THE IRA did a couple of enormous favours to Lord Louis Mountbatten when they blew his boat apart in 1979, killing him, an old lady, and two young lads.
A brace of octogenarians and a couple of schoolboys: quite a bag. Firstly, the IRA gave Mountbatten the almost perfect death -- instant and without any pain, doing what he loved most of all; messing around in boats. What this vile man really deserved was to die in his own filth, which fate, of course, the IRA spared him. And secondly, his death ensured that he would remain an icon of imperturbable British heroism, instead of finally getting the reputation that he deserved; of being a vain, egotistical, inept, brutal and deceitful psychopath.
These modest reflections came to mind as I watched yet another inane televisual celebration of war-time mythology, Wednesday's BBC2 programme about the canoe-borne commando raid on Bordeaux in December 1942. It was presented by Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib-Dem leader, who has turned himself into a living parody: the bluff and sage old warrior.
As he stood on the Bordeaux quayside, dabbing away the occasional manly tear, his stiff upper lip was not so much quivering as flapping like a whore's knickers in a northerly gale.
The legendary raid on German shipping was in fact nothing less than murder, as ordered by Mountbatten himself. The commando-canoeists had no idea where they were going before they embarked on a submarine, bound for the Gironde, the largest estuary in Europe. They had certainly not been trained for such an operation. Though mostly working-class boys who spoke neither French nor Spanish, and lacking any maps or civilian clothes, after planting their limpet mines, they were expected to make their way to Spain. Mountbatten knew that all captured commandoes would be shot, yet this ruthless, egotistical brute nonetheless sent them on their way.
The raid had originally been suggested by a commando officer, a clinically insane caricature of the British suicidal amateur by the name of "Goldie" Hasler. An already criminal project was made infinitely worse by the fact that the Special Operations Executive -- which co-ordinated resistance operations in occupied Europe -- was already planning an attack on exactly the same shipping, at precisely the same time. But instead of rowing 50 miles up a freezing estuary in mid-winter, the French would simply -- and rather more cleverly -- carry their mines aboard, masquerading as cargo.
Did Mountbatten know about the simultaneous SOE operation? We shall never know, Ashdown quivered gallantly into the sou' sou' wester blowing up the Bordeaux quayside. Well actually, I'd say that he knew full well and simply didn't care, because sending good men futilely to their deaths was what Mountbatten specialised in.
SO instead of the programme indicting Mountbatten, it was another celebration of the myth of the Cockleshell Heroes, even though one of the commandoes -- Sam Wallace, from Dublin -- was captured on the way up the Gironde and, alas, spilt the beans to the Germans before the remaining raiders had even reached their destination. Yet despite this, the remaining two canoes (of six) managed to attach mines to some enemy ships, though with no serious effect. Why? Because the raiders didn't even have a tidal chart, and so the mines exploded when the tides were out and the ships were already resting on the harbour bottom. The result was; no ships sunk, two men drowned, and six captured and shot (including Wallace).
Through all the bluster about courage, pluck and intrepidity, of which there was far too much and not nearly enough thought, Ashdown failed to point out that Mountbatten had ordered a comparably wicked glider-borne raid on Norway that very same week, again without maps or even any knowledge of the precise location of their target. After hours crossing the North Sea in bucketing, vomit-inducing gliders, all the raiders were either killed on landing or captured and shot. An Irishman named Farrell was tied to a burning radiator and tortured by the Gestapo before being murdered.
An earlier Mountbatten-inspired folly, the assault on Dieppe, was actually far worse: it ended in disaster for the Canadian attackers, with thousands dead or captured. Nonetheless, Churchill -- who was as much addicted to military folly as he was to ego and royalty -- appointed this serial butcher and military buffoon to be Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia. However, Mountbatten could do little damage in a region where the US was the prevailing military power.
All this was preparation for Mountbatten's defining hour; his truly cataclysmic vice-regency of India. Who can say how many hundreds of thousands of Indians died because of his blundering, ill-planned rush towards partition? Yet again, he walked away from this horror, much of which he had precipitated, with his reputation mysteriously intact.
Death is usually the prelude to a revision of the myths of such a public persona. But as the BBC's wretched tribute to the Cockleshell Heroes showed, and thanks in large part to the blundering and murderous idiots of the IRA -- in their own perverse way, every bit his moral mirror-image -- the abominable Mountbatten remains a great hero in the popular British pantheon. Well done, lads.