Major Stephen Mitchell, who has died aged 90, found himself involved in a comic operation when he was second-in-command of the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry after landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
Early in September 1944, an SRY patrol reported that the village of La Pierre, Belgium, was being held by 1,200 German troops. Their commander, a colonel, had refused to surrender.
Lt-Col Christopherson, commanding the SRY, was anxious to avoid unnecessary casualties and decided to try again, enlisting the help of Mitchell, who spoke German. The Maquis claimed to have proof that the enemy garrison had shot four of their men, and demanded that eight Germans should be handed over to them. Meanwhile, any military vehicle entering La Pierre was certain to be shot at, so the Maquis provided the SRY with an old Renault car.
The local priest, who was enormously fat, took up a position on the bonnet, clutching on to his straw hat and brandishing a white sheet attached to a pole. At first the car would not start, but, after being pushed for half a mile by the excited villagers, it shot forward with a lurch and a deafening back-fire - almost unseating the priest - and roared down the street in a cloud of dust.
The car was waved to a stop by a startled group of German infantrymen at the edge of the village, and the party was escorted to the local inn, which served as the garrison headquarters. In one room the commander, a stout, dapper little man with a bull neck and wearing an Iron Cross, was addressing his officers. They had all pledged themselves to fight to the last round and the last man, and looked at the arrivals with the greatest disdain.
The SRY party was told to wait in another room until the colonel had finished speaking. Christopherson took the opportunity to tell Mitchell to remember his German and to stop tweaking his moustache: it was undignified, and might give the impression of nervousness. Mitchell scowled and murmured that, just because Christopherson had no moustache to tweak to conceal his own nervousness, that was no reason to take it out on him.
When negotiations opened, Christopherson pointed out in strong terms to the garrison commander that no organised German resistance remained in France or Belgium; and that his regiment, equipped with tanks, infantry and guns, was outside the village awaiting the order to attack. He added that he could call in air support within 30 minutes - which was stretching the truth.
It took an hour of tense negotiations, in which Mitchell acted as interpreter, before the commander was persuaded that neither the Wehrmacht nor the German people - or indeed the Fuhrer himself - would consider that he had failed in his duty if he surrendered. The commander secured an undertaking that no German soldier would be handed over to the Maquis and that he would be allowed to march out at the head of his troops, with their arms, and formally surrender at six o'clock at an agreed rendezvous.
At half past six there was no sign of the commander or his men at the appointed place. Suddenly, spandau and mortar fire were heard - a battle seemed to be taking place on the far side of the village. The Germans, it appeared, had confused the rendezvous with a very similar location, and another British unit had come face to face with a large enemy column marching down the road led by the German commander on a white charger. When they opened fire, the Germans had been compelled to return it. Christopherson sent an urgent message to this unit to cease fire.
The Germans scrambled out of hedges and ditches and re-formed on open ground. Their commander explained what had happened, told his men that he had made an honourable surrender and bade them farewell. When he had finished, the Germans destroyed their weapons by crashing the rifle butts on the ground. After this, each man raised his right hand and roared "Sieg Heil" three times, before being marched off into captivity.
By this stage of the war, Mitchell had already been awarded the MC while serving with the SRY in North Africa in 1943. On January 15, an attack was launched on Rommel's units at Buerat, Libya. After a stiff fight, the enemy withdrew, pursued by the 8th Armoured Brigade; but a strong rearguard position was encountered at Wadi Zem Zem, where tanks and anti-tank guns were dug in on the reverse slope.
Mitchell, then a major in command of C Squadron, led his force forward under intense fire. He knocked out three MK IV Special Panzers and, despite heavy casualties, stormed and took the enemy position. His own tank was hit and set ablaze, and the enemy put down devastatingly accurate machinegun and shell-fire on the crews evacuating the tanks.
Although suffering from burns and a wound to a foot, Mitchell held the post against repeated counter-attacks; his skill and courage made it possible for the brigade to advance rapidly the following day, and he was awarded an immediate MC.
Stephen Mitchell was born in Glasgow on April 22 1913. He was educated at Eton, where he played for the rugby XV and was Victor Ludorum. He went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, to read French and German before joining John Player and Sons, the Nottingham tobacco company, as a trainee manager. 'Donny' Player was destined to be his Commanding Officer in North Africa, albeit briefly.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, he was granted a TA commission in the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry whom he accompanied to Palestine on security duties. After the SRY was re-equipped as an armoured regiment, he commanded C Squadron and remained its squadron leader throughout the fighting in North Africa. In March 1943, in heavy fighting near Enfidaville, he lost a tank and, upon being asked over the radio whether he had anything to report, replied that it was his mother's birthday.
Mitchell, who had been wounded twice, came back to England in December 1944, and was demobilised at the end of the war in the rank of major. He returned to John Player, from which he retired as personnel services manager in 1970. From 1966 to 1986 he was a general commissioner of taxation in Nottingham. He enjoyed gardening and walking his dog.
Stephen Mitchell died on January 22. He married, in 1945, Dorothy Ann Welch. She predeceased him, as did his son. He is survived by two daughters.
This obituary was reproduced by kind permission from The Telegraph Media Group
(prepared by Charles Owen).
Citation for the Military Cross
86775 86775 WS/Capt (T/Major) MITCHELL Stephen Notts (Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry)
On 15 January 1943, on the Dorr Er Raml Ridge, Major Mitchell’s Squadron was ordered to engage enemy tanks and A/Tk. Guns on the high ground commanding the position. He led his Squadron forward with great skill and courage and engaged enemy tanks supported by 88mm Guns. The German position was extremely strong and to attack it entailed exposing our own tanks to heavy Anti-Tank fire. Major Mitchell’s Sqn. knocked out three Mk.IV Specials and despite heavy casualties, stormed and took the enemy position and held it against repeated counter attacks. Major Mitchell’s tank was hit and went up on flames and despite the fact that he was burned and suffered an injury to his foot, continued to lead his Sqn. And stayed in his position until nightfall. By his initiative, skill, courage and leadership, this Officer was responsible for taking and holding the key enemy position which did much to permit the rapid advance of the Brigade on the following day. He had commanded his Sqn. continuously from the commencement of the Battle of Alamein and despite the fact that two tanks have been destroyed under him and he has been twice wounded he has set the highest example to all ranks of courage, leadership and devotion to duty.