Principal Boy

Nigel Hamilton

  • Mountbatten by Philip Ziegler
    Collins, 786 pp, £15.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 216543 0

‘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.