Colin Campbell Mitchell

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"Colin Mitchell" redirects here. For the cricketer, see Colin Mitchell (cricketer).
Not to be confused with Collin Mitchell.
Colin Campbell Mitchell
Iconic image of Mitchell (bottom left) in the Crater, Aden - July 1967
Nickname(s) Mad Mitch
Born 17 November 1925
Died 20 July 1996 (aged 70)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1943–1968
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Battles/wars World War II
Palestine Emergency
Korean War
Cyprus Emergency
Aden Emergency
Other work Member of Parliament
Founder of the Halo Trust

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.

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.

Early life and career[edit]

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.[1]

Mitchell was educated at the Whitgift School in Croydon. In May 1943 he enlisted 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,[2] and fought in the final battles of the Italian campaign. Although he was lightly wounded at the Battle of Monte Cassino, his wartime experience inclined him to take up a career in the British Army.[3] He was appointed to a regular commission on 21 December 1946.[4]

He subsequently served in the Palestine Emergency (wounded again in a ‘friendly fire’ incident), the Korean War (where he commanded his first company), the Cyprus Emergency, Borneo and the Aden Emergency. He also served on attachment in the UK with the Territorial Army and in East Africa with the King's African Rifles. It has been claimed that while with the KAR Mitchell was instrumental in obtaining a commission for Idi Amin Dada 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.[5]

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,[6] captain in 1952,[7] major in 1959,[8] and his success in a wide range of appointments won him brevet rank as a lieutenant-colonel in 1964.[9]

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.[10] One observer later described Phillips as: "his marvellous wife ... who backed him through thick and thin - mostly thin".[11]


Mitchell was promoted to substantive lieutenant-colonel on 31 December 1966,[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] According to Mitchell's autobiography, Crater was a "town of 80,000 inhabitants".[15] 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"[16] and the regimental charge, "Monymusk".[17] 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)[18] 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.[18][19] 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'." [20]

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.[21]

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).[22]

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.[21]

Mitchell stated that he considered Tower’s approach to be “wet hen tactics”. The situation that developed was described in The Times as follows:[23]

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".[24]

Mitchell in full dress uniform as Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, January 1967

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:[25]

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.[13] 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.[26]

Political career[edit]

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[27] with a 5,000 vote majority in the 1970 general election.[28] 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”.[29] 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.[30]

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”.[31]

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.[32] 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[edit]

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.[33]

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:[34]

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.[35] However, 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".[23]

The Halo Trust and post 1989[edit]

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.[36]

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 :


The two major sources for the article are Having Been a Soldier (Mitchell's autobiography) London: Hamilton, 1969. ISBN 0-241-01722-X, and from Tam Dalyell's long obituary [2] of Mitchell published in The Independent on 24 July 1996.

  1. ^ The Independent, obituary, early paragraphs on family history in 'free to view' section :Lt-Col Colin Mitchell, by Tam Dalyell - 24 July 1996
  2. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36843. p. 5788. 15 December 1944. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  3. ^ The Independent, obituary :Lt-Col Colin Mitchell, by Tam Dalyell - 24 July 1996
  4. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37823. p. 6169. 17 December 1946. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  5. ^ New York Times:Mitchell's 1996 obituary
  6. ^ The London Gazette: no. 38240. p. 1926. 16 March 1948. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  7. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 39696. p. 6068. 14 November 1952. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  8. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 41868. p. 7246. 13 November 1959. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 43371. p. 5715. 30 June 1964. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  10. ^ Irish democrat :see 5th image
  11. ^ The Independent obituary :Lt-Col Colin Mitchell, by Tam Dalyell - 24 July 1996
  12. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 44223. p. 310. 6 January 1967. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  13. ^ a b The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 44508. pp. 878–879. 19 January 1968. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  14. ^ Pirates to Grenades Aden
  15. ^ Having Been A Soldier, p. 1. The figure is repeated on p. 204.
  16. ^ The Argylls in Aden :reocupation of the Crater
  17. ^ Tam Dalyell, ‘Mitchell, Colin Campbell (1925–1996)’ (subscription required), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edition, January 2006, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/63184. Retrieved 13 February 2008
  18. ^ a b Daily Record, [1] Mad Mitch in Aden
  19. ^ "A dirty war in Aden: Britain’s role in Yemen’s history". Socialist Worker. 12 Jan 2010. Retrieved 2 December 2011. 
  20. ^ "Return to Aden, without Mad Mitch". BBC News Online. 1 December 2007. Retrieved 2 December 2011. 
  21. ^ a b Army history :the Argylls' 1967 Aden campaign
  22. ^ The Argylls in Aden
  23. ^ a b The Times, 24 July 1996
  24. ^ The Times, 17 July 1968, ”Indiscipline Denied by Colonel Mitchell”
  25. ^ The Times, 25 July 1968
  26. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 44686. p. 10530. 27 September 1968. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  27. ^ The London Gazette: no. 45134. p. 6951. 23 June 1970. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  28. ^ 1970 General Election :results, see Aberdeenshire West
  29. ^ The Times, 7 August 1970, “Emaciated Thin Red Line Survives”
  30. ^ BBC report :voting on the EU
  31. ^ The Times, 25 July 1996
  32. ^ The Times, 16 January 1974
  33. ^ The Times, 25 August 1977
  34. ^ The Times, 8 October 1976
  35. ^ New York Times :Mitchell's 1996 obituary
  36. ^ Halo Trust :website

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Davidson
Member of Parliament for Aberdeenshire West
1970Feb 1974
Succeeded by
Thomas Russell Fairgrieve