What's in a name?



What's in a name?


Recounts meeting three men named John Mitchell in the space of a few weeks. The first was a signals officer at RAF Spilsby when the author was a wireless operator on Lancaster. He relates some of his experiences surviving two tours on Whitley and Lancaster. The author goes on to describe meeting this John Mitchell 45 years later. The author was shot down on his eighteenth operation later in 1944 and made a prisoner of war where he made friends with a Canadian former Spitfire pilot named John Mitchell. In addition during a visit to the camp chapel he met a New Zealand padre named John Mitchell who was taken prisoner at Dunkirk. The three different John Mitchells who served their respective countries were impinged upon the author's mind.


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Two page handwritten document


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[centred] WHAT’S IN A NAME? [/centred]

Back in 1944, when the war seemed to be dragging on forever, (was it really [underlined] only [/underlined] 5 years since Europe had erupted into a blood-bath?) I chanced to meet, within the space of a few weeks, three men who, although very different in looks, ways and demeanor, [sic] shared one thing in common – their names – they were a trio of John Mitchells!

In June of ’44 I was the Wireless Operator of a Lancaster crew that arrived at Spilsby in Lincolnshire for the purpose of flying operationally against Fortress Europe as members of 207 Squadron. On reporting to the Signals Office, I was introduced to the Signals Officer, F/Lt John Mitchell, a veteran, relatively speaking (26 years of age!) and an RAF regular, who sported the DFC, and had survived a tour on Whitleys, which had started on literally the FIRST day of hostilities, when the crew of which he was a member force-landed near Amiens, in France, having carried out the first leaflet raid of the war, on Essen. He had also chalked up many operational hours on Lancasters, and was looked upon as something of a role model to we aspiring your aviators.

Our acquaintance ended abruptly when, on December 4th, we were shot down on our 18th mission, following a raid on Heiloronn in the Ruhr.

Some 45 years later Mitch and I became re-united in the most bizarre fashion. My wife Gill and I had acquired a rural property in the village of Girton, about 7 miles from Newark, in Nottinghamshire, when by chance I encountered this chap with distinctly military bearing, and in the ensuing conversation, I had the nagging feeling that this was not our first meeting. Then, about half an hour after his departure, the penny dropped and with a jolt I realised that I had been talking to none other than my old wartime colleague Mitch! Yes, he looked different – for starters the former sandy wavy hair no longer was, but the voice, which was one of authority and resonance, was the give-away. Unlike appearances, voices often don’t change much over the years – and his certainly hadn’t!

Promptly I scanned the local telephone directory, and ‘phoned his number. When he answered my ring, I merely said “207 Squadron”. The silence was palpable – then, in somewhat muted tones he said:- “Who is this?” On being enlightened, he too turned back his mental clock of 45 years, and the old memories came flooding back.

Mitch invited Gill and myself to his house in nearbye[sic] Collingham, where he and his wife Joan had lived for many years, and were pillars of the local community. By chance it was Mitches 65th birthday – yet another co-incidence, and soon, with the aid of his old Flying Log Books, we were immersed in nostalgia, turning back the clock to those heady days in 1944, when so many of our friends came and went with alarming frequency, and our young minds struggled to come to terms with the mayhem and carnage with which we were confronted.

Subsequent to our being shot down, I finished up at Stalag Luft 1, up on the Baltic coast, where I soon struck up an acquaintance with my second Mitch., F/Lt John Mitchell, a Canadian former Spitfire pilot. He was my regular companion on our daily constitutional walks around the camp perimeter fence. He ‘sold’ me Canada, in particular the farm on the northern shores of Lake Superior that was his ‘ancestral home’. He also talked a lot about a squadron friend, P/O Gillespie Magee, who had been killed way back

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in 1941. He had been a talented poet, and Mitch quoted to me verbatim a poem this pal of his had written. It was called ‘High Flight’, and I was so moved by its beauty that I wrote it down in my P.O.W. Log Book. Many years later I was to discover that ‘High Flight’ was a widely published poem, an all-time classic.

Mitch and I lost touch after repatriation. I have yet to visit Canada, but if I ever do, who knows, I may still be able to track down my old buddy on his dream farm – he made it sound so idyllic.

When men are herded to ether in prison camps, life is such a tenuous thing, with the future so uncertain. So it is not surprising that the vast majority, irrespective of colour, code or creed, instinctively turn to a higher being for spiritual sustenance. In this respect I was no different, and on my first visit to the hut that served as the camp chapel, I fell immediately under the thrall of the Padre, a New Zealander by the name of – yes, you’ve guessed it – John Mitchell! This saintly man had been originally taken prisoner at Dunkirk. Being a non-combatant, he had the option of being repatriated, but refused it, choosing to stay behind bars, and administer to ‘his lads’. That, to my mind, is the definition of a true hero.

I still have a bible, signed by him, and in times of doubt or stress I turn to it for comfort and sometimes inspiration. After all these years, the force of his personality is still evident, and I feel priveleged[sic] to have known a man who truly ‘walked with God’.

So these three John Mitchells, so different in many ways, but who all served their respective countries in the common cause, the fight for freedom, are impinged indelibly on my mind.

I still see Mitch number one frequently, as he lives only three miles up the road. He retired as a Squadron Leader Pilot, and after the war flew numerous types of aircraft, the favourite (after the Lancaster, of course) seems to have been that old faithful the Shackleton.

Now in his Eighties, he still plays golf three days a week, and is President of the Collingham Croquet Club, of which I too am a member.

Often we wander off down memory lane, and the conversations usually start with – “Do you remember?”

[inserted by hand] ROY E. HILL
EX F/LT. RAFVR. [inserted by hand]



R E Hill, “What's in a name?,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/27527.

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