Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord 1900-1943

August 26, 2010

He had it all: royal blood, good looks, an immensely rich if unfaithful wife, who provided him with a mansion in Park Lane, and close friendships with film stars. He also had charm by the bucketful. No wonder fellow naval officers resented Lord Louis Mountbatten's seemingly effortless rise in a career that led to his becoming successively chief of combined operations, supreme commander in the Far East, the last Viceroy of India, Admiral of the Fleet and chief of the defence staff. If at times it all seemed rather like a Hollywood film, then this was apt, for Mountbatten was obsessed by the movies, and Noel Coward's wartime film In Which We Serve (based loosely on the sinking of HMS Kelly while under Mountbatten's command) did much to promote its captain as a romantic figure.

While writing his official biography of Mountbatten, Philip Ziegler kept a note pinned above his desk. It said: "Remember that, after all, he was a great man." But was he? Author Andrew Roberts was certain that he was not, and in an essay that is a masterpiece of character assassination, "Lord Mountbatten and the perils of adrenalin", cast serious doubt on claims for his greatness, seeing him as careless with his ships, responsible for the disastrous Dieppe raid, taking undeserved credit for the Burma campaign, and then botching the handover to Indian independence by his partiality to Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Congress Party and Mountbatten's wife's lover.

Adrian Smith's book is, as the subtitle indicates, a half biography, charting Mountbatten's career up to his appointment as supreme commander in South East Asia and the glories that followed. Smith hovers between rehabilitation and mitigation, but this is a judicious account.

Mountbatten, in the pre-war years, may have appeared too rich, too proud of his friendship with the Prince of Wales, and too much a member of high society to be a serious naval officer, but Smith emphasises his fierce, even ruthless, determination to succeed, his support for the modernisation of the Navy, his absorption in the technology that would transform naval warfare, and his popularity with the men who crewed his ships.

He was a professional, although there can be no doubt that he used his connections and charm. Nobody was more impressed with him than himself, but when war came he demonstrated his bravery.

Among his important conquests was Winston Churchill, who admired dash, bravery and confidence and whose decision to make him chief of combined operations provoked consternation among admirals and generals. He also got on well with Americans, an important factor when allied relations were difficult and the relative power of Britain in the alliance was waning.

What motivated Mountbatten's zealous pursuit of glory and promotion? There was a dark side to the gifts from the gods. His father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, had been forced to resign as First Sea Lord at the beginning of the First World War when his German birth became an embarrassment. And was his lineage so impeccably royal when it had a morganatic and even illegitimate strain? To a proud and vain man, these slurs were a spur to his determination to succeed, and perhaps for a sort of Orleanist ambivalence towards the establishment that would form his later left-wing views on the Empire and the Soviet Union.

Smith has given us a portrait of a man on the road to fame and glory. But would the faults that he recognises or the professional purposefulness he acclaims be the more prominent in the later career of Lord Mountbatten?

Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord 1900-1943

By Adrian Smith IB Tauris, 400pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781848853744. Published 14 April 2010

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