"OBO - THE FLYING PRINCE" by Martyn Day

He was born a Russian and a prince in one of the world’s oldest royal houses. He lived as an Englishman and represented the country in International Rugby Union. He died in 1940 at the age of 24 in the cockpit of a Hurricane fighter. He is still remembered today as “The Flying Prince”, “The Flying Slav”, or simply “Obo”.

Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky was born in St Petersburg on February 17th 1916 to Prince Sergei Obolensky, a Captain in the Czar’s Imperial Horse Guards, and Princess Luba Narishchkine. Recognising the threat from the advancing Bolsheviks the aristocratic family fled to Britain in 1919 and settled in Muswell Hill.

Obo first demonstrated a talent for Rugby at his prep school, Trent College in Derbyshire in 1932 when he was 16 years old. As well as helping them to an unbroken run of 539 points against 22, Obolensky also scored 49 tries in a single season. He was equally successful on the rugby pitch at Brasenose College, Oxford where he was awarded his first Blue in 1935 and another in 1937. He missed out on a Blue in1936 because on the 2nd January of that year he was selected to play for England against the New Zealand All Blacks at Twickenham.

Obolensky%20running.jpg

Why he was chosen is still being debated today. At the time he was officially a Russian citizen and as such was not eligible to play for England. His place on the team was offered on the understanding that he would immediately apply for British citizenship - which he did. It only came though a few weeks after the match. Even the Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VIII, was curious….

EDWARD - PRINCE OF WALES: “By what right do you play for England?”
ALEXANDER OBOLENSKY: “I attend Oxford University…….Sir.”
TWICKENHAM STADIUM: 4TH January 1936

The rules today are still flexible when it comes to deciding who can represent a country. The player must either be a) born in the country, b) have a parent or grandparent who was born in the country or c) has completed thirty six consecutive months of Residence immediately preceding the time of playing. Obolensky would have qualified on part C.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the rugby giants of the time - feared, fit and formidable and as far as England was concerned, unbeatable. The 72,000 crowd squashed into Twickenham Stadium was expecting an exciting match - but suspected that it would inevitably end in defeat. Only the All Blacks knew that there was a new kid in town, a 20 year old aristocratic Russian who had already outrun and outgunned them earlier in their UK tour when he played against them for Oxford University.

At Twickenham, on Saturday 4th January 1936, Prince Alexander Obolensky was to out run and out gun the All Blacks once again, scoring two tries in the first half. With a dazzling display of agility and speed he side stepped the All Blacks fullback G. Gilbert and scored his first touchdown. His second try was even more dramatic. Receiving the ball on his own right wing, Obolensky cut across the field, running ¾ of its length, totally outstripping the entire New Zealand defence and scoring another try on the left corner. Captured on film by Pathé News and shown in cinemas around the world his achievement made him a sporting star, a hero and a legend…

“I was 16 at the time of the Obolensky try. Wonderful. I remember borrowing money from Matron (along with others) to go to the cinema and see it all over again three times. He also came to Wakefield to play; we couldn’t get near him for girls!!”
FRED MELLOR 2007

Here’s Pathé news footage of the match:

[courtesy of British Pathé’s youtube channel]

Overwhelmed by such an unorthodox attack the All Blacks were unable to retaliate and finally went down 13-Nil to England. It was England’s first victory against New Zealand and their last until 1973.

Obolensky continued to play for England throughout 1936, winning three caps but unable to repeat his Twickenham genius, was dropped from the England side. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was called up into the RAF and joined Fighter Command. Early in 1940 a friend and fellow Blue, Vivian Jenkins, asked him how his training was going…. “It’s going absolutely fine, great fun,” Obolensky replied. “Except I still haven’t got the hang of landing.”

On March 29th 1940 Pilot Officer Obolensky was killed while landing his Hawker Hurricane at RAF Martlesham Heath, in Suffolk. The accident report said that Obolensky’s aircraft L1946 “dropped into a ravine at the end of the runway, breaking his neck”. It appeared that he had undone his seat harness in order to see around the long engine cowling stretching in front of him. He was buried at the Ipswich War Cemetery. The epitaph on his grave reads:’HIS UNDAUNTED SPIRIT AND ENDEARING QUALITIES LIVE FOREVER IN THE HEARTS OF ALL WHO KNEW HIM’.

Until his death in 2000, Bernard Gadney, his former England captain, visited the grave on March 29 each year to pay his respects. “He was just a nice young chap,” he said “It’s what’s in your heart that counts.”

H.H Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky was one of 14 English International players who died on active service during World War 2. A statue honouring the player was unveiled on February 2009 in Cromwell Square, Ipswich. The tribute describes him as “A Sporting Icon”. There is also a hospitality suite named after him at Twickenham Stadium.

Obolensky%20Statue%201.jpg

[To read more of Martyn’s brilliant local history pieces, and other writings, see the St Margarets Community website, where he is a regular contributor]