Lord Louis Mountbatten died in 1979, a victim of IRA assassins. Since then, no fewer than three biographies on the man have appeared (if one includes The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, the book on Mountbatten’s self-orchestrated television documentary, shown in this country as Mountbatten: A Man for the Century). The latest, by Philip Ziegler, is easily the most ambitious. Making use of Mountbatten’s personal archives at Broadlands, Ziegler has produced a lengthy volume on his subject; and, he tells us, he could have written a book of “two, three, or even four volumes.” We can be glad he did not. The book suffers from Ziegler’s inability to sum up events succinctly, not to mention understand them. After 700 pages, the reader is apt to feel about Mountbatten as Dr. Johnson did about Paradise Lost: he would not wish it longer. Still, Ziegler is minutely informative, if not brilliant, which is about as much as one can expect from an official biographer.
As for Mountbatten himself (or “Dickie,” as he preferred), he was colorful. Born His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg, great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and nephew to the Tsar, Mountbatten could hardly avoid fame. By temperament he did not want to. Following in the footsteps of his father and brother, he pursued a career in the Royal Navy, a glamorous calling in itself As a cadet, and later as a junior officer, Dickie was envied for his royal connections and suspected of rising because of them. Those who did not fall prey to his natural friendliness and charm thought him arrogant. Yet he quickly made a reputation as a hard worker, even a perfectionist. During the peaceful early and middle 30’s, his crews won trophy after trophy in various field contests—water polo, cricket, gunnery. He was determined that his ship would be the best, and often it was.
In his personal life, he was a celebrity. His marriage to Edwina Ashley in 1922 (hailed as the “marriage of the century”) was followed by a honeymoon that lasted six months and included visits with Charlie Chaplin and the Fairbankses. It seemed a perfect match. Yet Edwina was not the type to give Mountbatten the loyalty and quiet domesticity he craved. She was in many ways a remarkable woman. Among her efforts at public service was her postwar work in restoring the broken morale of the prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. But for all that, she was something of a vamp.
Like the upper-class girls that Evelyn Waugh satirized so well, Edwina delighted in forbidden, scandalous pursuits. For Edwina these were adultery and leftism. Her notorious promiscuity, Ziegler implies, might have been exaggerated: although she had at least one prolonged affair, her rumored fling with Paul Robeson was no more than a rumor, and the celebrated affair with Nehru was, Ziegler insists, platonic. Still, Edwina was clearly ill-suited for the role of wife to a British naval officer. The leftism that she inherited as a family tradition, she took to new extremes: she became intoxicated with the radicalism of the 20’s and by the early 30’s was in the caravan of pilgrims to Moscow to see the future that worked. Even in later years, she never renounced this foolishness, and her husband never objected.
When war came, Mountbatten took command of the H.M.S. Kelly, determined to repeat the successes he had enjoyed in peacetime. He was to be sadly disappointed. As a captain, Dickie all but became the laughingstock of the fleet, nearly sinking his ship three times in 57 days. One may think no sailor would want such an accident-prone captain, but the crew of the Kelly remained obstinately loyal, a testimony to Mountbatten’s charisma. Yet, Ziegler admits, he was an irresponsible captain. He liked to race his boat through the ocean for no reason, the same way teenagers, or more to the point, playboys, like to race cars. Upon finally reaching the Mediterranean, Dickie and his crew were sunk by German dive-bombers. Noel Coward made the disaster look wonderfully heroic in his film In Which We Serve, but he could not cover up the real loss. Before Mountbatten could take command of another ship, Churchill yanked him out and put him in control of Combined Operations. To Mountbatten’s protests he replied bluntly, “The best thing you can hope to do . . . [at sea] is to repeat your last achievement and get yourself sunk.” The Prime Minister may have liked Dickie’s energy and dash, but he was no fool.
Heading up Combined Operations, Mountbatten put his energy and foresight to good use. Like Churchill, he saw that the methods of war needed rethinking and that change must come in part through the cooperation of the very independent and jealous services. He succeeded well enough to stage a series of minor raids in anticipation of a much larger combined operation, the invasion of Europe. His one big failure was Dieppe, for which he was largely but, according to Ziegler, unjustly blamed. On balance, however, Churchill was impressed, and when time came to pick a Supreme Commander in Southeast Asia, Dickie was his man.
For many months British forces in India had been floundering; the loss of Singapore had crushed their spirit, sending them reeling back. Mountbatten quickly identified the immediate problems, his “three m’s” (malaria, monsoon, and morale), and set to work overcoming them. Within months the sick list had shrunk to a fraction of its former size, and the British had won badly needed victories by fighting through the monsoon season. From early 1945 on, the Japanese steadily retreated, leaving Rangoon for the British to take without firing a shot. Although it would not be correct to credit Mountbatten alone with these accomplishments (air power and the maneuvers of General Slim did as much), he played a vital part in the victory.
After the surrender of Japan, Mountbatten entered the busiest phase of his career. Being busy, however, is not always good, as Jimmy Carter was to prove years later to the American people. The comparison of Carter and Mountbatten is apt. In a string of important governmental and military appointments ranging from viceroy of India to Chief of the Defense Staff, Mountbatten contributed to the dismantling of the European colonial empires in Southeast Asia. A human-rights man, he spent his last months as Supreme Commander forging settlements between the colonials and the natives in Dutch, French, and British holdings, settlements that stopped short of granting the colonies independence but weakened the governors just enough to leave them vulnerable. As viceroy of India he was more an executor than a formulator of the policy of withdrawal. But it was a policy he endorsed. During the Suez Crisis, as First Sea Lord, he contributed as much as anyone to British vacillation (to him, Nasser was morally right). And on Western policy toward the Soviets, he remained a proponent of the great liberal delusion, containment. It is little wonder that in his last months he spoke for “controlled reduction” of nuclear arms.
In spite of his blunders, Mountbatten emerges from this biography a likable man. He was an inspiring leader, handsome, friendly, courageous, and dauntless, who, in Ziegler’s words, “flared brilliantly across the face of the twentieth century.” Brilliant he was in manner and style, much like John Kennedy. But brilliance of that variety does not alone make great statesmen. Mountbatten lacked an understanding of the central fact of 20th-century politics, the marriage of ideology and power that threatens the existence of the West. That deficiency insured his naiveté in political affairs. He was born a prominent member of the greatest empire in the world; he lived to see that empire destroyed, partly due to his influence. In that respect, Mountbatten was not so much a man for the century as a man of the century; not so much what it needed as what it too frequently and sadly got.
[Mountbatten: A Biography, by Philip Ziegler (New York: Knopf) $24.95]