In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Principal BoyNigel Hamilton
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Mountbatten 
by Philip Ziegler.
Collins, 786 pp., £15, March 1985, 0 00 216543 0
Show More
Show More

‘Dickie, you’re so crooked that if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew!’ Thus the irascible Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, in a ‘Templerism’ openly addressed to Lord Louis Mountbatten. It is one of Philip Ziegler’s virtues as an official biographer that he is willing to quote the unkind as well as the kind remarks about his hero. Another is his readability: a seven-hundred-page opus that crackles with interest, intelligence and good judgment from the beginning of Mountbatten’s meteoric appearance in the 20th century to his end as a victim of the IRA; the portrait of a man who, born a royal German prince, was reduced to the courtesy title of Lord and, by a mixture of talent, industry and naked ambition, seared his way into naval, military and finally political history – as well as the longest entry in Britain’s Who’s Who.

Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas, Prince of Battenberg, was born on 25 June 1900, the second son of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria. His father, grandson of the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and son of Prince Alexander of Battenberg, had joined the British Navy in 1868: a chequered career which saw him become First Sea Lord in 1912 but fall to English bigotry shortly after the outbreak of war, when he was forced to resign. The war did not, as expected, end by Christmas and Admiral Battenberg was never to be reinstated: indeed, by 1917 he had even to resign his German princedom and estates in Germany, becoming instead the first Marquess of Milford Haven. The Marquess’s second son, nicknamed Dickie, serving on board the flagship of the Grand Fleet as a midshipman, was demoted and Anglicised to simple Lord Louis Mountbatten: but far from deflating the young midshipman’s ego, the loss of his German title seems only to have fuelled Mountbatten’s wish to succeed. In this respect, his career mirrored that of the young Winston Churchill, also a second son, and also filled with a driving ambition to redeem his father’s fall from grace. Both boys performed like dunces at school, only to be spurred by vengeful passion towards early lustre. Both boys used their mother’s influence to achieve promotion in their chosen service. Both boys from then on pulled strings shamelessly to see action and win medals.

Though he missed the battle of Jutland, Mountbatten saw war service in a submarine as a sub-lieutenant, went up to Cambridge and, at the age of 20, contrived to be chosen as ADC to the Prince of Wales aboard the Renown. As ‘best friend’ of the heir to the British throne and an energetic naval officer in his own right, Mountbatten was paving his own way to stardom – which he soon assisted by marrying one of the richest heiresses in Europe, Edwina Ashley. With money behind him, royal patronage, and a burning ambition to shine in every naval posting he could engineer, Mountbatten’s rise was assured.

This part of Mountbatten’s supremely eventful life is told with great panache by Ziegler. The author’s intelligence and graceful style sweep the reader towards the meat of the book. Accusations of practising homosexuality are well parried, while Edwina’s adulterous liaisons are freely acknowledged. Nothing is hidden, nothing is explored. It is a masterly exercise in balanced biographical narrative – lacking in profundity, perhaps, but singularly appropriate to the subject. For this must be said: Ziegler was confronted by one of the most difficult undertakings in the business. Not for nothing was Mountbatten nicknamed ‘the Snake’. Moreover, his sedulous attempts to weave a myth around his achievements have made him a favourite target for literary as well as terrorist assassination. Philip Ziegler’s dilemma was how he could sympathetically record, as official biographer, the life of one of the most self-aggrandising figures of our time.

Ziegler is a writer before all else. Accorded access to the ‘riches’ of Mountbatten’s Broad-lands archives and with little inclination to investigate more deeply, he does what he is best at – producing a scintillating narrative of the flow of events and personalities in Mountbatten’s pageant-like life. The character or soul of the subject is seldom examined, perhaps for the simple reason that there was none. Instead, the author produces a sort of literary film-portrait, beautifully lit, well-paced, and with a star cast. The hero rushes from the King-to-be’s side to the new King’s side, from destroyer captain to flotilla leader, and thence to his most incredible leap as Chief of Combined Operations in 1941, the protégé of the Prime Minister himself.

Although Ziegler ignores the ‘Churchill-dimension’ of the Mountbatten story, it is one that has always intrigued me. Churchill was not always a good picker of men. Though he undoubtedly ‘saved’ Britain by his stalwart moral stance in the fight against Fascism, he might well have lost the war by his military ineptitude. His blunders – in Norway, Greece and the Far East – would have brought down a lesser leader; his dependence on cronies such as Beaverbrook was perverse and would have ruined him also, had it not been for men of stature and principle who guided the fortunes of Britain lower down the ladder. The fact is Churchill was entranced by chivalry, royalty, charm, and, to a certain degree, obsequiousness to his own genius. It was thus that he fell under the spell of the brave but unoriginal Field Marshal Alexander, promoting him ever higher towards the post of Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, his other protégé being the equally brave but by no means so self-effacing Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, whom he also propelled relentlessly towards supreme command.

Churchill and Mountbatten shared, as I have indicated, a common heritage; both were avid for power and position to avenge their fathers’ humiliation. And they were similar, too, in their mental processes. Both men loved toys, the paraphernalia of militarism. Ziegler shows well Mountbatten’s pioneering attempt to get the Admiralty to adopt the Oerlikon gun before the Second World War, just as Churchill had espoused with passion the advent of the tank in the first war. The two men also loved pomp, having been born into the stratosphere of society. In young Lord Louis Mountbatten Churchill undoubtedly saw a version of himself: youthful, zestful, attacking problems rather than facing them. Mountbatten was also, for Churchill, a go-between in the relationship between prime minister and sovereign. Thus Churchill sponsored Mountbatten’s rise – only to be mortified when Mountbatten ‘sold off the Government’s Indian commitment with such indecent and tragic haste in 1947. For this Churchill may be thought to have had nobody to blame but himself, for without his patronage it is questionable whether Mountbatten would ever have risen above Commodore.

As Ziegler describes, he was a disastrous flotilla captain, without the meanest grasp of strategy or tactics. As Chief of Combined Operations, Mountbatten was similarly Jonas-like, his promotion almost wrecking the endeavours of the Chiefs of Staff Committee – the only body capable of controlling Churchill’s excesses while translating the Prime Minister’s moral leadership into military success. Brooke, as CIGS, certainly saw Mountbatten as a greater danger than the Germans, and winced each time he heard Mountbatten had been to Chequers, wondering what new inanities would result. To Brooke, Churchill was a child – a most brilliant and demanding hyperactive political child, whom he could, given time and God’s grace, come to control as his military governess. But to have two such children, with Mountbatten joining Churchill, drove Brooke to distraction, as his unpublished diary reveals. It is quite clear that Brooke largely supported Churchill’s choice of Mountbatten as South-East Asian Supreme Commander in the summer of 1943 because he was being driven out of his mind by Mountbatten’s antics and wished him the far side of the globe.

Ziegler, though he knows this, does not credit it: indeed, if his book fails anywhere, it is in the historical delineation of Mount-batten’s career from the time of his elevation to Chief of Combined Operations in 1941. From this moment, Ziegler’s fresh, well-balanced Hollywoodish account becomes less and less convincing as it gets more and more defensive. As Monty’s biographer, I know this problem well: you reach the central period of a man’s life, in the midst of a titanic global struggle, and find that, contrary to expectations, it is actually less interesting, biographically, than its prelude. Inevitably, the biographer becomes sucked into the vortex of military or naval history, and the subject-matter becomes a bat to beat off historians’ accusations rather than a chronicle of personality and growth. More and more, Ziegler is forced to assess defensively rather than narrate, thus to some degree losing the thrust of his tale.

Fortunately, Zielger’s style and intelligence keep the ship from foundering. Moreover, many of his assessments and historical appraisals are fair and worth making. Mountbatten may have been a serpent, but, as Ziegler points out, he was one whom the Americans in particular admired – something which was to be a vital ingredient in the ‘Grand Alliance’ once the United States had belatedly entered the war. There is no doubt that for them his star quality outweighed his severe deficiencies as a commander. Ziegler often refers to Mountbatten’s ‘professionalism’, but this is a misuse of the term as I understand it. The danger of giving a lightweight like Mountbatten such great power, and in particular a seat on the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1942, was, as Brooke perceived, that enthusiasm was apt to masquerade as professionalism. In other words, show was in danger of becoming ‘the show’ – raiding being confused with real assault, gadgets with the cold-blooded business of bettering the enemy in leadership and battle.

With Mountbatten transplanted to India as Supreme Commander South-East Asia, Brooke breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. Mountbatten soon decided to set up his headquarters in, of all places, Ceylon, and his conduct of the South-East Asia command became a veritable farce, driving Brooke to renewed distraction. Even the Americans, once so admiring of the wonder-boy, came to distrust and defy him. Few, if any, subordinate commanders could serve under such a dangerous ‘child’ for long: thus, one by one they resigned, were sacked or ‘took the can’ for Dickie. As Ziegler acknowledges in a telling phrase, Mountbatten was a man you wanted on your own side: with his royal and political connections there was little chance of winning in a dispute with him. That so many attempted to, Ziegler ascribes to stupidity: for my money, it was a reflection of the insanity induced by Mountbatten’s theatre in Kandy. One War Office colonel reported after arrival at Supreme Allied Headquarters in 1945:

He is intensely interested in ... papers, films, broadcasting and the like, and he brings the whole weight of his status and brain to bear on them. Consequently, they are, I think, outstanding successes. In other things, including strategy and the waging of war, he is impetuous and impulsive and vastly temperamental. His brain I would rate as no more than fair and he will always overcall his hand. It follows automatically that the troops worship him and the Chiefs of Staff are sceptical. He is jealous and will not have any decentralisation: so much so that a draft telegram he has approved cannot be sent off until he has personally signed the fair copy that goes into the Signal Office. That is inherent in his character and has been humoured so long that wild horses would not break it down.

Another visitor – this time, the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff – was horrified by the size and luxury of Mountbatten’s headquarters, where the Supreme Commander held his morning conferences two thousand miles from the front: ‘it was like a well-produced pantomime, and there the Principal Boy himself, dressed in immaculate white ducks, came onto the centre of the stage in the person of the Supreme Commander himself, looking quite gorgeous, and various fairies floated in from the wings, dressed in air-force colonel silk, signals in their hands for the Supreme Commander. The black-coated professors sitting in the front row of the stalls were appealed to, as the pantomime comedian usually appeals to the people in the stalls during some part of the show, and it seemed to me that it was a wonderful piece of play-acting, but it was not anything in the shape of real war.’

By summarising Mountbatten’s wartime performances, Ziegler avoids having to chronicle them. He is thus able to neglect Mount-batten’s shifting and unstable brain, the fact that he was a lightweight who tended to voice the views of the last person to impress him. By disregarding chronology, a portrait can be painted in which Mountbatten emerges always as the victor. This, of course, he was. As he once told General Christison, he was determined to get to the top and vindicate his father: ‘Nothing and no one – I repeat, nothing and no man – will ever be allowed to stand in my way.’ Those who crossed him were marked down for elimination: he made sure, moreover, to watch the exits.

The situation in the Dutch East Indies after the war looked ‘very tricky’: it was thus handed over to Christison, who, like General Sir Oliver Leese and others before him, was to carry the can if things went wrong. Small wonder Mountbatten would never face up to his responsibility for personally resurrecting the Dieppe operation after its official cancellation, or indeed, for any undertaking of his that failed. His pathological ambition to succeed meant medals and promotion, irrespective of lives lost, careers ruined, trust betrayed. He was, in this sense, a Machiavellian prince – an aspect disallowed by Ziegler. Christison’s reminiscence, though quoted in the interests of fairness, is discounted as unlikely, and any criticism of Mountbatten that suggests a darker side to his character is labelled intemperate.

Temperateness, Ziegler implies, is the key to a balanced perception of Mountbatten’s controversial personality and performance. By encompassing Mountbatten’s long life in a single volume, he can justify the superficiality of his ‘official’ investigation on the grounds of space. Thus the conduct of the war in Burma is narrated in a dozen pages, as is the post-war period in South-East Asia. New actors – Aung Sang, MacArthur – are whisked onto the stage and as quickly whisked off. This approach reaches its apogee with Attlee’s secret appointment of Mountbatten as the last Viceroy of India in December 1946. Mountbatten’s indefatigable efforts to get agreement over immediate partition and independence are well instanced, particularly his tactics with the Indian princes. But the true enormity of the problem is missed. Why did Mountbatten insist on independence in a bare three months? This, together with his often devious behaviour, are swept under the carpet, so that, once again, the episode of India becomes a pageant in Ziegler’s prose rather than a confrontation with history and with the hero’s personality. Mountbatten was, himself, a dispossessed prince. Did this not play a role in his dealings with the princes and politicians? Time and again Ziegler forfeits depth in his desire to keep up momentum and maintain his own quasi-impartial stance. We are never allowed to get under Mountbatten’s skin, to feel as he felt, for good or bad. It is not hagiography in the sense of a denial that Mountbatten could do wrong, but Ziegler exhibits a constant concern with the overall ‘image’ of the man which acts as a form of straitjacket. Nehru’s affair with Mountbatten’s wife is acknowledged, but this – as are all Edwina’s amours – is so lightly sketched that it is of no psychological consequence to Mountbatten, who is merely pictured as proceeding to his next task. Possibly Mountbatten was indifferent, or at least complaisant: but in glossing over such matters Ziegler fails to invest Mountbatten’s lust for laurels with sufficient depth to move us. It was undoubtedly Mountbatten’s need for Edwina’s money and his failure to satisfy her as a man that made him so desperate for recognition outside marriage: to which end he resorted to every possible device and intrigue.

Lee Kuan Yew called him ‘the greatest fixer of all time’, but in this respect Mountbatten was no worse than most politicians – indeed, he was a politician, but in uniform. He loved the daily exercise of power and this, in his retirement, led to nascent treachery when, with Cecil King, he conspired to set up a National Government in the event of a coup d’état. Fortunately, as so often before, he was saved by his friend Sir Solly Zuckerman, just as Churchill was so often saved by friends of similar stature.

Despite his exaggerated claims to historic deeds and influence (‘a cavalier indifference to the facts to magnify his own achievements’, as Ziegler describes the trait), Mountbatten nevertheless did much that his country is grateful for. He personified the energetic pursuit of excellence in one’s chosen field; he had enthusiasm, magnetism, and unusual openness of mind. He undoubtedly helped a thousand pioneering ideas and schemes to prosper, and like the best of royalty, he ‘represented’ his country abroad with dignity, charm and good will. He discharged the Indian commitment too rapidly, which led to many deaths in sectarian violence during Partition: but his dedication to Indian independence and to the evolution of a democratic sub-continent was accepted by all as idealistic and sincere – and few, if any, Hindus blamed him for what happened. Rather, they regarded him as a beautiful, ambitions, almost godly young maharaja, and Ziegler, indeed, questions whether any other British Viceroy could have done better, or as well. For all the celerity, his partition of the Indian sub-continent stuck, whereas that of Palestine, at the hands of the British and American governments and the UN the following year, was a disaster, leading to decades of instability in the Middle East.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.