WITH THE WAR WON, WINSTON CHURCHILL CALLED A GENERAL election. The race pitted Churchill, victorious and iconic, against the flat and efficient Clement Attlee. Despite his friendship with Churchill, Dickie Mountbatten shared the political colours of his wife. During the campaign, he answered the door at Broadlands to a Tory canvasser. ‘I don’t have a vote because I’m a peer,’ he told her. ‘If I did, I’d vote Labour. You can try going round the back. I think my butler’s a Conservative.’1

To the surprise of almost everyone, and most of all Churchill, there was a Labour landslide, and Attlee became Prime Minister. In his speech opening the new parliament, Attlee had the King announce that his government planned ‘the early realization of full self-government in India’.2 The contention that India should be given back to the Indians did not sit well with Churchill and the opposition, but they had little room for manoeuvre. The war had ended, and Britain was broke. The gap in the balance of payments at the end of the war had widened to £2.1 billion (then $8 billion), roughly the cost of administering the Empire for two years. Keynes had told Attlee frankly that he was facing a ‘financial Dunkirk’, and the only option was to seek aid of around $5 billion from the United States.3 The funds available to repair wartime devastation would hardly benefit Britain: they were diverted to the nations which had hosted land battles, such as France, Holland and Belgium.4 The Treasury was all but empty, and the debts of Empire lay in the middle of it like an open drain. An economic aspiration had started the British Empire. An economic reality would end it.

There was a practical urgency to the desire to dump the Empire, which had shown up most clearly during the Bengal Famine of 1943. During the war, the British had shipped grain and railway stocks out of India, weakening its domestic food supply network. At the beginning of 1943, Churchill ordered a cut of 60 per cent in sailings to the subcontinent, saying that the Indian people and the Allied forces there ‘must live on their stocks’.5 But Bengal had been lashed by a massive cyclone in October 1942, and in the wake of that by three tidal waves.6 The rice harvest had been relatively poor during 1942 and 1943, prompting panic-buying in the market, stockpiling by producers, and a massive increase in the price of foodgrains that coincided unhappily with a fall in real-term agricultural wages.7

Around six million people were affected by the subsequent famine, and between one and two million of them died.8 Hospitals filled up with wretched and emaciated peasants, suffering from dysentery, anaemia, cholera and smallpox; patients came in sweating from malarial fevers, and breaking out in the hard papules of scabies.9 Almost all of the dead were poor people in rural areas, excepting those few in the cities who contracted disease from the wandering sufferers. In the cool bungalows and elegant mansions of Calcutta, rich Europeans and Indians alike supped on plenty. Supplies were available, just at a price that the poor could not afford. Shameful fortunes were reaped from misery and hunger.10

The famine was the direct result of the failure of the Bengal government and, indeed, the government of India as a whole, to regulate the market – thus allowing the price of rice to rise out of the reach of rural agricultural workers. When the governments realized their mistake, they compounded it by handing the market over to ‘unrestricted free trade’ in March 1943.11 The blame for the famine cannot entirely be laid upon the British, for the government of Bengal was run by elected Indians;12 but the gross inhumanity shown by that government was matched in London. During the crisis, the army veteran Lord Wavell took over as Viceroy. He repeatedly telegrammed Churchill, telling him that millions of people were dying in India and that extra food was needed. In reply, ‘Winston sent me a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet!’13 Churchill refused to release the government’s readily available food stocks, on the grounds that British people might need them at some point. Despite enormous pressure from Wavell in Delhi and the India Secretary, Leo Amery, in London, Churchill and the Bengal government persisted in a policy whose effect was a sort of genocide by capitalism. The government of India, in a panic, lied and pretended that the food stocks were on the way.14 The damning official report concluded that the famine had been avoidable, and its management had been a catastrophe.

By 1946, the subcontinent was a mess, with British civil and military officers increasingly desperate to leave, and a growing hostility to their presence among Indians. In January British RAF servicemen mutinied in India and the Middle East, demanding to be sent home. Soon after, there were a couple of small anti-British rebellions in the Royal Indian Navy, but these were swiftly crushed and the officers court-martialled. Graffiti began to appear on Navy property in Bombay: ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, ‘Kill the British White Bastards’. In February, the crews of HMIS Talwar, Sutlej and Jumna refused to work or eat. HMIS Narbada turned its guns on the Bombay Yacht Club. The Congress flag was raised, and a riot broke out in the town. In Karachi, the crew of HMIS Hindustan shouted ‘Jai Hind’ – the old INA slogan, ‘Victory to India’ – and opened fire on the town, but were quickly arrested. The next day, the Army fired on the mutineers at Bombay and crushed them swiftly too.15

The reaction to these mutinies had shown that the British could still put down dissent if they wished. That would not be the case for much longer. The granting of leave to civil and military officers after the war would mean that many parts of India had to be run by a skeleton staff. More importantly still, as one civil servant pointed out, to reassert British power physically after the war would have been politically impossible: ‘neither British opinion nor world opinion would have tolerated it.’16

Now that they were gearing up to leave, though, the British authorities decided to turn some of the politicians they had previously imprisoned to good use, and it was in this spirit that Wavell suggested Nehru go to Malaya at the beginning of 1946. Malaya had seen strikes and unrest among its Indian population, on account of the treatment accorded to the INA prisoners. Nehru had been released from prison only nine months before. Now he was to be the emissary of cohesion and calm, but apparently not everyone had been informed. The Malayan administration planned to line the streets with armed soldiers. The Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, Dickie Mountbatten, put a stop to that. He insisted that Nehru be received as a distinguished statesman, and that, rather than policing the streets to warn people off, lorries be sent to bring Indians in from the suburbs especially to see him.17

The visit was an extraordinary and unexpected success. Nehru arrived at Government House in Singapore on 18 March 1946, accompanied by his sister Betty’s husband, Raja Hutheesing, and it was there that he met Mountbatten for the first time. He was given tea, and driven by Dickie to meet Edwina and other welfare workers at the YMCA Rest Room for Indian Servicemen on Waterloo Street.18 There he was greeted by the public with the sort of reception more usually reserved for the likes of Bing Crosby or Rita Hayworth. The YMCA building was surrounded by cheering and shouting Indians, in crowds so dense that Mountbatten and Nehru had trouble getting in. As the two men disappeared inside, dozens of Nehru’s fans surged forward and began to clamber through the windows after them.19

In the St John Ambulance canteen, which Edwina had set up in a Nissen hut, the crowd surged forward and knocked Raja Hutheesing over. Edwina was knocked down too, and fell flat on the floor under the stampeding crowd. ‘Your wife; your wife; we must go to her,’ shouted Nehru to Mountbatten. The two men linked arms and barged forward to find her, but she had already scrambled out of the crush. Nehru and Mountbatten helped her up and carried her to safety.20 As first meetings go, theirs could hardly have established a greater informality.

Afterwards, Edwina was the first to emerge from the YMCA, which she did to a roar of approval from the crowd. The roar intensified as Dickie appeared, and the two of them, laughing, pushed through to their car. They turned to watch with amusement how Jawahar would fare. There was a pause before he appeared; when he did, the crowd reached an almost frightening peak of frenzied adulation. The fans still in the building rushed forward and Jawahar, along with a small clutch of officials, was shoved roughly down the steps.

That night, Nehru and Hutheesing dined informally at Government House with the Mountbattens. At Mountbatten’s request, Nehru agreed to forgo the planned jamboree around the laying of a wreath on the INA memorial the next day.21 His conciliatory attitude was demonstrated again later that morning, when he held a meeting in the Jalan Besar stadium. A flag was hoisted to the singing of anthems and the shouting of slogans. Soon this deteriorated into the INA’s trademark cry: ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ But, instead of feeding the crowd’s frenzy, Nehru took the microphone to rebuke them. He told them that the time for violence had passed, and that the peaceful, constitutional route was now the clearest path to Indian freedom. (Never a complete Gandhian, he added that he would not hesitate to call on them should the need for violence arise.) As the Director of Intelligence for SEAC commented, ‘His tone throughout was conciliatory and calming, and undoubtedly caused a measure of disappointment.’22

Nehru’s trip, and Mountbatten’s reception, had set a new tone of civility in Anglo-Indian relations. Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s omnipresent press attaché, remembered that ‘the two men made a deep personal impression on each other.’23 Nehru had felt warm enough to send Mountbatten a copy of his new book, The Discovery of India, inscribed ‘in memory of a pleasant evening and with all good wishes’.24 On 25 March he went on to Penang, but media attention had moved back to Delhi – where the Cabinet Mission was arriving to negotiate the end of the British Empire.

The arrival of the Cabinet Mission was greeted by Time magazine with a front cover showing a scowling Jinnah with the caption, ‘His Muslim tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow’. Time‘s pro-Congress line reflected a widespread opinion in the United States that India should remain as one nation. As Roosevelt had told the British chargé d’affairs in New York a few years before, any partition of India ‘sounded terrible’ in the United States, echoing as it did their own civil war.25

It is obvious from the records of the Cabinet Mission that, by this point, the British were desperate for a settlement. The Mission’s plan proposed a federal India, with a ten-year constitutional review which would have allowed Muslim provinces to leave the Indian Union if they wished. To the astonishment of everyone, including his own supporters, Jinnah accepted the plan – effectively giving up his campaign for an immediate Pakistan. It has been suggested that he was bluffing, because he knew Nehru would reject the plan. If so, it would have been an extraordinary risk to take.26 It is more plausible that Jinnah actually meant to accept it. His intention, since the very beginning of his career, had been to prevent minority Muslim interests from being submerged under a Hindu-majority government. The Cabinet Mission’s plan did indeed provide for that, and paved the way for Pakistan in a decade. It may simply have been good enough.27

Almost everyone on the Mission regarded Gandhi as the biggest culprit in holding up negotiations. Sir Francis Fearon Turnbull, a civil servant, was impressed with Gandhi’s clever drafting and legal mind, but not in the least with his attitude. ‘The nasty old man has grasped that he can get what he asks for’, he wrote, ‘& so goes on asking for more & more.’28 Wavell, the Viceroy, agreed. ‘Gandhi was the wrecker’, he wrote to the King.29 Even Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the new Secretary of State for India noted for his mild manners and cruelly nicknamed ‘Pathetic-Lawrence’ on account of them, became exasperated by the Mahatma. He ‘let fly in a way I have never heard him before’, wrote Turnbull. ‘Said he was coming to believe Gandhi did not care whether 2 or 3 million people died & would rather that they should than that he should compromise.’30

In the middle of June, Wavell got fed up with negotiating. ‘O! dear, my poor Archie does wish himself back among soldiers’, wrote his wife, Queenie, to her friend Edwina Mountbatten. ‘It is very difficult and trying when all your life you have dealt with men who mean what they say and know what they want, to talk and talk and talk with those who almost invariably say what they don’t mean.’31 Wavell announced his intention to form an interim government of six Congress Hindus (including one Untouchable), five Muslim Leaguers, a Sikh, a Parsi and an Indian Christian. Jinnah had already accepted the plan, and it was rumoured that Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were ready to acquiesce. But Gandhi lent heavily on Congress to reject it, on the grounds that there was no Congress Muslim in the government. Gandhi meant well: he hoped to demonstrate to Muslims that Congress was their party too. In retrospect, though, most commentators have agreed that his derailment of the plan was a point of no return. The Muslim League’s mistrust of Gandhi reached a fever pitch: from then on, the partition of India was inevitable.32 It fell to Nehru, on 10 August, to inform Wavell that he was prepared to form a government.

As soon as Nehru accepted the premiership, Jinnah dropped his support for the plan. The council of the Muslim League declared a Direct Action Day for 16 August. ‘We will have,’ Jinnah announced, ‘either a divided India or a destroyed India.’33 It looked like he might get both. On the morning of 16 August, Calcutta erupted into a frenzy of violence. Groups of Muslims, Hindus and the small community of Sikhs attacked each other in the streets. Others formed murder squads to venture into different quarters of the town, killing, beating and raping anyone they could find. Their sadism knew no bounds. Nirad Chaudhuri, a Calcutta resident, described a man tied to the connector box of the tramlines with a small hole drilled in his skull so he might bleed to death as slowly as possible. He also heard of a boy of about fourteen years old, who was stripped of his Hindu clothing so that the mob might ascertain that he was circumcised – proving he was a Muslim. The boy was flung into a pond and held under with bamboo poles, ‘with a Bengali engineer educated in England noting the time he took to die on his Rolex wristwatch, and wondering how tough the life of a Muslim bastard was.’34

For the next week, gangs terrorized the city. The riots spread through Bengal and Assam, and triggered copycat killings in the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province. By the time the bloodshed finally subsided, deaths and serious injuries in Calcutta alone were estimated at 15,000 or 20,000, and the streets were piled with corpses to the height of two storeys in some areas.35 The bloated carcasses of holy Hindu cows lay stinking and fly-covered beside the bodies of their owners. The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White arrived to see ‘a scene that looked like Buchenwald’; no light comparison, for she had herself seen that, too.36 Nehru went to Calcutta with his younger sister, Betty, to spearhead the government’s effort to open first-aid camps and canteens. ‘Many of these people who came to us seemed utterly bewildered,’ Betty remembered; ‘even those who had taken part in the killings seemed not to know why. Often they said to Bhai [Brother], “We don’t know. It’s you politicians who have done this, because we have lived in peace for years”.’37 Those politicians were still not prepared to compromise. When Nehru officially became Vice President of the Viceroy’s interim government on 2 September 1946, Jinnah instructed all Muslims to display black flags and declared a day of mourning.38

Catapulted into a position of responsibility over a dramatically deteriorating nation, Nehru needed more than ever the steadying hand of his guru. But the Mahatma Gandhi was in no mood to lead Congress. ‘I have no power,’ he told journalist Louis Fischer. ‘I have not changed Congress. I have a catalogue of grievances against it.’ Nor had he much more patience for compromise with the Muslims. Fischer interviewed Gandhi in the summer of 1946, and found him at his most intemperate. ‘Jinnah is an evil genius,’ Gandhi told him. ‘He believes he is a prophet.’ He alleged that Jinnah had ‘cast a spell over the Moslem, who is a simple-minded man’. He concluded that he thought the Muslim League would ultimately join the interim government. ‘But the Sikhs have refused. They are stiff-necked like the Jews.’39

Many of Gandhi’s acolytes were untroubled by these incendiary comments. But serious dissent was caused among even the most loyal of them by his ‘brahmacharya experiments’ during 1946 and 1947. The aged Mahatma had been ‘testing’ his vow of celibacy by sleeping at night in bed with a naked or partially clothed woman. The object of the experiments was to transcend physical arousal. One night, when the police turned up to arrest him, they found him in bed with a girl of eighteen. The British authorities decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and hushed up the police report.40

Nirmal Kumar Bose, a distinguished anthropologist who had volunteered his services to Gandhi as a secretary, wrote a detailed memoir of the experiments. According to him, several women were involved, and many among them became personally possessive of Gandhi, some to the point of emotional crisis. Gandhi’s grandniece, Abha, who started sleeping next to the Mahatma when she was just sixteen and he seventy-four, spoke of the experience in later life. ‘I don’t remember whether he had any clothes on or not,’ she told an interviewer. ‘I don’t like to think about it.’ Sushila Nayyar said that Gandhi had told another of his young relatives, Manu, that they both needed to be naked to offer the purest of sacrifices, because ‘We both may be killed by the Muslims at any time.’41 There was a disquieting incident with Nayyar herself, when cries and two loud slaps on flesh were heard from Gandhi’s hut. The ashramites who ran to their aid found Gandhi and Nayyar both in tears, though neither would explain why. Bose later asked Gandhi whether he had struck Nayyar. Gandhi denied it, and insisted that his behaviour was above board.42 But even if the Mahatma’s intentions were pure, the objectors argued, it was disrespectful to treat women as instruments. He responded with more denials. Bose remembered that, ‘If anybody questioned Gandhiji’s purity in respect of sex, he could fly into an anger.’43 Along with several others, Bose felt he had no option but to resign from Gandhi’s service. The Mahatma was unmoved. ‘If I can master this,’ he is supposed to have said of his experiments, ‘I can still beat Jinnah.’44 But at seventy-seven, Gandhi had been sapped of political power. His importance to the independence process was by then talismanic.

Whitehall was awash with intrigue. In the House of Commons, Churchill had replied to the Cabinet Mission plan by arguing that, ‘We cannot enforce by British arms a British-made Constitution upon India against the wishes of any of the main elements in Indian life.’45 By the main elements, he meant eighty million Muslims, sixty million Untouchables, and the princely states that comprised a third of the land and a quarter of the population: all of which feared for their fate under a caste-Hindu majority rule.

‘To my mind, the most important point is that we should do all we can to persuade and encourage the principal elements in India to remain attached to the British Empire,’ the lawyer Walter Monckton had written to Churchill two days after the Cabinet Mission Plan was announced. ‘I see little prospect of inducing Congress to take such a line … The Muslim League, on the other hand, are naturally ready – though they will not be anxious to express their readiness publicly – to see the British connection retained.’46

Churchill read Beverley Nichols’s controversial Verdict on India, a profoundly conservative book which argued that the British could not quit without creating a separate homeland for the Muslims. Afterwards, he declared to his wife that he was depressed by the scorn with which the raj was viewed in India and America; that ‘out of my shadows has come a renewed resolve to go fighting on as long as possible and to make sure the Flag is not let down while I am at the wheel’, he wrote. ‘I agree with the book and also with its conclusion – Pakistan.’47 Churchill’s vocal support of Pakistan would be instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state, and in sabotaging any last hopes of Indian unity.

Exactly how far the alliance between Churchill and Jinnah went is hard to tell from the few remaining records. It has been rumoured that they had formed a secret pact several years before. Churchill, then Prime Minister, was said to have pledged to grant Jinnah Pakistan in return for Muslim League support of the Allied war effort. It is true that Jinnah repeatedly offered deals of this kind to the Viceroy, but there is scant evidence that he corresponded directly with Churchill on the matter.48 Of course, any such letters would have been very unlikely to survive: for not only would they show Jinnah conspiring to keep the British in India, but they might have opened Churchill to charges of treason.49

Extensive letters between Churchill and Jinnah from 1946 survive in both men’s papers.50 They do not reveal a particularly close friendship, but do show Churchill’s keen interest in the Muslim League. He wrote to Jinnah that any Muslim state ought to remain in the Commonwealth. ‘Having got out of the British Commonwealth of Nations,’ he wrote, ‘India will be thrown into great confusion, and will have no means of defence against infiltration or invasion from the North.’51 This statement was unqualified. Perhaps Churchill was pointing out the vulnerability of the north Pakistan border against the Afghans and the Russians; perhaps he was implying that a future Pakistan – to the north of India – might be able to invade India. Either way, the implication that Pakistan needed British help was there.

In December the British government flew Nehru, Jinnah and Wavell to London to talk to Pethick-Lawrence, Cripps and Attlee.52 On 5 December, the unfortunate King George VI found himself sitting between Nehru and Jinnah at a Buckingham Palace luncheon. The atmosphere was so poisonous that he summoned Attlee three days later to discuss it. ‘The two main political parties in India had no real will to reach agreement among themselves’, he wrote; ‘the situation might so develop as to result in Civil War in India, & there seemed to be little realization among Indian leaders of the risk that ordered govt. might collapse.’ He concluded: ‘The Indian leaders have got to learn that the responsibility is theirs & that they must learn how to govern.’53 Nehru lasted through only three days of squabbling before flying home, seething at the intransigence he perceived in London. On 9 December he convened a constituent assembly, in which the Muslim League refused to participate.

In Britain, Jinnah fared better. At Buckingham Palace, he found that the King was in favour of Pakistan; on talking to the Queen afterwards, he found her even more in favour; and finally he spoke to Queen Mary, who was ‘100% Pakistan!’ He later told this anecdote to the Viceroy’s principal secretary, Sir Eric Miéville. ‘I replied that I was sorry Their Majesties had acted in such an unconstitutional way as to express their opinions on political matters connected with their Indian Empire,’ wrote Miéville, ‘at which he laughed quite a lot.’54 Jinnah spent a Saturday at Churchill’s country house, Chartwell, on 7 December; the meeting was evidently a success, for he afterwards invited Churchill to a luncheon party at Claridge’s on 12 December.55 By this point, their relationship had warmed up. On 11 December 1946, Churchill wrote secretly to ‘My dear Mr Jinnah’:

I should greatly like to accept your kind invitation to luncheon on December 12. I feel, however, that it would perhaps be wiser for us not to be associated publicly at this juncture.

I greatly valued our talk the other day, and I now enclose the address to which any telegrams you may wish to send me can be sent without attracting attention in India. I will always sign myself ‘Gilliatt’. Perhaps you will let me know to what address I should telegraph to you and how you will sign yourself.’56

Jinnah was to write to Churchill in the guise of Miss Elizabeth Gilliatt of 6 Westminster Gardens. (Images of Mr Toad dressed as a washerwoman must be dismissed – Miss Gilliatt was Churchill’s secretary, not an alter ego.) After this letter, the trail goes cold. Hardly any further correspondence between Churchill and Jinnah is to be found among either man’s papers, beyond a few brief notes enclosing press cuttings or speeches. It seems likely that there would have been additional letters of substance after one so cordial as the above. If so, they were probably destroyed. Little may be told from this fragment, though the cloak-and-dagger approach implies that the two men were up to something interesting. Churchill’s behaviour over the next year would be extremely favourable to Pakistan and to Jinnah personally. There can be no doubt that his public championing of the Muslim League’s cause in the House of Commons throughout 1946 and 1947, and of Pakistan’s thereafter, was crucial both to the creation of Pakistan and to the British government’s support for its interests over the years to come. If Jinnah is regarded as the father of Pakistan, Churchill must qualify as its uncle; and, therefore, as a pivotal figure in the resurgence of political Islam.

Across the Atlantic, the United States was also refining its interest in Indian politics. American foreign policy had two main goals. One was the ending of colonialism. The other was that communism must be prevented from spreading. Great empires should retreat, setting up model democracies in their stead – which, it was thought, would naturally tend towards peace, secularism and liberal economics. In the case of India, though, the United States feared that the exit of one ruling foreign power would create a vacuum into which another would be sucked. There were two main contenders on India’s borders – Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia – and the acting Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was openly friendly with both. It did not take a great deal of imagination to construct a ‘domino scenario’ whereby these two communist nations begat communist India, and Washington did not intend to let events slide in that direction.57

Jawaharlal Nehru may have occasioned some suspicion on grounds of his friendships, but his family had used the war to carry out a brilliant public relations campaign in the United States, significantly increasing that nation’s interest in Indian independence. Nehru’s nieces Lekha and Tara Pandit, daughters of his sister Nan, had been sent to Wellesley College during the war. They became popular with nationalist and civil rights organizations, and were introduced to a miscellaneous collection of celebrities, including Danny Kaye, Joan Crawford, and Helen Keller. The girls stayed with their Uncle Jawahar’s old friend, and Edwina Mountbatten’s alleged lover, Paul Robeson.58 Swiftly, it was made clear that official American opinion was keen to associate itself with the cause of Indian independence. A pair of speckled orchids, tied with gold ribbons, was sent to the girls, accompanied by a note saying, ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. I cannot do enough for Nehru’s nieces.’59 They had come from Louis Johnson, President Roosevelt’s personal envoy to India. Johnson had cabled to Roosevelt that Nehru had been ‘magnificent in his cooperation with me. The President would like him and on most things they agree … He is our hope here.’60

The Nehru girls’ mother, Nan Pandit, visited them in December 1944. She also took the opportunity to represent India at the Pacific Relations Conference. Nan lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt in New York, and President Harry S. Truman at the White House. She toured the country speaking in favour of Indian independence, in public and on the radio. Her success was immediate. ‘I didn’t listen much to what you were saying, but your voice is like moonbeams and honey and I love you and am on India’s side!’ said one breathless male caller.61 The presence of this sophisticated Indian woman in their midst only enhanced what the American government already thought. On 29 January 1945, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew told the media that the United States ‘would be happy to contribute in any appropriate manner to a satisfactory settlement. We have close ties of friendship, both with the British and with the people of India.’62

American opinion had added weight, for the British government had no choice but to borrow money from its prosperous ally. The loans Britain took from the United States to finance the Second World War and subsequent reconstruction were so vast that the final payment would not be made until 31 December 2006. Meanwhile, Britain had quietly stopped paying the loans – approaching £1 billion at 1947 rates – that the USA had lent it for the First World War. Being so far in the Americans’ pocket was an invidious situation. Britain was beginning to find out what it was like to be the humbled dependency of a much more powerful state.

Attlee did not like American interference in the India question any more than had Churchill. ‘I do not like the idea of a statement by the USA on India,’ he said. ‘It looks like a pat on the back to us from a rich uncle who sees us turning over a new leaf.’ He noted, furthermore, that any intervention from America ‘would irritate the Moslems’.63 American diplomats leant heavily on Jinnah and Nehru to accept the Cabinet Mission’s plan and get on with their own independence. But the Indian leaders would not be squeezed out of their entrenchments.64

By the end of 1946 the Viceroy, Wavell, had lost the confidence of both sides of the Indian nationalist movement. Gandhi began to canvass for his removal in September.65 By the end of November, Nehru, too, was publicly accusing him of favouring Jinnah.66 Jinnah wrote an impassioned letter to Attlee and a similar one to Churchill, accusing Wavell of being under the thumb of Congress.67 Attlee realized, with his usual brisk unsentimentality, that he was going to have to fire Wavell. ‘A great man in many ways, you know, but a curious silent bird, and I don’t think silent people get on very well with Indians, who are very loquacious.’68 The search began for one who would not mind talking to the Indians. Attlee considered the problem for some time before settling on his candidate, Dickie Mountbatten – who had proven experience with ‘all kinds of people’, and who was ‘blessed with a very unusual wife’.69 Attlee was under no illusions about the anomaly of a semi-royal acting as a figurehead for democracy and freedom. Privately, he confided to friends that Dickie was ‘rather a Ruritanian figure, don’t you think?’70

The description was apt, for since he had returned from South East Asia Mountbatten had engaged himself almost full time in a project worthy of the Order of the Red Rose. In one of the most daring bloodless coups ever attempted, he would install the House of Mountbatten on the British throne – the same throne which, only thirty years before, had ordered his father’s ruin. Mountbatten’s involvement in the marriage between his nephew, Philippos Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and the King’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, can hardly be overstated. He introduced the couple, engineered meetings between them, and went to great lengths in grooming Philip to become a consort.

Philip’s credentials for marrying the world’s most eligible woman were tenuous. His father was a playboy who had disappeared into the champagne-bars of the Côte d’Azur; his mother, abandoned, had gone mad and become a nun; his sisters had all married Nazis; he himself was only a naval lieutenant, and a penniless one at that. He had been a prince of Greece before a coup ousted his family, but the revolution had left him poor and nameless. He met Princess Elizabeth for the first time on 22 July 1939, when the royal family visited the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth under the proud supervision of Dickie Mountbatten. Philip was eighteen years old; Elizabeth was thirteen, and playing with a clockwork train. Their eyes met over lemonade and ginger biscuits, and Philip was among the cadets invited to lunch on the royal yacht. There he impressed the princesses by being able to jump high and eat an abnormal quantity of shrimp, though not simultaneously. When the time came for the yacht to sail, the cadets followed in rowboats and motorboats for a while; Elizabeth watched the tall, blond, strikingly handsome Philip row his little boat further than anyone else.71

Less than eighteen months after the smitten Princess Elizabeth had watched her handsome quasi-prince rowing after the royal yacht, the Conservative MP Chips Channon spent a few days in Athens. He met Philip at a cocktail party and, during the course of extensive gossiping, established that, ‘He is to be our Prince Consort, and that is why he is serving in our Navy.’72 At this stage the prospect seemed improbable. The Greek royals were impoverished, shabby and foreign. It was Dickie who organized a campaign to fashion young Philip into an eligible naval hero. The most important factor in this transformation would be to secure for him British nationality. For some reason, no one – not even the genealogically preoccupied Mountbatten – remembered the 1705 Act of Naturalization of the Most Excellent Princess Sophia, Electress and Duchess Dowager of Hanover, and the Issue of Her Body. As a descendant of Sophia, Philip had been British since birth. Unaware of this, Mountbatten embarked upon a frenetic two-and-a-half-year campaign. On 23 August 1944, he flew from South East Asia Command to Cairo, near Philip’s station at Alexandria, to ‘sound out’ Philip and the King of Greece about whether the former could assume British nationality. He told the British High Commissioner, incredibly, that the British King had ordered his secret mission, on the grounds that Philip could ‘be an additional asset to the British Royal Family and a great help to them in carrying out their royal functions’.73 In fact, the King had already warned Mountbatten off: ‘I have been thinking the matter over since our talk and I have come to the conclusion that we are going too fast’, he had written to him two weeks before.74Soundings were taken; they were, apparently, satisfactory; Mountbatten was on the plane back to Karachi that same afternoon.

In October 1945, the matter of Philip’s naturalization came before the cabinet. Attlee postponed any further discussion owing to the undesirability of aligning the British government with the Greek royalist cause. But by then the teenaged Princess Elizabeth was playing ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ from the musical Oklahoma! non-stop on her gramophone; and Philip had been seen helping her with a fur wrap at the wedding of Mountbatten’s daughter Patricia. Mountbatten moved quickly, making personal appointments with the King, the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, while expending considerable effort in enlightening his media contacts about Philip’s gallantry.75 ‘Please, I beg of you, not too much advice in an affair of the heart’, Philip wrote to his uncle, ‘or I shall be forced to do the wooing by proxy.’76

Mountbatten was summoned to meet the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, for quite another reason on 18 December 1946. According to Attlee, Dickie was taken aback at the offer of the viceroyalty of India – ‘Bit of a shock for him, you know’ – and initially was reluctant to accept owing to the probable hitch in his naval career.77 But the consent of the Lords of the Admiralty for Mountbatten’s removal was obtained with noteworthy ease.78 Even the King was keen: ‘Rather unexpectedly he warmly approved of the idea right away,’ remembered Attlee. ‘Not everyone would let a member of the royal family go and take a risky job, hit or miss, in India as he did.’79 It is hard not to feel sympathy for a King who had recently endured several years of intense lobbying for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and may well have had enough of Cousin Dickie for the time being.

Aside from his naval career, there was another factor in Mountbatten’s reluctance to accept the viceroyalty: Edwina. Bunny Phillips’s marriage had been hard on her; a giddy romance with the conductor Malcolm Sargent had irritated her husband and daughters; she suffered from arteriosclerosis, and would soon have to undergo a partial hysterectomy. Dickie worried constantly about how hard she worked, her fragile health, and her depression. Since the war ended, they had been presented with all sorts of baubles, including the Freedom of the City of London, the Sword of Honour, and Dickie a viscountcy – ‘though he expected an earldom’, according to one of their friends.80 ‘Dickie got reduced in rank down to rear-admiral and Edwina wasn’t saving people all day and night as she had been. I think, secretly, they were feeling a little low.’81

Despite his need for a new focus, there is plenty of evidence which indicates that Mountbatten’s disinclination to take up the viceroyalty was genuine.82 Letter after letter to Attlee shows Dickie setting up new and imaginative obstacles in his own path. First he said he would only do the job ‘at the open invitation of the Indian parties’,83 which was obviously impossible to obtain as it would have involved them agreeing. Next, he demanded a complete change of policy as regarded viceregal protocol, so that he and Edwina could visit Indians at will and unencumbered by staff.84This he was unexpectedly granted. Finally, he hit upon the sticking point. On 7 January 1947, he asked Attlee to set an ‘exact date for the termination of the British Raj’.85

The British government, in consultation with Wavell, had long been working to an end-date of 31 March 1948. British troops were already being moved out of India; and, after that time, Wavell considered that their numbers would have dipped below the minimum required to maintain order.86 Attlee remembered in his memoirs: ‘I decided that the only thing to do was to set a time-limit and say: “Whatever happens, our rule is ending on that date.” It was, of course, a somewhat dangerous venture.’87

Even the most cursory glance at the letters between Attlee and Mountbatten reveals this memory to be false. It was Mountbatten who pushed to set a firm date – Attlee resisted. ‘My dear Dickie,’ he wrote on 9 January. ‘As at present advised we think it is inadvisable to be too precise as to an actual day, but I will bear the point in mind.’88 Alarmed, Mountbatten replied: ‘I notice with some concern that it is now considered inadvisable to name a precise and definite day.’89

‘I do not think that you need worry’, Attlee wrote back. ‘We shall get a clear statement of timing, but an exact day of the month so long ahead would not be very wise. There is no intention whatever of having any escape clause or of leaving any doubt that within a definite time the handover will take place.’90

But Mountbatten would not back down, and refused to be satisfied with Attlee’s suggestion that they agree on ‘the middle of 1948’.91 Still Attlee resisted. The reason for his intransigence was that he was under intense pressure from the British administrators in India not to set a date. A report by Sir Frederick Burrows, Governor of Bengal, advised him that the announcement of a date would precipitate civil war, ‘massacres on shocking scale (with Gandhi one of the first victims) and famine’.92 Attlee received similar notices from the governors of the Punjab and the United Provinces. Wavell sent his personal opinion too, in the strongest terms: ‘I am sure that announcement about the withdrawal in 1948 should not repeat not be made until after my successor has taken office and has had at least a week or two to study situation. I do not think that it is fair on him to have to take over situation which may already have developed unfavourably, nor on me to have to carry out in my last few weeks of office a line of action which I consider miss-timed [sic] and ill-judged.’93

Attlee communicated all this to Mountbatten, but the Viceroy-Designate refused to be intimidated. On this point, the cabinet stood by him. The two arguments that had swayed them in the past still convinced them now. First, that a firm deadline would force the Indian parties to cooperate; second, that without one ‘we should be suspected, as earlier Governments have been, of making communal differences an excuse for continuing British rule in India’.94 Attlee cabled all this to the royal train, then making its way around South Africa. Once he had received the King’s nod, he announced the new plan, the new viceroyalty and a date: 1 June 1948, flexible to within one month.95 Mountbatten’s instructions from Attlee, while vague in their wording, were clear enough in their implication. It was the ‘definite objective’ of His Majesty’s Government to negotiate a plan for the transfer of power, with India or the divided bits of India remaining in the British Commonwealth if possible. Mountbatten was to stop short of compulsion. If his negotiations had reached no conclusion by 1 October 1947, Attlee had mandated him to get Britain out in nine months at most, regardless of whether the Indians were ready or not.96

Mountbatten’s appointment was widely greeted with a cheer. Congratulatory letters poured into Broadlands, from friends, colleagues, journalists, ambassadors, members of the public, the Hampshire Cricket Club, the Central Chancery of the Order of Knighthood, David Joel Ltd (Manufacturers of Joinery and Furniture), and the entire company of the London Ballet.97 Most were positive, though one of the bluntest exceptions came from Admiral Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. ‘Some people, I gather, expect that, when we move out, Indian unrest will develop to a state bordering on civil war’, he wrote. ‘Then Muslim & Hindu in India, like Jews & Arab in Palestine, will continue to quarrel until one of the contending parties invites the Russians to come in & help them. After that, the date of World War no. 3 is anybody’s guess. However, I am v. ignorant of these problems & I trust that the pessimists are wrong. Every good wish to you in your difficult task.’98

‘Thank you very much for your very kind letter of congratulation,’ replied Mountbatten. ‘I appreciate all the kind things you say.’99

With immense dignity, Wavell refrained from criticizing his successor, though privately he was furious at the abrupt manner of his dismissal. He busied himself by filling the incinerators in the Viceroy’s House with stacks of documents that might have caused embarrassment to the British – either by revealing their attitudes to Indian political figures, or by detailing British mismanagement of India.100 The choice of Mountbatten did attract some public criticism. Conservative MP Brendan Bracken deplored Mountbatten’s closeness to Nehru, and described the former as ‘a miserable creature, power-mad, publicity-mad’.101 Bracken was not the only one to notice the Mountbatten–Nehru connection, and to draw the conclusion that there must be something fishy about it.102 The Associated Press of America reported that Mountbatten’s appointment had been made to appease Nehru. Nehru denied this in a terse statement, pointing out that he had met Mountbatten on just two previous occasions: in Singapore in 1946, and once afterwards as Mountbatten was passing through Delhi, when they discussed nothing more exciting than the transport of paddy.103

Bracken and the AP had seized the wrong end of the stick. Nehru was suspicious about Mountbatten’s appointment, and mistrustful of the man himself. Attlee’s announcement, Nehru wrote to his London-based friend Krishna Menon, ‘has shaken people up here and forced them to think furiously’.104 He went on: ‘The two men that Mountbatten is bringing with him, Miéville and General Ismay, are not the type which inspires confidence regarding Mountbatten’s outlook.’ He asked Menon to try to see Mountbatten and get an impression of him. ‘Much will depend on what kind of a directive Mountbatten is bringing with him, and how he intends to function here. He can obviously make things easier or more difficult.’105

Poor, accident-prone Dickie, long known in the Admiralty as the ‘Master of Disaster’106, had been given more power over 400 million subjects of the British King-Emperor than any preceding Viceroy.107 The task of reconciling the Indian politicians, re-establishing public order and finding a formula for an independent India was awesome, and quite beyond Mountbatten’s experience. India would have been within its rights to panic but, from the British government’s point of view, Dickie’s appointment had been a clever move. He was a gung-ho sort, and could be relied upon to remove himself, and his nation, by any means necessary. And, by this stage, the British government did not care much what means were necessary. The end was its only concern.

On the evening of 18 March 1947, Dickie and Edwina held a farewell reception at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. It was a double celebration for them. That very morning, Mountbatten had secured a great victory, signalled by an announcement of the superfluous naturalization of Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN, in the London Gazette.108 He had planned to call his nephew ‘HRH Prince Philip’. Philip preferred to start again as a commoner, but it is hard to imagine that Dickie had nothing to do with his choice of surname. ‘Most people think that Dickie’s my father anyway,’ Philip later acknowledged.109 With Philip’s engagement to the heiress presumptive soon to be announced, the House of Mountbatten was now right at the front of the line for the British throne.

At the reception that night, the Mountbattens stood for two hours to meet their 700 guests, including a smattering of royals, the Prime Minister, various India-related politicians, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and copious servicemen. Also in attendance, as usual, was Noël Coward. Dickie and Edwina’s cocktail party put him in a pensive mood. ‘I wonder if they will come back alive’, he wrote in his diary that evening. ‘I think that if it is possible to make a go of it in the circumstances they will, but I have some forebodings.’110 He was not the only one. As Mountbatten climbed aboard his aeroplane at Northolt the next day, he said to his aide-de-camp: ‘I don’t want to go. They don’t want me out there. We’ll probably come home with bullets in our backs.’111

A sense of foreboding was justified. The next fifteen months were to be the most dangerous, the most triumphant, the most terrifying, the most passionate, and the most controversial of the Mountbattens’ lives.

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