Why Churchill backed Mountbatten

Beverley Baxter January 1 1955

Why Churchill backed Mountbatten

Beverley Baxter January 1 1955

Why Churchill backed Mountbatten


Beverley Baxter

NOT ALL naval battles are fought at sea. Sometimes they are fought behind the scenes on dry land, and as an example I would cite the recent appointment of Admiral Earl Mountbatten of Burma to the post of First Sea Lord.

Before we deal with the drama of this appointment I must remind you that the English have their own way of doing things. For example there are two heads to the Navy—the First Lord and the First Sea Lord. One is the political head (in other words the Minister) and the other is the professional head (in other words Admiral-in-Chief).

Just to make it more difficult the First Lord is hardly ever a peer. Except under most peculiar circumstances he sits in the House of Commons where he can be questioned by the elected representatives of the people. Nor does he need to have had any previous knowledge whatsoever of naval affairs.

It was this apparent paradox that inspired the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. PINAFORE. For some reason there was a great outcry when W. H. Smith, MP, the founder of the bookstalls found in every sizeable railway station in Britain, was promoted from political obscurity to the minister in charge of the Navy.

You Gilbert and Sullivan fans may remember the song sung by S Joseph Porter, KCB, in other words W. H. Smith. Perhaps one ve’ will be sufficient:

I grew so rich that I was sent

By a pocket Borough into Parliament:

I always voted at my party’s call

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

I thought so little, they rewarded me By making me the ruler of the Queen’s Navee.

To which perhaps we might add Sir Joseph’s final admonition:

Now landsmen all whoever you may be,

If you want to rise to the top of the tree;

If jour soul isn’t fettered to an office stool Be careful and be guided by this golden rule: —

Stuk close to your desk and never go to sea Ard you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee.

Now let uj span the years and come down to the recent announcement that Acmiral Earl Mountbatten had been appointed First Sea Lord of the Acmiralty.

The stirriig drama behind Mountbatten’s

Continued on page 31

Louis climbed the ladder

London Letter


appointment was not known to the general public but that was not the fault of Sir Compton Mackenzie, the romantic pugilistic Scottish novelist who smells treason in the air and uses his pen like a claymore. Six weeks before Mountbatten’s appointment Mackenzie burst into print and declared that the villainous Conservatives were demanding an assurance from Churchill that he would not promote the supreme command of the Navy to the man who had not only dallied with the Socialists but, as Viceroy to India, had facilitated that country’s withdrawal from the British Raj.

“They are hounding him,” was Mackenzie’s case, “just as the ignorant cruel mob in 1914 hounded his father Prince Louis of Battenberg, the then First Sea Lord of the Admiralty.”

By the irony of fate the man who held tihe power of decision over Mountbatten’s future was Winston Churchill, just as he was the man who fought with such ferocity for Prince Louis in 1914.

Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 and Prince Louis was First Sea Lord. When the July naval manoeuvres were finished Prince Louis took the daring decision on his own responsibility to keep the fleet mobilized because he thought war with Germany was imminent.

But the mob had its way when the guns began to thunder. “The German must go!” for Prince Louis was of German blood. Not all Churchill’s ferocity could save him. The great admiral resigned under pressure, changed his name to Mountbatten and later was created the first Marquess of Milford Haven.

With his wife, who was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, he retired to the countryside and lived in privacy to the end of his days—a good man crucified by the mob.

He Tinkered with Wireless

Like father, like son. The call of the sea was in the blood of the boy who bore the courtesy title of Lord Louis Mountbatten. The Kaiser’s Germany had been duly defeated and everyone knew that there would never be any more big wars, so he was allowed to join the Navy as a profession. He was tall and handsome, with two passions— polo and wireless. The old sea dogs thought him rather a bore about wireless. After all, the Navy could semaphore or use the signal lamp, and what was good enough for Beatty ought to he good enough for anyone.

As Louis grew into young manhood polo was increasingly his delight although he found the game expensive. He rode with great dash and came under appropriate criticism, but everyone agreed that he was a good chap and that his father had been treated damned badly.

The young women in London Society were not so blasé. As I have said, Louis was tall and good-looking and his manners were excellent. But he took little part in the night-club life that kept London Society from its proper sleep in the Twittering Twenties. He was too busy tinkering with wireless sets.

Now we introduce the feminine note, and a very important note it was in the symphony of Lord Louis’ career. Those of you who were not born yesterday may recall that there was a very shrewd financier named Sir Ernest Cassel who looked after the investments of King Edward VII. He did so well for that lively monarch and also for himself that

he spent a lot of time wondering how he would leave his money.

He had only one child, a daughter, and in due course she married a good chap named Wilfred Ashley who entered parliament without disturbing it unduly. Ashley was reliable, loyal, unexciting and eventually became Minister of Transport and did quite a good job of work. Finally he was transferred to the Upper House and entered upon the twilight of his life as Lord Mount Temple.

But just as Sir Ernest Cassel had no son, neither did Lord Mount Temple. He had, instead, two daughters. In the meantime Sir Ernest Cassel had left a trust from which his daughter, Lady Mount Temple, would draw a stated amount during her lifetime. In other words it was one of those trusts intended to supply a regular income for succeeding generations.

It was in the Twenties that the West End of London became aware of the two sisters—-especially the elder one, Edwina. That was the period of short skirts, cloche hats and curveless femininity. The younger sister was a sweet, quiet girl, but Edwina was made for the era in which she was launched in Mayfair. Her greyhound legs, her bobbed hair, her wit, her audacity and her vitality made her the delight of gossip writers.

I do not know when or how she met Lord Louis but at any rate her marriage to him in 1922 was a great affair. They were a handsome pair and Mayfair celebrated the union accordingly. The tragedy of 1914 was forgotten by nearly everyone except Prince Louis and a politician called Winston Churchill.

Edwina threw parties that filled the gossip columns. Paul Robeson, the Negro baritone, sang at one of them and became a frequent visitor. Some eyebrows were raised but, broadly speaking, eyebrow raising had gone out of fashion. Nor did we see any of the left-wing tendencies in her that were to emerge at a later date. As a matter of record Edwina acted as a volunteer telephonist at the Daily Express during the general strike when we managed somehow to produce a one-page newspaper. In that struggle she was on the side of the bosses.

The Abyssinia crisis!

British feeling against the Italians was running high. There was talk of sending a British naval squadron into the Mediterranean. A story went around that in the Admiralty a memo was circulated asking for the opinions of various officers of differing ranks as to what should be done if a clash occurred between the Italian and British navies.

Mountbatten is said to have written: “We would blow the Italian Navy out of the water.” Back came a sardonic query from a senior admiral: “What would you use for ammunition?” Lord Louis is said to have answered (and I hope it. is true): “You do not need ammunition to blow the Italian fleet out of the water.”

1939. We are at war again. Louis Mountbatten, the wireless crank, is given command of a destroyer flotilla. The phony war drags on and then there is the disaster of Crete. Mountbatten dashes into the thick of it and manages somehow to bring his destroyer to safety although it is only a few inches above the water.

He is criticized for being too daring, too wasteful of his ships. But for his bravery there is nothing but praise.

Japan enters the war and the East is aflame. Mountbatten is sent to Burma. Churchill makes him generalissimo of the British forces with the ranks of general, air-marshal and admiral. He earns the nickname of “Supremo” and

fights a desperate war against cruel odds.

Now let us turn the pages forward to the piping days of peace. The Labour Party has swept to power, and Churchill and the Conservatives are a mere remnant. In 1946 Louis is created viscount by Clement Attlee, so that he becomes a peer in his own right and no longer bears a courtesy title.

The next year he moves up again. Attlee appoints him Viceroy of India and makes him Earl Mountbatten of Burma. In fact it is the supreme success story of those times with both Tory and socialist prime ministers heaping honors upon him.

Attlee had decided that Britain could no longer hold India, and Mountbatten was sent there to bring about the partition. I have insufficient space to deal with the merits of the case but I can understand the arguments put forward by the Tories that the man who defended India from invasion in the war should not have accepted the task of helping to usher India virtually out of the British Empire.

At any rate partition took place. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the struggle, and Nehru had achieved the dream of his mystic, tortured life.

What would Churchill do? He was still out of office hut one can imagine his thoughts. He nearly sacrificed his political future when he fought against the India Bill which Samuel Hoare and Baldwin tried to put through in the 1924 Government. To Churchill the inclusion of India in the empire was never a matter for debate. He made enemies, he sacrificed office, but he held up the India Bill.

Then, with the passing of the years, he finds that the young man he had exalted to such high place in the war has become the instrument of socialist policy to remove the proudest jewel in the Queen’s crown.

The pages turn over and Churchill once more becomes Prime Minister. Earl Mountbatten is made Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean. Not far ahead is the highest office a sailor can hold in the British Navy— First Sea Lord ! And was it not Churchill who swore by the gods and infidels that he would avenge the honor of the father in 1914 who was so foully treated by the mob?

There were mutterings in the higher circles of the Navy. No one doubted Louis Mountbatten’s bravery or ability, but he had touched pitch. In other words he had crossed the frontier that separates the sailor from the politician.

Three months ago it was announced that Admiral Mountbatten had retired as Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean. The wise ones nodded their heads. “Now Winston will pay his debt,” they said. Some of the top rankers in the Admiralty pursed their lips but said nothing. It was all very well for Churchill to be rewriting history but Mountbatten had dabbled in politics, he had accepted the job as Viceroy of India.

Days passed by. The rumors grew stronger that Churchill had fought his secret battle and was determined not to give his old friend’s son the command of the Navy. But those who knew Churchill’s generosity of spirit, his hatred of injustice and his sense of history were certain that emotion would prove the decisive element in the decision.

And if some of the admirals and Tories were not pleased there was one young man who must have shouted with exaltation—the Duke of Edinburgh, who has such a fiery loyalty to his kinsman that he would follow him to the mountain tops or into the desert. ★