Obituary: Dr Angus Mitchell (C2 1938-42)

Dr Angus Mitchell CB CVO MC (C2 1938-42) died on 26 February 2018 in Edinburgh, age 93.

With the Second World War at its height but the prospect of the dreaming spires of Oxford ahead of him, Angus Mitchell could so easily have taken advantage of the option to defer serving his country and embark on his studies instead.

That he chose to join the war effort was a decision he would never regret, as it led to the “exciting experience” of liberating North-west Europe from Nazi rule – on one occasion, a task he undertook single-handedly on nothing more than a borrowed bicycle.

He had not long recovered from being wounded, the result of literally sticking his head above the parapet, and would go on to win the Military Cross for yet another example of his daring in the face of danger.

Having survived the war, he would later have the honour of acting as an usher at the funeral of the man who steered the country through the darkest days of the 20th century, Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

He was the son of John Mitchell, who worked with the Indian Civil Service, and his wife Sheila who had served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in the Great War and been rescued from the hospital ship Britannic when it was sunk by the enemy in the Aegean Sea in November 1916.

His parents met early in 1920 and married in April that year before sailing to India where Angus was born in a hill station at Ootacamund. Though he was only four when he left India, he retained some astonishingly vivid memories of the country, including a train trip to see the Ganges and a view of the Himalayas from Darjeeling. Thanks to his ayah and other house servants he was bilingual in English and Hindustani but quickly forgot the latter after arriving in Britain in 1929. His father remained in India where his mother and baby sister Alison returned in 1930, leaving him and his elder sister Les in the care of an aunt in Little Durford, Hampshire.

Initially educated by a governess, he attended Highfield boarding school and Marlborough College where he enjoyed sports before giving them up to help with farming for the war effort. He was also in the Officers’ Training Corps before serving as a sergeant in the Home Guard.

In 1942, whilst still at school, two events occurred: he gained a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford and he volunteered for the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942. He made his decision not to take advantage of the option to defer war service for a year and was called up in January 1943, going on to The Royal Military College, Sandhurst and gaining a commission with the Inns of Court Regiment (ICR).

He sailed to Normandy in the aftermath of D-Day, landing on 1 July 1944, after being made a troop commander in B Squadron. At just 19 he was the youngest of all his men and was wounded a few weeks later when, standing in his usual position head and shoulders above the armoured car turret, he was injured by flying metal from a German shot to the periscope. He spent his 20th birthday in a Canadian Military Hospital near Bayeux where he underwent surgery to remove the shards.

He continued to serve in France and Belgium as the Allies swept through, liberating the towns and villages from four years of Nazi rule. Much later, he received recognition from the French Government for his role, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur at a ceremony in Edinburgh in 2016.

By late September 1944, he and his troop were reconnoitring in the Netherlands when they were ordered to halt as any vehicle movements would be attacked by the RAF. He was approached by a young Dutchman from the Resistance demanding to know why they had stopped as the Germans had just left the neighbouring town of Boxmeer.

Unable to risk moving his vehicles, he borrowed a bike from a nearby inn and cycled into the town to establish that the enemy had indeed left. “As the first British troops into Boxmeer, we were of course enthusiastically welcomed as liberators – a heart-warming experience which we had enjoyed several times before in France and Belgium,” he recalled.

Promoted to lieutenant that October, during leave in Brussels he spotted, in a shop window, a photograph of himself in an armoured car just after liberation. The shopkeeper promptly gave him the image as a gift. After the war he was decorated as a Ridder – a knight – in the Dutch Order of Oranje-Nassau, and returned to Boxmeer in 1994 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its liberation, laying a wreath from his old regiment at the war memorial and giving a short talk recalling his arrival in the area.

In the early spring of 1945, after the successful Allied assault on the Rhine, his squadron crossed the river and came under the command of the British 6th Airborne Division. He and his troop led the advance of the division for several days. While personally under heavy enemy fire, he carried out reconnaissance missions to identify enemy positions which were hindering the advance. This fearless action won him the Military Cross.

He continued across northern Germany to Hanover and on reaching the River Aller, a German officer, proffering a white flag, arranged a short local truce to prevent fighting close to the Belsen concentration camp where inmates were dying of typhus.

After the Red Army captured Berlin, Mitchell’s division took 70,000 prisoners between May 2 and 4. Whilst the victory in Europe had been won, the Allies were still fighting the Japanese and that summer Mitchell was preparing to leave for a potential assault on Malaya. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August signalled the Japanese surrender, ending, he observed, “a cruel war”.

An undemanding job followed, in the East African Military Records office in Nairobi, where in March 1946 he received his Military Cross at an investiture at Government House. After being demobbed, with the rank of captain, in October he began his modern history degree at Brasenose College, meeting his future wife, Ann, the same month. She told him she had worked for the Foreign Office and it was not until 30 years later, when the information was declassified, that he discovered she had worked on decryption at Bletchley Park.

They wed in December 1948 and began married life in Edinburgh where he was an assistant principal in the Scottish Education Department (SED). He also volunteered for a time with the Territorial Army and was given a commission in the Intelligence Corps.

He held various posts in the Scottish Office in Edinburgh and London. He was also principal private secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jack Maclay, and was involved in organising many Royal visits, for which he was made a CVO in 1964. That same year he attended the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

The following year he was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and went on to become Assistant Under Secretary of State, then took charge of the Social Work Services Group before being made Under Secretary in charge of health care at the Scottish Home and Health Department.

In 1976 he was promoted again and returned to the SED as Secretary with responsibility for schools, further education, arts, museums, sport and social work. His service was recognised with a CB in 1979 – “the usual award for civil servants in my grade who have served for several years without disgracing themselves.”

Awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws by Dundee University in 1983, he retired from the Civil Service the following year but continued to use his experience in a number of fields. He chaired Stirling University’s Court for eight years and was made an honorary doctor of the university in 1992. His myriad other roles included trustee of the Dementia Services Development Trust, chair of Civil Service Selection Boards, vice-convener of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, governor of Edinburgh Academy and voluntary work with the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland.

He also inherited his parents’ passion for recording gravestone inscriptions and gave illustrated talks on Scottish tombstones, as a result of which he was elected an honorary vice-president of the Scottish Genealogy Society. When a trust was set up to improve Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard he served as secretary for 20 years, designing bronze plaques to illustrate the story of the Covenanters’ Prison and the purpose of the mortsafes, constructed to foil bodysnatchers.

In his 70s he began volunteering for Family Care, now known as Birthlink, an organisation to help those who have been adopted or fostered to search for their biological families. For a decade he spent a day each month on searches at New Register House and another day or so compiling a report, including a short family tree and recent address of a close relative. Common surnames sometimes complicated the search, in one case throwing up 15 potential birth mothers with the same name, six of whom were approached before the right one was found. It was the most satisfying aspect of his voluntary work, often rewarded with news of a happy reunion. He and his wife did the same work, though less frequently, for Barnardo’s in Glasgow, The Child Migrants Trust in Nottingham and the Catholic Child Welfare Council.

He had also served, many years earlier, with the Edinburgh Marriage Guidance Council and as chairman of the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council.

In the 1970s he and Ann bought a property in west Fife which included the ruined 17th century Bath Castle. In retirement they had it restored as a two-bedroom home and later marketed it for sale as “perhaps the smallest castle in Scotland”.

When, after more than 50 years in the same house in Edinburgh’s Regent Terrace, they decided to downsize, he had to find a new home for his collection of more than 4000 Penguin books. They are now a special resource for publishing studies students at Stirling University.

From long-living stock – his father died at 97, his mother was 103 – in 2012 he put his memoirs down on paper for his family after writing an article for his church magazine, How To Die in Nine Easy Lessons, comprising practical advice on preparing for the inevitable, but declared he had no intention of succumbing just yet.

He continued for a few more years but although mentally alert – he was interviewed for television about his wartime experiences just a few months before his death – his mobility was severely impaired by myositis, a degenerative muscular condition which caused him to gradually lose control of his limbs.

He is survived by his devoted wife Ann to whom he was married for 69 years, their four children, Jonathan, Charlotte, Catherine and Andrew, and six grandchildren.

Alison Shaw (NUJ Freelance Journalist and Obituarist)