At the beginning of the war Lord Louis Mountbatten, at the time a minor member of the British Royal family (and uncle of the relatively unknown naval officer Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark) had been commander of a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Kelly. He had saved the Kelly after a torpedo attack in 1940 and had still been commanding her when she was sunk off Crete the following year.
He had then made extraordinary progression through the ranks under the patronage of Winston Churchill. First he had been appointed Chief of Combined Operations and had had ultimate responsibility for the Dieppe Raid.
Then Churchill had elevated him to the even more prestigious position of Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, a post equivalent in stature to Eisenhower’s position in Europe. It was in this role that he arrived at the Potsdam conference in Berlin on 24th July, where he was expecting to discuss the finer points of the final attack on Japan, which he expected to take the war into 1946. On the day that he arrived he had informal meetings with the most senior US officers and then with Churchill:
I can never describe the friendliness of the reception I had from the American Chiefs of Staff. Hard-boiled old Fleet Admiral King took my hand in both his hands and shook it a dozen times with great warmth. Bill Somervell appeared even more pleased to see me. General Marshall and General Arnold invited me to come back and have a drink with them.
Then Marshall swore me to secrecy and said he would reveal to me the greatest secret of the war.
It appeared that the team of British and American scientists who had been working on the release of atomic energy had atlast succeeded in utilizing the release of energy from the fission of element 2.3 5, an isotope of uranium, and that when this had been applied in a bomb the results had been quite shattering. An experimental bomb exploded in New Mexico and had had unbelievable results.
A steel girder structure half a mile away had either melted or been vaporized; there was nothing left of it. It was estimated that all human beings within a radius of two or three miles would be killed, and those beyond this radius for a mile or two, would be so burned as to be unlikely to recover.
Marshall told me they now had an atomic bomb on the way over to Okinawa, ready for release round about the 5th August.
I said: ‘This will surely mean the end of the war within the next few days, or anyway within the next few weeks?’
Marshall and Arnold both agreed that this was so, and that they couldn’t possibly visualize the war going on beyond the end of 1945 in any case.
I then asked why the meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff that afternoon had given the official date of the end of the war as the 15th November 1946; and they pointed out that on account of secrecy the planners had had to work without knowledge of the bomb’s existence, and that this was a fair estimate of how long it might have taken if there had been no bomb.
Finally General Marshall reminded me of my promise not to tell a living soul — not even the Prime Minister, with whom General Marshall knew I was dining that night.
After dinner we moved into the study, and the Prime Minister closed the doors. After looking round in a conspiratorial manner, he said: ‘I have a great secret to tell you’ — and proceeded to tell me the story of the atomic bomb.
He said it would be dropped on the 5th and that the Japanese would surrender on the 15th. He advised me to take all necessary steps to compete with the capitulation as soon after this date as possible. I therefore sent a telegram to Boy Browning to take all the necessary steps, without of course being able to give him the reason.
I had come back convinced that Labour would get in by a handsome majority and was astounded to find that the Prime Minister and indeed everyone I met at Potsdam was quite confident that the Conservative Party would get in.
The most pessimistic majority I heard was 30, and the Prime Minister himself told me he thought he would have 1OO.
The Prime Minister has never been so friendly to me in his life. He kept on telling me what a good job I had done, and how I had vindicated his judgement when he selected me for the job. He said: ‘When the war is over I am going to arrange a great ovation for you and for your battle-green jungle warriors. When we get back to London come and see me and we will talk about your future, as I have great plans in store.’
It was a mournful and eerie feeling to sit there talking plans with a man who seemed so confident that they would come off, and I felt equally confident that he would be out of office within 24 hours.
However, I was particularly glad to have a three-hour heart-to-heart talk with him, when he was in such a good mood. It would indeed have been terrible if I had not been able to see him until after his defeat at the elections. For once he did not keep me up late, and I was home before midnight.