Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mountbatten - young and lighthearted

It is 30 years ago to the day that Earl Mountbatten of Burma was murdered on holiday in Ireland by an IRA bomb planted on his boat. He was born with the highest of royal connections, becoming uncle to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and a mentor to Charles, Prince of Wales. His death followed a glittering career in the navy and as a statesman. While still a very young man and while on naval tour with his cousin, a future King of England, he was asked to keep an informal diary for the amusement of the ship’s company, and this experience may well have led to a diary-keeping habit. That first diary, though, is full of lighthearted observations - about a scratching dog in church, the prince (H.R.H.) being wheeled in a cook’s pram, and how a koala bear went home.

Mountbatten was born in Windsor Castle in 1900, the second son of Prince Louis of Battenberg and his wife Princess Victoria of Hesse and the Rhine. Educated at royal naval colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth, he served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. During the war, King George V changed the name of the Royal House to Windsor, and, at the same time, asked those of his relatives who were British but known by German names and titles to relinquish use of them. Thus, the head of the House of Battenberg adopted the surname of Mountbatten and was raised to the peerage. As the younger son of a marquess, Louis was accordingly known as Lord Louis Mountbatten.

In the early 1920s, he accompanied the Prince of Wales, his second cousin, on two tours to Australasia and Asia. In 1922, Mountbatten married Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley. The couple had two daughters. Otherwise, between the wars, he pursued a naval career with a variety of postings but specialised in communications. During the Second World War, Mountbatten commanded the 5th Destroyer Flotilla and became Chief of Combined Operations. In 1943, he was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command with the rank of acting Admiral.

After the war he was ennobled as Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, appointed a Privy Councillor, and subsequently given a peerage as Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Baron Romsey. In 1947, he became Viceroy of India. After partition, he remained as Governor-General until 1948. Thereafter, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet, the highest rank in the Royal Navy, and served as Chief of the Defence Staff between 1959 and 1965. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia or on the garishly-coloured Mountbattenofburma.com

On 27 August 1979, exactly three decades ago, Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA while aboard his boat on holiday in County Sligo, in the northwest of Ireland. Sinn Féin vice-president Gerry Adams said this of the execution: ‘As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country. In my opinion, the IRA achieved its objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.’

There are three published compilations of Mountbatten’s diaries, all of them edited by his biographer Philip Ziegler, all of them published by Collins in the 1980s, and all of them written when Mountbatten was on tours or abroad:
The Diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten 1920-1922: Tours with the Prince of Wales;
Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten, South-East Asia, 1943-1946;
From Shore to Shore - The Final Years: The Tour Diaries of Earl Mountbatten of Burma 1953-1979.
Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any information about - nor any extracts from - any of these books on the internet.

The earliest book is a collection of diaries written when Mountbatten was barely out of his teens and accompanying his cousin, the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII who abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson), on two naval tours (on board HMS Renown), to Australasia in 1920 and India/Far East in 1921/22.

According to Mountbatten himself, he had been instructed by the Admiral to keep an unofficial diary of the earlier tour ‘which is going to be printed on board and kept for our own amusement’. In his foreword, he wrote ‘This is a Diary of the Staff, by the Staff, for the Staff’ consciously (and somewhat pretentiously) echoing President Lincoln’s words about government being ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. The framework of this diary, he said, is based on facts, but nevertheless it is ‘a coat of many colours, with many patches of harmless libel and some patches of sheer romance. Not a word of it can be taken seriously.’ Some 20 copies were printed on the presses of HMS Renown and distributed to ‘the Staff’ at the time.

In a preface to The Diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten 1920-1922: Tours with the Prince of Wales, the editor Philip Ziegler calls the Australasia diary (as opposed to the India/Far East diary) ‘indiscreet and light-hearted’. He suggests that some extremely frank comments about certain aspects of the tour would have caused ‘a furore’ if made public, and then recounts how this nearly happened. It seems the ship’s doctor absconded with one of the 20 copies. The doctor, Ziegler says, ‘was eventually tracked down to Kettner’s restaurant, where he was bargaining with an American journalist, the diary on the table in front of him. The asking price was £5,000.’

Here are a few extracts - more lighthearted than indiscreet I would say - from Mountbatten’s very first tour diary.

25 April 1920
‘H.R.H. and the more devout members of his Staff, as well as those whose duty it was to go, attended Divine Service at the cathedral [Auckland]. The chief diversion during the service was caused by the entrance of a small dog who trotted up between the choir, sat down, and proceeded to scratch himself. Having relieved himself of his fleas, he smiled at H.R.H. and positively laughed at the choir. This was his doom, for a choirman rushed out and seized him, pushing him into the organ, where he proved of great assistance to the organist.’

6 June 1920
‘At Government House [Melbourne] two or three girls were invited to dine and later on the Fairbairn party joined up, so that another small Sunday dance could be held in the ballroom to the accompaniment of the pianola. The cook’s pram, which was wheeled in at half time, suffered considerably, for the Captain insisted upon wheeling H.R.H. down the length of the ballroom at breakneck speed, turning round so sharply at the end that he spilled him out and damaged the pram considerably. Unfortunately the cushions fell out as well and next minute a rugger scrum had been formed and a good game was soon in full swing which lasted until the insides of the cushions were flying in all directions, giving the room a very debauched appearance. Everyone retired to bed before midnight.’

26 July 1920
‘. . . After dinner the State Organizer came aft with a telegram asking if a boy scout might present H.R.H. with a native bear before lunch on the next day. A vote was taken in the after saloon as to whether this gift should be accepted or refused. No one voted for it to be taken right home to England, but everyone except the Admiral voted that it should be accepted for a time, even if only for a day or two, to see what it was like. The Admiral made a very stirring speech denouncing the acceptance of the gift on the grounds that the beast would perish owing to the change of climate, and that the Renown did not want it on board. He was, however, counted out and the bear accepted pro tem.’

27 July 1920
‘. . . A scout, and a girl - presumably his sister - arrived with a large hamper containing a native bear to be given to H.R.H. They were shown into the sitting room, and most of the members of the Staff collected to watch the presentation. Presently H.R.H. came in, and the basket was opened, revealing the most extraordinary animal imaginable. In general appearance it certainly bore a striking resemblance to an ordinary toy teddy bear; standing about one foot high on all fours, and being about eighteen inches long. Its fur was soft, and grey in colour, and its paws had sharp claws for tree climbing. The face, however, was most ridiculous; it reminded one vaguely of a Jew’s face with a hooked nose, and had the stupidest possible expression, with a pair of tiny eyes set rather close together. It climbed up and all over the girl, who had had it for five years; and after H.R.H. had inspected it and left, she broke down and sobbed, while the bear cried like a baby. The bear spent the day in the Flag Lieutenant’s room, crawling about and leaving an odour of gum leaves everywhere, these being its staple food. In the evening compassion was taken on the little girl who had given up her pet, and the native bear (or ‘koala’ as it is more properly called) was sent back by an orderly with a letter explaining why.’

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