, Sir Harold, who was Derrick’s younger brother, was the heir presumptive to the title – already in control of the family’s vast fortune.   And then there were Alex’s royal connections.   He was a descendant of Nicholas I of Russia.   One of his godfathers was King George V, a friend of his maternal grandfather, Grand Duke Michael of Russia.

His mother, Zia, was born Countess Anastasia Torby, the elder daughter of Grand Duke Michael, and his morganatic wife, Countess Sophie von Merenberg, whose maternal grandfather was the acclaimed Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Sophie was a child of a morganatic marriage, as well. She was the eldest of three children of Prince Nikolaus of Nassau and Natalia Alexandrovna Pushkina.  Sophie’s paternal uncle was  Grand Duke Adolphe of Luxembourg and her paternal aunt was  Queen Sophia of Sweden, the consort of King Oscar II. First cousins on her father’s side included Princess Elisabeth of Wied, who married King Carol I of Romania,  the Duchess of Albany (Princess Helen of Waldeck und Pyrmont), and her sister, Queen Emma of the Netherlands, widow of Willem III and mother of Queen Wilhelmina.

Embed from Getty Images

Grand Duke Michael was one of seven children of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich of Russia and Princess Olga of Baden, and a grandson of Nicholas I.  Michael’s siblings included Grand Duchess Anastasia, who married Grand Duke Friedrich Franz III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin ( mother of Queen Alexandrine of Denmark and Crown Princess Cecilia of Prussia), Grand Duke George, who married Princess Marie of Greece, and Grand Duke Alexander, who was the husband of Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of Nicholas II.   (These family connections were important in Alex’s family.  Grand Duchess Marie (nee Greece) and Grand Duchess Xenia were King George V’s first cousins.)

Michael’s morganatic marriage led to exile in France and England.  The family leased Kenwood House in Regent’s Park until the Russian Revolution.  Exiled saved his life, but  Michael lost property, providing him with a comfortable income.  Michael and Sophie had never known what it was like to be poor.  With few resources apart from a gracious loan from King George V (£10,000), the Grand Duke and his wife had to move out of Kenwood House to a smaller residence.  It was imperative that their two daughters, Zia and Nadejda (Nada), marry well.

Embed from Getty Images

Nada was the first to marry.  In July 1916, she wed Prince George of Battenberg, the second of four children of Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and Prince Louis of Battenberg, a child of another morganatic marriage.   Louis was one of four children of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine and a Polish countess, Julia von Hauke, who was created Princess of Battenberg, by her brother-in-law, Grand Duke Ludwig II of Hesse and By Rhine.

Embed from Getty Images 

 The princely title of Battenberg was also carried by Julie and Alexander’s children and male-line descendants.   Prince Louis of Battenberg served in the Royal Navy, and he and his wife, Victoria, divided their time between homes in Germany and England.  The couple’s first child, Alice, was born in 1885 at Windsor Castle.  She married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, whose sister,  Princess Marie, married Grand Duke George, brother of Grand Duke  Michael.

Alice and Andrew were the parents of five children, four daughters, and, a son, Philip, born in 1921. 

In 1917, Louis renounced his German titles and created Marquess of Milford Haven, Earl of Medina, Viscount Berkhamstead, by King George V, with the surname Mountbatten, an anglicized version of Battenberg.   Their elder son, Prince George, was styled as the Earl of Medina, while the two younger children were now Lady Louise and Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Prince George's parents were also worried about money, as most of Prince Louis' property was in Germany. Due to these straitened circumstances, Louis could give George only £350 per year as a wedding gift.  Michael purchased a small home for the newlyweds at Rosyth, as George was attached to Admiral Beatty, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

Zia had known her future husband, Harold Wernher (1893-1973) since they were children in Cannes, where Sir Julius and Lady Wernher first met Grand Duke Michael and Countess Sophie von Merenberg.  The two families became close friends. Harold Wernher was the second of three sons of German-born financier Julius Wernher, who made his fortune in diamonds in South Africa, and Alice Mankiewicz, whom he had met and married after he had moved to England.   He was created a baronet in 1905.   Sir Julius was one of England’s richest men. When he died in 1912, he left an estate worth £12 million ($60 million today).   His eldest son, Derrick, succeeded to the baronetcy, but Harold was the primary beneficiary of Sir Julius’ immense wealth.

After a two-month engagement, Zia and Harold were married on July 20, 1917, at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra, and other members of the Royal Family. That September.  Countess Zia became Lady Zia Wernher when George V gave Royal Assent to her new precedence as a daughter of an earl. 

Alex was born on August 22, 1918, in Edinburgh.  Nada sent a telegram to her sister: “Congratulations.  Tell Harold he is a good shot.”

  The Aberdeen Daily Journal noted that Lady Zia’s newborn son will “eventually be the heir to the immense fortune of the late Sir Julius Wernher.”  The baptism was on October 22 at the Boothby Parish Church, near Grantham.  King George V was one of the sponsors at the baptism but did not attend the ceremony. He was represented by Sir Harry Verney, Bt.  The other sponsors were Grand Duke Michael, the Marquess of Milford Haven, the Earl of Medina, Major W.R. Styles, Lady Victoria Primrose, the Countess of Medina, and Miss Margaret Pryce.

The three names were in honor of King George V,  Count Michael Torby (Zia’s brother), and Harold’s younger brother, Alexander Pigott Wernher, who had been killed in action in France in September 1916.

Alex and his two younger sisters, Georgina (Gina) and Myra grew up at Thorpe Lubenham Hall in Leicestershire, which Harold purchased after the Armistice.   Lubenham’s “stream of visitors” was described as  “positively endless.” 
Princess Elizabeth, a year younger than Myra, first came to tea when she was two and a half years old – “two little things running around.”   The young princess would have swimming lessons with Gina and Myra   Time was also spent at Luton Hoo, first rented by Sir Harold’s father, Sir Julius, in 1899, and purchased outright four years later.

Summers were spent in Scotland at Downie Park and Invermark, where Alex honed his hunting skills. He resembled his mother, “fair with slightly Slavic eyes.”  Unlike Lady Zia, whose passion for horses and racing was well known, Alex was more interested in the arts and music.   He did not share his parents’ enthusiasm for equine pursuits, but eventually got over his “nervousness with horses.”   At Eton, Alex was a “prominent member of the shooting eight,” and gained a “remarkable record as a crack rifle shot.”  After Eton, he attended Sandhurst where he received the ‘Saddle’ award for the best rider.   He also played golf very well.

By all accounts, Alex Wernher was a “delightful, unspoilt boy,” despite his father’s wealth, his mother’s heritage, and his royal connections.  His life, albeit shortened by war, would have a profound impact on a cousin, three years younger, who saw Alex as a mentor and the “older brother” he never had.

Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was the youngest child and only son of Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andrew of Greece.  The young prince, born in June 1921 at Mon Repos in Corfu, spent most of his formative years in exile in Germany and Britain.  By the early 1930s, Philip’s parents were living apart.  Alice suffered from mental illness and underwent treatment in several sanatoriums.   Prince Andrew (and his mistress) headed for more a sunny clime in France and Monaco, where he enjoyed the casinos.

Alice’s brother, George, the 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, stepped in to become Philip’s guardian. 

Embed from Getty Images 

Prince Andrew wanted his son to attend an English school, and George chose to send Philip to his prep school, Cheam, where his only son, David, Earl of Medina, two years Philip’s senior, was a pupil. It was Philip’s first introduction to an extended family that included his grandmother, Victoria, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, who lived in a grace and favor apartment at Kensington Palace, Uncle George, and Aunt Nada, and their two children, Lady Tatiana, who was mentally disabled,  and David,  who would become one of Philip’s closest friends, and their cousins, Alex, Gina, and Myra Wernher.  This small circle of young children also included two more first cousins, Patricia and Pamela, the daughters of Philip’s maternal uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose of York.

Embed from Getty Images 

[Lord Louis (later the Earl Mountbatten of Burma), would play a role in Philip’s life, but this would not happen until after the death of his brother, George Milford Haven, in 1938, when Philip chose to join the Royal Navy.] 

 George Milford Haven was Philip’s official guardian although other family members, including the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, were more involved with raising the young prince.  Philip spent school holidays with his sisters in Germany or at Lubenham with his “honorary uncle and aunt,” Sir Harold and Lady Zia.

The Wernhers provided a “useful corrective” in contrast to the “louche milieu” that the young Philip found with Uncle George and Aunt Nada at Lynden, their country home.  Lady Zia was said to be shocked by her sister’s behavior in Cannes, where she frequented lesbian bars, and acquired several women friends, including Gloria Vanderbilt, the young widow of Reginald Vanderbilt, and mother of a young daughter, also named Gloria. [Gloria was also a friend of Prince Gottfried (Friedel) of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who married Philip’s eldest sister, Princess Margarita.]

The Wernhers offered Philip the stability of a happy family life. Alex adored his younger cousin.  Philip was “particularly close” to Alex, and looked up to him as an older brother.  After spending three years at Cheam, Philip returned to Germany to attend school at Schloss Salem,  the home of his sister, Theodora, and her husband, Berthold, the Margrave of Baden.  The school was opened in 1923 by Berthold’s father, Prince Max of Baden, and was run by the respected educator, Kurt Hahn, a German Jew.  But as National Socialism began to creep into Germany’s social fabric, including education, Hahn was forced to seek refuge in Britain.  In the spring of 1934, he opened Gordonstoun, based on the Salem School, in Morayshire.  Plans were made for Prince Philip to leave Salem and join Hahn’s new school in September, a month before Philip’s cousin, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, married Prince George, Duke of Kent, the youngest surviving son of King George V.

Embed from Getty Images 

 The royal wedding may have been the first occasion where eight-year-old Princess Elizabeth, one of Marina’s bridesmaids, met her thirteen-year-old third cousin, Prince Philip.   As they grew older, there were other occasions when their paths would cross due to their mutual circle of cousins and friends. Childhood games and tea parties led to lifelong friendships.  Philip’s two closest friends were his first cousin, David (who succeeded his father as 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven in 1938, when George succumbed to cancer), and Alex Wernher.

   As war loomed in Europe, all three young men joined the British military.  Lord Louis largely persuaded his nephew to join the Royal Navy.   He passed the entrance exams for the Royal Britannia Naval College (Dartmouth) and entered the school as a cadet after finishing his education at Gordonstoun.  It was at Dartmouth in July 1939, where it has been alleged that Prince Philip, 18, first met 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth. The heiress presumptive to the throne and her younger sister accompanied their parents on an official visit to Dartmouth, where Prince Philip was asked to entertain the young princesses.

There are at least a half dozen different versions of what has been called the first meeting between the future Queen and her husband.  Due to family connections  (especially through the Wernhers_- and the same circle of friends – that Elizabeth and Philip had met as children.  This meeting, however,  sealed their fates.    Before he left Dartmouth, Prince Philip was invited by Queen Elizabeth to a party at  Royal Lodge at Windsor, one of the last royal parties before the war.  Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten, Nada Milford Haven, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Sir Harold and Lady Zia were among the guests.  Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth were able to meet again.

Prince Philip would be the first to acknowledge that Sir Harold and Lady Zia were major influences in his life.   He spent many of his school holidays at Thorpe Lubenham or Luton Hoo.  Holidays with the Wernhers were “fun and games,” where everyone rode and fooled around, especially the three Wernher children, their cousin, David, and David’s cousin, Prince Philip.

Alex had “all the charm in the world.”   He never “boasted about his grand connections,” but loved telling funny stories about his mother.  He also knew that Lady Zia would not approve of some of the “girls he courted.”  He shared “digs, tents, and girlfriends,” with Bobby Peacock, a friend since Eton.  Lady Zia would have been “horrified” if she knew that her good friend, Cecil Boyd-Rochfort had arranged for Alex and Bobby to have dinner with some of the young women from the Windmill Theatre.

 He celebrated his Russian heritage, and on occasion, he would break into a Cossack dance.   A family friend said of Alex: “Once he was in the Army, he took life with both hands.”  For his 21st birthday, Alex received a large car from his father.  He said to Sir Harold that he did not want the car.  He had wanted a small car.   Sir Harold gave him an annual allowance of £500 a year, which was more than enough for Alex to “keep three polo ponies,” when he was stationed in Meerut, India.

Sir Harold and Lady Zia were in London on September 3, 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany.  They decided to “drive immediately to see Alex,” based in Colchester.  During the First World War, Harold served in the trenches.  The memories of war still haunted him.  He and Zia feared for their son, whom they “idolized.”

Embed from Getty Images 

After he joined the army, Alex proclaimed “My Life is Good.”  Following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Alex wanted to volunteer to fight on the Russian front.  His mother was “nearly frantic” with his suggestion. Sir Harold knew this would not happen. His connections in the War Office informed him that Alex’s regiment, the 17/2st Lancers was to be the “spearhead of the 1st Army in Algeria and Tunisia.    In 1942, he was stationed in Tunisia with the 17/21 Lancers.

According to Raleigh Trevelyan’s largely official history of the Wernher family, Grand Duke and Diamonds, he wrote about Alex’s final days, based on his final letters to his mother. Two days before his death, he wrote to Zia about the ten days of fighting he had witnessed, as he saw shells coming straight at him.

“Well Ma, so far all is well, and I hope my luck goes on. I feel it will somehow, as I seem to come out of all our engagements better than most.   I think of you all a great deal. Give my best love to Pa, Gina, and Myra. I will write again soon.  Much love, Alex.”

That evening as Alex’s squadron headed back to the harbor, he suffered a fatal injury.  He got trapped between two tanks as they were pulled out of a gully.  One of his legs and hip were crushed.  He “remained amazingly cheerful” but without any proper medicines, such as penicillin, “gangrene soon set in.”    The military doctor donated a pint of his own blood to Alex, who “drifted in and out of consciousness,” for some hours.

Alex Wernher’s last words were to send his family “all his love.”   He died the following morning.

Lady Zia was at her desk in the drawing room at Thorpe Lubenham and Myra was playing the piano when the butler brought in the telegram with the news of Alex’s death.   Harold and Zia were “devastated” by the news.  They never talked about their son's death in public.  Harold’s mother, Lady Ludlow, wrote separate letters to Harold and Zia, describing the “special bond,” she had with her only grandson.  She understood the loss.  Her youngest son, Alexander, was killed in the First World War at age 19, and now, her only grandson, who was named after his late uncle, was killed in the Second World War at 24 years old. 

“Seeing the disparity in our ages, our relationship was extraordinary and the most precious thing in my life. We had much in common, not only in our tastes but in our outlook in life and he liked to discuss those with me and never felt I was too old to understand.”

 Alex’s friend Bobby Peacock arrived in Tunisia two days after his death and took part in three weeks of “hectic fighting.”   It was not until the end of the year that he could visit Alex’s simple grave, “marked with a wooden cross and stones.’   Bobby, who had known Alex since both were boarders at Eton, placed flowers on the grave.  He also took a photograph, and sent it to the grieving Lady Zia, unable to fully understand the “realities of war.”  Her response to Bobby was: “Is this the best you can do?”   It was.

The one person who had not heard about Alex’s death was Prince Philip, serving as second-in-command on the HMS Wallace, a destroyer patrolling the “particularly dangerous waters” of the North Sea and the English Channel.   He had sent a Christmas card to Harold and Zia, signed “Love, Philip.”   Zia could not understand that Philip had not been told about Alex’s death.  She “complained bitterly” to Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Embed from Getty Images 

Lord Louis sent a telegram to Philip with the bad news, and Philip wrote to Zia on January 10, 1943.  “Ever since I got the telegram from Uncle Dickie, I have been in a daze.  Alex filled a place of a brother and for that alone, I am eternally grateful to him. As the older boy, he was the guide and the pillow and in a great many ways I tried to model myself on him. As I grew older, I was able to find many of my shortcomings by just comparing myself to him and in some cases, I managed to do them right.

“It is not easy for me to try and say what I thought of him because there are no words which can describe a friendship between two boys, those things just are and one does not stop to think why.

“Dear Zia, I know you will never think very much of me. I am rude and unmannerly and I say many things out of turn which I realize afterwards must have hurt someone.  Then I am filled with remorse and I try to get matters right....”

Alex’s will was made public in April 1943.  Lord Louis was one of the two executors of Alex’s estate.   He left an estate worth £30, 906 (£1,205,334 in 2016) with the primary bequests to his cousin, the Marquess of Milford Haven (£5000), and the London Clinic (£2000), with several smaller “personal legacies” to several others including Miss Bonner, a former nurse.

 Philip remained close to Sir Harold and Lady Zia.  They were among the first to know about his engagement to Princess Elizabeth.   Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were favorite visitors to Luton Hoo, where they often spent their wedding anniversary.  They, however, did not spend their honeymoon at Luton Hoo.

 Lady Zia and the Queen shared a passion for horses and horse racing.

Alex Wernher was only 24 years old when he died in Tunisia.  He was an adored son, much loved by his parents, sisters, and close friends.  Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh,  rarely discussed his friendship with Alex.  He considered Alex as his “mentor.”  Alex certainly played an important role – the older brother – in Philip’s life.   There is no doubt in my mind that if Alex had survived the war, he would have returned home to take on the responsibilities of his inheritance.  He would have married, and perhaps, the Wernher baronetcy might have remained extant, rather than become extinct in 1973 when Sir Harold died.   Prince Philip chose their mutual first cousin, David, as his best man, but it may have been Alex who would have received that honor had he survived the war.

Embed from Getty Images 

Their friendship was based on the mutual respect that Philip treasured for his entire life.  One can imagine how Alex would have reacted to Philip’s love for his sister’s friend, Princess Elizabeth.  David had blotted his copybook with Prince Philip when he used his position as his best man to “advance his business career.”   It would be some years before David was welcomed back to Buckingham Palace. Alex would not have needed to exploit his relationship with Philip for financial gain.

Of all of Philip’s biographers, only Tim Heald and Philip Eade have written about his friendship with Alex Wernher.   Philip was a young boy from a broken home who needed friends and family.  His extended family embraced him and provided him with much-needed stability, and Alex Wernher, nearly three years his senior, offered friendship. 

It was a friendship that HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh has never forgotten.

If you like this perhaps you can buy me a latte ...

Grand Dukes and Diamonds is a fabulous book.


Andrew said...

When all of this is over, Kenwood House can be visited, in Hampstead, north London. In lovely grounds, it is run by English Heritage as an art gallery and has an outdoor cafe.

ZagorH said...

Is it Wernher who donated his art collection to the museum at Ranger House in Greenwich Royal Park?

Marlene Eilers Koenig said...

The male of the Wernher family is extinct. Luton Hoo was inherited by Georgina's son, Nicholas Phillips. He suffered financial problems, committed suicide. Luton Hoo was eventually sold, now a posh hotel. His family made arrangements for the collection to go Ranger House