The eminence grise behind Prince Philip

The eminence grise behind Prince Philip Lord Louis Mountbatten
The Mountbattens

by Andrew Lownie (Blink Publishing, £20.00; 490 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates)

Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by members of the Provisional IRA at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, on August 27, 1979. This is recorded in considerable detail in one of the 29 chapters of this comprehensive biography.

Dickie, as he was known from his earliest years, was born into the princely Battenberg family on June 25, 1900. He began his education in a prep-boarding school in London. On joining the Royal Navy he attended a number of naval colleges and schools. He was an undergraduate at Cambridge University and throughout his naval career attended numerous in-training courses. His rise through the ranks of the navy was rapid. He achieved his first command in 1934 and was promoted captain in 1937. Eventually he realised his foremost ambition when he was appointed First Sea Lord and head of the Royal Navy in August 1955.


Before the outbreak of the war in 1939, Mountbatten was given the command of HMS Kelly, a destroyer. It was soon engaged in chasing-down U-boats and, though torpedoed, managed to limp back to port. After it returned to active service it was sunk in the Mediterranean, capsizing with only half the crew, including Mountbatten, surviving. On his return to port Mountbatten was given the command of HMS Illustrious, an aircraft carrier.

Mountbatten was appointed Chief of Combined Operations in Europe in 1942 and presided at the planning for the incursion at St Nazaire and the unmitigated disaster at Dieppe. Next, in 1943, he was Supreme Allied Commander East Asia and under his aegis the Japanese march across Asia was turned back near the border between Burma and the Indian province of Bengal and subsequently Burma and Singapore were re-captured from the Japanese. Following the world war his capacity for leadership continued to be widely appreciated and in the 1950s he held some of the highest appointments in the British and NATO fleets.

Mountbatten will always be associated with India. He was its last viceroy and first governor general. In 1947 the post-war Labour government and especially its prime minister Clement Atlee were keen to quickly hand over India to those demanding its independence. They appointed Mountbatten to oversee the transition. It was a poisoned chalice. Adequate preparations had not been made for such a gargantuan task. The result was epic communal violence between the Hindus and Muslims which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.


Mountbatten was a great-grandson and godson of Queen Victoria. He was instrumental in having his nephew, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark marry Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth in 1947. By this time the Battenbergs had become the Mountbattens, owing to anti-German feeling in the country. A key figure in the extended royal family, he was always present on the family’s important occasions. He was the mentor of Prince Philip. Prince Charles on numerous occasions claimed that he was his closest confidant. Mountbatten’s affection for and closeness to the royal family remained a central feature of his life.

Mountbatten married Edwina Ashley on July 18, 1922. Time and time again he indicated his indebtedness to her for her support and encouragement. She was highly commended for her work with the Red Cross and Order of St John in London during the Blitz.

Mountbatten was to aver that he would have had difficulty surviving in New Delhi in the difficult period prior to the declaration of India’s independence had Edwina not been at his side. However, neither she nor her husband escape unscathed from Andrew Lownie’s ‘warts and all’ approach to the writing of biography.

Mountbatten was, it seems, an immensely vain person who liked to flaunt his numerous awards, decorations and honours to draw attention to his remarkable civil and military service. However, his neighbours at Classiebawn – the castle he made his Irish holiday home – always found him to be friendly, kind and a pleasure to meet. Hence, the cloud of despondency and grief which hung over the area for quite some time following his appalling murder.