The media has long been fascinated by Edwina Mountbatten, eldest daughter of politician Wilfrid William Ashley, Baron Mount Temple of Lee and goddaughter to King Edward VII. One of the wealthiest and arguably most interesting of London’s 1920s debutantes, her colourful life continues to be of interest particularly, with the launch of Gurinder Chadha’s new film ‘Viceroy’s House’. The film focuses on Edwina’s husband Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s final Viceroy who, with the support of Edwina as Vicereine, oversaw the transition of British India to independence.
Far less however has been written about Edwina’s incredibly dedicated and passionate service to the St John Ambulance Brigade. Consequently, I have gathered information from articles within the Brigade’s First Aid Magazine later, The Review including, in February 1960’s issue, several tributes following her death. In addition, I have used Edwina’s own official accounts in the form of her ‘Report of the Superintendent-in-Chief, Nursing Corps and Divisions, to the Chief commissioner’ for the Order of St John’s annual reports.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Edwina’s husband, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a British Naval officer, was appointed Commander of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla aboard his ship HMS Kelly. Their two young daughters, Patricia and Pamela, were sent to New York for safety as it was feared by Edwina and Louis that, with their royal connections and Edwina’s Jewish ancestry, the children might become a Nazi target. The family’s country estate Broadlands, near Romsey in Hampshire, was turned into a soldiers’ hospital and so, Edwina moved into Kensington Palace with Louis’ mother. In November 1939, shortly after moving to Kensington, Edwina became County President for the St John Ambulance Brigade in London.
The first mention of Edwina within the Order’s annual reports is in the 1940 Lady Superintendent-in-Chief, Lorna Atkinson’s report where she writes; ‘… under the inspiring leadership of Lady Louis Mountbatten…’ first aid posts, air raid shelters and tube stations were all staffed throughout the air raids. As the Brigade’s County President for London, Edwina also established the successful ‘Shelter, First Aid Post, and Rest Centre Scheme’ which, ensured that there was sufficient volunteer cover across the Borough Councils. After her death, St John Ambulance Brigade volunteers who met her during the war, recalled Edwina’s immaculate uniform and refusal to wear a tin hat as well as her ‘personal interest in everything connected with the Brigade’ (Kirkman, The Review Vol. 33 No. 2, p.1).
In 1942, following the death of Lorna Atkinson, Edwina was appointed as the Brigade’s Lady Superintendent-in-Chief. She began to work more closely with her husband, now Chief of Combined Operations, to improve the welfare given to servicemen and their families. In her first annual report as Superintendent-in-Chief, Edwina writes of visiting a large number of Joint War Organisation (a wartime collaboration of the Order of St John and British Red Cross) convalescent homes and residential nurseries by which, she was greatly impressed. She also became the Brigade’s representative on the Council of British Societies for Relief Abroad and began to compile a register of volunteers willing to play a role in any relief and reconstruction work.
At the invitation of the Brigade County Commissioners, Edwina spent much of 1943 inspecting Ambulance, Nursing, and Cadet Divisions across Britain, combining these trips when possible, with visits to Joint War Organisation convalescent homes and nurseries: ‘Everywhere, I was impressed by the smartness, efficiency, and devotion to duty…’ (Mountbatten, 1943 Annual Report OStJ). Edwina was particularly keen to ensure that the Brigade’s Nursing Divisions were an efficient and well-trained task force. She established relationships between the St John Nursing Divisions and the Civil Nursing reserve, as well as with several hospitals including St Bartholomew’s and the University College Hospital in London. In addition to offering much needed assistance, the Brigade members carrying out relief work in the hospitals learnt useful skills, and many were inspired to take up general training.
During this period, the work of and improvements within the Brigade Nursing Divisions was widely recognised. Initial talks about increasing the Brigade’s scope were even held between the St John Reconstruction and War Relief Committee (of which, Edwina was a member), and the ministry officials in charge of delivering the National Health Service. In the 1943 New Year awards, Edwina was made a Commander of the British Empire which, she felt was given in ‘recognition of the wonderful contribution made by the Brigade, particularly during the war’ (Mountbatten, 1943 Annual Report OStJ).
Arguably, Edwina’s most significant contribution to the war effort came in the wake of the Japanese surrender. In August 1945, shortly after Edwina had returned home from a tour of St John service units and hospitals in India, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and China, her assistance was requested in the Far East by her husband and the Military Authorities. As the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, Louis Mountbatten found himself responsible for the vast territory surrendered by the Japanese. Edwina’s help was needed to facilitate the recovery, care, and repatriation of the allied prisoners of war and civilian internees from the South East Asia Command territories. The completion of this task took Edwina over vast areas, bringing her amongst the c.90,000 prisoners who were recovered from 230 camps which, stretched over an area of 3,000 miles. Edwina wrote of the work of the St John volunteers:
‘I would like to pay particular tribute to the invaluable work they undertook in the actual prison camps themselves and in makeshift hospitals and centres during the very earliest days. They continued later amongst the starving and distressed civilians in different parts of Malaya and high praise and tributes have been paid to their work on all sides.’ (Mountbatten, 1945 Annual Report OStJ).
Some of the most infamous camps to be liberated, were the 17 along the 140 mile Sumatra Railway. Also known as the Death Railway, the Sumatra Railway was built between May 1944 and August 1945 by 5000 allied prisoners of war and 120,000 native forced labourers (known as romusha) under the direction of the Imperial Japanese Army. The work was incredibly hard, as the railway was built through mountain ranges, thick jungle, swamps and across rivers. This hard labour, combined with appalling living conditions resulted in the deaths of 670 prisoners of war and eighty thousand conscripted romusha. Two thousand prisoners of war also lost their lives on the way to Pakanbaroe when the ships transporting them were torpedoed by Allied submarines.
Between 1945 and 1946, Edwina worked tirelessly to assemble the teams and equipment necessary to locate and rescue thousands of prisoners of war often venturing at great personal risk into swaps and jungle. To the despairing refugees ‘she was no great lady standing at a distance but a mother and a nurse who took their soiled and trembling hands in hers and spoke words of womanly comfort’ (The Times, February 22, 1960). In recognition of her efforts, on 1st January 1946, Edwina was made a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order and a Dame Grand Cross of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.
1946 was once again a busy year for Edwina who, from March until May, toured Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East, where she reviewed and assisted St John’s civilian relief efforts. She also continued to carry out extensive visits at home, inspecting Ambulance, Nursing and Cadet divisions as well as overseeing the ‘Hospital Car Service’ and the ‘After Care and Emergency Help Scheme’. At the end of the year, an exhausted Edwina finally returned home to Broadlands. However, in January 1947 Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, asked Lord Louis Mountbatten to go to India as viceroy to oversee the transition of British India to independence. As Vicereine, Edwina volunteered to lead the United Council of Relief and Welfare. In this role, she was responsible for the coordination of all the major voluntary organisations who, as a result of the separation of India and Pakistan and the resulting bloodshed, found themselves overwhelmed by refugees. Upon returning to England in the summer of 1948, Edwina’s unremitting work for St John continued. In her Superintendent-In-Chief’s report of 1949 she concluded: ‘The year 1949 has brought a heavy volume of work as well as new and exciting demands on the Nursing Divisions of the Brigade, and I feel proud and grateful at the manner in which all these have been responded to.’
Over the course of the next 10 years, Edwina continued to support and champion the work of St John, carrying out Brigade inspections, fundraising and ensuring adequate provision was made for civilian relief work overseas. She also actively supported numerous other charities including various educational trusts, children’s hospitals and welfare societies. To those around her, Edwina’s already hectic schedule and heavy workload only appeared to increase. In 1957, an exhausted Edwina was advised by a heart specialist that her cardiac condition was poor and consequently, she needed to reduce both her workload and travel. Edwina did not however heed this advice, and despite complaining of chest pains, in February 1960, she travelled to North Borneo where she fulfilled a gruelling list of engagements. On the morning of 21st February 1960, Edwina’s body was found, she had died in her sleep aged just 58. She was buried at sea with naval honours and an escort from an Indian warship sent by Indian Prime Minister Nehru.
In the numerous tributes following her death, Edwina was described almost without exception, as charming and personable, as well as a force to be reckoned with. Sir Arthur Bryant’s tribute ‘Hallmark to Greatness’ in The Illustrated London News described Edwina’s life as one of ‘courage, sacrifice and generosity’. Her leadership of the St John Ambulance Brigade during the 18 years that she was Superintendent-In-Chief raised the status and standard of the Nursing Divisions beyond all recognition, and the tremendous expansion of the Brigade overseas was in no small part due to Edwina’s vision. Within St John, she truly left a legacy, helping to transform the Brigade into the modern international first aid organisation that it is today.