Earl Mountbatten of Burma

ProfessionNaval Officer
Place of BirthWindsor

Born at the turn of the century Louis Battenberg (as his family was called then) was related to both the British and German Royal families. His father was a naturalised Briton and had risen through the Royal Naval ranks to eventually become the First Sea Lord. Louis followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Royal Navy as an officer cadet during World War I. He saw action in this war on board HMS Lion and HMS Queen Elizabeth. During the inter war years he would continue his Naval career but with strong ties to the British Royal family: He acted as Aide-Du-Comp to the Prince of Wales on his visits to Australia, India and the Far East. In 1922 he married Edwina Ashley. This marriage proved to be a strange affair in which both parties strayed to seek solace, and yet they managed to perpetuate their relationship right up until Edwina's death in Borneo in 1960.

World War II was to prove a profitable war as far as the ambitious, young Mountbatten was concerned. Starting the war as a destroyer captain, he managed to become a flotilla commander despite several misjudgements and accidents on his own part with ships under his command. His bravery and bravado were never in doubt and were to prove a lasting legacy when his close personal friend, Noel Coward, made a film based on a captain heroically losing his ship in desperate circumstances. In Which We Serve was thinly disguised around an action Mountbatten was involved in during the ill-fated Cretan campaign. Despite military setbacks, Mountbatten had caught the eye of Winston Churchill. The Prime-Minister promoted Mountbatten to the new post of Chief of Combined Operations. This was to be the organisation that prepared for the invasion of Europe. He would again suffer a military setback with the Dieppe raid of 1942. However, other daring commando raids and the establishment of a firm organisational framework that would eventually be used with Operation Overlord gained him a more satisfactory reputation. The Prime-Minister maintained confidence in his abilities and promoted him to Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in South-East Asia in 1943. This was a heady promotion although tempered by the fact that this was the theatre of operations that held the least priority for the Allied leaders. Churchill wished to maintain British primacy in this area as a prelude to returning to the Imperial domains of South East Asia. However, the Americans were to prove more ambivalent to these aims and would end up backing the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai Shek rather than aid the Imperialist ambitions of the British.

The experience of Mountbatten in this part of the world, his royal connections and his liberal political leanings were to make him a highly palatable Viceroy to India for the incoming British Labour government: Determined as they were to divest themselves from the Indian sub-continent. Originally wishing to orchestrate the handover of Indian independence as a single entity he was soon to run into the intransigence of Jinnah. Jinnah insisted upon, and eventually received, an Independent Muslim homeland of Pakistan (and what is now Bangladesh). Mountbatten became close personal friends with the Indian leaders Gandhi and Nehru (although not as close as his wife was to become with the latter). His rigidity in sticking to a timetable of Independence has been criticised by some as leading to the break up of India but praised by others for forcing issues to be resolved quickly and fairly.

After a brief period as High Commissioner to India, he would return to the Navy as 4th Sea Lord and Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet (1952-55). He was then promoted to First Sea Lord (1955-59) and eventually become the first Chief of Defence Staff (1959-65). Active in retirement, he was murdered by an IRA bomb on his boat at his holiday home in County Sligo in Ireland.

Further Reading: Mountbatten by Philip Ziegler

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