IT was in this week of 1942 that a major tragedy struck the Royal Family and saddened many people in Britain and elsewhere.

Despite the all-pervading atmosphere of death and destruction at the height of World War II, the death in an aircraft crash in Caithness of Prince George, the Duke of Kent, struck a terribly melancholic note, not least because he had been a hugely popular figure and at 39, was the father of three young children by his wife Princess Marina.

Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of his death, and theories old and new are always problematic because such records as were kept have either been “lost” or are sealed, probably permanently as is the case with many documents about the royals.

The known facts are simple and easily recounted. His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Edmund, Duke of Kent, was killed when the RAF Short Sunderland flying boat in which he was travelling to Iceland veered off course and crashed at full speed into a hillside at Eagle’s Rock near Dunbeath in Caithness on August 25, 1942. A total of 14 people were killed, with only one survivor who sustained dreadful burns.

The Duke became the first royal to die on active service since King James IV of Scotland was killed during the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

The aircraft was from 228 Squadron based at RAF Oban. The experienced crew had been assigned to transport the Prince to RAF Reykjavik on Iceland for what would have been one of his many regular morale-boosting visits to RAF personnel. The Short Sunderland flew to the seaplane base at RAF Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth and refuelled, before taking off in foggy weather just after 1pm on Sunday, August 25.

Less than half-an-hour later the Sunderland departed from its planned route and crashed into the Eagle’s Rock hillside, bursting into flames as its nearly full fuel tanks exploded. Among the dead were the Prince’s private secretary Lieutenant John Lowther, RNVR, the grandson of the First Viscount Ullswater. The pilot, Fl Lt Frank Goyen, and all the crew perished except for Sgt Andrew Jack the wireless operator and rear gunner, who was hospitalised with burns.

Rescue crews dashed to the scene but there was nothing they could do for anybody except Sgt Jack who had made his way to a nearby croft. Also there were police and Special Branch. The area was sealed off and an investigation began, while local people and the press were warned to stay away.

A board of inquiry was convened and quickly concluded that pilot error was the case of the accident.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid a generous tribute in the House of Commons to the brother of King George VI who was also the favourite uncle of our current monarch.

“The loss of this gallant and handsome Prince, in the prime of his life, has been a shock and a sorrow to the people of the British Empire, standing out lamentably even in these hard days of war. To His Majesty the King it is the loss of a dearly-loved brother, and it has affected him most poignantly. I knew the late Duke of Kent from his childhood, and had many opportunities of meeting him during the war, both at the Admiralty and thereafter. His overpowering desire was to render useful service to his King and country in this period when we are all of us on trial.

“The Duke of Kent was ready to waive his rank, to put aside all ceremony, and to undergo any amount of discomfort and danger or, what is harder still, of monotonous routine conscientiously performed, in order to feel quite sure that he was making a real contribution to our national struggle for life and honour. The field he made his own was that of the welfare and comfort of the Royal Air Force, which entailed an immense amount of work and travelling and yet yielded a continuous and useful result to which the personal qualities of the Duke contributed markedly.”

Prince George was no ordinary royal. He had a deserved reputation as a playboy and was rumoured to have had affairs with everybody from Noel Coward to Jessie Matthews. He had dabbled in hard drugs, but he had also been considered as a suitable replacement for King Edward VIII at the abdication crisis though it was his elder brother Bertie who took the throne despite his nerves and stammer.

George had no such problems and appears to have been a genuinely charismatic figure who had persevered in the Navy, despite suffering seasickness, before transferring to the RAF. On the outbreak of war he was asked to become an Air Commodore and have a public role as the face of the Air Force.

As arguably the most high-profile figure to die in Scotland during the war, a veritable blitz of media interest should have taken place, but the Government used its wartime powers to stop all inquiries other than the official one. The return of his body by train to London was shown on newsreel and there are reports of people crying in cinemas as they watched.

There had been other reports and rumours about George. Did he share the pro-Nazi sentiments of his brother, the Duke of Windsor? Was he really friendly with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Germand ambassador in London?

He and his family were living in Rosyth when he switched to the RAF at the start of the war. He was certainly often in the company of the Duke of Hamilton, so could he have been the real target of Nazi deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess on his flight to Scotland?

In recent years there have been revelations that the Duke himself might have been flying the aircraft and that a woman, presumably his lover, had been on board. We’ll never know for certain…