“Polo is a wonderful sport, one which combines several skills: one must be a good rider and there is the challenge of striking the ball at speed. But the best thing about the sport is playing with friends ... I was never a natural polo talent, nor a good rider at the beginning: I had to work hard to be good. I had to study the game. I watched English and American films in slow motion and analysed the players hitting the ball. I also remember that my team and I used to come up with tactics around a billiard table. As polo is amateur, I had to do everything myself. I remember one time I was speaking to an international player, and I asked him advice about how to hit the ball. He said: ‘My dear Dickie, hit it quickly! Hit it like a snake!’” — Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, as told by John Terraine in his book, “The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten” (1968).
Lord Louis Mountbatten was not only an outstanding naval officer, war hero and diplomat, but also a passionate polo player. He reached a 5-goal handicap and left an invaluable polo legacy, serving as mentor to several important members of the royal family: his nephew, Prince Philip, as well as Princes Charles, William, and Harry.
A BRILLIANT NAVAL OFFICER AND WAR HERO, AND HIS PASSION FOR POLO
Prince Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas of Battenberg was born on June 25, 1900, in Forgmore House, Windsor, son of Prince Louis of Battenberg, 1st Marquis of Milford Haven, and Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Princess Alice, second daughter of Queen Victoria, making him great-grandson of the famous monarch. Prince Louis had three siblings: Alice of Battenberg, Louise (later Queen of Sweden) and George, 2nd Marquis of Milford Haven.
In 1917, due to tensions with Germany caused by World War I, King George V decided to change the surname of the royal household from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor. The King also ordered the modification of every German surname in the family; thus Battenberg became Mountbatten. Louis was therefore Lord Louis Mountbatten, but to his closest friends, he was Dickie.
Louis was home schooled until the age of 10. At 13 he entered the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth before going on to serve in World War II. Between wars he pursued a career in the navy, specialising in communications. In 1922, he married the Honorable Edwina Ashley at St. Margaret’s Church, London—the greatest social event of the year. A year before his wedding, Louis accompanied his cousin David, Prince of Wales, to India, where Louis discovered polo. The sport captivated him for the rest of his life, and he would go on to become a great advocate for polo.
Clare Milford Haven, an avid polo player, married to George, current Marquis of Milford Haven, great-nephew of Louis, remembered Louis’ introduction to polo in India in an interview: “He was not a natural rider in his youth, but the future Lord Mountbatten definitely fell in love with polo.” In his diary entry for December 1921, Louis wrote enthusiastically, “It was one of the best mornings of my life ... I played my first ever polo match. I played two chukkas, the eighth and the eleventh. I think the average handicap of the players in India is five, but it is undoubtedly one of the best things in India.” In India Louis played matches with the Maharaja’s team, against Prince David. That first interaction with polo was the beginning of a long love affair. Clare Milford Haven recalls what Lord Louis wrote to his mother: “For the first time in my life I am excited about a sport. Soon I will be playing polo more than anything else!”
After their wedding, Louis and Lady Edwina moved to Aldstean, West Sussex, near Cowdray Park Polo Club, founded in 1910, the epicentre of English polo at the time. Louis already had his polo team, Aldstean, and competed in several club tournaments. His naval team was the Bluejackets, and from 1930–1931 they stood out in tournaments at Hurlingham, Ranelagh and Roehampton. In 1937, he was promoted to captain in the navy, and later served in World War II commanding HMS Kelly, which was torpedoed in 1941 during the Battle of Crete. By orders of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, Louis became the first chief planner of Operation Overlord, which came to an end with the Allied Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. In 1943, Churchill appointed Louis the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command, and promoted him to acting full Admiral. During Louis’ time in that post, his command oversaw the recapture of Burma from the Japanese. A personal high point was the reception of the Japanese surrender in Singapore. After the war, Louis was named Earl of Mountbatten and Burma, and he became the last Viceroy of India (1947) and the first Governor-General of the independent Dominion of India (1947–48), from which the modern Republic of India emerged in 1950. Louis then went back to his naval career, and concentrated on polo, which he never abandoned.
MALTA, THE POLO PARADISE FOR ENGLISH OFFICERS, AND THE INFLUENCE OF LORD MOUNTBATTEN
Like many British officers and members of the Royal Family, Louis made Malta his special place. The small archipelago in the central Mediterranean was a compulsory stop for officers returning from India. In 1865, English officers introduced polo to the West on Malta. Louis not only played; he spent hours analyzing the game and even the sticks. In 1931, he designed and patented a special stick that became popular at the time, developed to give the player greater reach when striking the ball. That same year he published his famous book, “An Introduction to Polo,” under the pseudonym “Marco.” The copyright belonged to the Royal Naval Association, which Louis presided over. The book became a best seller, and is considered an essential guide to polo to this day.
Malta is and has been a very special place for both the British Royal Family and Louis. In 1870, his father, Louis, played polo there while serving as a marine officer. Two important trophies at the Malta Polo Club are attributed to Lord Mountbatten: the Prince Louis Cup, in memory of his father, and the prestigious Cawnpore Cup, the origin of which dates back to 1901, and which Mountbatten insisted on taking to Malta from India after the war. Malta remembers Lord Mountbatten fondly. He was generous with and gave personal lessons to the local players.
Louis talks about polo in Malta in “The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten.” He states: “Polo was very important to me in Malta, particularly as captain of my team, the Bluejackets. … I have many wonderful memories of the Marsa field [the main ground of Malta Polo Club].”
King George V started the polo tradition in Malta, and his children continued his legacy. Louis introduced his nephew, Philip (later Prince Philip Mountbatten, husband of Elizabeth II), to polo in Malta toward the end of the 1940s.
Encouraged by his uncle, Philip became an avid polo player, playing with his team Windsor Park in the 1960s. Like his uncle, he reached a 5-goal handicap and spent part of his naval and polo, career in Malta.
During the 1960s Louis also shared his love of polo with his great-nephew and godson, Prince Charles. Louis greatly influenced the young Prince Charles, who in turn adored him. Charles referred to the tradition of polo in the Royal Family and the importance of Louis in his life when he wrote the prologue to the book, “Profiles in Polo,” compiled by historian Horace Laffaye: “My family seem to have been involved with polo since its introduction into Britain ... my great-great-uncle, the Duke of Connaught, my great-grandfather, King George V and his brother, the Duke of Clarence were amongst some the early players … my grandfather, King George VI and his three brothers were all devoted to polo … And later my great-uncle Lord Mountbatten took a great deal of interest in the improvement of my game.”
Louis stopped playing polo in the 1950s, but his enthusiasm for the game never diminished. He attended matches and watched from the Royal Box at Guards Polo Club. He was patron of the New Forest Polo Club, where he donated the Bluejackets Cup, the club’s main trophy today. His last visits to polo were in 1979, when he presented the Gold Cup for the British Open at Cowdray Park, and the Rundle Cup to his great nephew-in Tidworth, who won the tournament with his team Royal Navy.
On August 27, 1979, Louis went lobster potting and tuna fishing in his 30-foot wooden boat, Shadow V, which had been moored in the harbor at Mullaghmore, Ireland. IRA member Thomas McMahon had slipped onto the unguarded boat that night and attached a radio-controlled bomb weighing 50 pounds (23 kg). When Louis was aboard, just a few hundred yards from the shore, the bomb was detonated, destroying the boat. Louis’ legs were almost blown off. He was pulled alive from the water by nearby fishermen, but died from his injuries before being brought to shore. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey.
The polo legacy left by Lord Louis Mountbatten is invaluable. Just like his public service, his polo career was one of enthusiasm and passion. Today he is honoured at the club founded by his nephew in 1955, Guards Polo Club, with the Mountbatten Cup. Louis’ legacy continues with his great nephew George Milford Haven and his wife Clare, and his royal great-grandchildren, William, Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry.
By Alejandra Ocampo, courtesy of Pololine.com