Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1.2.135)
Dr Smith is an academic historian from the University of Southampton. He has mined the Broadlands archives to compile a memoir of Lord Mountbatten’s professional life.
This is set in a context derived from many other sources including published biographies of Lord M and the memoirs of many contemporaries, superiors (especially Cunningham) and one-time subordinates. This is the first of maybe two or three volumes and takes the Life up to a focus on the Dieppe raid and then the planning for Overlord. In order to deal at length with Lord Mountbatten as a naval officer, his early life and gossip about his wife and marriage are only sketched in, although the author recognises that there has to be some background for anybody’s life to make sense. He rightly eschews the prurient does not, for instance, mention Edwina being carted off to hospital conjoined to ‘Hutch’.
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Unfortunately Smith is purely an academic and has no feel for the Royal Navy beyond his reading. This leads to various errors of usage which will jar for the naval reader and the odd total solecism, for instance ‘Diesel’ instead of Furnace Fuel Oil (but I doubt he knows the difference). Perhaps more seriously for instance, in the matter of naval communications he fails to distinguish between the technical means and the original intent; thus he ascribes the essentially poor result of the Dogger Bank action to communication method rather than to the ambiguity of one crucial signal drafted by Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant; and regarding Jutland, he doesn’t spot the problem of commanding officers not sending appropriate signals in the first place. So the essential naval detail is flawed, and therefore unsatisfying to the naval reader. There are gaps in the logic – COPP is briefly mentioned but the relationship of its genesis to Dieppe is only visible by inference. Per contra Dr Smith is a much better, if often equivocal guide on politics and personalities; but sometimes I fear that personality is seen as a motivation rather than some technical issue.
Dieppe is seen as nearly Mountbatten’s Waterloo and takes up two of the eleven chapters. Smith concedes that the Chiefs of Staff and their Chairman, the Canadian generals in charge of their forces in the UK, and others including Montgomery must share responsibility for continuing with the project after big-gun bombardment and aerial bombing were both taken out of the plan; but he implies that is Mountbatten who should have pulled out of the operation at that point, although the spur for this would have had to be one of the key participants seeking cancellation. As it was he had already been overruled on his original plan to use Royal Marines for the assault after the Canadian Government insisted their raw troops should be used instead (something Canadian commentators appear to overlook). One wonders what would have happened to Vian’s reputation and advancement if his attack on the Altmark had gone wrong.
Although officially ending in 1943 there are references to Mountbatten and the Suez war. Smith seems to have difficulty in understanding a serving officer loyally doing his duty as but at the same time representing severe misgivings (which I find in comprehensible – what mattered was Dulles inciting Eisenhower to stab us in the back) – we are told, at the highest level.
In essence I could apply to Smith’s book the same strictures he (p.250) lays on Brian Loring Vila’s book about Dieppe; Smith parades a series of essentially conflicting statements, often backed by primary references but seldom by direct quotation, and leaves the reader to make his own mind up. But I can’t do this; I don’t know how much has become distorted in paraphrase; I don’t know what other references might exist which could add weight to one side or the other of the argument; and neither I nor Smith know what possibly relevant material in the Broadlands archives may have been hidden from his gaze. Is the (often entertaining) narrative a true bill? Smith does not convince me. Sometimes one is distracted by a clever phrase, only in the next sentence to be told that whatever was described didn’t actually happen and is just a bit of theatre from the author (p.265). There is too much speculation – ‘how he must have’ – did he? This is biography, not a novel.
I am left still the child of my own opinions, formed years ago when I shook the great man’s hand and was sprinkled with fairy dust. The annoying thing is that Smith’s picture of Mountbatten is probably essentially correct, but it is garlanded with illustration without the case being analytically proven. The one character flaw that is clearly demonstrated is that Mountbatten, in all other ways a superb communicator, failed to read older officers such as Brooke and Wavell. As to the rest, when does zeal shade into recklessness? How can a straightforward desire to WIN be a bad thing, for instance when Mountbatten first arrives in the Mediterranean and scoops the entirety of the Fleet Regatta and then wins the Gunnery competition by concentrating on aiming (shades of Percy Scott) rather than wasteful rate of fire? Tooth-sucking by the losers does not impress me but seems to take in someone who comes across to me as an ambivalent lily-livered liberal academic. Mountbatten, well aware that there are no second prizes in war, was honed by the disgraceful treatment of his father, and no doubt absorbed what he would have seen let into the quarterdeck in letters of brass when he first arrived at Osborne aged 13: “THERE IS NOTHING THE NAVY CANNOT DO”. Similarly resentment by those stick-in-the-muds who preferred a Pas de Calais assault on D-Day seems to simmer on. Much of the resentment seems to flow from those who lacked Mountbatten’s natural presentational and networking skills and therefore found themselves out-manoeuvred.
Mountbatten was one of those people who inspired either total loyalty – from Solly Zuckermann to the most junior Ordinary Seaman under his command – from men like Hughes-Hallett and Brockman and the Kellys who would have followed Mountbatten through fire and cherished him to the point of death – and those who saw only a privileged, rich, aristo, arriviste, vain, manipulative grafter, guilty of cronyism, disloyalty, hobby-horsing and bad judgment. But Mountbatten was cherry-picked by Churchill and later Attlee for his big jobs; he was genuinely regretful when plucked from Illustrious for Combined Ops, and when proposed for SEAC he was in the middle of badgering the First Sea Lord for a sea command; and I have yet to see anyone named who could have handled Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah and his masters in London any more successfully. He seemed to see a bigger picture than smaller men, and always brought people onto his staff on a basis of their perceived usefulness rather than by routine. A tireless worker with tightly focussed application, he drove everybody under him hard, as recorded in the book – and indeed as ruefully reminisced to me by a policeman on a train in Ceylon in 1957.
Indeed, as resented by those who were caught out, the ‘Belted Earl’ as he was latterly known in the Navy had a keen eye for detail, exhibited in his out-of-hours passion for genealogy. He was particular about details of uniform – it was he who got the navy into plastic cap covers after noticing the blanco streaming down the faces of the street liners standing in the rain at the Coronation parade – and his own reefer, I was informed by a friend who had been boned to be his ADC on a trip to Canada, had a metal plate inside it on the left to carry all those medals and decorations; the jacket fully loaded weighed forty-seven pounds.
Mountbatten was always personally focussed on advancing up the rungs of the Naval ladder, and managed the extraordinarily difficult feat of stripping off two gold rings and going back to the Fleet as a rear admiral, serving under men he had been himself commanding during the war and still surviving to become First Sea Lord – thereby vindicating his revered father – and then the longest serving CDS, stripping out through his ‘Way Ahead’ committee an amazing amount of post-war waste which had been left ungardened.
That said, the work points to, summarises and brings to light a vast range of Mountbatten material and in that sense lays a foundation for future Mountbatten scholars, although I suspect that this genre has reached the end of its shelf life for the general reader.
There is, however, a fascinating side-trip into the world of the boffins, leading us to Bernal, Blackett, Perutz, Pyke (of Pykrete and Habbakuk), Lindemann and Zuckermann, mostly (but not ex-NO Blackett) very Left to put it mildly. The fruits of this are the tale of Habbakuk, overtaken by its vast cost and by the Liberator bomber, the capture of the Azores and particularly the increased availability of escort carriers; and the always scientifically minded (how different from Beatty and Cunningham) Mountbatten as one of the godfathers of Operations Research. There are hints of even stranger devices and I sense (and would welcome) what may be another book in the offing, on the boffins and their ideas.
The bibliography is rich; the index is copious but patchy; the reader would benefit from a simple timeline enabling him to relate (for instance) Dieppe, Husky, Mountbatten’s appointment to SEAC etc. The notes are maddening as they contain so much extra detail beside the bald citation references that I had to keep two markers going, one in the main text and one in the notes
I found this an interesting book but a confusing and unsatisfying one. There seemed to be much ambivalence and no clear thesis, but perhaps very complicated and clever people are many faceted and perhaps there are no simple answers.
Two Mr Mushroomheads. Just.
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