Obituary: war hero who liberated a Netherlands village single-handedly on a bicycle
Angus Mitchell was still a schoolboy when he volunteered for the army. By 19 he was a troop commander – younger than all his men – and at 20 displayed such audacious courage that he was awarded the Military Cross.
He could have been at Oxford University but gave up a scholarship in favour of the maelstrom of war. It was a decision he never regretted. His contribution to the liberation of North-west Europe, which in one Dutch town he conducted single-handedly on a borrowed bicycle, was an “exciting experience”.
In peacetime he was decorated as a Ridder – a knight in the Dutch Order of Oranje-Nassau – and many decades later was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in recognition of his actions.
Born in a hill station at Ootacamund, he was the son of John Mitchell, who worked with the Indian Civil Service, and his wife Sheila, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in the Great War who had survived the sinking of the hospital ship Britannic in the Aegean in 1916.
Just four when he left India, he was bilingual in English and Hindustani but quickly forgot the latter after arriving in Britain. Left in the care of an aunt in Little Durford, Hampshire, he was educated by a governess before attending Highfield boarding school and Marlborough College, where he joined the Officers’ Training Corps and subsequently became a sergeant in the Home Guard.
Then in 1942 he gained a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford but also volunteered for the Territorial Army, aiming to join the Royal Armoured Corps. Deciding not to defer war service, he was called up in January 1943 and after going to The Royal Military College, Sandhurst, gained a commission with the Inns of Court Regiment (ICR).
He sailed to Normandy in the aftermath of D-Day, after being made a troop commander in B Squadron at just 19, and was wounded a few weeks later when, standing in his customary position head and shoulders above the armoured car turret, he was hit by flying metal from a German shot to the periscope. He spent his 20th birthday in a Canadian Military Hospital near Bayeux and underwent surgery to remove the shards.
He continued to serve in France and Belgium and in late September 1944, as he and his troop were reconnoitring in the Netherlands, 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 check. “As the first British troops into Boxmeer, we were, of course, enthusiastically welcomed as liberators – a heartwarming experience which we had enjoyed several times before in France and Belgium,” he recalled.
He would return to Boxmeer in 1994, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its liberation, and receive a bronze figure of its civic emblem, “a very sentimental occasion for an old soldier”.
But in the early spring of 1945 while the war was still raging and 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 hindering the advance. This fearless action gained him the Military Cross.
After the Red Army captured Berlin, Mitchell’s division took 70,000 prisoners between 2 and 4 May. Following VE Day Mitchell was preparing to leave for a potential assault on Malaya when the Japanese surrender ended the war.
An undemanding job followed, in the East African Military Records office in Nairobi. Demobbed with the rank of captain, he began his modern history degree at Brasenose College, meeting his future wife, Ann, the same month. She said she worked for the Foreign Office but it was not until 30 years later that he discovered she had worked on decryption at Bletchley Park.
They wed in 1948 and settled 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 had a commission in the Intelligence Corps.
He held various posts in the Scottish Office in Edinburgh and London, was principal private secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jack Maclay, and involved in organising many Royal visits, for which he was made a CVO in 1964. In 1965 he moved to the Department of Agriculture, becoming Assistant Under Secretary of State before taking charge of the Social Work Services Group and being appointed Under Secretary in charge of health care at the Scottish Home and Health Department.
He later returned to the SED as Secretary with responsibility for schools, further education, arts, museums, sport and social work and was awarded 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 and was made an honorary doctor of the university. He was also 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 a volunteer with the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland. He had also chaired the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council.
He was elected an honorary vice-president of the Scottish Genealogy Society – a result of his passion for recording gravestone inscriptions. 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 seventies he volunteered for Family Care, now known as Birthlink, which helps adopted or fostered children 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. He and his wife did similar work for Barnardo’s in Glasgow, The Child Migrants Trust in Nottingham and the Catholic Child Welfare Council.
In the 1970s they bought property in west Fife which included the ruined 17th century Bath Castle. In retirement they had it restored as a two-bedroom home, marketing it as “perhaps the smallest castle in Scotland”. When, after over 50 years in Edinburgh’s Regent Terrace, they downsized, he had to find a home for his collection of more than 4,000 Penguin books. They are now a special resource for publishing studies students at Stirling University.
In 2012 he wrote his memoirs after penning a church magazine article, How To Die in Nine Easy Lessons, on practical advice on preparing for the inevitable, but declared that he had no intention of succumbing just yet. He continued for several years and, though his mobility was severely impaired by a degenerative muscular condition, remained mentally alert.
He is survived by his wife Ann, to whom he was married for 69 years, their four children and six grandchildren.