If you want to be a leader of a largeI number of men," Lord Mountbatten once observed, "you can't go around like a shrinking violet hiding yourself: you've got to put on a bit of an act. It must be sincere, it's no good having a bogus act. You've got to play up any qualities you have and blow them up larger than life."
Throughout a remarkable lifetime as an influential member of the royal family, as an acclaimed combat hero and strategic planner in World War II, Lord Mountbatten's considerable qualities indeed seemed larger than life. He appeared to embody, if anyone could, the very model of what Englishmen cherish as their national character. As French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing eulogized after the assassination last week: "He personified British courage, dignity and elegance."
He looked the part. Whether in ermine-trimmed robe carrying the 30-lb. sword of state beside the Queen for the opening of Parliament or in blue-and-gold naval uniform at ship launchings and sundry other ceremonies he relished, he was nothing if not regal. The wide mouth and ruler-straight gaze epitomized the braided bloodlines of contemporary European royalty. Mountbatten was, in fact, not only a cousin of Queen Elizabeth and an uncle of Prince Philip, but also related to most of Europe's other royal houses.
He lived the part. Whether commanding a destroyer in the thick of battle in World War II or, later, presiding over India's independence in the first shedding of empire, Mountbatten accumulated public triumphs with a seemingly magical ease. His relaxed charm masked a relentless drive, an occasional impatience with subordinates that verged on imperiousness, and a streak of self-acknowledged vanity. He once described himself as "the most conceited man I know," for instance. But coming from him the admission was received as more of his disarming informality.
As a patriarchal figure to whom the entire royal family turned for counsel, "Uncle Dickie," as they called him, was noted for a keen political sense and enlightened liberal conscience; he despised extremism, ridiculed narrow nationalism, welcomed a multiracial Commonwealth as a natural part of the Third World's emergence, which he foresaw long before it became a reality. Significantly, Mountbatten was an important influence in the careful royal upbringing of his great-nephew, Prince Charles. Said the future King recently: "Uncle Dickie is a person I admire almost more than anyone else."
Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma was born at Frogmore House, Windsor, in 1900, just as the sun was passing over the yardarm of Empire. His father was Prince Louis of Battenberg, a German kinsman of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and later Britain's First Sea Lord. Queen Victoria held him in her arms as he was christened Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas. The Battenbergs called their baby son Nickie, but its Russian connotation at that time prompted them to change the nickname to Dickie, much as the family name was later anglicized to Mountbatten.