Air Commodore John Mitchell LVO, DFC, AFC, one of the first of ‘the many’ who took part in bomber operations over Germany in 1940/41 has died. He was 97.
In a remarkable career spanning more than 30 years, John will also be remembered as the navigator on ‘Ascalon’ – the personal aircraft of Winston Churchill. John was responsible not only for delivering the Prime Minister to a series of critical meetings with other world leaders, but also for the safe travel of a number of other VIPs, including HM King George VI.
Born in Sanderstead on November 12, 1918, after schooling at Bancroft’s he looked destined for a career in the civil service until Hitler invaded Poland, and the world was once again plunged into turmoil. Already in the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), John was one of the first to be mobilized and just missed going to join 98 Squadron, a Fairey Battle Squadron in France where he would have undoubtedly been killed.
Posted instead to 58 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse and flying the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, he flew his first operation over Germany having had fewer than 10 hours night flying experience. He never found the Reisholz oil refinery that had been the ‘target for tonight’, and returned with his bomb load intact. On his third operation, returning from a long haul to Genoa, his aircraft ran out of fuel while still some way off the Kent coast. Rescued by the local lifeboat, John became something of a national celebrity when he appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch the following morning, bedecked in a top hat and tails. His uniform had been ruined by the sea and he had chosen some new clothes from the local morgue! He was most put out that he was denied entry to the officers’ mess at Hendon for being improperly dressed!
After 23 operations and two abandoned sorties he was rested and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), after which he was sent to the US, helping to develop the first navigation training simulators with the famous Link Trainer factory. (He was later awarded the US Legion of Merit, signed by the President Harry Truman. The citation hung in his downstairs bathroom until his death.) He was also among the first to complete the Specialist Navigation (Spec.N) course in Canada, marking him out as one of the best in his field.
Returning to the UK in 1942, John was selected to join the crew of Winston Churchill’s personal aircraft, the famous Avro York – Ascalon. For two years he navigated ‘The Owner’ – as he was known – around the world from North Africa to Italy, the Middle East to Moscow, including to the famous Teheran and Yalta conferences. He flew ‘General Lyon’ (aka HM George VI) on several occasions, as well as some of the great military leaders of their time from Alexander to Alanbrooke, Smuts to de Gaulle. To his DFC was added the LVO – a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order – a personal decoration in the gift of the monarch.
In his autobiography, Churchill’s Navigator, written with Sean Feast, John played down his role in history: “We never lost sight of the fact that we were mere bit part players on an otherwise enormous stage,” he said. “Our task with The Owner and indeed all of our VIPs was to ensure their safe and timely air transportation. No more; no less.”
He did, however, have a bountiful supply of Churchill anecdotes, including the time that Churchill insisted on landing the aircraft, only for his stomach to get in the way of the control column with near disastrous consequences!
After the war John continued to enjoy an eventful career. He was Senior Navigation Instructor at the RAF College, Cranwell and then held a similar post at RAF Manby where he undertook long-range exercises over the North Geographic Pole in the converted Lincoln, Aries III. He later returned to Air Attaché duties and was appointed to Moscow during the Brezhnev regime, finishing his career in the Air Intelligence world of the MoD.