When Britain's Lord Louis Mountbatten visited the United States Atlantic Naval Base in Norfolk, Va., in early October of 1941, he asked Adm. Harold Stark, U.S. chief of Naval Operations, for permission to visit America's Pacific Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Permission granted, Stark replied, as long as Mountbatten agreed to lecture American naval officers on British strategy against the German Navy in the North Sea.
Delighted, Mountbatten replied, and off he flew to Pearl Harbor three months before the surprise Japanese attack that took the United States into World War II 41 years ago today.
At the end of his lecture, Mountbatten asked a packed auditorium if there were any questions. Dozens of hands went up and Mountbatten called on a young American naval officer who asked Mountbatten where he thought war would come if and when it came to the United States.
Without hesitation, say historical sources who knew Mountbatten before he died in an Irish terrorist bombing in 1979, Lord Louis reached up from his place behind the podium and pulled down a map of the Pacific. Again without hesitation, the sources said, Mountbatten took up a long wooden pointer and held it against the spot on the map identifying Pearl Harbor's location. "Right here," Mountbatten exclaimed. "Without any doubt."
After enduring loud howls of disbelief and protest, said the sources, who have seen Mountbatten's unpublished letters and papers, Mountbatten explained to his American audience why he identified Pearl Harbor as the site of America's entry into World War II. First, he said, the Japanese had a history of starting wars by surprise attacks. They had surprised the Russian fleet at anchor in Port Arthur the night of Feb. 9, 1904, to begin the Russo-Japanese War.
Mountbatten also talked about Britain's own surprise night air attack on the Italian fleet at anchor in the Gulf of Taranto on Nov. 11, 1940. Two squadrons of British Swordfish torpedo planes, operating from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious 140 miles away, had succeeded in sinking three Italian battleships and effectively taking the Italian Navy out of the battle in the Mediterranean Sea for the rest of the war.
On his return to Washington from Pearl Harbor, sources have recorded, Mountbatten called on Stark for 55 minutes on Oct. 14, 1941. Naval historian Richard Hough in his 1981 biography "Mountbatten" wrote: Lord Louis warned Stark of the "terrible power a bomber had against naval ships unprotected by fighter planes and told Stark he was appalled at the lack of preparedness against such an attack he'd seen in Hawaii." According to Hough, Stark replied: "I'm afraid that putting some of your recommendations into effect is going to make your visit out there very expensive for the U.S. Navy."
The historical sources say they understand that full details of Mountbatten's recollections of his trip to Hawaii three months before Pearl Harbor will appear in the next five years in new biographies of Lord Louis being prepared in Britain.