|Nickname(s) Mad Mitch|
Years of service 1943–1968
Rank Lieutenant colonel
Organization founded HALO Trust
|Service/branch British Army|
Other name Mad Mitch
Battles and wars World War II
|Allegiance United Kingdom / British Empire|
Battles/wars World War II Palestine Emergency Korean War Cyprus Emergency Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation Aden Emergency
Other work Member of Parliament Founder of the Halo Trust
Died 20 July 1996, London, United Kingdom
Books Having Been a Soldier, Remote: Dead Air, Africa vortex
Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell (17 November 1925 – 20 July 1996) was a British Army lieutenant-colonel and politician. He became famous in July 1967 when he led the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the British reoccupation of the Crater district of Aden. At that time, Aden was a British colony and the Crater district had briefly been taken over by nationalist insurgents. Mitchell became widely known as “Mad Mitch”. His reoccupation of the Crater became known as "the Last Battle of the British Empire". Although some observers questioned whether the Last Battle was ever worth fighting, the event marked the end of an era in British history and made Mitchell an iconic figure.
- Early life
- Military career
- Political career
- 1974 to 1989
- The Halo Trust and post 1989
- Personal life
After leaving the British Army in 1968, Mitchell embarked on a career in politics. He was elected as a Member of the British Parliament in 1970 but stood down at the February 1974 general election. After subsequent involvement in a failed business venture he made his living until 1989 as a military consultant.
From 1989 until his death in 1996 he managed a charitable trust involved in the removal of land mines from former war zones.
Mitchell’s father (also named Colin) came from an Argyllshire fishing family. Mitchell (Snr) worked in a solicitor's office and for the MacBrayne ferry company before serving in the 10th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War I. Mitchell (Snr) achieved the rank of captain (commissioned ‘in the field’) and was awarded the 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. After the war, he worked in the City of London and married a Glaswegian woman (née Gilmour) whose father worked as a manager for the LMS Railway company. The couple took up residence in the South London suburb of Purley where they had two children – Colin and Henrietta. The family lived in a modest semi-detached house and Colin would attend services at the local Presbyterian Church wearing a kilt.
Mitchell was educated at the Whitgift School in Croydon.
In 1940, at age 15, Mitchell enlisted in the Home Guard, and may have been the youngest Home Guard member. In May 1943, he joined the British Army, enlisting as a private in the Royal West Kent Regiment. He soon became a Lance-Corporal and instructed newcomers in physical training. One of his fellow instructors was Stan Cullis who had been the captain of the Wolverhampton Wanderers cup side at Wembley in 1939 and was the captain of England at the time. Mitchell was commissioned into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1944. He fought in the final battles of the Italian campaign, and was lightly wounded in the advance on Ferrara. Despite this, his wartime experience inclined him to take up a military career. He was appointed to a regular commission on 21 December 1946.
Following the war, he saw action against Jewish guerrillas during the Palestine Emergency. While in Palestine, he participated in operations to arrest Jewish militants. During Operation Agatha, which saw most of the Jewish political leadership in Palestine detained, Mitchell's mission was to arrest Moshe Shertok (a future Prime Minister of Israel). Initially, his unit raided the wrong house. However, they were later able to find and arrest him. In July 1946, he witnessed the King David Hotel bombing: he and his company commander were within 300 feet of the building when the bombing occurred. While on a personal reconnaissance mission, he was shot and wounded by one of his own Bren gunners, who mistook him for a guerrilla. After recovering from his injuries, he was transferred from his regiment to become aide-de-camp to General Gordon MacMillan, the commander of British forces in Palestine and Transjordan. He spent a total of three years in Palestine. While there, he made friends among both the Arabs and Jews, including Moshe Dayan, a future Israeli general who would become one of Mitchell's heroes, as well as Moshe Shertok, who developed a cordial relationship with Mitchell after his arrest and corresponded with him for years afterward, when he became a senior Israeli government official.
In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, he was allowed to rejoin his regiment so he could deploy to Korea. He participated in the initial advance into North Korea, seeing close-quarters combat along the way. His regiment ultimately reached Taechon, near the Chinese border on the Yalu River. When the Chinese Army intervened and crossed the Yalu River in overwhelming numbers, the regiment was forced to take part in the retreat of UN forces, and later helped hold the line against Communist forces when UN forces consolidated. The regiment held a position known as "Frostbite Ridge", where they had to endure freezing conditions. They held the area through the winter until the thaw, and in 1951, they began to advance. However, shortly afterward, they were relieved and withdrawn.
Following his service in Korea, Mitchell was posted in Britain, but in late 1957, he returned to the Argylls as a company commander with the 1st Battalion, and was posted to Cyprus. At the time, the Cyprus Emergency was in full swing. Mitchell was placed in charge of the coastal towns of Paphos and Ktima, where his men engaged in counter-insurgency operations against EOKA guerrillas. They faced both conventional EOKA raids and forest fires deliberately lit by EOKA fighters and local villagers who were motivated by the money they would receive to fight them.
Mitchell was subsequently posted to the British Army of the Rhine with the rest of the regiment, and then joined the King's African Rifles, and was posted East Africa. Soon afterward, he saw action in Zanzibar with the KAR in breaking up disturbances between the island's Arab and African populations, which had begun during a general election and had descended into widespread rioting and clashes. He also participated in operations on the Northern Frontier District. At the time, Somali guerrillas were launching raids as part of a campaign to unite the region with Somalia, and the frontiers with other neighbouring states were also volatile. In one incident, Mitchell was searching for Somali guerrillas in a low-flying helicopter, and an elephant attempted to attack the helicopter, nearly clipping it with its tusks. It has been claimed that while with the KAR Mitchell was instrumental in obtaining a commission for Idi Amin, who later became President of Uganda. Mitchell's familiarity with the Scottish clan system made him more comfortable with African tribal issues than was the case with his English contemporaries. Impressed by Mitchell and other Scottish officers, Amin would later adopt the title King of Scotland.
Following his service in Kenya, Mitchell rejoined his old regiment, which was sent to Borneo to participate in the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation. Mitchell participated in a series of clashes with Indonesian forces. After six months of jungle warfare, the regiment was sent back to Singapore to recuperate. Mitchell was then sent back to the UK as a staff officer.
Mitchell joined the Argylls when they were sent to Yemen during the Aden Emergency. It was there that he led the highly publicized action which would come to be known as the Battle of the Crater.
Throughout all this time Mitchell was making a reputation as a bold and efficient officer, passing out top of Staff College and serving as GSO1 on the staff of Chief of the Defence staff, Lord Mountbatten. Mitchell was promoted lieutenant in 1947, captain in 1952, major in 1959, and his success in a wide range of appointments won him brevet rank as a lieutenant-colonel in 1964.
Mitchell was promoted to substantive lieutenant-colonel on 31 December 1966, and made Commanding Officer 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (the ‘Argylls’) on 12 January 1967. He achieved fame in the Aden Emergency, which was acted out in the final few years of British rule in Aden. He became known as "Mad Mitch" and was Mentioned in Despatches.
Britain's Aden territory consisted of the Aden City Colony attached to Protectorates with a total land area similar to that of the UK. Within Aden City was a district known as the Crater. The Crater was the old part of the City. According to Mitchell's autobiography, Crater was a "town of 80,000 inhabitants". By 1967, the British position in Aden was coming under pressure from groups of armed Arab nationalists (who were competing for future power after the final British withdrawal), resulting in a counter-insurgency campaign known as the Aden Emergency.
In June 1967 the Argylls were due to take over operational control of the Crater from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. However, before this could happen, on 20 June Arab members of the locally recruited Aden Armed Police mutinied and seized the Crater in association with nationalist insurgents. Eight British soldiers from a transport unit were ambushed and killed by the mutineers. Other soldiers were killed in separate clashes.
On 5 July 1967 Mitchell led a force that reoccupied the Crater district accompanied by 15 regimental bagpipers of the Argylls playing "Scotland the Brave" and the regimental charge, "Monymusk". Mitchell subsequently used what were described as “strong arm methods” to keep control of the Crater in the remaining months before British withdrawal.
The reoccupation itself was almost bloodless (one local was killed) and Mitchell then used an integrated system of observation posts, patrols, checkpoints and intelligence gathering to maintain the Crater as a tranquil area while security elsewhere in Aden began to deteriorate.
However, allegations were made and admitted, of atrocities by Mitchell and the troops under his command. There were also allegations that the Argylls had been guilty of widespread looting. The Argylls used the Chartered Bank building in the Crater as their headquarters and snipers stationed on its roof would shoot at anyone thought to represent a threat in the streets below. A BBC journalist wrote "once we stood together in Crater watching the Argylls stacking, as in a butcher's shop, the bodies of four Arab militants they had just shot and Mad Mitch said: 'It was like shooting grouse, a brace here and a brace there'."
The imposition of "Argyll law" (as Mitchell described it) on the Crater endeared Mitchell to the media and to the British public. But it did not endear him to certain of his superiors in both the Army and the High Commission.
Mitchell's critics stated that he was a publicity seeker and that the troops under his command lacked discipline. One High Commission official described the Argylls as "a bunch of Glasgow thugs" (a statement for which he later apologised).
The reoccupation and subsequent control of the Crater district were controversial. The GOC Middle East Land Forces, Major-General Philip Tower, had feared that reoccupation of the Crater would ignite more disturbances. Tower (a veteran of the North African campaigns and Arnhem) also considered that undertaking a full reoccupation of the Crater was pointless given that British withdrawal from Aden was imminent. Tower had authorized a probe into the Crater to be led by Mitchell using the Argylls and other units. Mitchell used this authority to carry out the reoccupation. Tower later instructed Mitchell to "throttle back" on his operations within the Crater.
Mitchell stated that he considered Tower’s approach to be “wet hen tactics”. The situation that developed was described in The Times as follows:
The Crater reoccupation was carried out on Mitchell’s own initiative. Some MPs asked questions about this in Parliament. Tam Dalyell (Labour, West Lothian) asked whether it was true that: "Mitchell disobeyed operational and administrative orders of his senior officers during the recapture of the Crater".
Mitchell himself later stated that he had been rebuked over the reoccupation by General Tower. The nature of this rebuke was explained by Defence Minister Denis Healey as follows:
The final British withdrawal from Aden took place in November 1967. Colonel Mitchell and the Argylls arrived back at their Plymouth garrison on 27 November. Unlike all the other battalion commanders from Aden, Mitchell was not decorated, receiving only the Mention in Despatches. In the normal course of events, an OBE might have been routinely awarded to him. It was indicated to him that further advancement was unlikely. Reports began to circulate to the effect that the Argylls were to be disbanded.
In July 1968, Mitchell gave notice of his intention to resign from the Army at the end of the year. Although Mitchell had not given the customary 7 months’ notice required of senior officers, his resignation was accepted with effect 1 October 1968.
Once he was a civilian, Mitchell assumed a prominent role in the “Save the Argylls” campaign. He wrote his memoirs (“Having Been a Soldier”), undertook some freelance journalism and briefly took a job as management trainee with Beaverbrook Newspapers. However, he had become a popular public figure and turned this to his advantage when he started a new career in politics.
In 1969 he was adopted as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Aberdeenshire West. This was a Liberal held seat although the sitting member was retiring at the next election. Mitchell took the seat with a 5,000 vote majority in the 1970 general election. His main opponent in that election was Laura Grimond, wife of former Liberal leader Jo Grimond.
Mitchell proved to be an energetic and effective constituency member. He also served for a year as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland. However, it became apparent that he was not likely to progress as a minister. His main political interest was the British Army and he was frequently critical of the Army’s leadership. For example, in August 1970 he was quoted as having referred to ”… those bastards in Whitehall”. He gravitated towards the right wing of the Conservative party. He opposed British membership of the European Community, Rhodesian sanctions, and the arms embargo on Israel. He became a prominent member of both the Monday Club and the Anglo-Rhodesian Society. Mitchell became known as a maverick MP and was one of 39 Conservative rebels who defied the Party whip to vote against British entry to the EEC in the Commons vote on 28 October 1971.
Although never promoted to ministerial office, Mitchell was a high-profile backbench MP in demand by society and the media. Notably, he was a popular member of the Garrick Club and was reported to enjoy a “gregarious social life”.
In 1973 he was approached by a consortium that was planning to establish a giant sporting and agricultural estate in Scotland. Mitchell was invited to take a stake in the project and become its general manager at an impressive salary. Mitchell accepted this offer and announced that he would not seek re-election to Parliament on grounds that he “…could not afford to be an MP” — a statement that would come back to haunt him. He left Parliament at the time of the February 1974 general election, very much against the advice of both his wife Sue and fellow maverick MP Tam Dalyell.
1974 to 1989
The Scottish estate job offer fell through and Mitchell became unemployed. He later stated that giving up his seat in Parliament had been a disastrous mistake. He spent much of the next 10 years trying to get back into Parliament. He applied to several Conservative associations (for example, Bournemouth East in August 1977). But at every selection interview he was questioned about his reasons for giving up Aberdeenshire West in 1974. No winnable constituency would adopt him.
He remained on the fringes of Conservative politics. The Times diary reported on a meeting of the Monday Club that he addressed at the 1976 Conservative Party conference on the subject of white-ruled Rhodesia:
Mitchell remained sporadically active in a series of consultancies, mostly of a military or security nature. He is known to have provided services to backers of the mujahideen insurgents in Afghanistan and Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In November 1980, Mitchell praised the mujahideen as "gallant fighters... expressing themselves, as Afghans know best, in the romantic tradition of sniping, raiding and brigandry." He urged Western leaders to provide them with military training and equipment, and to select "proven guerilla fighters" from their ranks for training as future leaders of Afghanistan.
He became increasingly dissatisfied with his situation, as evidenced by the following extract from his Times obituary: "At times his disappointment showed and it amounted to bitterness. He turned angrily against the media, which he had used so brilliantly... and against old friends who had tried to help him in difficult times. Once a popular member of the Garrick Club, he avoided it for years, finally stopping his subscription".
The Halo Trust and post 1989
In 1989, Mitchell took a leading role in the Halo Trust (the hazardous areas life-support organization). This non-profit making organization undertook de-mining operations in former war zones. It employed a core of (mostly British and Commonwealth) de-mining experts and a large number of locally recruited and trained personnel. Most of the Halo personnel were former servicemen.
Halo became active around the world in areas such as Mozambique, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Mitchell appeared comfortable in his work with Halo. It raised his public profile once again, and in a manner that was both positive and uncontroversial.
Mitchell died in 1996 after a short illness. His family did not disclose the nature of that illness. His obituary in The Independent was written by his friend the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Dalyell stated :
Mitchell married Jean Hamilton (Sue) Phillips in April 1956. Phillips was the daughter of Wing Commander Stephen Phillips and was a native of Meikleour, Perthshire. The couple had three children (2 sons and 1 daughter), the youngest of whom (Colina) was born in 1965. Their son, Dr Angus Mitchell, is a noted authority on the life of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement. One observer later described Phillips as: "his marvellous wife ... who backed him through thick and thin - mostly thin".