“We want you home here at once for something which you will find of the highest interest.”
—Telegram from Prime Minister Winston Churchill
to Capt. Lord Louis Mountbatten Oct. 10, 1941
British Combined Operations was formed in the spring of 1940 to coordinate commando raids along the German-occupied coast of Europe utilizing the integrated support of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. In its seven years of existence, it had four commanders. The first lasted only about a month.
Its second, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, lasted about a year before resigning in October 1941 due to an administrative reorganization that he saw diminish his independence.
The most famous leader of Combined Operations was his successor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, one of the most colorful and fascinating senior commanders in World War II.
On October 10, just hours before he was to have a special meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt, then-Capt. Mountbatten received an urgent telegram from Churchill demanding his immediate return. Four days later Mountbatten arrived at Chequers, the official country home of British Prime Ministers, and was ushered into Churchill’s office. There the captain was told that Churchill wanted him to succeed Keyes as the new Director of Combined Operations. The prime minister stressed that this command was different; unlike the other British military commands that were then thinking defensively, Combined Operations would be the only one thinking offensively.
Churchill wanted Mountbatten to increase the number of commando raids all along the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean coasts to tie up as many German troops as possible to prevent them from being deployed elsewhere. Most important of all, Mountbatten was to begin to plan and prepare for the reinvasion of Europe.
This was heady stuff for a 41-year-old junior captain-cum-commodore with a spotty naval record whose acknowledged diplomatic skills would be tested to their fullest in his dealings with military leaders 28 years his senior and of much higher rank. Though his naval career helped, more important were two facts: he had Churchill’s support and he was a member of the royal family, a cousin to King George VI.
Mountbatten assumed command on Oct. 27, 1941, and initiated a crash reorganization that eliminated a lot of inter-service red tape that had dogged to the point of cancellation a number of commando raids. One meeting he had was with Gen. Sir Alanbrooke, who at the time was Commander in Chief of the Home Forces. He met the brilliant, though prickly, general on Nov. 5, 1941, and Alanbrooke recorded in his diary that they “discussed the future of commandos and the carrying out of the raids on the South Coast [part of Alanbrooke’s command]. Arrived at a successful solution to the handling of commandos.”
Though later Alanbrooke would find dealing with Mountbatten to be exasperating at times, particularly after he was promoted to admiral and made a member of the chiefs of staff (COS), he noted that he “enjoyed” Mountbatten’s presence in the COS meetings, so long as he didn’t go off the rails.
Within five weeks, Combined Operations was completely reorganized and revitalized and the COS were able to review a series of concrete offensive mission proposals. But Mountbatten’s leadership was a mixed blessing.
Vain in the extreme, impetuous, and not as smart as he thought he was, Mountbatten was just as apt to advocate impractical missions and weapons as he was to endorse practical, imaginative operations. Mountbatten was responsible for the planning for the controversial Dieppe Raid in August 1942, a pre-D-day amphibious landing operation designed to test German coastal defenses that ended in disaster.
One of the more fanciful projects endorsed by Mountbatten was “Habbakuk, ” the plan to build aircraft carriers out of “Pykrete,” a mixture of wood pulp and ice. Mountbatten conducted a demonstration of Pykrete before the assembled Combined Chiefs of Staff in August 1943, firing a pistol at a block of the material, causing the British and American leaders to duck out of the way of the ricocheting bullets.
In a diary entry dated March 5, 1942, Alanbrooke, by now Chief of the Imperial General Staff, praised Mountbatten’s contribution to special operations: “His appointment as Chief of Combined Operations was excellent and he certainly played a remarkable role as the driving force and mainspring of this organization. Without his energy and drive it would never have reached the high standards it achieved.”
In October 1943, Churchill appointed Mountbatten Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command, ultimately responsible for British and American military operations from India to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). He later held a variety of other commands, including First Sea Lord and Chief of the Defense Staff. Mountbatten was Britain’s last viceroy of India and presided over the transition that made India, Pakistan, and what later was Bangladesh, independent. He was assassinated by Irish Republican Army terrorists on Aug. 27, 1979.