D-DAY 70: "Such a waste of human life"
Wootton Bassett GP Peter Mitchell wrote a powerful memoir of his wartime service, in particular his part in the D-Day landings. BARRIE HUDSON reports...
OF all the surviving accounts left by local D-Day veterans, Peter Mitchell’s is the most comprehensive.
When he died at Prospect Hospice in 1997, aged 73, he was seven years into retirement, having been a GP at the Tinkers Lane practice in Wootton Bassett since 1957.
On June 6, 1944, he was a 20-year-old lieutenant leading Able Troop, Essex Yeomanry. The troop’s role was to fire heavy guns from tank landing craft as they headed for Gold Beach, then take them across the shingle and sand and continue to hammer the enemy.
Over the following days he would take part in fierce fighting before being seriously wounded on June 29 as he attempted to reach stricken colleagues.
In later life Dr Mitchell wrote of those days as part of a memoir of his early life. The vivid account has been put online by one of his three children, David, 49, who lives in Minety.
The memoir, plus the cheery letters his father sent home, leave Mr Mitchell with a feeling of amazement.
He said: “They were a different breed of people back then – their attitude to life and when young people grew up; the expectations placed on them and their sense of responsibility was very, very different to what it is today.
“There is a sense of duty to go and fight to protect the country, and I don’t think you would find that sense of duty anymore.
“I wouldn’t say that’s good or bad – we just live in different times.”
Dr Mitchell’s memoirs are full of striking images.
Early in his D-Day account, for example, he recalls: “This vast fleet covered the sea as far as the eye could see and was immensely impressive.
“It moved purposefully and threateningly, maintaining radio silence so that wherever you looked Morse lamps flickered and signal flags changed.
“Again, it was a miracle that all through that approach the Germans never knew. Night fell and we went to bed early.”
Hours later, the young man who had not all that long ago left his school, Clifton College in Bristol, prepared to lead his troops ashore “By this time it was possible to see the coast more closely. It was already a clutter of infantry landing craft, lying all anyhow on the beach, with others pushing their way in. Shells were falling amongst them, sending up great spouts of water and we were steadily approaching through an increasing mass of sinking LCIs [personnel landing craft], struggling and drowning men. We ploughed on and finally reached the beach ourselves: the LCT [tank landing craft] ground to a halt two hundred yards out from the beach in a strong side-ways going tide about 5 foot deep.”
A fellow officer was seriously wounded by shellfire before the craft reached the shore, and once the troop crossed the beach, Peter Mitchell climbed the seawall to gather the bearings he needed to align his heavy guns.
He wrote many years later: “Meanwhile, the tide came in and we were axle deep in water with all manner of debris and bodies floating in.
“As the tide went out again it left behind a mess that was indescribable – such a waste of human life, effort and equipment. It is the sheer wastefulness of war that strikes one at such a time – one dead man represents each a terrible waste of twenty-odd years of nurturing, love, education and experience, all poured into him by a loving family; to say nothing of his military training, brought to a sudden and useless end. But there was no time to dwell on such things.”
By June 8, the troop was some seven miles ahead of the rest of the invading force as part of a group sent to protect a strategic objective known as Hill 103, near a town called Tilly-sur-Seulles, which was heavily defended by enemy tanks and soldiers. He recalled: “The pressure from the Panzers and their infantry increased as they concentrated more and more troops in the Tilly area and it was becoming evident that we were fighting a losing battle.
“At one stage we were re-inforced by a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry and I saw them disappear into the orchards ahead, a steady line of little khaki figures way out to our left. Twenty four hours later their walking wounded came limping back in twos and threes; two of them rested on my gun position, semi conscious and exhausted after hand to hand fighting in the villages below.”
Reinforcements came, but not before the future Dr Mitchell and his men played a major part in stopping a Panzer division.
Later, a new junior officer joined the troop, a likeable 19-year-old second lieutenant called Hicks. The following day, a German mortar landed on a gun 75 yards to the right and Mitchell disregarded his own safety to assist his wounded comrades.
The split second decision saved his life: “Anyway, off I went, trotting across the grass and the next salvo of mortar-shells came down. The first one got me, bowling me over like a rabbit; all I felt was an enormous blow in my right leg, like a blow from a sledge-hammer; there was no pain, just numbness. The second shell landed in the slit-trench that I’d just left and killed poor Hicks and Forsyth.”
The shell took a large chunk out of Mitchell’s ankle, a wound which would leave him in plaster for months. Even with his wound, though, he hopped and jumped to reach and help another of his men, who had suffered a terrible leg injury.
Shipped home, he recuperated with his parents, and his mother put Wintergreen Oil on his cast to mask the unavoidable stench of the slowly-healing wound beneath.
By the time the young man was fit for duty once more, the war was newly over, but there was still work for him in Germany.
In 1946 he was a junior member of a court martial taken against a group of German soldiers who had murdered inmates of a German military prison.
Some of the guilty received death sentences. Peter Mitchell wrote: “...I must say the responsibility lay heavy; at the end of each day we five retired to consider the day’s evidence, and as junior member, I always had to give my opinion first; I leaned over backwards to define any weakness in the prosecuting evidence - we all of us did - and it is probable that one or two guilty men got acquitted as a result.
“But the rest, the guilty ones, got the death penalty, and that’s not something to be treated other than with the greatest care and responsibility. The death penalty to our modern ears, may sound shocking and brutal; but what those men did was shocking and brutal, and in the climate of death and destruction of the last five years their punishment was entirely in context.”
On being demobbed, he studied medicine at Exeter College, Oxford. GP training and his 32 years of service in Wootton Bassett lay ahead. He served not just as a GP but also as a campaigner who fought to protect the countryside around his adopted community from being developed and despoiled.
When Dr Mitchell retired, such was his popularity that a public fund was opened to purchase a gift. Mitchell Close, opposite Tinkers Lane Surgery, was named in his memory. Dr Mitchell’s full account of the war and his early life can be found at www.davidmitchell.co.uk.