EDWINA, COUNTESS MOUNTBATTEN OF BURMA
1937-1940: Countdown to War
Edwina continued with her travels throughout the World until the War, and ventured to places that Europeans had never been before, let alone female Europeans and this was part of the attraction, as the challenges of such visits were themselves the goal. The danger and excitement or overcoming 'the impossible' were a typical Edwina trait and a trip along the 800 miles Burma Road (built by the Chinese as a supply road during their war with Japan) was an example of her exploits. It was said of her at this time - "she did so love confounding those who thought they knew best."
Edwina's father -
Lt-Col. The Rt Hon. Wilfrid Ashley,
1st Lord Mount Temple
A 1938 studio portrait of Edwina
- as a lady of society
for "Tatler" Magazine
A 1937 sketch portrait of Edwina by Percival Anderson
On 3rd July 1939, Edwina's father - Lt-Col. The Rt Hon. Wilfrid Ashely, 1st Lord Mount Temple (1867-1939) died aged 71yrs and Edwina inherited Broadlands and Classiebawn Castle, near Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, Ireland. Lord Mount Temple had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (PD) and although his death was not a surprise, it did indeed leave a gap and cause much upheaval to his family - not least Edwina. With the turbulent political situation in Europe, War was inevitable and Edwina’s talents and energies were finally to have real direction. The Mountbatten's children - Patricia and Pamela, were packaged off to New York, USA for safety to live with the rich Vanderbilts. Mountbatten explained that with Edwina’s Jewish ancestry, and his Royal connections, their children would certainly be a target for the Nazis in the event of an invasion to mainland England and Edwina rewrote her will.
While her husband was at sea in HMS Kelly, Edwina moved into Kensington Palace with Mountbatten’s mother (The Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven), and Broadlands was turned over to the authorities to be used as a hospital. Edwina, who trained as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital, London, subsequently became County President for London of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in November 1939. Unlike other aristocratic wealthy socialites, Edwina refused to be just a name on a letterhead and actively raised funds and inspected hospitals.
World War II brought The Mountbattens closer and their marriage became strengthened by working together. Edwina’s promotion in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was almost as swift as her husband’s in the Royal Navy and in 1940 she was appointed Deputy Superintendent-in-Chief of the entire Brigade. During the Blitz, Edwina frequently visited air-raid shelters to raise morale and improve conditions. She refused to wear a tin helmet (even in the middle of air raids) and always appeared immaculately dressed in uniform - often people noticing that she appeared fearless with not a hair out of place and a smile for everyone. Clearly the dangers of having a husband in the War was always at the back of her mind, she knew that Mountbatten’s self-determination would mean that he would not shy away from danger. In May 1940 after HMS Kelly had returned to Hebburn following being hit during the Battle of Norway, grateful that her husband was safe she said - "it might be luck, but I believe it’s the St. Christopher medal he always wears that keeps him safe". Sometime later, she said - "I feel things. If anything should happen to Dickie I think I should know it before word came through from the Admiralty."
The 1940 portrait of Edwina by Salvador Dali
Edwina was a brilliant administrator, an inspirational leader, an exceptional organiser, a highly effective recruiter of voluntary personnel, and a gifted manager of staff. She also had a flair for publicity and she became a superb public speaker and brought these gifts to bear in promoting St John Ambulance. Edwina toured the country opening charity fundraising fairs and garden parties and during this time membership of the Brigade doubled. On top of all this, she drove herself relentlessly hard with little regard for her own health. Edwina was always ready to take her turn at doing the dangerous public duties during the worst of the bombing during the War. Her ability to cut corners successfully to get a job done became legendary as she badgered bureaucrats and politicians to get the best for her Corps and Divisions.
Edwina in 1940 attending a St John's Ambulance
Brigade training class at her
Training Centre in Eaton Place, London
A formal photographic portrait of Edwina
as President of the London County
of the St John's Ambulance Brigade
Edwina at work with the St John's Ambulance
Brigade during World War II
In May 1940, Molly, Lady Mount Temple (Edwina's widowed stepmother), who was no longer the chatelaine of Broadlands following the death of her husband, resigned as President of the Romsey & District Nursing Association, and Edwina was elected to the position. Edwina was never just a name on a letterhead, she was an active President and used her position to tour local hospitals and encouraged everyone to get involved. She established a Training Centre at Eaton Place, London for a civil nursing reserve, where any woman (for the small fee of 2 guineas) could attend a fortnight course of rudimentary first aid and basic home nursing. Other such centres were to follow throughout the country.