Lord Mountbatten: royalty, politics and partition

Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten, with Neeraj Kabi as Gandhi
Common cause: Lord and Lady Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) meet up with Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) in Viceroy's House Credit: Pathé

Set in 1947 during the six months leading up to Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan, new film Viceroy’s House is a historical drama following the true story of Lord Mountbatten’s turbulent rule as the last Viceroy of India.

“It was my impression at the time that [his] interest in the manifold problems of India was confined to the part of the country bounded by the white boards of polo fields,” the 27-year-old Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – wrote in 1921 about his friend and cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The prince was commenting about the 1921-22 royal tour of India, on which Mountbatten (then only 21 years of age) had accompanied him as an aide. He was not being entirely accurate. Mountbatten – Dickie to his friends – may have been interested in polo but he also found the time for hunting, pig-sticking and dancing at a ball in Delhi, where he became engaged to Edwina Ashley, a dazzling heiress and future Vicereine.

Mountbatten decided to accelerate independence, a move that was much criticised

But it is true that, like the vast majority of young British men, he had little interest in Indian independence and the many complications it involved, and certainly no idea that, a quarter of a century later, he would be wrestling with these as the last Viceroy of India.

Mountbatten was a semi-royal, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. His father, although a German aristocrat by birth, had joined the British Navy and risen to become first Sea Lord, although he had to step down in the First World War due to anti-German feeling. The family changed their name from the German-sounding Battenberg to the more British Mountbatten and Dickie grew up in England.

He followed his father into the Navy. His ship, HMS Kelly, became famous for its exploits (earning Mountbatten the Distinguished Service Order) until it was sunk by German bombers in 1941. This incident inspired Noël Coward’s Oscar-nominated film In Which We Serve.

He became the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command (SEAC) in 1943, oversaw the re-conquest of Burma by General William Slim and took the Japanese surrender in Singapore in September 1945.

History in the making: the real meeting between the Mountbattens and Gandhi Credit: Getty

So Mountbatten’s stock was high. Furthermore, he and Edwina had both had hit it off with Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) when Nehru visited Singapore in 1946.

It was therefore not entirely surprising when Prime Minister Clement Attlee asked him to accept the role of Viceroy of India, overseeing the transition to independence.

Mountbatten was reluctant to accept the position, because he had no political experience, and he knew it would be a thankless task. But he felt it was his duty.

The Mountbattens arrived in India in March 1947 to an atmosphere of distrust and conflict. Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and the INC wanted a united, secular India, while the Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was pressing for the division of India to create a separate Muslim state: Pakistan.

Mountbatten’s hopes of overseeing a peaceful transition to an independent, united India were dashed as communal violence intensified between Muslim and Hindu communities.

Freedom fighter: Jawaharlal Nehru (third from left), leader of the Indian National Congress Credit: Getty

Hoping to force a compromise and to end the violence, Mountbatten decided to accelerate independence, a move that was much criticised and that many believed worsened the violence.

Mountbatten eventually agreed, with much reluctance to India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan. An estimated 14 million people migrated as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims scrambled to flee the “wrong” areas, and up to a million people are thought to have died.

After partition, Mountbatten returned to his naval career and later became a mentor to Prince Charles (who affectionately referred to him as his “Honorary Godfather”) until he was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army in 1979.

Edwina devoted much of her remaining years to the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and remained close to Nehru until her premature death in 1960 in Borneo. She died while reading his letters and when she was buried at sea, Nehru sent two Indian destroyers to cast a wreath of marigolds after her coffin.

From one empire, two nations are born

To celebrate the release of new film Viceroy’s House, the Telegraph has created a series of fascinating articles about life during the Raj, the political turmoil of the time and the legacy that colonial rule has left on our lives today. Find out more at tgr.ph/viceroyshouse now.

Set in 1947 during the six months leading up to Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan, Viceroy’s House is a historical drama following Lord Mountbatten’s turbulent rule as the last Viceroy of India.

Featuring an incredible cast including Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi and Michael Gambon, and directed by Gurinder Chadha, Viceroy’s House is in cinemas UK-wide from 3 March. 

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