THE MOUNTBATTENS: THEIR LIVES AND LOVES

April 16, 2020
Posted by: Alastair Wilson

For older readers, it is perhaps difficult to realise that it is over 40 years since Earl Mountbatten (Lord Louis, or ‘Dickie’ in the family) (along with other family members and friends) was so senselessly murdered by the 1RA: and it is 60 years since Countess Mountbatten (Edwina) died (as much from overwork as anything else).  In consequence, there will be very many NR members to whom they are no more than figures from history. So, this review covers rather more history than might be considered necessary.

The Navy this reviewer grew up with was, one might almost say, Mountbatten’s Navy: it started at Dartmouth on Day 1 – us (Grammar!  I know, but it reads better than ‘we’) newly-joined cadets were shown the film In Which We Serve, Noel Coward’s film of the life of a destroyer in the opening years of WW2, which was very loosely based (very loosely indeed) on Mountbatten’s command of HMS Kelly as Captain D5. (Coward and Mountbatten were friends). At that date (1950), Mountbatten was a Vice-Admiral, commanding 1st Cruiser Squadron in the Med. Fleet.  We knew he had been a Supreme Allied Commander in the latter years of the war, and the last Viceroy of India and the first Governor-General of the newly independent India.  While we were at Dartmouth, he had become Fourth Sea Lord, and 10 days after we joined the training cruiser, he became an Admiral and CinC Med. (then our prime operational fleet).

For most of his time in the Service, it was a case, with Mountbatten, that he was like Marmite – either you thought he was great, or else you disliked him – thought he was an over-promoted show-off (notwithstanding the fact that he was a superb people person, his ship’s companies in Daring and Wishart and Kelly all thought he was great; and he had been a most successful specialist Signals officer as a Lieutenant and Lieutenant-Commander).  And, in the ‘50s, it was ‘known’ that his wife Edwina had been thoroughly promiscuous in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

So, I approached this book with a somewhat prejudiced mind.  But it grew on me.  It is well-written and reads very easily.  The first third of the book, covering their early lives, marriage and life up to 1939, reads rather like an extended Daily Mail gossip column – they were undoubtedly the equivalent of today’s ‘celebs’ – and definitely ‘A’ list at that.  Edwina’s money paid for a country house, cars and servants while ‘Dickie’s’ Royal connection (his mother was Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter) and his friendship with both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, and his acquaintance with many stars of stage and screen (particularly in Hollywood) ensured that they moved in the very best circles.

Their marriage was certainly unconventional – it wasn’t what the end of the 20th century would have called an ‘open’ marriage, but each had ‘lovers’ whom the other knew about.  These are detailed in the book with a wealth of references (there are over 800 footnotes giving sources in the book): most are secondary sources, though there are letters quoted, particularly from him to her, which show that he was well aware of her other relationships and even accepted them, although it might be extreme to say he approved.  But I wonder at the use of the word ‘lover’: today it indicates sexual intimacy though the Oxford English Dictionary gives, as one definition (of eight – a busy word, ‘lover’); “A person who engages in a romantic or sexual relationship outside marriage, esp. one which is clandestine or illicit.”  Neither was ever caught in flagrante, and it can be suggested that some of the relationships were more romantic than sexual, perhaps no more than an extreme form of flirtation.

The war years brought great changes to both.  Edwina found a purpose to her life: from being a ‘social butterfly’ she threw herself into war work which employed her undoubted administrative talents, and she was as good a people person as her husband was.  After rejection by the WRNS, WVS and WAAF, she was given a post with the Red Cross.  The war brought them together, both appreciating, and expressing, the other’s positive (and negative) qualities.  All this is covered in the book, which goes on to describe his appointments to Combined Operations (after his ship, Kelly had been sunk off Crete in 1941), and his responsibility (or otherwise) for the disaster of the Dieppe raid in 1942 and then on to the post of Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, in the rank of Acting Vice-Admiral (his substantive rank was still only Captain – he had less than five years’ seniority when he was first promoted).  This appointment brought separation until nearly the end of the war, and both continued their respective liaisons.  In January 1945, Edwina went out in an official capacity to inspect hospitals throughout South East Asia, and after an interlude in London over the New Year 1946 when in addition to receiving a Damehood for herself, she bent the King’s ear about Dickie’s peerage (by birth he was only an ‘honorary peer’ as the younger son of a Marquess), so this would have given him a seat in the House of Lords.  She returned to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and South East Asia Command, and in March 1946, both Mountbattens met Pandit Nehru, then the leader of the Hindu Congress, who was to be India’s first prime minister.  Both were deeply affected: for Edwina, it was a meeting with, it is not unfair to say, the ‘love of her life’, while Dickie laid the foundations of the good relations with Nehru which were to be crucial in the negotiations which were to lead to Indian independence.  Despite his best efforts, he could never establish similar relations with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of India’s Muslims and Pakistan’s first prime minister.

In the summer of 1946, both returned home, Dickie intending to resume his naval career – he was now a substantive Rear-Admiral and still nursed the desire to become First Sea Lord, to make up for the slight put on his father who had been forced by anti-German public feeling to resign from that appointment in 1914.  But the government had other ideas, and he was invited to succeed Field-Marshal Lord Wavell as Viceroy of India with the specific task of overseeing India’s independence. This period is particularly well-covered in the book.  Edwina made an admirable Vicereine and her relationship with Nehru (which had nothing to do with politics) undoubtedly helped to lubricate the political machinery, which was, to say the least, complex.  A reflection of Mountbatten’s success (from the Indian point of view, anyway) was that he was invited to remain as India’s first Governor-General (initially India’s status was that of a self-governing Dominion: its status changed to being a Republic within the Commonwealth in January 1950).  He gave up the post a year after Independence, and both returned to London.  The marriage had been under strain, not helped by Edwina suffering the menopause.

Gradually they picked up the threads of ‘ordinary’ life again, Mountbatten returning to the Navy, and Edwina to continue her work with the St. John Ambulance Brigade, which was, and still is, a world-wide organisation.  The 1950s saw Mountbatten climbing the rest of the ladder to achieve his ambition, to become First Sea Lord, which he did in 1955.  And in 1959 he went one step further to become Chief of the Defence Staff.  In this post he was responsible for integrating the three individual services, so that the long-standing office of the First Lord of the Admiralty disappeared, the then holder then becoming the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Navy until the individual service under-secretaries were abolished in 1981.

Edwina continued her relationship with Nehru who visited her whenever he was in England, and it was while on St. John Ambulance duty that she died suddenly, in her sleep, in Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) in what is now Sabah, Malaysia, in February 1960.  She was buried at sea from HMS Wakeful off Portsmouth and Mountbatten who had been visibly deeply distressed by her death was left to become an unofficial ‘National Treasure’.  He continued to have many lady friends, mostly his own age (they included the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland).

Two aspects of this latter phase of his life are covered, but in less detail: one was his relationship with the Royal family: he was substantially involved with the courtship and marriage of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth and later became an honorary uncle to the Prince of Wales.  He was also involved on the fringes of the political unrest surrounding Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister in the 1960s and `70s.

The chapter headings for the period after Edwina’s death tell the story: ‘After Edwina’; ‘Retirement’; ‘Fixer’; ‘Ireland’; ‘Rumours’; and ‘Legacy’.  His state funeral went according to his own careful plans.

Andrew Lownie sums him up in these words “Mountbatten was a man full of contradictions.  Self-confident in public life, he was insecure when it came to his private life and his relations with his wife.  Able to think outside the box and see the big picture, he was obsessed with trivial detail – often to do with his own personal appearance or prestige…”

I approached this book with misgivings but am converted – I find it a valuable warts and all portrait of a couple who were centre stage in British public life for some sixty years.  Recommended.