As a UK tribunal decides whether to publish the personal diaries of Lord Mountbatten, it’s perhaps timely to recount the folly of ‘the master of disaster’

NO-ONE knows exactly how many died, how many were beaten, tortured or raped. The figures range from 200,000 to two million, the number displaced from their homes up to 20 million. This was the partition of India in August 1947, creating the state of Pakistan, the exact border of which wasn’t even publicly known until two days after independence.

“It had been obvious all along,” the last Viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, reported, “that the later we postponed publication, the less would the inevitable odium react upon the British.”

Instead, chaos and mayhem ensued. And so began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked east while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it. Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had co-existed for almost a millennium attacked each other in a cycle of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other in a mutual genocide. Since then, there have been two wars between India and Pakistan over the Muslim-majority Kashmir, controlled by India, and both countries have also come close to nuclear war. In a political sense both countries are still in 1947.

Mountbatten had been sent to India in March by Britain’s then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee to produce, or enforce, a settlement, creating a Muslim Pakistan out of imperial India – and he had been given full powers and total control over how to do it.

He arrived with Attlee’s words ringing in his ears – that if he couldn’t get a settlement by October, then Britain would simple walk away the following June. So he decided to supercharge the settlement, whatever the outcome.

Just why Mountbatten was tasked with the fate of millions is unclear, as is his capability to do it. In his naval service he was known as “the master of disaster” because of his unerring ability to pilot warships into inanimate objects.

He also had a notorious sex life, known to the secret services and certainly Attlee and the senior echelons of government and society. He was alleged by many, including the FBI, to have been a paedophile with a penchant for boys in uniform, a bisexual in an open marriage with his wife Edwina. He once admitted: “We spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds.”

One of those with whom Edwina had a long-lasting sexual relationship was Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 10 years her senior. They wrote long love letters to each other but those, which should be in the public domain, and which the taxpayer paid for – together with redacted Mountbatten diaries – are kept secret to avoid embarrassment to the royal family and the Government. Along with the revealing sex content they may show what influence Louis had on the catastrophic partition settlement.

Secret diaries

IN 2011, the University of Southampton, in lieu of death duties, bought all of the couple’s letters and diaries for £2.8 million, which were to be made available to scholars, historians and the general public. The material was known as the Broadlands Archives, after the Mountbattens’ stately home. And then the Cabinet Office stepped in.

The eminent and indefatigable historian Andrew Lownie has been battling for more than four years, spending £250,000 of his own money, trying to get these freed from censorship. He’s the author of The Mountbattens: The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, which has already exposed their couplings, and on Friday last week a five-day hearing before the First Tier Tribunal in London was held to decide if they can finally be published.

”No university should be blocking public access to archive material of great historical significance,” Lownie said, “which it purchased using public money and for which tax income was forfeited.” He also suspects that Prince Charles, for whom Louis, his great-uncle, was an idol and mentor, has something to do with it.

Roger Smethurst, head of knowledge and information at the Cabinet Office, said in evidence, “Protecting the dignity of The Queen and working members of the royal family by protecting their privacy in truly private matters preserves their ability to discharge their duties in their fundamental and central constitutional role, not least of unifying the nation (as was seen during the depths of the current pandemic).”

He added, almost as an afterthought: “Despite its age there is some information within the documents held by the university which, if released, would compromise the UK’s relations with other states.”

It has been a long and dogged pursuit by Lownie. The Information Commissioner’s Office has already found in his favour and ordered the release of the entire Broadlands Archives – including “letters from Lady Mountbatten to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the newly-independent India (33 files, 1948-60), along with copies of his letters to her”.

Steamy insights

THE university and the Cabinet Office still refuse to comply. The final call by Judge Sophie Buckley on whether the redacted sections of the correspondence can be opened will be given in writing later.

They are sure to contain, along with the political insights, steamy and embarrassing accounts of liaisons and lovers which would embarrass the present royal family (they are, after all, the Mountbatten-Windsors and the future king but one’s second son is named after Louis – and he was Charles’s favourite uncle). The list of the Mountbattens’ lovers would fill the most copious little black book.

Edwina was an heiress and a bright light on London society when they married in 1920. If she was a virgin at the time she quickly righted that. She asked to go to Paris on their honeymoon so they could check out “the most awful places we could find”.

Dickie, as he was known, wasn’t initially so enraptured by sex, describing it as a “mixture of psychology and hydraulics” which rather destroys the romance and mystique. He referred to his wife’s breasts as Mutt and Jeff, which surely wasn’t rhyming slang.

In the early days he was still in the navy and away a lot pranging boats, so she surrounded herself in what she called “ginks”, her posse of lovers, several of them contemporaneously. Her daughter Pamela Hicks revealed one incident. “When my mother returned from shopping one day she was met with ‘Mr Larry Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Ted Phillips is in the boudoir, Señor Portago [is] in the anteroom and I don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux’”.

Salacious affair

IN 1932, The People claimed she was having an affair with an unnamed man, alleged to be African-American singer Paul Robeson. The Mountbattens were ordered to sue by Buckingham Palace and, after a case held in camera, they won. It was more likely that the lover was a West Indian cabaret singer called Leslie Hutchinson, to whom she gave expensive gifts, including a Cartier jewel-encrusted penis sheath, which sounds painful.

Biographer Lownie discovered FBI files from 1944, when Louis was war-time Supreme Allied Commander in south-east Asia. The two were judged to be “persons of extremely low morals”, and when the term gay applied to riotous times rather than proclivities. “Lord Mountbatten was known to be a homosexual with a perversion for young boys,” alleged the FBI.

‘Underage orgies’

NORMAN Nield, Mountbatten’s driver from 1942 to 1943, alleged that he transported young boys aged eight to 12 who had been procured. Another man also claimed that Mountbatten and Anthony Blunt – surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and the “fourth man” in of the Cambridge spy ring – were part of a ring that engaged in orgies and procured boys at public schools.

There were rumours, too, of affairs with Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, Ivor Novello and MP Tom Driberg, who gave him the moniker “Mountbottom”. Lownie’s book also has an interview with a man who says he was Mountbatten’s lover throughout the 1970s, an unnamed neighbour then in his twenties.

If history judges Mountbatten solely on his public record, one of the most shameful and little-known episodes is in 1945, after the Japanese surrender. The Japanese had conquered Vietnam and through the war, Britain and the US had supplied the nationalist rebels, led by Ho Chi Minh, with arms, also promising what had been a French colony their independence. With the Japanese defeated, Ho proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of of Vietnam.

Britain, however, was determined to allow France to keep the country (with disastrous consequences). A task force was sent to reinstall the French government in mid-September 1945.

The 20th Indian Division under Major General Douglas Gracey took military and political control of the country, reporting politically to Mountbatten.

War flared after the betrayal and Gracey, with insufficient troops, instructed by Mountbatten, rearmed the defeated Japanese soldiers to fight against Ho and the Vietminh. Today that seems not just historically idiotic but unconscionable. Whatever the redacted and salacious material may reveal, all of the infidelities and betrayals, it is nothing against the human cost the the master of disaster created.