Lord Mountbatten

Shaping the British Empire, for better or worse

Lord Mountbatten at 76
(Photo: Allan Warren)

Few British individuals had cast as long a shadow over the United Kingdom in the middle of the 20th century as Lord Louis Mountbatten. He was a relative of the royal family, and his life spanned a good part of the 20th century and was intrinsically intertwined with the fate of the British Empire. Mountbatten held countless positions, led Allied operations during World War II, and was responsible for the controversial liberation and partitioning of India, eventually assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was considered a war hero and a charming socialite by many, but his sometimes ruthless and irresponsible decisions, along with his scandalous private life, were also well-known to the public.

Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten in 1965
(Photo: royalmarineshistory.com)

As his full name attests, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was born into prestigious lineage in 1900 in Windsor. He was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and shared close links with the German royal family. His father was Prince Louis of Battenberg, who served as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy. Young Louis’s nickname in the family was “Dickie.”

Mountbatten (left) with his father (middle) and brother, George (right)
(Photo: University of Southampton Special Collections)

During World War I, King George V responded to growing anti-German sentiment by changing the name of the British royal house from the original German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the more English-sounding House of Windsor. Mountbatten’s father did the same and changed his own family name to the less Germanic Mountbatten, which is a translation of Battenberg with “berg” meaning mount or mountain in German. Prince Louis (now “of Battenberg”) was appointed First Sea Lord, the head of the British naval service, in 1912, but was forced to retire two years later, and after four decades spent in the Royal Navy, due to his German ancestry. This humiliating development might have given his son a life-long push to reach his goals at all costs. Prince Louis died in 1921.
 
Following in his father’s footsteps, Mountbatten joined the Royal Navy. After attending the Royal Naval College, he served on board the battlecruiser
(Read our earlier article – The ship types of World War II) HMS Lion and the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth in the last years of World War I, seeing his first action at the age of 16. He continued his naval career after the war. Blessed with an interest in technology and gadgets he inherited from his father, he studied at the Portsmouth Signals School and the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Mountbatten aboard the patrol boat HMS P. 31 in 1919
(Photo: University of Southampton Special Collections)
Mountbatten married socialite Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley, a politician’s daughter. Their marriage was an unusual one, and what today would be called an open marriage. In Mountbatten’s words "Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people's beds.” Even their honeymoon was peculiar, as they’ve spent some of it acting in a silent home movie made by cinematic legend Charlie Chaplin.
Still from the home movie Chaplin made as a wedding present
(Photo: International Movie Database)

At the breakout of World War II, Mountbatten commanded the destroyer HMS Kelly and the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, and saw considerable action in Norway during the evacuation of Allied soldiers, and in the Mediterranean at the Battle of Crete. In August 1941, he received command of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which was anchored for repairs in the United States. He happened to pay a brief visit to Pearl Harbor a few months before the Japanese attack, and was appalled by the unpreparedness of U.S. forces there against a sudden attack and the lack of cooperation between the different branches of the armed forces. He correctly predicted that the United States would enter World War II after a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.

Mountbatten (center) in Hawaii
(Photo: U.S. National Park Service)

Mountbatten soon caught the eye of Winston Churchill, who promoted him to Chief of Combined Operations, a department set up to organize joint army-navy raids against Nazi Germany. A part of his responsibilities in this position was drawing up plans and developing equipment, such as landing craft, for the eventual amphibious invasion of occupied Europe. Mountbatten and his staff worked on numerous, sometimes unbelievable, projects such as Operation PLUTO (standing for “Pipeline Underwater Transportation of Oil” or “Pipeline Under the Ocean”), the construction of offshore oil pipelines under the English Channel in support of the D-Day landings. Another project under Mountbatten’s oversight was the construction of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors made of concrete caissons and sunken ships. (The remnants of these American and British artificial harbors can still be found in Arromanches and Vierville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France.) One of the most incredible ideas considered by Mountbatten was Project Habakkuk, the creation of a 600-meter long aircraft carrier from ice reinforced by wood pulp, but the idea was eventually cancelled due to the high costs and the changing strategic situation.

Remnants of a Mulberry harbor at low tide in Normandy
(Photo: Author’s own)
Combined Operations also launched Commando missions to harass the Germans in Europe and tie up resources they could otherwise use on other fronts. One of the greatest Commando raids was the daring St. Nazaire Raid, also known as Operation Chariot (Read our earlier article – “The greatest raid of all”). On March 28, 1942, despite suffering heavy casualties (only 228 soldiers returned out of 612), Commandos managed to ram and blow up the dry dock of St. Nazaire with an old destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown, packed with explosives. The attack rendered the port unusable for years and considerably shortened the German navy’s operational radius in the Atlantic. Additionally, the delayed explosion killed many curious Germans examining the scuttled destroyer.
The badge of Combined Operations
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
As a key figure arguing for a major trial amphibious landing against real opposition, Mountbatten also became involved in planning and executing the poorly-prepared and ill-fated Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) of August 19, 1942 (Read our earlier article – The Dieppe raid). The raid ended with over 5,600 casualties (mainly Canadians), earning Mountbatten the nickname “Master of Disaster.” (A little-known detail is that the raid was the first time that U.S. Rangers, trained by British Commandos, were sent to battle.) Mountbatten claimed that the value of the lessons of the operation had outweighed the cost: it showed the need for proper naval and aerial bombardment before a landing, good communication between the units involved, special landing vehicles, and paratroopers supporting the attack. Mountbatten’s critics maintain that all of these lessons could and should have been learned without a bloody debacle such as Dieppe. Be that as it may, Mountbatten faced the disapproval of Canadian veterans for the rest of his career.
The battlefield after the disastrous Dieppe Raid
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
In 1943, Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command even though there were much more experienced officers to fill the position. In order to avoid another fiasco like Dieppe and to squash some of his overly ambitious plans, he was given an experienced planning staff who were expected to “rein him in.” His personal high point in this position was accepting the surrender of the Japanese Expeditionary Force in Singapore, which was lost to Japan in 1941 (Read our earlier article – The Tiger of Malaya) and eventually recaptured by British forces in 1945. The event propelled Mountbatten into the status of a war hero.
Mountbatten on the steps of Singapore’s Municipal Building after the Japanese surrender
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
In 1947, he became Viceroy of India and was responsible for overseeing the transition of British India into an independent state. This was an exceedingly difficult task: the British government wanted the transition to be performed quickly, and to keep India a single country. Mountbatten, however, deemed the latter impossible due to the insistence of influential Muslim politicians on a separate Muslim country. He decided the best way to proceed was to establish Pakistan as an independent Muslim country and to push the transition through before the year’s end to show the British governments earnestness in granting both countries independence. Following the creation of the two new states, he took the position of the first Governor-General of India.
 
It's hard to say whether a better solution had ever been possible. What’s certain is that 10 to 20 million people found themselves on the wrong side of the new border between Hindus and Muslims, and the resulting sectarian violence caused possibly up to two million deaths and troubled relations between the two countries to this day. Even Mountbatten’s relationship with Churchill was negatively affected by the fallout of what many perceived as a poorly planned transition.
Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Mahatma Gandhi in India, 1947
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
After his return to Britain, he was appointed Commander of NATO’s Allied Forces Mediterranean. He served as First Sea Lord from 1955 to 1959, in the position his father had to give up in 1914 due to his German origins. (This was the first time in the history of the Royal Navy that a father and son had both attained the same high-ranking position.) Mountbatten was made Chief of Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces in 1959, which position he held until his retirement in 1965. According to accounts, he was universally mistrusted by his colleagues and only one senior official opted for the extension of his mandate despite his great qualities. He became a critic of the nuclear arms race and argued for the limitation of nuclear power to energy production, especially aboard submarines.
 
Mountbatten remained an influential member of the royal family and British political circles even after his retirement, until he was killed by the IRA with a radio-controlled bomb on August 27, 1979 in Ireland. The bomb, planted the night before on Mountbatten’s small fishing boat, Shadow V, killed Lord Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, 15-year-old boat boy Paul Maxwell, and the Dowager Baroness Doreen Brabourne, the 83-year-old mother-in-law of Mountbatten's eldest daughter. Later that afternoon, 18 British soldiers were also killed near the Irish border in another IRA bomb attack, the highest loss of British Army lives in a single incident in 10 years at the time. The assassination shocked the British public and triggered widespread outrage and condemnation.
Stained glass church window in Cape Town, South Africa, made in memory of Lord Mountbatten
(Photo: Rainer Halama)
The IRA issued the following statement: “The IRA claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”
 
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in her statement: “His death leaves a gap that can never be filled. The British people give thanks for his life and grieve at his passing.”
 
A week later, on September 5, 1979, the British royal family, government officials and foreign dignitaries gathered at Westminster Abbey for the Earl's funeral service. In line with his will, the representatives of Japan were not invited to the ceremony out of respect for his soldiers killed by the Japanese Army in Asia in World War II. Lord Mountbatten was buried at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire.
Mountbatten’s coffin in Westminster Abbey
(Photo: Getty Images)
In the BBC documentary series Lord Mountbatten: A Man for the Century, aired in 1968, Mountbatten himself narrated the story of his own life from the perspective he wanted people to see him in. More recently, he was played by the talented British actor Charles Dance in the popular television series The Crown, which portrayed the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
Charles Dance as Mountbatten in The Crown
(Image: Netflix)

$500 discount for the 80th anniversary D-Day celebrations and all our tours

D-Day festivities in Normandy
(Photo: Author’s own)
We'll be celebrating the 79th anniversary of D-Day, the historic Allied landings in Normandy, in a week. On this occasion, you will get a discount of $500 on all our tours if you book and pay in full until June 6, 2023. In addition to the discount, this promotion includes also our available D-Day anniversary tours in 2024 (80th anniversary!) and 2025. Don’t miss this opportunity to secure your seat for next year to enjoy the commemorations and festivities with the participation of veterans and reenactors. According to statistics, seats for the main D-Day anniversaries get sold out approximately a year before the event. So, book your tour as soon as possible because the most popular ones will be fully booked very soon. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.
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