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Chief of the Combined Operations Command, 1941 to 1943

The Early Years

Mountbatten was born on 25 June 1900, the younger son of Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord in 1914. At the age of 13, Mountbatten entered the Royal Naval College at Osborne, where he passed out 15th out of 83 cadets. His service started in the First World War at the tender age of 16.

[Photo; HM The King paid a private visit to COHQ on 29th September 1942 to meet officers. He was received by Lord Louis Mountbatten. IWM (A 11967).]

He gained experience of battleships, submarines and destroyers and was an acknowledged expert in signals. He became a well known and respected public figure endowed with energy, spirit, dash and intellectual ability. The Navy concurred with this view as his rise through the ranks would later illustrate. His was a career overflowing with challenges and achievements. We concentrate here on his time with Combined Operations.

Appointment to Combined Operations

In August of 1941, Mountbatten was appointed captain of HMS Illustrious... a command he eagerly anticipated while his ship lay in Norfolk, Virginia for repairs, following action in the Mediterranean in January. During this period of relative inactivity, he paid a flying visit to Pearl Harbour. He was not impressed with the poor state of readiness and a general lack of co-operation between the Navy and Army, including the absence of a joint HQ. These were interesting observations, in view of what was about to happen to Mountbatten himself and later to Pearl Harbour!

An Admiralty signal caught up with him on his return journey to Norfolk, Virginia. It was a personal telegram from Churchill, recalling him by the fastest possible means, to the UK. The order was not to be challenged or queried. Despite an assurance from Churchill, that he was required for "something that you will find of the highest interest," Mountbatten was far from happy to have the command of his dreams snatched away.

His subsequent meeting with Churchill at Chequers was far from harmonious but, in a visionary briefing, Churchill defined the role of Combined Operations Adviser along the following lines;

  •  he was to succeed Roger Keyes in charge of Combined Operations,

  •  he was to develop a programme of Commando raids along the North Sea and Atlantic coastlines of enemy held territory. These would increase in intensity and design to tie up German resources that might otherwise be used on other fronts,

  •  he was to plan and prepare for the re-invasion of Europe. This was to be the overriding priority. In this regard Churchill made the point that all other HQs were on the defensive. Combined Operations had to think and plan for offensive operations.

Mountbatten's military achievements and qualities were not well understood outside naval circles and he was succeeding a man of great renown, 28 years his senior and of much higher rank. Superficially he was not, therefore, the most obvious successor to Keyes. However, what Mountbatten had in abundance was tact and diplomacy - personal qualities that were to help overcome inter service rivalries and promote a sense of mutual trust, confidence and common purpose.

Duties and Responsibilities

On taking up his new duties on 27 October 1941, a new directive (job description) had been prepared and approved by the Chiefs of Staff. Unlike Keyes' directive, or his interpretation of it, there was no mention of the Minister of Defence (Churchill). His remit included  "technical adviser on all aspects of, and at all stages in, the planning and training for Combined Operations" specifically;

[Photo; Lord Louis Mountbatten at Dundonald Camp, Ayrshire on 9 Dec 1942 watching a signal section at work. In the centre is Cdr Robertson. IWM (A 13230).]

  •  coordinating inter-service training,

  •  running the UK Combined Operations Training Establishments (Inveraray and others), 

  •  advising on tactical and technical research and development,

  •  devising the special craft needed "for all forms of Combined Operations varying from small raids to a full scale invasion of the Continent."

Mountbatten inherited a Combined Operations HQ (COHQ) that required substantial change to meet the new tasks and challenges ahead. He set about major changes to personnel, organisation and communications. There were no planning staff, no signals staff, no training staff and no Chief of Staff and only a token intelligence presence. He immediately set about recruiting the staff he needed and additional premises to those occupied by COHQ at Richmond Terrace. Such were the dynamics of the changes that, for some weeks, internal communications broke down under the strain! The enormity of the challenge would have daunted many lesser men but, within five weeks, Mountbatten had produced a set of proposals for the Chief's of Staff and he had the confidence to act upon them before receiving formal approval.

Within a few months, the Chiefs of Staff realised they had an adviser, whose position and standing were clear to all and whose reputation would continue to improve with the passage of time. Above all, the Chiefs of Staff were prepared to back Mountbatten to the fullest extent. He had, after all, the full backing of the Prime Minister and everyone knew it; but they also knew that there was no question of him (Mountbatten) abusing his position.

[Photo; COHQ 13/4/42: L to R -Group Captain A H Willets, Rear Admiral E H Horan, Major General J C Haydon, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Air Vice Marshall J M Robb, Brigadier G E Wildman-Lushington (Royal Marines) and Commodore R M Ellis.]

As a consequence, he was elevated to Chief of Combined Operations on 18/03/42. To a large extent, the greatest testimony to Mountbatten's stewardship of Combined Operations is the historical record he left behind, much of which is the subject of this website.

D-Day was the culmination of Mountbatten's plans and preparations for offensive operations against the German forces. Although he had left for Burma some 8 months prior to D-Day, Churchill wrote to him following his visit, with others, to the Normandy beaches on D Day + 6.

"Today we visited the British and American Armies on the soil of France. We sailed through vast fleets of ships with landing-craft of many types pouring more men, vehicles and stores ashore. We saw clearly the manoeuvre in progress of rapid development. We have shared our secrets in common and helped each other all we could. We wish to tell you at this moment in your arduous campaign that we realise how much of this remarkable technique and therefore the success of the venture has its origin in developments effected by you and your staff of Combined Operations."

(Signed) Arnold, Brooke, Churchill, King, Marshall, Smut.

In recognition of the great contribution to the war effort of Combined Operations under Mountbatten's stewardship, this signal forms part of the information display at the Combined Operations Memorial in the grounds of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The Kilfinan Egg  - the personal recollections of a child who met Mountbatten briefly in 1942.

During the war years, Sheena Simpson lived with her parents, Jean and Adam Campbell, at the Kilfinan Hotel in the little parish of Kilfinan, near Tighnabruaich on the shores of Loch Fyne, Scotland. She now lives in Canada with her family but reminisces about a VIP guest, who arrived at the hotel in February 1942.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

It was early in the month and her mother had just had a visit from a Major Harrap and another officer informing her that the hotel was to be commandeered for about a week to 10 days, while a Combined Operations exercise took place. She was also told that, on the final days of the exercise, they would be receiving, for breakfast, a VIP guest with his equerry. Mother almost fainted. She was so sure it was going to be King George. 'Only royalty have equerries!' she gasped, to which I replied: 'No mother, I think it will be Lord Louis Mountbatten.' This made sense to me as it was to be a Combined Operations exercise and Mountbatten was the top man.

There was quite a buzz in the hotel that week with MPs guarding the doors and lots of saluting and stamping of feet every time an officer went past. It was like something out of a British movie. Lord Mountbatten arrived in a Jeep type vehicle and wore regular naval uniform, whereas, most of the other officers were in battle dress with warm sheepskin jerkins on. The weather that February was very cold . Other VIPs that met at the hotel on that final day of the exercise with Mountbatten were General Alexander, General Festing, Air Marshall Harris and also the War Minister at that time, Sir James Grigg. The hotel didn't need too much preparation for our visitors but the dining room was rearranged to accommodate everyone for the final breakfast. There were two sittings; first the lesser ranking officials and then approximately 20 top brass. I was very impressed with the concern and courtesy shown to mother and myself by the big wigs. We were provided with help for serving from General Festing's servant and he was just super at his job.

The hotel had been issued with extra rations, so we were able to make bacon and eggs for everyone, much to Lord Mountbatten's delight. Later on that afternoon, Mountbatten and his equerry came back on their own, looking for a very quick cup of tea. As the kettle was going to take too long to boil, Lord Mountbatten decided to have a small ginger ale instead. This I got from the bar. Mother was getting in a flap having this handsome, charming, courteous man, in naval uniform, with all the gold braid of an Admiral, actually in her kitchen. It was all getting too much for her. Mountbatten's equerry asked how much was owed for the ginger ale. Mother laughed and coyly said 'Oh nothing , nothing at all.' To me, all of 17 years, this seemed unfair and I piped up politely, 'I think it's thruppence ha'penny.' This said, Mountbatten's aide produced the exact change. 

At this point, they asked if we had any eggs left which they could buy - there was only one! The egg was produced, this time no charge, and was carried away by Lord Mountbatten in his leather gloved hand. All this constitutes a picture, which is clearly etched on my memory and I often wonder if the Kilfinan Hotel egg made it back whole to the destroyer anchored out on Loch Fyne. We were all worn out by the end of the week and everything seemed so quiet. Later that year was the raid on Dieppe with Mountbatten in charge. I wondered if that week's exercise had all been part of the training.

Why was the Kilfinan Hotel used for such a VIP gathering? Maybe because it was out of the way, yet at the heart of the Combined Operations Training Area and not far from the Loch. Many VIPs visited Argyll during the period to watch newly developed amphibious landing training methods.

The No 1 Combined Training Centre at Inveraray, which specialised in amphibious assault techniques and the army base at Ardlamont, Loch Fyne, received over a quarter of a million servicemen and women for training during the early to mid 1940s. Many of them returned to Argyll over the years to honour the memory of their comrades who did not return from the field of conflict.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

Richard Hough; Mountbatten:  hero of our time; London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980 xiii, 290 p. ISBN 0297778056

Philip Ziegler Mountbatten : the official biography London : Collins, 1985 786 p. ISBN 0002165430

John Terraine The life and times of Lord Mountbatten : an illustrated biography based on the television history London : Hutchinson, 1968 x, 197 p. ISBN 0090888103

Brian Loring Villa Unauthorized action : Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid Toronto ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1989 xiii, 314 p. ISBN 0195406796

Eugene L. Rasor Earl Mountbatten of Burma, 1900-1979 : historiography and annotated bibliography
Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1998 xvii, 139 p. ISBN 0313288763


The Kilfinan Egg - the inside story of a visit by Mountbatten to a small hotel in rural Argyll was written by Catriona McColl for a local newspaper and copied here with her permission.

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