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The controversial and pompous life of Great Britain’s royal statesman and naval officer

Lord Mountbatten

Lord Mountbatten at 76

In last week’s newsletter, on the unfortunate occasion of the passing of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, we looked at the life of Queen Elizabeth II’s husband. This week, we’ll have a closer look at the life of his maternal uncle, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, better known as Lord Mountbatten. His life spanned a good part of the 20th century and was intrinsically intertwined with the fate of the British Empire. Having been born into the royal family, he held countless positions, led Allied operations during World War II and was subsequently appointed as the last Viceroy of India, only to be assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1979. Considered a war hero and a charming socialite by many, his lust for power and fame, and his sometimes ruthless and irresponsible deeds to get his own way, along with his scandalous private life, were also well-known to the public.

Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten in 1965
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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. His nickname in the family was “Dickie”.

Mountbatten (left) with his father (middle) and brother, George (right)

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Amid anti-German sentiments during World War I, King George V changed the name of the British royal house from the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. Mountbatten’s father did the same and changed the name to the less German-sounding Mountbatten (which is a reverse translation of Battenberg with Berg meaning mount/mountain in German). From 1912, his father served as First Sea Lord, the head of the British naval service, but because of his German background he was forced to retire after four decades spent in the Royal Navy. This humiliating development gave his son a life-long push to reach his goals and to avenge what was done to his father. His father died in 1921.
 
Following in his father’s footsteps, Mountbatten joined the royal navy. After attending the Royal Naval College, he served on board HMS Lion and HMS Queen Elizabeth in the last years of WWI, seeing action first at the age of 16. After the war, he continued his naval career and further widened his technological knowledge inherited from his father at Portsmouth Signals School and the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Young Mountbatten

At the breakout of World War II, Mountbatten commanded the destroyer HMS Kelly and the 5th Destroyer Flotilla and saw considerable action in Norway in the evacuation of Allied soldiers and in the Mediterranean in 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. Shortly before the Japanese attack, he also paid a brief visit to Pearl Harbor where he was surprised by the lack of preparedness of the U.S. forces against surprise attacks and the lack of cooperation between the different branches of the armed forces.
 
Soon, he caught the eye of Winston Churchill, who promoted him to Chief of Combined Operations tasked with 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 submarine oil pipelines under the English Channel in support of the D-Day landings, or the project of the artificial Mulberry harbors constructed of concrete caissons and sunken ships. The remnants of the American and British artificial harbors can be still found in Arromanches and Vierville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. One of the most incredible ideas was Project Habakkuk, where they planned to create a 600-meter long aircraft carrier from reinforced ice but it was cancelled eventually due to the high costs.

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Remnants of a Mulberry harbor in Normandy

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Combined Operations also launched military operations with Commandos to harass the Germans in Europe to tie up resources that would be used on other fronts. One of the greatest raids was the daring St. Nazaire Raid under Operation Chariot. On March 28, 1942, despite heavy casualties (only 228 soldiers returned from 612), Commandos managed to ram and blow up the dry dock of St. Nazaire with an old destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, packed with delayed-explosives, thus rendering the port unusable for years and considerably shortening the German navy’s operational radius in the Atlantic. On top of that, the delayed explosion killed many curious Germans examining the scuttled destroyer.

The badge of Combined Operations

As a key figure clamoring for a trial landing against real opposition, Mountbatten also became involved in planning and executing the ill-fated and poorly-prepared Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) on August 19, 1942, that ended up in the massacre of hundreds of landing Canadian and British troops on the coast of northern France. As a result, Mountbatten earned the nickname “Master of Disaster”. Similarly to earlier situations, he used his special ability to explain his failures and end up higher in the ranks. He claimed that the lessons of the operation had outweighed the cost. Canadians who participated in the raid never mentioned having fond memories of him. At the same time, the disaster clearly showed the need for proper naval and aerial bombardment, good communication between the units involved, special landing vehicles, and paratroop landings supporting the landing, etc. It is not widely known that this was the first time that the U.S. Rangers, trained by British Commandos, were sent to battle.

The battlefield after the disastrous Dieppe Raid

In 1943, Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command while there were much more experienced officers to fill the position. In order to avoid another fiasco and to squash his ambitious plans, he was given an experienced planning staff. Under his command, Allied forces managed to defeat Japanese forces looking to invade India and then reoccupied Burma. Subsequently, he accepted the surrender of the Japanese Expeditionary Force in Singapore in 1945 as a celebrated war hero.
 
In 1947, he became Viceroy of India and was responsible for overseeing British India becoming an independent state. Despite his instructions from the British government, he failed at keeping India united, which led to the partition of British India into the Muslim state of Pakistan and a separate Hindu India. He explained bringing forward the date of Indian independence from 1948 to a year earlier with the increasing communal violence in India. Following the creation of the two new states, he took the position of the first Governor-General of India. According to critics, by rushing the independence of India, he contributed to many long-lasting crises affecting millions of people in Kashmir, Panjab and Bengal, etc. Even his relationship with Churchill was negatively affected by it.

Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy of India

After his return to Britain he was appointed Commander of NATO’s Allied Forces Mediterranean. Considering his inspiration from his father’s forced retirement due to his German background, maybe the highpoint of his career was becoming the First Sea Lord between 1955-1959. This was the first time in royal naval history that a father and son had both attained the same high-ranking position. He 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, despite his good skills as Chief of Defence Staff he was universally mistrusted by his fellow colleagues and only one senior official opted for the extension of his mandate.
 
In the BBC documentary series, Lord Mountbatten: A Man for the Century, aired in 1968 he narrated the story of his own life from a perspective he wanted people to see him. In the recent successful television series called The Crown, portraying the life of Queen Elizabeth II, Mountbatten is played by the talented British actor, Charles Dance.

Charles Dance as Mountbatten in the series The Crown

After his retirement, he remained an influential member of the royal family and British political circles until he was killed by the IRA with a radio-controlled bomb on August 27, 1979 in Ireland. The bomb, planted on Mountbatten’s small fishing boat, Shadow V, the night before, 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 bombing ambush, making it the heaviest death toll for the British Army in 10 years. The assassination shocked the British public, and triggered widespread outrage and condemnation.
 
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, foreign dignitaries, and more 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 WWII. After the ceremony, he was buried at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire.

Mountbatten’s coffin in Westminster Abbey

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