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.

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