EDWINA, COUNTESS MOUNTBATTEN OF BURMA
1941-1946: Lady Louis at War
In 1941, The Mountbattens visited the USA - Mountbatten as Captain of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and Edwina was there on behalf of the British Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Brigade to thank those who had raised over £5 million for the cause. Mountbatten himself coached Edwina in public speaking and the couple were received with warm affection. Once again, Edwina’s smile, memory for statistics, names and occasions made her a real star in the USA, and it was always remarked that she made people feel like they were her personal friend. Edwina's tour (which included lunch at The White House) did much to further the cause of the Allies in the 'neutral' USA. Soon after Edwina headed for Canada - staying with Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone (1883-1981), Queen Victoria's granddaughter, and her husband Major-General The Rt Hon. Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, formerly Prince Alexander of Teck (1874-1957) who was the brother of Queen Mary (1867-1953) and Governor-General of Canada 1940-1946.
Edwina (standing) with Angela, Countess of Limerick,
Deputy Chairman of the Joint War Organisation (JWO)
& Vice-Chairman of the British Red Cross
in December 1942
Edwina & Mountbatten outside Buckingham Palace,
following Edwina being presented with the insignia of
a Commander of Order of the British Empire (CBE)
In October 1944, Edwina had just returned from the Netherlands, and received a signal from Mountbatten asking for her to join him and to help him in the task of recovery after a great military campaign dealing with liberated prisoners of War, refugees and the dispossessed. Mountbatten’s 'Forgotten Army' were making considerable gains and it was up to both Mountbatten and Edwina to bring peace and stability to the region. Soon, it became safe for The Mountbattens’ children to return to England. Mountbatten had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia (SACSEA) and the War was progressing well for the Allies. Their eldest daughter Patricia, was now 19 years old and joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), and later left to join her father in Ceylon. Their youngest daughter, Pamela, was dispatched to a boarding school, but it meant that Edwina could spend some time with her.
Edwina was appointed Superintendent-in-Chief of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in 1942 and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1943 New Year's Honours List. At the investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, it was noted that for once Edwina had "stolen the limelight" and she even said to the reporters waiting outside - "for the first time - it's me!" Soon after the investiture, Edwina went to the USA as an official representative of the British Red Cross to personally convey the gratitude of the British for the medical supplies and clothing sent to the UK. Whilst in the USA, Edwina helped to enlist 100,000 volunteers in the Nurses Aide Corps. Other honours were to come including the American Red Cross Medal, but unlike her husband she was not obsessed with titles and honours and always saw them as a tribute to the organisations which she worked for.
The insignia of a Commander
of Order of the British Empire (CBE)
Edwina inspecting St John's Ambulance Brigade
volunteers in Reading, Berkshire in 1943
A formal photographic portrait of Edwina
in her St John's Ambulance Brigade uniform
Also in October 1944, one of Mountbatten's officers under his command got married in one of the social events of the year - but this was no ordinary wedding, as the groom - Lt-Col. Harold 'Bunny' Phillips (1909-1980) had been Edwina's long-term on/off lover and frequently 'secret' travelling companion. Edwina was so close to Phillips, that Mountbatten had even considered offering her a divorce - on the grounds of his own long-term on/off relationship with Yola Letellier (1904-1996), the French socialite who was the inspiration for the character 'Gigi' (from Colette's novel, made famous by Leslie Caron (b.1931) in the 1958 film of Lerner & Loewe's musical of the same name). Mountbatten tried to console his wife at the loss and she wrote to him saying - "it has made me realise more than ever before how deeply devoted I am to you and what very real and true affection as well as immense admiration I have for you."
Lt-Col Harold 'Bunny' Phillips & his bride -
Georgina 'Gina' Wernher on their
wedding day in October 1944
Phillips married Miss Georgina 'Gina' Wernher, later Lady Kennard (1919-2011), the daughter of Major-General Sir Harold Wernher, 3rd Bt. (1893-1973) and The Lady Anastasia 'Zia' Wernher, formerly Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby (1892-1977) - the sister of 'Nada', Marchioness of Milford Haven, formerly Countess Nadejda Mikhailovna de Torby (1896-1963), who was Edwina's sister-in-law. Despite the close family connections and the wedding being held at the fashionable St Margaret's Church, Westminster, London with guests who included King George II of Greece (1890-1947) and Princess Marina, The Duchess of Kent (1906-1968), neither Mountbatten or Edwina attended and she forbade her youngest daughter Pamela to accept his invitation to be a bridesmaid.
Edwina - always referred to as 'Lady Louis' threw her energies into her work and arrived in Karachi on 9th January 1945 and like a whirlwind she swept through camp after camp, hospital after hospital ensuring that people were treated well and cared for appropriately. She soon flew onto Delhi and was met by Mountbatten, for a brief meet. Edwina then went onto Bombay, Calcutta and then onto Burma, working with her husband directly and The Mountbattens became a morale boosting team, able to bring good cheer to the Allies servicemen wherever they went.
Following the defeat of the Japanese Empire in September 1945, Mountbatten called again for Edwina’s help to assist with the literally thousands of Allied servicemen who had been held in Japanese prisoner of War camps in dreadful and inhumane conditions. Mountbatten provided his wife with a limited remit and resources, but her excellent organisational skills and determination seemed to overcome bureaucracy and in this work, Edwina helped to save many lives. Within a month of her arrival, it was noted that over 60,000 former Prisoners of War (POWs) and internees were on their way home back to the UK.
A short film by Pathé about Edwina inspecting hospitals in India
Edwina visiting ex-Prisoners of War (POWs) in Singapore 1945