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Mountbatten of Burma: Captain of War Guardian of Peace Hardcover – 7 May 2009
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About the Author
Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch KCB, DSO, DSC, MPhil was a wartime submarine ace and serial escaper after being captured by the Germans in 1943. He later served on the staff of Mountbatten. He wrote a wartime memoir, An Affair of Chances: a Submariner's Odyssey (1991). He died in 2007.
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This book, first appearing in 1996 as `The Princely Sailor - Mountbatten of Burma', has been republished with a new title but essentially with the same contents as the original.
The distinction of the book is that it focuses on the achievements of Mountbatten as a member of the armed forces and, in particular, as a sailor. The author, Vice-admiral Sir Ian McGeogh joined the Royal Navy almost 20 years after Mountbatten but his experience broadly paralleled that of his subject.
Mountbatten was a naval cadet when the Great War broke out in August 1914. With his father being the First Sea Lord, he had contacts at the very top of British government and armed forces from his earliest days. He apparently gained no apparent privileges from this but underwent all the training normal for any aspiring officer of the time. He was hard working and passed out top of several courses. There is a hint - in correspondence from his own mother at the time - that he was already boasting of his achievements.
Between the wars, Mountbatten made his professional mark by working extremely hard in the signals and communications fields. He married an heiress and cultivated a persona of glamour and hectic socialising. He reached the rank of Commander when he was only 34, a considerable achievement in a shrunken navy. After a spell in the Fleet Air Arm he was promoted to Captain three years later.
Never backward in coming forward, he began to `interfere' in Admiralty matters by advocating the adoption of the Oerlikon anti-aircraft weapon, the use of enciphering machines and the design of destroyers. When war came, he was commanding HMS Kelly and saw fighting in the North Sea, off Norway, the Channel and the Mediterranean. It was during this period that the first stories questioning Mountbatten's competence began to surface. While he made errors in the heat of battle, most were only perceived in the light of hindsight. Off Crete, HMS Kelly was sunk.
Not many captains who had lost their ship were invited to luncheon with the Prime Minister. A mere four weeks after the sinking in May 1941, Mountbatten was. More to the point he was shortly offered a new appointment to head Combined Operations. Churchill had perceived that this relatively new concept of mounting an operation with one commander for land, sea and air resources was vitally necessary for an eventual invasion of Europe. He wanted someone with energy and vision to run it. Combined Ops began selected operations to work out the practicalities. One of the biggest and the most contentious was the Dieppe Raid. Because of the high casualty rate, this attack has been characterised as a failure. Military experts and historians have studied facts and background of Dieppe for many years. Despite some shrill voices, there seems no reliable evidence of incompetence by Mountbatten but rather a conjunction of relatively small errors in intelligence and execution. Now promoted Rear-admiral, he went on to make valuable contributions to Combined Ops in North Africa, Sicily and elsewhere.
In September 1943, after taking soundings with the Americans, Churchill appointed Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia. It was something of a poisoned chalice. Unfortunately Mountbatten was not given command over the service commanders-in-chief, so he was perforce compelled to act more as a chairman. He had to find resources to support the campaign in Burma, defend the Indian frontier, develop the air force and maintain the corrupt and incompetent Chinese nationalists. While the military task was an immense challenge, no less difficulty surrounded the disengagement after the Japanese surrender. Clamour for independence from previously European controlled countries was recognised by Mountbatten but the old French and Dutch colonial administrators thought they could simply walk back in. The unified command that Mountbatten had developed, was dismantled soon after his tenure ceased in 1946.
By then he had been lined up by the new Labour government for his most challenging role - Viceroy of India tasked with the job of seeing the country to independence. Mountbatten recognised what many did not - Churchill among them - that the countries of South East Asia were destined for full independence. The core of the problem In India was, as Attlee identified, that the British, by keeping Indian politicians permanently in opposition, had created irresponsibility among them. Mountbatten's thankless task was to try and imbue the future leaders of the country with a realisation of the need for compromise, not intransigence. Both failed and the consequence was a separation of India and Pakistan by a sea of blood. At the time, the bloodshed was seen as an inescapable consequence of racial and religious hatred of the people themselves. Evidence of the high regard in which Mountbatten was held, was the invitation by both Indian and Pakistani politicians for him to continue in a quasi-presidential role in both countries.
Returned to the Royal Navy, Mountbatten continued the progression that seems, in retrospect, to have been ordained for him. In December 1954 he was promoted to First Sea Lord thus regaining the command that his father had been compelled to surrender for political reasons in 1912. It was a rather different navy and was destined to change even further under the irresistible force of Britain's declining position in the world. Mountbatten played a key role in seeing that the diminishing size of the armed forces was reflected in more sensible and efficient structure. It was on his watch that the Suez debacle occurred. Mountbatten was against this futile exercise from the start even writing a personal letter to the Prime Minister pleading with him to see reason. On this matter, as Britain knows to its cost, Eden was intransigent.
As well as guiding the navy through this period of retrenchment, Mountbatten, largely through personal diplomacy, gained Britain a favoured position in the deployment of the Polaris nuclear programme.
In 1959, Mountbatten succeeded to the role of Chief of the Defence Staff. He directed the merging of the individual service ministries into a single Ministry of Defence against the hostility of the incumbent service chiefs. Despite a change of government, Mountbatten was given a second tour as CoDS and continued working on improved co-ordination of the armed forces. The historic Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry ceased in to exist on 1 April 1964. He retired in July 1965 at the age of 65.
In 1979, the IRA murdered him along with family members and a local Irish lad.
This book describes Mountbatten's military career with only passing mention of other issues such as the adulterous activities of his wife. The author addresses the main complaints about Mountbatten - command of 5th Destroyer Flotilla, Dieppe Raid, dismissal of General Leese in South East Asia and responsibility for the bloodbath at Indian independence - setting out the arguments of the critics and accepting or refuting their cases in some detail.
This is a sound biography with plenty of supporting colour to carry the story along. Only in the last chapters does the flow get sluggish as the narrative deals more with the politics at the top levels in the Ministry of Defence. The overall tone of the book is measured and objective as one expects from an admiral but just occasionally there is a flash of wit. On one of Churchill's memoranda, he writes, "The directive, with its unmistakeable air of drafting in a postprandial euphoria redolent of cigars, large-scale brandies and small-scale maps...".