Back in the autumn of ’39: An Extract from Andrew Lownie’s ‘The Mountbattens’

Edwina, the fashionista, was notorious for her numerous affairs, but was also a driven woman, constantly testing her limits to prove herself. She is seen in her elements in this extract from Andrew Lownie’s ‘The Mountbattens’

September 21, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Happier times: (From left) Jawaharlal Nehru, Edwina, Dickie and the couple’s daughter, Pamela, having tea in Shimla, October 11, 1947.

Happier times: (From left) Jawaharlal Nehru, Edwina, Dickie and the couple’s daughter, Pamela, having tea in Shimla, October 11, 1947.

The war had brought the Mountbattens together, not least by giving new purpose to the rather aimless life that Edwina had hitherto been leading. ‘I can never tell you what fun it has been,’ Dickie told her in October 1939 after her fourth visit in six weeks, ‘...it has taken the war to realise all that you do mean to me — so at all events I have Hitler to thank for that.’ She gave him presents of a small gold identification disc, a kitten, and a scarf she had knitted herself, and sent clean clothes and food. This was the sort of tender affection that Dickie had longed for....

Edwina had been trying to make her own contribution to the war effort, but no one wanted her. In turn, she was rejected by the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, who remembered her pre-war, little-rich-girl-lost reputation.

Eventually, in December 1939 she was interviewed by the Red Cross and the Order of St John, and the next month appointed Lady County President of the Nursing Division of London. Edwina now threw herself into war work. In the autumn of 1940, she

took a two-week Intensive First Aid Course and spent a month training on the wards at Westminster Hospital. Noticing the lack of coordinated organisation at the First Aid Posts at the shelters and in the Underground, she lobbied government ministers until proper arrangements were made. Now responsible for all St John Ambulance volunteers working in Rest Centres, Shelters and First Aid Posts, each night — oblivious to all dangers — she would set off in her car on a tour of inspection, so each shelter was visited at least once a fortnight.

‘Did you hear of Edwina’s exciting adventure with a time bomb that went off within 20 or 30 yards of her,’ Dickie wrote to his mother in September. ‘It knocked her down but her very closeness saved her as the fragments all passed over her head.’ Each morning would be spent organising the Nursing Flying Squad and interviewing prospective VADS, and afternoons at the Knitted Garments Depot.

She had learnt from her husband the importance of appearance and glamour. Her heels were higher, her hat worn at a jauntier angle and she had her uniforms specially tailored so that her skirts were shorter than those of her colleagues, and the jackets tighterfitting. With her slim figure, high cheekbones and huge blue eyes, she looked more like a film star than a charity worker. More importantly, she rapidly demonstrated she could get things done.

She was conscientious, hard-working and popular and, by January 1941, she was Acting Lady Deputy District Superintendent, only two places from the top position. The couple were in unison, perhaps for the first time ever. Pressure brought out the best in them — their gifts of leadership, their organisational skills, their ability to use their connections, their meticulous preparation and command of their brief. Edwina had learned from her husband the self-respect that comes from working hard, indeed her equally competitive nature wished to outdo him.

She would stay up later with paperwork, and drive herself harder in her daily tasks, to prove both to herself and to him that she could compete on equal terms. Her intelligence was at last being used. Their increased closeness did not mean that the relationship was perfect. Edwina still found Dickie infuriating, self-obsessed and immature, but also increasingly recognised his affection and bravery.

That said, she continued to see Hutch. In September, she joined the singer when he performed for the inmates of Dartmoor Prison at the end of a tour in Torbay. Mairi Craven standing outside remembered admiring a huge gleaming black car attended by a chauffeur, when Hutch swept through the gates, arm in arm with Edwina, ‘looking beautiful, smiling, elegant and wearing a bandeau. A murmur ran through the wondering assembly. “It’s Lady Louis.”’

Neither was the relationship with Bunny over, though he had told Dickie that Edwina did not enjoy love-making. It appears that many of her affairs had been as much about asserting herself as about sexual frustration or high sexual drive.

***

In October 1940, Dickie was posted to Plymouth. The following month, whilst patrolling near Land’s End, he blundered again and his ship HMS Javelin was torpedoed with the loss of 46 men and many injured. Dickie was heavily criticised by his superiors for failing to organise his attacking force correctly and open fire in time, but no action was taken. Here was a high-profile naval hero, whose supporters included the King and the Prime Minister. The action had indeed caught the attention of Churchill, who summoned Dickie to Chequers, and offered him the post of Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff, a huge promotion, with the intention he should become First Sea Lord later in the war. Mountbatten refused, saying he preferred to remain at sea.

In May 1941, the Kelly was sent to Crete to bombard the airfield, which had been captured by the Germans. At dawn on 23 May, the ship was dive-bombed by Stukas and, still travelling at 30 knots, capsized. The last view anyone had of Mountbatten, the first and last captain of the ship, was him standing on the bridge holding onto his Station-Keeping Gear. Edwina, knowing half the ship’s company had been lost, anxiously waited for news of her husband’s fate at Claridge’s with Peter Murphy.

Picked up by HMS Kipling, Mountbatten was brought back to Alexandria, where he stayed for a few days with the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, Andrew Cunningham, who was not a great fan. ‘The trouble with your flotilla, boy,’ he told another destroyer officer, ‘is that it was thoroughly badly led.’ Many felt the problem with Mountbatten was that, for all his bravery and leadership abilities, he lacked judgement and patience, and was too much the showman where style triumphed over substance.

***

In the autumn of 1941, Dickie was given command of the aircraft carrier Illustrious, currently under repair in Norfolk, Virginia, and ready to join the Mediterranean Fleet in November.

The plan, supported by the Ministry of Information, was that he should go out in August, brief the American military, make some useful contacts and, as a well-connected and well-known naval officer, possibly help on the propaganda front. The couple saw it as an ideal opportunity to see their children, and Edwina also arranged to visit the States on a goodwill tour for the Joint War Organisation Committee, thanking organisations who had contributed to war charities and trying to rustle up more funds.

Edwina’s tour of 28 states was a success, with lunches for up to 1,000 and scores of talks and visits across the country, including lunch with the Roosevelts at the White House. It was on this trip that the pattern was set for future tours — to test herself constantly by pushing herself to her limits. Partly this was a determination to cover as much ground as possible, to demonstrate, not least to her husband, what she could achieve; but there was also an element of punishment — a feeling she needed to make up for all those lost years of frivolity.

Select extracts from Chapter 11, ‘At War’, of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves (Harpercollins India) by Andrew Lownie .

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