OBITUARY : Lt-Col Colin Mitchell
Wednesday 24 July 1996
While it is true that, at first, he revelled in being baptised "Mad Mitch" by the headline writer of the Scottish Daily Express, Mitchell later told me (when I had regularly obliged him by "pairing" in Parliament) that he was very uneasy about it. In the course of my last conversation with him in 1995 Mitchell said that in perspective the "Mad Mitch" image had ruined his prospects of a serious senior military career, and had deprived him of being taken seriously as a politician, something which he craved when he was elected Member of Parliament for the beautiful constituency of West Aberdeenshire in 1970.
Mitchell was born and brought up in a small semi- detached house in Norbury, south London. The setting, he said, was typically English suburban middle-class and he grew up in what he described as a sensible and happy environment. But at a very early age he began to realise that although the Mitchells lived among English people there was something that made them different. His sister, Hettie, five years older than he was, used to explain this in a matter-of-fact way in the clear English accent of Selhurst Grammar School for Girls, "We're Scots of course."
His paternal grandfather came from Lochgilphead, a village where his father was born and pursued the normal rural life of Argyllshire people as fishermen. His father worked in a solicitors' office and later for MacBrayne's shipping company which linked the west of Scotland by boat and steamer. In 1914 he enlisted as a private in the Highland Light Infantry and then was commissioned in the 10th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in France, part of Maj-Gen Ian Hay's immortal "first hundred thousand". He won a Military Cross at the second battle of Ypres but when the young Colin asked him how he would only say, "Oh, shooting rabbits." He was badly gassed in 1918.
His mother, a Gilmour from Cathcart, came from farming stock in the Paisley district and from a family which had provided soldiers in South Africa and Canada, and was famed in America, with gravestones at the Alamo. Her father, John Gilmour, was the carting superintendent of the old London, Midland and Scottish Railway and one of Colin's earliest thrills was being taken round the long stables of Clydesdale horses which in those days plodded majestically through the cobbled streets of Glasgow pulling the freight and merchandise to and from the railway yards, docks and warehouses. Colin would often talk of his grandfather and his bowler hat.
In May 1943 Colin Mitchell walked out of Whitgift School into the Croydon recruiting office and enlisted as a 17-year-old in the Army as 14432057 Private Mitchell, C.C. in the General Service Corps. Soon he became a lance-corporal and instructed newcomers in physical training, in the old barracks beside Maidstone Prison. His colleague sergeants were fitness fanatics and spent most evenings practising on the wall bars. But the Staff Sergeant Instructor was none other than one Stanley Cullis. Cullis had been the captain of the Wolverhampton Wanderers cup side at Wembley in 1939 and was the captain of England at the time. Mitchell recollected, "I felt like a fly on the wall of Olympus to be living so close to the great man." Cullis treated Mitchell superbly and General Sir John MacMillan, his adjutant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, emphasised, "People below [Cullis] worshipped him. He could engender intense loyalty." This was also the view of George Younger (later Lord Younger of Prestwick), who fought in the same regiment in Korea in 1950-51. Perhaps Mitchell learnt how to engender loyalty from Cullis.
Commissioned into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1944, he served in the Italian campaign and was wounded in the Battle for Monte Cassino. Yet again he was wounded in Palestine, where he served for three difficult years when the Jewish Irgunzwai Leumi made the life of the British army so dangerous. There he was ADC to one of the great divisional commanders of the Second World War, General Sir Gordon MacMillan of MacMillan. Mitchell told me that he wanted to study MacMillan's approach and methods: "Take for your model the campaigns of the great captains, that is the only way to attain the secrets of the art of war." Through MacMillan he sat and listened to the great men who were his peers and acquaintances, Wavell, Slim, O'Connor, Wimberley and Richie. It was the opinion of MacMillan's son, General Sir John MacMillan, that Mitchell had a most perceptive military mind in dealing with insurgency.
In Korea, George Younger observed that Mitchell was an extremely successful "B" company commander and a man of action. He was popular with the entire company and regiment and at that time was a fully playing member of the regimental team. It was only later that his difficulties with authority became evident. As General MacMillan perceptively observed, "Mitchell had a total determination about what he wanted to do. If you and your superior don't see the objective in the same light you end up clashing." MacMillan thought that Mitchell's trouble was that he was so sure that he was right, he was forever battling with the man above him. And this indeed was the problem in the wake of the campaign in Aden where he was under Maj-Gen Philip Tower, to whom he had once been ADC.
The flavour of Mitchell's difficulty with those above him is encapsulated in his autobiography, Having Been a Soldier, published in 1968:
The General Officer Commanding was Maj-Gen P.T. Tower. He had arrived in Aden only a few weeks before the Argylls, having been the
Army's Director of Public Relations
at the Ministry of Defence, where I had met him briefly. General Power was an artillery officer and as far as I was aware he had not taken part in any operations since the end of the war in 1945. This gave him little common ground with the Argylls.
Like the Commander-in-Chief, General Tower worked in the massive headquarters complex on Barrack Hill, Steamer Point, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Its view of blue sea and golden beaches was very different from the squalid alleys and bazaars of Crater cut off as if in a different world by the thousand-foot peaks and ridges dividing them.
In the 1970 general election Mitchell was elected with 18,396 votes over the Liberal candidate, Mrs Laura Grimond, wife of Jo Grimond and granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, who got 12,847 votes. I cannot forget Mitchell's maiden speech on 19 November 1970, when after paying tribute conventionally to the beauties of his constituency he said:
I now turn to the debate. The strategic priorities of the White Paper are fundamental to our defence thinking. The word "schizophrenic" has been used of the French. But, of course, the schizophrenic people are the British defence planners, who since the time of the Spanish Armada 400 years ago, have been trying to combine the ability to have a force on the continent of Europe and also have a maritime, and in modern times a maritime-air, capability across the oceans of the world.
Maiden speakers, particularly Conservative maiden speakers, are supposed to make uncontroversial speeches. Mitchell's amounted to a ferocious criticism in detail of those who had made sure that he got no kind of MC or DSO for courageous actions in the Crater district of Aden and had added insult to injury by giving him a grudging mention in despatches.
As a politician Mitchell was a man of causes. His flair for publicity was an important element in the success of the campaign to "save" the Argylls. Sir Edward Taylor recalled: "Colin Mitchell was one of the most committed and determined MPs I have ever met." Mitchell defied his Prime Minister and went into the lobby against British entry into the Common Market.
Sir Hector Monro said: "Colin was a very courageous commanding officer in Aden and equally courageous in some of the political decisions which he took. I was in the position to know because I was his whip!" Monro told me with a chuckle that Mitchell was his own man and when he thought that the Government was wrong on a matter to do with Scottish education he refused to vote for the closure with the consequence that his colleagues had to stay up most of the night. "I never dressed down a colonel like that."
Mitchell was by no means a straightforward right-winger. In Parliament he was vehemently against apartheid. On 1 December 1971, I shall not forget the opening to his speech:
After six hours and 20 speakers I am
delighted to be the 21st even if only for six minutes. I have sat here for the last six hours trying to retain some sense of perspective about events in an African country 6,000 miles away and it has not been very easy even for members like myself, steeped in the realities of tribal life, both at home and in Africa. I support . . . the initiative of Her Majesty's Government in the proposals for a Rhodesian settlement because they are eminently sensible and I will not get involved in emotive yardsticks like "fair and honourable" as some people have done so disastrously tonight. It is a sensible solution because it is based on the inescapable fact of the situation. It offers a programme which will lead to a multi-racial Rhodesian society independent of the union of South Africa and apartheid; and that is what we all want.
Lord Younger told me it was really very surprising that Mitchell appeared as a parliamentary candidate. It was equally astonishing that he threw it all away and decided not to contest the 1974 general election. I tried to persuade him not to abandon politics, supported by his marvellous wife Sue, who had backed him through thick and thin - mostly thin.
When he left the House of Commons he became involved in promoting sporting estates and this turned out to be a catastrophe. Then he became involved with the Halo Trust (Hazardous Areas Life- Support Organisation), displaying skill and valour in the thankless task of the detection and removal of landmines throughout the world. In Angola and Cambodia 35 per cent of the best land is rendered unusable by landmines sewn at random in civil wars. Mitchell saw it as a crusading task to deal with these horrendous dangers creating appalling personal injury.
Colin Campbell Mitchell, soldier and politician: born London 17 November 1925; MP (Conservative) for West Aberdeenshire 1970-74; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland 1972-73; Chairman, Halo Trust 1987-96; married 1956 Susan Phillips (two sons, one daughter); died London 20 July 1996.
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