Admiral of the Fleet, the Earl Mountbatten Of Burma
K.G., P.C., G.C.B, O.M., G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., G.C.V.O., D.S.O., F.R.S.
Grand President of the Royal Life Saving Society
1945 to 1972
by Robert Clark
Recent generations of RLSS members may be unfamiliar with Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, (Earl Mountbatten), but his contribution to the Royal Life Saving Society across the Commonwealth is without parallel. Invited by RLSS Patron, King George VI to become Society President in 1945 following the death of Lord Desborough, Lord Mountbatten led the RLSS for twenty-seven years with distinction, oversaw changes and growth of which there is no equal and left the Society well-positioned to face the challenges of a modern world.
As we celebrate our 125th anniversary, it is fitting that we honour his memory and achievements with the Society he had such an impact in shaping.
The year was 1944 and with it the end of an era, with the passing of Lord Desborough who had been the Society’s President since 1910 and its acting President since 1901. His had been a momentous time with two World Wars and the passing in 1928 of the Society’s founder William Henry and its Patron, King George V in 1936. During his tenure the Society grew; branches were formed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and many advances in lifesaving, such as the establishment of the Lifeguard Corps and developments in resuscitation, were made.
But as World War II was coming to an end a new era in RLSS history was about to begin.
When the invitation from King George VI to assume the RLSS Presidency reached Lord Mountbatten, he was fully engaged with other duties in his role as Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia. In 1943, some two years earlier, he had become Vice President of the Society which, despite all the calls on his time, gave him some preparation for what was to be the challenge ahead. Lord Mountbatten not only accepted the Kings invitation, he took to it with vigour. Over the next twenty-seven years, with clear-minded determination, military precision and a commanding persona tempered by a willingness to hear opposing opinions, he navigated the Society to some of its finest achievements and laid the groundwork for stability and progress in the years ahead.
What follows is a compilation of those achievements and insight into what they mean for the Society today.
The Supplemental Royal Charter
At the Commonwealth Council meeting of 22nd November 1972, on the occasion of his retirement as Grand President, Lord Mountbatten commented on how the Supplemental Royal Charter of 1960 came to be. The following is the recorded summary of his remarks:
In 1945 King George VI had invited him, while still Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, to become the President of the Royal Life Saving Society. The King felt that the Society, with its Commonwealth wide connections, would be one of the best informal links whereby the spirit of the Commonwealth might be preserved through difficult times to come.
Lord Mountbatten said that for some ten years he held appointments abroad and was unable to study the working of the Society in any detail. On his return to London as First Sea Lord, he found an unsatisfactory state of affairs, particularly in regard to the Commonwealth aspect. The Society was still run nominally from the London office without Commonwealth representation and the Australian and Canadian sections of the Society were particularly dissatisfied.
It was quite clear that the former Dominions could and should run their own affairs within a broader framework. A Supplemental Charter was prepared on the lines of the Statute of Westminster, whereby the Society in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa became self governing National Branches under a Commonwealth Council in London. This necessitated the formation of a new National Branch, the United Kingdom National Branch, which also administers most of the smaller countries of the Commonwealth.
It was important that the High Commissioners should have a personal interest in the Council which they were invited to join, and the Grand President paid great tribute to their support since 1960 when the Supplemental Charter came into force.
And so it was on 27th January, 1960 that the Supplemental Charter was granted to the RLSS by Her Majesty the Queen, on which date the new organisation officially began.
The right of self government and equal voting power were well received by the National Branches. As time passed, through the efforts of Lord Mountbatten as he met with representatives at home and abroad as well as that of locals who were inspired to build and improve lifesaving within their own boundaries, the RLSS experienced remarkable growth, stability and cooperation; comparable to that of the William Henry era in the early years of the twentieth century.
Expansion of the RLSS throughout the Commonwealth
History is clear that King George VI and Lord Mountbatten viewed expansion of the Society as both a way of extending humanitarian lifesaving and strengthening the Commonwealth of nations.
Accordingly, Lord Mountbatten made ‘expansion’ a priority and, over time, his efforts bore fruit.
In the course of his many other responsibilities, Lord Mountbatten would make several world tours but took particular interest in meeting with RLSS representatives at every opportunity. These stops were instrumental in fostering relationships that would inspire growth and development of the Society as the years went on. Historical archives document the following:
His personal diaries record an RLSS dinner in Canberra on 26th March, 1946, at which he stated there were representatives present from every Australian state.
In 1956 he instructed the RLSS Chief Secretary to write to the Governor of Hong Kong expressing his wish to establish a Life Saving organisation there. His effort resulted in the formation of the Hong Kong Life Guard Club on 17th February, 1956. Four years later, the Hong Kong Branch of the Society was established on 17th October 1960, the year that Lord Mountbatten visited Hong Kong. He visited again in 1965 and 1974.
His personal diaries record a meeting with RLSS representatives in Trinidad on 8th March, 1962. It is recorded that he also visited Malaysia that same year.
In February 1966 he visited representatives in Malaysia, Singapore and Ceylon. The Royal Life Saving Society –Malaysia was inaugurated as a National Branch on 14th February, 1967 at an Investiture Ceremony held at Kuala Lumpur, when Lord Mountbatten presented an illuminated scroll and invested the President, Mr. Teoh Teik Lee, with the President’s badge of office.
(To read a personal recollection of Mountbatten by Teoh Teik Lee, click here.)
He sought the approval of the Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, such that on 16th August, 1967 the Singapore Branch of the Royal Life Saving Society was inaugurated.
On 25th October, 1955 he attended a reception given by RLSS Canada at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. On 6th October, 1958 he met with representatives of the Ontario Branch, again in Ottawa. In 1959 he met with the RLSS at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. RLSS Canadian National President G.G. Simmonds reported that in 1963 he attended the Annual General Meeting of the Society at the University of Toronto. On 12th July, 1967 he dedicated a swimming pool in Montreal to the late RLSS Canadian President H.E. Herschorn and presented a posthumous award to Mr. Herschorn which was accepted by his sister.
He met with the Society on a visit to New Zealand in 1965; and as he approached his retirement from the Society, in 1972, he visited RLSS representatives in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Separate from his world tours, the Commonwealth Conference became an ideal venue at which to strategise on the subject of expansion. It was an important topic on the 1966 and 1971 conference agendas and at the 1966 conference, presentations were made by representatives of Malta, Gibraltar, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Zambia, Kenya and Nigeria, in addition to the National Branches. While no formal resolution was passed, a detailed discussion of expansion with ideas for future consideration was held.
The Society expanded greatly during Lord Mountbatten’s tenure, bringing lifesaving to corners of the world where it had not been seen before. In addition, the number of Proficiency Awards given across the Commonwealth grew, a fact he often emphasized in his speeches. In 1945 the number was 86,000; by 1971 it had reached 472,000, reflecting a tremendous effort by all members.
The Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore branches which were formed during his time prosper to this day; and undoubtedly countless lives have been saved and drownings prevented through the efforts of Lord Mountbatten and those with whom he worked.
The Technical Advisory Committee
Following presentations from the main National Branches, the 1966 Commonwealth Conference agreed to the immediate setting up of the Technical Advisory Committee.
Its aim was Commonwealth-wide assistance and coordination, and its terms of reference included: recommending basic conditions for common awards; the feasibility and advisability of a common handbook; coordinating and initiating research through the National Branches into technical aspects of lifesaving and resuscitation; the sharing of technical information and content within the RLSS; the study of other relevant matters such as guidance to instructors and examiners and to prepare a section to be included in the Annual Report.
National Presentations, reproduced in the Conference Report, are shown to be thorough and well thought out. This was important as they formed the basis of some of the work of the Technical Advisory Committee. They illustrate strong and sometimes conflicting views but also a clear willingness on the part of delegates to work together for the good of all.
By the 1971 Conference the Technical Advisory Committee was well underway and making recommendations. At the 1976 Conference, the Committee recommended on thirteen topics of importance including Resuscitation, Aquatic First Aid, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Spinal Injuries.
Lord Mountbatten saw in the Technical Advisory Committee, a path toward greater standardisation and efficiency and therefore fewer drownings. While there was not always agreement, he and the delegates demonstrated that hard work and mutual cooperation could produce tangible results.
As Lord Mountbatten said in his speech at the 1971 Conference….
“We desire, whatever the background, to work closely and sensibly for our common aims. But we can only do this in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust”
The Mountbatten Medal
The Mountbatten Medal was established in 1951 to honour a holder of one of the Society’s awards who performs the rescue which is judged the bravest of the year. The first medal was awarded to Robert B. Wardle of Canada.
This Medal was a first, because, until then, there had not been Society recognition of bravery to the distinction of being judged best in the Commonwealth and with a medal named for and conferred by the Society’s Grand President.
Since 1951 there have been 53 recipients. Lord Mountbatten made many of the presentations personally. Each recipient’s act of bravery is recorded and serves to remind others of heroic and self-less actions taken to save another’s life.
Lord Mountbatten’s willingness to lend his name to a medal for bravery and his devotion to personally make the presentations, even while travelling, is remarkable and the institution of the Mountbatten Medal is the embodiment of the Society’s motto, ‘Whomsoever you seen in distress, recognize in them a fellow human being’.
The Commonwealth Conferences
Concurrent with the establishment of the Supplemental Royal Charter, Lord Mountbatten established the Commonwealth Conference. Beginning in 1961 and held at five year intervals in the United Kingdom, the Conference brought together RLSS leaders from Commonwealth nations to address issues of importance for the Society and its mission. Participation was keen and attendance strong; delegates travelled from around the world to share experience and expertise, glean knowledge for use at home and to represent their branch as a strong partner in the RLSS family.
Conferences were a mix of business and social activities with delegates honoured by events and receptions hosted by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret, Her Majesty the Queen Mother and Commonwealth High Commissioners.
Lord Mountbatten played a key role in these events all of which were excellent opportunities to recognize humanitarian service, strengthen the Society’s relationship with the Patron and the Royal Family and network and develop relationships in an age well before instant communication.
As Grand President, Lord Mountbatten presided over conferences in 1961, 1966 and 1971, prior to his retirement in 1972. He took a great interest and was extremely knowledgeable in Society affairs, ensuring that both time and people were utilised most effectively.
A key part of the agenda was the ‘National Presentations’ wherein delegates gave updates on progress and aired concerns. Lord Mountbatten not only encouraged frank dialogue but also made time to hear the views of like-minded organizations such as the Federation Internationale de Sauvetage (FIS) and the Canadian Red Cross Society.
Results – always the best measure of success – included achievements in future technical policy, revision of the Diploma conditions, policy for expansion in the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Annual Report, resuscitation, the Honours system and the Mountbatten Medal.
In 1976, as a fitting tribute to the success of the Commonwealth Conferences, with Lord Mountbatten in attendance as Honorary Grand President, delegates discussed the merits of regional conferences, undoubtedly using the Commonwealth Conference and its merits as a model for replication across the globe.
Without question Lord Mountbatten is a towering figure in the history and development of the Royal Life Saving Society.
With courage and conviction, he recognised the bold action necessary to reorganise the Society to make it more efficient. And to that end, he worked with delegates from across the Commonwealth and Her Majesty the Queen to create and implement the Supplemental Charter.
As a builder, he was the impetus behind new Member Branches in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia and, through his travels and the Commonwealth Conferences, worked constantly to strengthen the bonds that unite lifesavers around the world.
He was progressive; advocating for improved research-based techniques and engendering a spirit of cooperation that led to advances in life saving and public awareness of the Society and the drowning problem.
And as a leader he set bold aims and inspired others to achieve them, not by dictation alone but by allowing and, indeed, encouraging rational discussion which included differing points of view.
It is worthy of saying that all those who have benefited from the work of the Society since the era of Mountbatten owe a debt of gratitude for his dedication to the RLSS and the aims for which it stands.
Of the many tributes Lord Mountbatten received on the occasion of his retirement in 1972, the words of Lte. Gen. G.G. Simmonds*, President of the Canadian National Branch speak well of his contribution to the Society;
“Within the Commonwealth Royal Life Saving Society today there is greater cooperation than at any time in its history and it is growing in strength and efficiency. This we owe in overwhelming measure to the leadership and wisdom of our retiring Grand President.”
*To read the full ‘Valedictory’ by Lte.Gen. G.G. Simmonds, click here.
To read tributes to Mountbatten in the RLSS Canada National Lifeliner, (Fall 1979), published after his death, click here.
The author is Chair of the RLSS 125th Anniversary Steering Committee. He wishes to thank Clive Holland, Deputy Commonwealth President, Norman Farmer, RLSS and Ed Bean, Lifesaving Society, Ontario for their generous assistance with this article.