A WARTIME navigator who served aboard Winston Churchill’s personal transport plane has died aged 97.
Air Commodore John Mitchell, who lived in the New Forest, was a member of the crew who flew the Prime Minister to various destinations around the world, including Italy, North Africa and the Middle East, plus the crucial Tehran and Yalta conferences.
In his autobiography, Churchill’s Navigator, written with Sean Feast, he told how the famously hands-on wartime leader insisted on landing the aircraft himself, only for his stomach to get in the way of the control column with near disastrous consequences.
Born in London, Air Commodore Mitchell’s civil service career was cut short by the war.
Already in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, he was among the first to be mobilised but just missed out on joining 98 Squadron in France where, experts agree, he would almost certainly have been killed.
Posted to 58 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse he flew his first bombing raid over Germany with less than ten hours’ night-flying experience. Returning from Genoa after his third mission his aircraft ran out of fuel and ditched off the Kent coast.
He was rescued by lifeboat and became something of a national celebrity, appearing on the front page of the Daily Sketch after ditching his ruined uniform and donning top hat and tails he had borrowed from the local morgue.
After 23 operations he was sent to the US to help develop the first navigation training simulators, and on his return to the UK in 1942 he was assigned to Churchill’s plane.
After the war he was appointed senior navigation Instructor at Cranwell and later held a similar post at RAF Manby, where he undertook long-range exercises over the North Pole.
He later returned to air attaché duties and was appointed to Moscow during the Brezhnev regime, finishing his career in the air Intelligence section of the Ministry of Defence.
He retired to St Thomas Park, Lymington.
Air Commodore Mitchell was made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, as well as being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Cross and the US Legion of Merit.