(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Mountbatten is a full-length biography of a man who played a vital role in British public life from World War II until his retirement in 1965. It is the official biography of Mountbatten and, in addition to making extensive use of interviews and other primary sources, Philip Ziegler had unrestricted access to Mountbatten’s private papers in preparing his study. It is gracefully written and makes an important contribution to understanding a major public figure.

From the very beginning, Mountbatten’s family ties set him apart from his contemporaries. He was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, nephew of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, a cousin of kings Edward VIII and George VI, and an uncle of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip. Mountbatten took great pride in his family line; one of his favorite diversions was to trace his ancestry back to the Emperor Charlemagne. Mountbatten’s father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse, entered the British navy and rose to the position of First Sea Lord. Anti-German feeling became so strong during World War I, however, that he was forced to resign. Mountbatten, then a young naval cadet, was stunned by his father’s treatment and vowed that he would some day succeed him as First Sea Lord. Ziegler suggests that this incident was a source of the driving ambition which was so prominent a feature of his personality.

Ziegler devotes considerable attention to Edwina, Mountbatten’s wife, and their troubled marriage. Edwina Ashley was the granddaughter of Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the wealthiest men in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, and she inherited the bulk of his fortune. Mountbatten, in contrast, although of royal blood, had an annual income of only six hundred pounds at the time of their marriage in 1922. Nevertheless, the disparity in wealth proved less of a source of conflict within their relationship than other factors. Edwina cherished her independence and resented the bonds of matrimony. Within seven months after the birth of their first daughter, she temporarily deserted Mountbatten. Although she later returned to him, this was only the first of a series of extramarital relationships she established; in 1928, she was named corespondant in a threatened divorce action. Although deeply unhappy with her behavior, Mountbatten continued to try to regain Edwina’s affection. Ziegler suggests that his inability to satisfy her left Mountbatten with a sense of failure for which he compensated with an exceptionally fierce determination to be successful in his naval career.

World War II was a decisive turning point in Mountbatten’s career. He entered the war as an undistinguished destroyer commander with no reason to anticipate promotion to high office. He emerged from the war as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia with an enhanced reputation for his political skills, which made him a logical choice to serve as the next viceroy of India. This meteoric series of promotions owed less to his success in the various positions he held than to his having become a protégé of the prime minister, Winston Churchill.

At the beginning of the war, Mountbatten nearly ruined his reputation as a naval commander through repeated errors of judgment, which led to the ships under his command suffering unnecessary damage. Mountbatten’s decision to signal another destroyer at night with a bright light while cruising in the North Sea early in 1940 led to his ship being torpedoed and very nearly sunk. Yet his skill in preventing his ship from sinking while it was being towed back to port attracted considerable publicity and caught Churchill’s attention. Churchill was so impressed that he proposed that Mountbatten be granted a medal, but this was vetoed by Mountbatten’s fleet commander, who pointed out that there would have been no need for Mountbatten’s heroism had it not been for his initial mistake. The episode proved invaluable to Mountbatten, however, for it left Churchill convinced that Mountbatten was a man of great talent whose abilities were being ignored by petty-minded superior officers.

After this inauspicious beginning, Mountbatten continued to compile an unenviable record as a naval officer. He was placed in charge of a flotilla late in 1940, but he proceeded to commit errors in strategy while engaging a German fleet, which led to his ship being hit by torpedoes and put out of action. In the following year, he was commander of a flotilla assigned to assist British troops resisting the German invasion of Crete. On this occasion, his ship was sunk. Even Ziegler admits that Mountbatten’s superiors were correct in claiming that he was no better than second-rate as a destroyer or flotilla commander. Happily for Mountbatten, however, Churchill had become convinced that he was an innovator with the drive to find new ways of waging war on Germany, and he appointed him Chief of Combined Operations in October 1941.

Combined Operations was a special group responsible for planning and conducting operations in which forces from more than one service were involved. Although initially limited almost entirely to commando raids on the French coast, it was the organization specifically charged with preparing for a full-scale invasion of the Continent. Mountbatten’s appointment to such a responsible position was quite amazing, considering his age and limited experience: Virtually all of his staff were older than he, and most held higher rank than he until his sudden promotion over them. In his new position, Mountbatten became the fourth military member of the Chiefs of Staff, the supreme military council charged with directing the war. Initially he was regarded with skepticism bordering on hostility...

(The entire section is 2371 words.)