Osla and Sarah went to work at the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft factory in Slough. (2) "When the war started, me and a great friend of mine, Osla Benning (Henniker-Major), decided we wanted to do something really important. And we thought: making aeroplanes.... We had to learn how to cut Durol, which the planes were made of. We did that for a while, and then Osla and I felt we weren't really doing enough." (2)
Sarah Norton considered Osla very beautiful. She later recalled that she had "dark hair, alabaster white skin, an exquisite figure and a gentle loving nature". Sarah was asked by Lord Mountbatten to find a girlfriend for Philip Mountbatten, a Greek prince. Sarah remembers: “Uncle Dickie (Lord Mountbatten) said to me: 'I don’t think Philip’s got a girlfriend at the moment. I wish you could find a nice girl for him because he doesn’t know anyone. Osla didn’t have a boyfriend at the time" and she arranged for them to meet. (3)
Janie Spring has claimed: "I do know that he was her first love She never told me about him for years. She just said: 'I fell in love with a naval officer.’ Then I found a wonderful picture of Philip, very young-looking, with his hair all tousled, quite curly… I could see why they got on. They were both very much outsiders. Neither of them had experienced much emotional warmth or security as children." (4)
Osla and Sarah both spoke German and this brought them to the attention of Alastair Denniston, the head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). Keith Batey later recalled that Denniston liked appointing young women from upper-class families: "The first two girls (employed at GCCS) were the daughters of two chaps that Denniston played golf with at Ashtead. Denniston knew the family, he knew that they were nice people and... well, that their daughters wouldn't go around opening their mouths and saying what was going on. The background was so important if they were the sort of people who were not going to go around telling everyone what they were doing." (5)
Osla and Sarah received a letter from the Foreign Office in 1941 stating: "You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in four days time." (6) Sarah Norton later recalled: "Then suddenly, through the post, came a letter, God knows who from, asking us to report to the head of Bletchley - forthwith. That was all. So we thought: Anything's better than making aeroplanes at the moment." It seems that Lord Louis Mountbatten had put her name forward. Norton had never heard of Bletchley Park and was shocked when she arrived at her destination. "We decanted ourselves from the train at Bletchley station and then, weighed down by our luggage, we staggered up a rutted narrow path. On the side of the tracks, there was an eight foot high chained fence. It was topped by a roll of barbed wire.... It was a bit of a shock. We thought the house was perfectly monstrous." (7)
Osla and Sarah were both assigned to Hut 4. “Nobody explained anything. You were merely told that pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.” (8) "The people I worked with in Hut 4, we could talk between each other. We were doing the same thing. I'd be translating, another friend would be doing something else. So we could talk. But only within your hut. You never talked outside your hut." (9)
Sara and Osla were given lodgings in Bletchley: "We were very lucky, my friend Osla and I, we were billeted with a lovely old couple... We used to be driven backwards and forwards to work from the billet. And it was a nice house, a very pretty house near Woburn Sands. I think it was the manor house of the village... We hardly spent any time there. We were either sleeping, or eating, or going off to work again. So we didn't really get to know the village very much. But our landlords were very good to us, very kind. They never complained, they just fed us, which was very decent of them. They had extra rations of course." (10)
"Perhaps before the war, debutantes were never asked to do anything serious. When you land yourself in a place like that, it's pretty overpowering. There were people from all walks of life. There were Wrens, there were girls like me, people in uniform, army, navy, air force and later on, of course, Americans. All classes were represented. Especially among the Wrens... I presume that they must have done a little bit of work on one's background. Make sure that you weren't a Nazi. Because there were a lot of young girls at that time who were mad about going to Germany and thought that Hitler was really rather wonderful. Silly girls. I think they probably wanted to know that we weren't like that... In terms of class tension, there was absolutely no trouble about that whatsoever." (11)
In 1946 Osla Benning married John Henniker-Major, 8th Baron Henniker of Stratford-upon-Slaney. They had three children: Mark ( 29th September 1947), Charles (2nd September 1949) and Janie (6th July 1954).
Osla Henniker-Major died in October 1974.
Princess Elizabeth was still only 15, and while she was undoubtedly going to be a catch before long, Philip was free to play the field. Cobina Wright’s place was soon taken by Osla Benning, a beautiful Canadian-born debutante with “dark hair, alabaster white skin, an exquisite figure and a gentle loving nature,” according to her friend Sarah Norton [later Baring]. They met in late 1939, when Osla was living with Sarah, a god-daughter of Dickie (Lord Louis) Mountbatten, Philip’s uncle.
Sarah Baring remembers: “Uncle Dickie said to me: 'I don’t think Philip’s got a girlfriend at the moment. I wish you could find a nice girl for him because he doesn’t know anyone. Osla didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, so I said: 'I know, I’ll get them together.’ ”
Osla was two years younger than Philip and had been brought over from Canada when she was very young, following her glamorous mother’s divorce. Mrs Benning married three more times and Osla’s childhood was, according to her daughter, Janie Spring, lonely, isolated and confusing. Like Philip, she had a weakness for practical jokes and was “always getting involved in escapades involving itching powder.” After finishing school in Austria, she came out in August 1939, one of the foremost debutantes of her year.
They made a startling pair. Philip was: “Tall, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of blond hair swept back from his forehead,” recalled Eileen Parker, wife of his great friend, Mike Parker. “I was not at all surprised to hear that every unmarried Wren on the base had her sights on him.”
At the time she met Philip, Osla was working at the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft factory in Slough and living in a cottage nearby with Sarah Norton and her father, Lord Grantley, the film-maker and raconteur. Grantley found Philip “the best of company” and was impressed by his forceful intellect. “He seemed to be interested in everything; and when asking me questions about films, for instance, he did not want to know about the stars but about the technicalities of how films were made.”
The young set gathered at the 400 Club in Leicester Square, where there was a dance band, or the nearby Café de Paris. One of Osla’s friends, Esme Harmsworth (later Countess of Cromer), remembers having lunch with her at Claridge's. “I noticed she was wearing a naval cipher as a brooch. They’re jewelled and not the sort of thing you scatter around. 'Oh’, I said. 'What’s that? Who is it?’ She blushed and ummed and ahhed and eventually said: 'Well, he’s called Philip.’ 'Philip who?’ 'Well, he doesn’t have another name… actually he’s Philip of Greece.’ I’m sure it was a serious thing as far as Osla was concerned.”
It was not a full-blown affair. “I can tell you that right away,” says Sarah Baring. “We just didn’t think of that at all. We just weren’t brought up to it. We were brought up to what my mother used to call 'behave nicely’… I mean the boys never even asked you to. You could kiss on the cheek, but not much more. We were allowed to hold hands in taxis - that was considered quite daring. There were those who went further and we always knew who they were. The word always gets round all the girls.”
Osla seems to have been as innocent as many girls of her class and age. She is reported to have once caused a mild sensation in a nightclub by complaining loudly that it was inconsiderate of her boyfriend always to carry his torch in his pocket as it was uncomfortable when dancing. This was during the blackout, when torches were everyday items of equipment, but even so, some of those within earshot suggested she “grow up!” while telling her the more likely cause of her discomfort.
Philip and Osla kept in touch when he was away at sea. 'It was obvious that he was Osla’s boyfriend in a simple, nice way, so to speak”, says Sarah Baring. “Every time his ship came back, it was Osla he would ring.” By the time Philip returned to England in the summer of 1941, Osla had been recruited to work at Bletchley Park as a multilinguist in the naval section and they began to see more of one another. After a night’s dancing in London, Philip would take her in the early hours to Paddington station to catch the milk train back to Bletchley.
“I do know that he was her first love”, says her daughter, Janie Spring. “She never told me about him for years. She just said: 'I fell in love with a naval officer.’ Then I found a wonderful picture of Philip, very young-looking, with his hair all tousled, quite curly…I could see why they got on. They were both very much outsiders with no roots in the English milieu in which they moved. Neither of them had experienced much emotional warmth or security as children.
Probably unconsciously, they recognised this similarity in each other and this is what gave them a special bond.”
But at Christmas 1943, with “nowhere particular to go”, as he nonchalantly put it, Philip went with his cousin, David Milford Haven, to stay at Windsor Castle. Princess Elizabeth, now 17, was animated in a way “none of us had ever seen before”, wrote her governess, Marion Crawford. That weekend of dinner parties, charades, films and dancing to the gramophone proved to be a turning point. Soon after, he and Osla Benning began to drift apart.
After a subsequent visit to Windsor in July, Philip wrote to the Queen of “the simple enjoyment of family pleasures and amusements and the feeling that I am welcome to share them. I am afraid I am not capable of putting all this into the right words and I am certainly incapable of showing you the gratitude that I feel.” There is a sense that he at last saw a way of regaining what he had lost when his own family had disintegrated.
Osla Benning, a beautiful Canadian-born debutante, had, said a friend, an "exquisite figure, alabaster white skin and a gentle loving nature."
She met the future Duke of Edinburgh in 1939 when she was living with the god-daughter of Lord Mountbatten, his uncle.Philip was two years her senior with a shock of blond hair and the pin-up of the unattached Wrens on the naval base where he was training
The biography, Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life, claims they shared a weakness for practical jokes, including "escapades involving itching powder".
The book to mark his 90th birthday next week, bases details of the affair on newly-released correspondence and interviews with family and friends.
The couple were matched up by Lord Mountbatten's god-daughter Sarah Norton (later Baring).
She recalls: 'Uncle Dickie said to me: "I don’t think Philip’s got a girlfriend at the moment. I wish you could find a nice girl for him because he doesn’t know anyone."
"Osla didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, so I said: "I know, I’ll get them together."
Osla had been brought over from Canada when she was a child following her glamorous mother's divorce.
Her daughter Janie Spring told author Philip Eade that her Osla's childhood was lonely, isolated and confusing.
She said: 'I do know that he was her first love She never told me about him for years. She just said: 'I fell in love with a naval officer.’
'Then I found a wonderful picture of Philip, very young-looking, with his hair all tousled, quite curly… I could see why they got on.
'They were both very much outsiders. Neither of them had experienced much emotional warmth or security as children.'
They made a startling couple, according Eileen Parker, wife of his great friend, Mike Parker.
She described Philip as 'tall, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of blond hair swept back from his forehead.'
She added:“I was not at all surprised to hear that every unmarried Wren on the base had her sights on him.”
When Osla met Philip, she was working at the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft factory in Slough and living in a cottage nearby with Sarah Norton and her father, Lord Grantley, the film-maker and raconteur.
One of her friends, Esme Harmsworth - later Countess of Cromer - remembers having lunch with her at Claridge's.
She said: 'I noticed she was wearing a naval cipher as a brooch. They’re jewelled and not the sort of thing you scatter around.
'Oh’, I said. 'What’s that? Who is it?’ She blushed and ummed and ahhed and eventually said: "Well, he’s called Philip."