Obituary: Patricia Knatchbull, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma

A 1940s photograph of the then-Patricia Mountbatten (Gordon Anthony/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A 1940s photograph of the then-Patricia Mountbatten (Gordon Anthony/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Patricia Knatchbull, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma. Born: 14 February 1924 in London. Died: 13 June 2017 in Mersham, Kent, aged 93.

One clear, warm morning in August 1979 Patricia Knatchbull went on a fishing trip that would change her life forever. Also in the boating party off the coast of Sligo in the west of Ireland were her father, Earl Mountbatten; her twin 14-year-old sons, Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull; her husband, Lord Brabourne; her mother-in-law, the Dowager Baroness Doreen Brabourne; and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old Irish crew member.

As her father – who was the uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and second cousin once removed of the Queen – piloted his old wooden boat, Shadow V, to retrieve a lobster pot, members of the IRA, watching them from the shore, detonated a bomb they had strapped beneath its hull. He, Nicholas and Paul died immediately. His mother died shortly afterwards, aged 83, and those who survived suffered horrific injuries. Patricia needed 120 stitches on her face, including her eyeballs, and had a steel plate inserted into her shattered leg. She spent several months in hospital recovering, and said she wept about what had happened every day for a year.

She later described having vague memories of floating among the debris after the explosion, then being pulled into a rubber dinghy, passing out and not regaining consciousness for several days.

On that same summer day, in Warrenpoint in County Down, on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, another bomb killed 18 British soldiers. The IRA described these strikes as “executions”, saying the killings were “a discriminate operation to bring the attention of the English people to the continuing occupation of our country. We will tear out their sentimental, imperialist heart… bringing emotionally home to the English ruling class and its working-class slaves… that their government’s war on us is going to cost them as well”.

Patricia Edwina Victoria Mountbatten was born in London on Valentine’s Day, 1924, the oldest of two daughters of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (his family had changed their name from Battenburg to Mountbatten during the First World War), and the heiress the Honourable Edwina Ashley, who was a descendant of the Earl of Shaftsbury. They were wealthy, well-connected and beautiful.

It was by no means a conventional childhood. Edwina had married young – at 21 – and was not inclined to let this contract, or indeed motherhood, hamper her glamorous lifestyle. She went off to party in France a month after Patricia was born, and took several lovers over the years. One of her closest relationships was with Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime minister after independence.

Earl Mountbatten had one significant extramarital relationship himself: with Yola Letellier, a “gamine” young French woman who is believed to have inspired the character Gigi in the novel by Collete. These stories are detailed in the book Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten, written by Patricia’s sister, Pamela Hicks, who says they were very much used to having their parents’ respective lovers around the house.

The children were largely looked after by nannies and governesses, living occasionally in Malta when their father was stationed there, and also Budapest. When the Second World War began the sisters went to live with the socialites Grace and Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York, and life in the vast apartment on Fifth Avenue taught them a little about how the super-wealthy Americans lived.

She came back to the UK when she was 18 to become a Wren, serving at Combined Operations bases and then as an officer in the South East Asia Command. By then, Broadlands, their 6,000-acre family mansion in Hampshire, had been partly converted into a wartime hospital.

In 1946 she married John Ulick Knatchbull, the 7th Baron Babourne, a Captain in the Coldstream Guards who had been her father’s aide. The wedding was a lavish affair: Princess Elizabeth – whom Patricia addressed as “Lilibet” – and Princess Margaret were the bridesmaids, and the 1,000-strong guest list included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Shortly after the wedding, Earl Mountbatten became Viceroy of India, charged by Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee with overseeing the withdrawal of the Raj and the Partition of India. The newlyweds spent some time in his luxurious residence in Delhi, returning to Britain in time for another high-profile wedding: that of Patricia’s cousin, Philip, to the future Queen of England.

As Patricia would inherit her father’s peerages, she and her husband would be among the few married couples each to hold peerages in their own right.

The couple had eight children, and she focused on raising them at their home on the Brabourne estate in Mersham, Kent.

She was known to be a strong, determined and forgiving woman, and did a lot of work for charities. Those who benefited from her support included the Burma Star Association, British Red Cross and the NSPCC. She was colonel-in-chief of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and vice lord-lieutenant of Kent.

Her husband later became a film and television producer whose credits included Death on the Nile, A Passage to India and Death on the Orient Express. He died in 2005.

Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who was made a CBE in 1991, is survived by six children and 18 grandchildren.

Following her death, Prince Charles issued a statement which read: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of my very special godmother, Lady Mountbatten, whom I have known and loved ever since I can first remember.

“She played an extremely important part in my life and I shall miss her presence most dreadfully.”