Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma was the most honored Englishman of his generation. By the time the IRA assassinated him in August 1979, he had amassed a collection of titles and decorations, orders and medals, so extensive that when he wore them on full-dress, ceremonial occasions, he looked more like a Ruritanian relic than a man who had done the state some service well into the age of the atomic bomb and the Polaris submarine. To most foreign observers, and even to some natives, the British honors system is an ancien régime anachronism of incomprehensible complexity and questionable worth. But to Mountbatten, it was the stuff of life. While most British politicans, civil servants, and military men reluctantly settle for an occasional decoration, Mountbatten collected his titles and orders as a philatelist collects stamps—remorselessly, single-mindedly, and voraciously. “In honor bound” was not just his family motto: it was also the direction of his life’s ambition, and the summation of his life’s achievements.
To Mountbatten’s many admirers—who ranged from Barbara Cartland and Noel Coward to Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan, and of whom the most ardent was, undoubtedly, himself—these honors were both deserved and appropriate. In the first place, he was very royal: Queen Victoria was his great-grandmother, the last czar was his uncle, the future King Edward VIII was his best man, Prince Philip was his nephew, and Prince Charles his “honorary grandson.” Secondly, he had glamour: he was exceptionally goodlooking, married to the richest and most beautiful heiress of her generation, a brilliant leader, and a formidable operator and committee man. And thirdly, he seemed very successful: in peace and war, as a military man and as a proconsul, he held a series of important appointments, which he was held to have discharged with brilliance and aplomb. Seen in this light, Mountbatten was an authentic twentieth-century hero, the last warrior prince, whose entry was, with the exception of Winston Churchill’s, the longest in Britain’s Who’s Who.
Yet to his critics—and there were many, and they grew in number with the Years—these honors were ill-gotten, concealing failures of judgment and shortcomings of character more than they rewarded real achievement. For all his charm and style, Mountbatten’s marriage was never particularly happy, and since his death Private Eye has alleged that he was a practicing homosexual. To many Americans like General Stilwell, his wartime deputy in Southeast Asia, he was a posturing playboy, a gingerbread admiral, who was inordinately vain and insufferably self-obsessed. To conservative imperialists like Lord Beaverbrook, he was completely untrustworthy: an implausible poseur who espoused socialist principles despite his rank and riches, and who went to India as viceroy only to throw away the Raj. To military men like Admiral Cunningham and Field Marshals Alanbrooke and Hull, he was an unscrupulous and irresponsible opportunist, whose own ideas were rarely good, and whose good ideas were rarely his own. Even the royal family occasionally resented his high- and heavy-handed interference: Prince Philip and Prince Charles may have venerated him to excess, but the Queen, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret seem to have been much less enamored.
Which was Mountbatten: a flawed hero or a heroic flop? And why was he both so honored yet so disliked? Philip Ziegler’s long and masterly official biography is the first attempt to answer these questions without Mountbatten himself looking on. Even so, it cannot have been an easy task. The Mountbatten archive is enormous; both of his daughters are still alive; almost every major world figure seems to have had dealings with him; and many of the matters in which he was involved remain controversial or classified or both. Yet despite these difficulties, Ziegler has produced an excellent book—beautifully written, admirably proportioned, and striking just the right balance between the life and the times. It is also remarkably fair-minded, doing full justice to Mountbatten’s virtues and accomplishments, while never losing sight of his failings. The result, as Ziegler admits, is a book that would have caused its subject “much indignation and dismay.”
His father was Prince Louis of Battenberg, a minor German princeling, who came to England to pursue a naval career, and did so with such success that he reached the summit of the senior service as First Sea Lord by 1912. But when war broke out, violent outbursts of anti-German feeling forced him to resign his post, to renounce his royal titles, to change his name from Battenberg to Mountbatten, and to begin life anew and unemployed as the first Marquess of Milford Haven. His second son, who had been born in 1900 as His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg, and who was at that time a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, became, accordingly, Lord Louis Mountbatten: the younger son of a peer instead of the younger son of a prince. But, he also became many other things as well. During his early years, Mountbatten had lived the comfortable existence of minor royalty, had been a solid but not outstanding schoolboy, and had shown no promise of future distinction. But his father’s downfall, which was the most traumatic experience of his life, abruptly changed all that, and drove him to atone for this family humiliation by getting to the very top of the naval profession himself. Like Churchill’s, much of Mountbatten’s inordinate ambition probably derived from the burning desire to vindicate his father’s unjustly slighted reputation.
To this end, Mountbatten ruthlessly exploited his royal connections to further his own career. In the closing stages of the war, he got himself appointed a midshipman on Admiral Beatty’s flagship, and in the early days of peace, he accompanied the Prince of Wales on his sensationally successful tours to India and the antipodes. For equally self-interested reasons, he married Edwina Ashley, the granddaughter of the millionaire financier Sir Ernest Cassel. From the social point of view, the match was perfect: she had wealth; he had status; they both had ambition. From the personal one, it was less successful: he had some affairs; she had a great many; they were, emotionally, incompatible. Not, Ziegler insists, because Mountbatten was homosexual; there is no evidence for that. But rather because Mountbatten was more interested in work than sex, whereas with Edwina it was very much the other way around. He may have been one of the bright young things of the Twenties and Thirties by night and on weekends, but during the daytime, he worked hard to establish himself as a promising naval officer, he excelled in the unheroic world of wireless communications, and he earned a deserved reputation as a gifted and flamboyant leader.
During the Second World War, his advance seemed inexorable not just in spite of, but almost because of, some spectacular setbacks. During the period of the Phony War, he commanded the destroyer HMS Kelly, and dashed about the North Sea and the Mediterranean, doing little except getting his ship sunk off Crete. But Noel Coward portrayed him in his film In Which We Serve, and he was taken up by Churchill as a man of audacity after his own heart. In 1941, he was put in charge of Combined Operations, which mounted raids on the Continent by integrated units of naval, army, and air force personnel. Eventually, this cooperation between the services bore fruit in the D-day landing; but before that, little of substance was achieved, and the raid on Dieppe, which was very much Mountbatten’s brainchild, went catastrophically wrong.
Yet Churchill continued to believe in him, and in 1943 made him Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, where the British war effort was bogged down in more than just the monsoon. Mountbatten raised the morale of his men, brought them much-needed publicity, and was noticeably sympathetic toward the nationalist movements in Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, and Indochina in the aftermath of victory. But his military achievements seem rather less conspicuous. His headquarters were in Ceylon, 2,000 miles from the front line; his strategic conceptions were uninspired; and his relations with his immediate subordinates were far from untroubled.
Nevertheless, by this stage in his career, Mountbatten’s rise to stardom was unstoppable. His progressive views, his experience east of Suez, and his close links with the king-emperor himself, made him the ideal man for ending British rule in India in 1947. The will to govern had gone; the machinery of government was breaking down: the incumbent viceroy, Lord Wavell, had run out of ideas; there was growing sectarian violence between Moslems and Hindus; and the political initiative was increasingly passing to non-British hands. By fixing a definite date for independence in the very near future, the British government briefly recaptured the initiative. Attlee sent Mountbatten to scuttle the Raj as decently and decorously as possible. He established close and cordial relations with Gandhi and Nehru (with whom Edwina had a long-lasting affair). He concocted a scheme for partition which the Hindus, the Moslems, the British government, and most of the princes were prepared to accept; and he drove it through with a combination of ruthlessness and charm. But once again, it was not quite the triumph Mountbatten claimed. He rushed independence through with almost frenzied speed. He failed to conciliate Jinnah or to hold the balance impartially between India and Pakistan; he did not solve the problems of Hyderabad and Kashmir. Perhaps half a million people died in the terrible massacres following partition.
Having sunk the Raj to his own and the Labour government’s satisfaction, Mountbatten could have had virtually any job for the asking; but he was determined to return to the navy and, after a succession of routine, high-level posts, at the Admiralty and in the Mediterranean, as well as some concerted and unsubtle lobbying, he finally achieved his lifelong ambition of becoming First Sea Lord in 1955. By then, severe defense-spending cuts meant the navy was contracting and morale was low. Mountbatten at once instituted a ruthless program of retrenchment and rationalization. He set up a committee to outline future policy in an attempt to ward off further cuts; and he lobbied hard in Whitehall for guided missile destroyers, aircraft carriers, and Polaris submarines. He opposed Eden’s policy over Suez, blaming the prime minister for his catastrophic misjudgment of Nasser, and for his inept handling of world opinion. Shortly after Eden’s resignation, Mountbatten became Chief of the Defense Staff and, with the backing of Harold Macmillan, began to amalgamate the separate armed services departments into a new and centralized ministry of defense. More heretically, he was among the first to recognize that the notion of an independent British deterrent was no longer realistic, and he offended entrenched opinion on both sides of the Atlantic by his opposition to the global buildup of nuclear weapons.
After such a long and flamboyant career as Lord High Everything Else, Mountbatten in retirement was, predictably, far from unobtrusive. He had always preferred action to repose, and the death of his wife in 1960 merely strengthened his distaste for being alone. He was made governor of the Isle of Wight and Colonel of the Life Guards, and immediately bought a new set of uniforms to celebrate. He chaired a royal commission on prison security, was nearly sent to Rhodesia to deal with Ian Smith, and continued his campaign for multilateral disarmament. He made a television series about the twentieth century, and called it his life and times; he was much involved in royal affairs, from arranging for the return of the Duke of Windsor’s papers to grooming Prince Charles for his future responsibilities. He devoted considerable time and thought to the planning of his ceremonial funeral. It was, in the end, fully as splendid as he wished. The governments he had served and the monarchs he had counseled turned out in force; the men he had commanded and the nations he had freed sent their representatives; his medals and decorations were publicly paraded for the last time; in death, as in life, he was the center of attention.
Whether he was ever anything more than that is, however, rather more difficult to decide. For after reading this biography, two important questions remain. What, exactly, does Ziegler make of Mountbatten? And what, on the basis of the evidence he presents, should we make of him? The answer to the first question seems clear: “Remember,” Ziegler tells us, “in spite of everything, he was a great man.” His record may not have been quite as splendid as he himself believed, but it remains remarkable, even so. After considering all the major tasks of his life—Combined Operations, Southeast Asia, India, as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Defense Staff—Ziegler concludes that most men would have failed where Mountbatten succeeded, and that no man would have succeeded where Mountbatten failed. Not surprisingly, then, many of his critics were motivated by little more than envy—of a man who had been given so much, but had himself achieved even more. On the whole, the British prefer their royalty to be ornamental and impotent rather than ornamental and important.
Yet for all this well-disposed argument, there is much in this book to support rather than to silence Mountbatten’s critics. He wanted to be thought a great captain, but was never a brilliant sailor. The Kelly spent almost as much time in dry dock as afloat, and he never commanded a fleet in a major naval engagement. The disaster of Dieppe cast a permanent shadow over his time at Combined Operations; as Supreme Commander he was never really tested as Eisenhower was in Europe or MacArthur was in the Pacific. As viceroy, he gave away an India torn and divided. He wanted to be the man who reorganized Britain’s armed services in the postwar world, but he failed to overcome conservative military opposition, and he left his post as defense chief disliked and distrusted by most of his colleagues. In short, there was about almost everything Mountbatten did an element of the makeshift, the insubstantial, the incomplete, and the disingenuous, a disquieting gap between the promise and the performance that no amount of bravura on his part could ever quite conceal. When Ziegler writes, in his last sentence, that Mountbatten “flared brilliantly across the face of the twentieth century,” it sounds as though he is conceding as much himself.
The division of opinion between Mountbatten’s admirers and his critics thus remains unresolved, and it is easy to see why. For what is missing in Ziegler’s biography is the very perspective that Mountbatten’s contemporary detractors also lacked, namely a broader historical sense of just what it was that he was really doing. Depicting him as a man of action, whose career was a veritable cavalcade of prizes and honors, makes for a splendid biography, but it leaves out consideration of the very real constraints that set the bounds both to what Mountbatten could do and to how well he could do it. When he was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, the British Navy was unchallenged, the British Empire was the largest the world had ever known, and the pound was worth not only twenty shillings but also five dollars. When he died, Mrs. Thatcher was at 10 Downing Street, the British Navy was but a shadow of its old self, the British Empire had disintegrated into the Commonwealth, and the pound was worth less than two dollars. These circumstances of an inexorably declining Britain provided the background to Mountbatten’s life, and the yardstick by which his achievements must be judged.
National decline is, by definition, a very difficult thing to accept or to handle, and the British have found it no easier than any other nation to deal with it. Indeed, many people, especially the politicians and military who were among Mountbatten’s foremost critics, would not, or could not, recognize that it was happening at all. Winston Churchill, for instance, never quite forgave Mountbatten for “giving away” India, and grandiloquently refused to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. But someone had to, and Mountbatten did. Most members of the royal family are employed to open things: to lay foundation stones or launch ships. But Mountbatten was quite brilliant at the much more difficult and important job of closing things down: not just, or most significantly, the Japanese Empire, but, more importantly, the independent deterrent, the autonomous armed services, the Royal Navy and the Raj. As such, he was the pioneering and preeminent de-imperialist, who was followed, in the next quarter century, by many other morticians of empire, who sought, sometimes unavailingly, to hand over power with dignity and decency. His successors were men like Gerald Templer in Malaya, Hugh Foot in Cyprus, Humphrey Trevelyan in Aden, and Christopher Soames in Southern Rhodesia.
By the end of the Second World War, Mountbatten had come to realize very clearly, and very early, that it was useless to ignore or to regret the decline of Britain as a world power; that handling the retreat from greatness would necessarily mean making the best of many a bad and botched job; and that, in getting such things done, presentation and performance were what counted. If people could be made to feel that something was well accomplished then, however much some of the evidence might contradict this and however different things might seem in retropect, that was in practice more than half the battle won. So, throughout his mature professional life, Mountbatten played the losing hand of British decline with such assurance and finesse that it often seemed as though it was not happening: reversal became advance, failure was really success, defeat was presented as triumph, and each setback appeared as a new initiative. And it worked. For in many cases, the performance was so persuasive, the illusion so complete, that it became, in a sense, its own reality. The Kelly may have been sunk ignominiously, but it made a morale-boosting legend of heroism and fortitude. Mountbatten may have been a posturing prima donna in Southeast Asia, but that was exactly what the situation required. India’s independence may not have been the triumph that Mountbatten liked to make out, but compared with such disasters as the Congo and Vietnam it was, indeed, a remarkable accomplishment.
To Mountbatten’s critics, all this was only further evidence that he was a selfserving opportunist: by helping Britain decline, he helped himself advance. But to his admirers, it merely showed that his judgment of events was farsighted, that he was prepared to take on difficult, messy, and unglorious jobs in the line of duty, and that he carried them out with a brilliance that no one else could have rivaled. For in the difficult circumstances of national decline, the very things for which Mountbatten was so often criticized were assets: the vanity, the charm, the royal connections, the desire for publicity, the determination to take on almost any job.
All this made it possible for Mountbatten to reconcile the British to their decline in a way that no one else ever managed: partly by never letting on that that was what he was actually doing; partly by presenting it in an honorable, flamboyant, exciting, and even occasionally misleading form, and partly by ensuring that, even amid the shocks of independence and decolonization, Britain never completely lost face with the third world or with American opinion. Hence the many apparent paradoxes: the man of royal blood who was hated by the diehard right; the Prince Charming with progressive instincts; the imperial undertaker who never wore black. As often happens, the IRA got the wrong victim: they thought they had murdered the last symbol of Greater Britain; in fact they had killed the principal architect of Little England.
That, surely, will be Mountbatten’s place in British history: he himself would never have admitted it, nor does Ziegler adequately explore it. That, in turn, is the real explanation why he was so much decorated and rewarded. Many people in Britain are honored, not so much for what they have achieved, as to console them for their loss of personal power. Mountbatten was honored, not because of who he was, but because he consoled the British people for their loss of national power. He was always in retreat, yet never in disarray; marching down the hill, but inevitably leading from the front. He played the part of the Duke of York with the panache of Prince Rupert.
May 9, 1985