From The Vaults

13 December 2021
The Flying Prince

Sports journalist Hugh Godwin tells us about his new book, 'The Flying Prince: Alexander Obolensky'…

On a still March day in 1940, a great British sporting hero perished. Prince Alexander Obolensky had lived fast and died young, as a flyer on the rugby field and as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, killed in the service of his adopted country. He was a refugee from a noble family in Russia who fought to be accepted as, and live the life of, a quintessential Englishman.

So, what was Obolensky's story? How did he come to be playing rugby for England on that famous January day in 1936 when, as a 19-year-old student making his international debut, he scored two unforgettable tries in a then record win over the All Blacks. How and why did he catch the public imagination? What kind of life had he led, before and after that never to be forgotten day? What destiny lay unfulfilled when he died, tragically young at the age of 24, crashing his Hawker Hurricane fighter? Simple questions that proved far from easy to answer. After some initial inquiries confirmed only sketchy details of his life, I started researching in earnest around 2015, fitted around my work as rugby correspondent of the 'i' newspaper. The result, eventually, was a biography, 'The Flying Prince', published in November 2021.

The story of Obolensky told often in newspaper and magazine articles and references in books was of a playboy celebrity socialite, quaffing champagne and guzzling oysters before rugby matches, and sprinting to success. And all of this was true: 'Obo' loved parties and the company of women, and by the fateful summer of 1939 he was dining with the niece of Neville Chamberlain, putting him close to 10 Downing Street on the eve of war.

I interviewed Obolensky's surviving relatives and visited the archives of Oxford University and the RAF, of Brasenose College and the airbase at Martlesham Heath, and his schools in the English Midlands. I tracked down relatives of his friends and team-mates and contemporaries from the 1930s.

Throughout Obolensky's short life, he was nagged by questions as to whether he belonged, and could he afford to live the life others had mapped out for him. The Russian revolution and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II had forced the Obolensky family to flee the savagery of a civil war to a new life in Britain. They would rely on handouts by a British businessman to fund little Alex's education. An invaluable batch of letters written by Obolensky from 1934 to 1940 revealed he was shot through with agonised grumbles about a lack of money. "The mud of impecunity", he called it. His party-going was often at others' expense. The letters also threw light on a hitherto unknown love affair, which in turn led to a tragic denouement.

Obolensky's eventual selection for England was a huge story in the press. Reporters and readers spoke vehemently against his inclusion, and MPs in Parliament would later debate his right to be commissioned into the RAF. Some looked upon his striking features - the hooded blue eyes, the blond hair slicked back, the sharp cheekbones and broad, angular nose - and saw him as other-worldly and undeserving. And how much has changed today? Many a foreign-born player representing England in sport is subject to debate over their credentials.

Others spoke up for Obolensky, pointing out that no sporting regulation existed to bar him from playing for England, and he had learnt his rugby here. And, anyway, the teenager was so damned fast and dangerous, the selectors simply had to pick him! With the help of the World Rugby Museum, I uncovered that on the eve of his brilliant final trial to play for England, the RFU had voted on a motion as to whether to prevent him from being picked, because he was not a naturalised British citizen. You will have gathered, of course, how the vote went.

It would be wrong to attach undue importance to a single match, but England v New Zealand in January 1936 was one of the most complete performances in the national team's 150-year history. So one chapter of the book is devoted to a full description of that 13-0 win, from the uniforms of the marching band and the announcements around the ground seeking a missing person to the action on the pitch seen through various eyes around Twickenham stadium - a young fan, a radio commentator, a newsreel cameraman and all the reporters. Fascinatingly to anyone interested in the part the media plays in our lives, the book explains how the cinema footage, newspaper reports and stills photography established the Obolensky legacy.

Some rugby historians have dismissed Obolensky as a flash in the pan - a precocious 19-year-old who happened to be in the right place at the right time. After all, he won only three more caps for England, followed by an eventful tour to South America in the summer of 1936 that has since been given British & Irish Lions status, and then an uncapped wartime international against Wales shortly before he perished. This book explains why Obolensky would probably have won many more caps had he played in the modern era, and how selectors' whims and injuries - including a bizarre encounter with a dog - intervened.

Such was the affection for 'Obo' among the British public that when he met his untimely end there were banner newspaper headlines of shock and grief. In death, as in life, mystery and intrigue surrounded "the Flying Prince", yet his fame has endured eight decades since his passing.

about the author

Hugh Godwin is a sports journalist who is the rugby union correspondent of the i, a national daily newspaper in the UK. He has written on rugby and other sports for thirty years, is a regular broadcaster as a rugby analyst for BBC Radio London, and is the secretary of the UK Rugby Union Writers' Club. In 2004 he wrote England: Rugby World Champions, a book celebrating England's 2003 World Cup success. 'The Flying Prince: Alexander Obolensky' is his first biography.