Lord Louis Mountbatten was a central figure on the world stage in this century and a legendary Englishman: royal playboy, flamboyant military leader, decisive diplomat, beloved elder statesman, gentleman inventor and sportsman.

At his death at the age of 79 today in an explosion that demolished his yacht off the coast of Ireland he was Earl Mountbatten of Burma, an Admiral of the Fleet in the Royal Navy and personal aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II, his second cousin.He was thought to have won more medals and honors than any other man of his generation and was listed in the "Guiness Book of Records" for having the most honorary initials after his name of anyone in the world.

"His life ran like a golden thread of inspiration and service through the history of our country in this century," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in response to his death. Queen Elizabeth was "deeply shocked," Buckingham Palace said, And King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, a great-nephew of Mountbatten, said he felt "great personal grief."

Royally born, the son of Queen Victoria's granddaughter and a German prince, and richly married to the beautiful heiress Edwina Ashley, Lord Mountbatten first became known during the 1920s and 1930s for his world cruises with the future King Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor), his rounds of London's most exclusive nightclubs, his storybook society wedding and Hollywood honeymoon with Edwina, their glittering parties at her Broadlands country estate, and their unconventional friendships with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Noel Coward and Paul Robeson.

Driven by the need to avenge the World War I humiliation of his father, who was forced to resign as Britain's first sea lord (naval chief of staff) and repudiate his German title and family name by anti-German hysteria here, Mountbatten fought at sea as a teenager, became the youngest captain and then the youngest admiral in Royal Navy history and the youngest supreme commander of allied forces during World War II.

Temporarily detached from the Royal Navy by Prime Minister Clement Attlee to begin the liquidation of the British empire as the last Viceroy of India, he boldly and expeditiously supervised the partitioning of India and Pakistan and the transfer of power to their new governments, agreeing to India's request to serve as its first constitutional governor-general.

Then returning to Britain and finally achieving his ambition of succeeding his father as naval chief, Mountbatten went on to become Britain's first combined service chief, again acting decisively to pull the nation's three armed services into a unified ministry of defense and take them into the nuclear missile age.

Following his retirement in 1965, after 52 years of continuous military and diplomatic service to his country, he championed the electronic revolution in Britain and continued his own inventive work, which over a lifetime produced a cure for lameness in horses, new forms of naval telecommunications, an advanced torpedo sight and a more efficient polo mallet.

He also worked for charity, served as president of the new United World Colleges in Wales, Canada and Singapore, chaired sensitive government commissions and represented Britain and the royal family at countless functions here and around the world.

Mountbatten was born in stately Frogmore House at Windsor on June 25, 1900. Queen Victoria held him on her knee and was present at his christening. Related to royalty throughout Europe, he became not only a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II but also the favorite uncle of her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He was credited with helping nurture their royal romance, at one point sending pictures of Philip during his naval service back to then Princess Elizabeth in London.

At age 13, he followed his father, German-born Prince Louis Alexander, who had married Queen Victoria's grandaughter, Princess Victoria, into the British navy. The teenager wept when his father, then a British citizen, was forced to resign as First Sea Lord, renounce his German title and change his family name, Battenberg to its British equivalent, Mountbatten.

"It made a very deep and lasting impression because I knew how deeply loyal he was to this country," Mountbatten said in recalling his father's humiliation decades later. "My parents were broad-minded, progressive and never, never reactionary." When he became the naval chief more than 40 years after his father was forced out of the post, Mountbatten put his father's picture on the wall above his desk.

The younger Mountbatten -- known to his family, friends, comrades-in-arms and later the British public as "Dickie" -- rose quickly in the navy, even while enjoying a globetrotting social life during the years between the wars.

He earned both fame and notoriety for his fearless and sometimes reckless style of leadership at the beginning of World War II. Twice he saved his destroyer flotilla flagship, the Kelly, from being shot out from under him in the North Sea, before it was finally sunk by enemy fire off Crete. His friend, Noel Coward, later immortalized the Kelly saga in the film, "In Which We Serve."

Surviving the sinking, Mountbatten directed the 1942 Dieppe commando raid that cost the lives of several thousand Canadian soldiers and earned him the condemnation of some fellow officers.

But Winston Churchill, who had worked closely with Mountbatten's father years before in the British Admiralty (the Navy Department), chose the bold officer first to help plan the invasions of North Africa and France and then to become admiral in 1943 as supreme allied commander of the newly formed Southeast Asia command.

Mountbatten distinguished himself in Burma by rallying outmanned troops there into fighting back and defeating the Japanese, earning him the honor of receiving the Japanese army commander's sword of surrender at Singapore in September, 1945.

Tall, imposing and charismatic, Mountbatten also imposed his will in seemingly impossible circumstances as viceroy in India. He decided that India and Pakistan must become separate nations and pushed through the transfer of power in just five months. Some critics say he should be held responsible, however, for the deaths of countless thousands in ensuing Hindu-Moslem strife.

"There was no alternative way of doing it," Mountbatten said much later of the haste with which he moved in India in 1947. "There was already a great deal of rioting going on."

Indian leaders praised him at his death for his pivotal role in helping their country to independence. Seven days of mourning have been decreed to honor him and the flag of independence will fly at half staff. He had been scheduled to accompany Prince Charles on a lengthy royal tour there and was to have travelled spearately so that the Prince of Wales would not be upstaged by the man whose visit was being anticipated in India as "the return of the raj."

Although he was revered by the Indians, he was hated by the Pakistanis. He also was alienated from his long-time friend and sponsor, Winston Churchill, who opposed the transfer of power and refused to speak to Mountbatten for several years.

But Churchill, in his second term as prime minister, later made Mountbatten the First Sea Lord, after he had served as the first commander-in-chief of NATO forces in the Mediterrean in the mid-1950s.

Later, as Britain's first combined service chief of staff, he bullied the reluctant military services into a unified civilian command and, according to one contemporary admiral, "literally bulldozed through the opposition of top naval brass, the guided missile destroyers, commando carriers and nuclear submarines of our present-day navy. Without these ships the Royal Navy would have been reduced to the role of coast-guard force."

"He was always an innovator, ahead of his time, always a tremendous enthusiast, and we were inspired by his example," the present naval chief, Adm. Sir Terence Lewin, who becomes chief of the defense staff next month, said today. "Lord Mountbatten, more than any other of the war-time leaders, was the hero of my generation."

"He made a very deep impact on all who met him, whether it was the Indians, or in the Western alliance, or in the defense services," said former Prime Minister Lord Home, who frequently worked closely with Mountbatten over the years. "He was much more than a professional sailor and was able to appreciate and assess the strategies needed for the defense of the Western democracies."

He also was a close adviser to Queen Elizabeth and held a special place in the royal family. "He was regarded as the elder statesman by the family. He was a constant adviser to her majesty and was always there to offer his guidance," said Patrick Montague-Smith, editor of Debrett's peerage.