“Mad Mitch” And The British Empire’s Last Days

Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels provide an excellent glimpse into the mind of a Imperial Tory during the last days of the British Empire. In You Only Live Twice, Tiger Tanaka, a member of the Japanese secret service, crudely criticizes Bond’s beloved Britain by taunting: “Britain has not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands…” Bond responds weakly, saying: “England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars…But there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them.”

Bond’s patriotism is commendable. It is the same type of patriotism that Fleming himself supported in his interview with Playboy magazine in 1964: “I am British, and proud of being British, and I’m not going to dodge fair payment by making a dash for Switzerland or one of the other tax paradises.”

Tax chauvinism—that is all the proud British man has left.

Without question, even Bond recognizes that his Britain won World War II, but wound up losing its empire anyway. Tanaka, as a member of the Japanese elite, reminds Bond and Fleming’s readers both that the defeated Japanese came out of the late 1940s smelling like roses. Great Britain, on the other hand, volunteered for a type of socialist state planning that wrecked its economy for decades.

The Imperial Tory complaint implicit in the Bond novels found a real world parallel in the life of Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell. A Londoner by birth, but a Scots Presbyterian by blood, Mitchell was only truly loyal to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This had been his father’s regiment, and in 1944, it became Mitchell’s regiment as well.

World War II represented the last great gasp of Britain’s Imperial Army. The outnumbered army that faced down 12,000 Japanese soldiers at Kohima and killed 6,000 of them would later be the same army that handed over Kenya to black nationalists after defeating the Mau Mau insurgents on the ground. Much like their contemporaries in the American military fighting against communism in Southeast Asia, British military commanders, especially junior officers, complained that their government was forcing them to fight rearguard actions with one hand tied behind their back. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the Labor PM who created Britain’s modern welfare state, led the charge for the dissolution of the British Empire when he granted India independence in 1947.

There is this immense nation, set in the midst of Asia, an Asia which has been ravaged by war. Here we have the one great country that has been seeking to apply the principles of democracy. I have always hoped myself that politically India might be the light of Asia.

The Labor Party had long agitated for the fall or at least the shrinking of the British Empire. When its wish came true in South Asia, a series of genocidal conflicts followed that may have killed as many as two million people and displaced fifteen million more.

Undeterred, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put their wet thumbs in the air and felt the winds of change blowing in British Africa. In 1960, Macmillan told the British people that:

The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.

Macmillan’s speech not only signaled that Britain was abandoning its international standing in the face of Soviet and American pressure, but it also told the white minority governments of South Africa and Rhodesia that the defense of Western values in Africa would be left up to them and them only. Today, those Western values are buried under unimaginably high crime statistics, corruption, and an endemic culture of anti-white hatred.

By 1966, one of the last outposts of British culture abroad was the port city of Aden, which did not last much longer, as in that year, the Labor government of Harold Wilson, working under the influence of Soviet and Egyptian agents, announced that British troops would be leaving the city by the end of 1967. Mitchell’s beloved Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders would be the last British soldiers to be sent in.

London belonged to Wilson, an Oxford-educated economist and former member of the Liberal Party. According to Peter Hitchens in The Broken Compass, the Wilson government of 1964-1970 “began and consolidated the cultural and moral revolution, turned the schools into egalitarian engines, and transformed the welfare state from a safety net into a powerful disincentive to unskilled work.” Wilson’s government is the same one that bankrupted the British economy by devaluing the pound in 1967. In the midst of declining manufacturing and a shrinking domestic economy, Wilson defended his decision by trying to argue that devaluation would get at the “root cause” of wealth inequality in the country. The exchange rate dropped from $2.80 to $2.40, a difference of about fourteen percent.

If Wilson represented the new technocratic elite of post-imperial Britain, Mitchell represented the old guard of the empire. Mitchell, in the words of Ioan Grillo, embodied the “adventuring upper-class officers” that provided so many of the British Empire’s best men. Put in more blunt language, Mitchell jokingly referred to himself as a “nigger-bashing imperialist” as a way to contrast himself with the more modern-style British Army officers who saw their jobs as an extension of the civil service.

Mitchell cut his teeth in the infantry campaign of the Argenta Gap in April 1945. From there, Mitchell had combat stints in Kenya, Malaya, Korea, and Borneo, the latter of which involved a technically unofficial British attempt to keep Indonesia from occupying Malaysia. His time serving in Palestine, which today still stands as the deadliest engagement for British troops since the end of World War II, added to Mitchell’s legend. Namely, he survived the Irgun’s bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel through a stroke of sheer luck.

More importantly, the Lt. Col. Mitchell who was sent to Aden was an experienced hand in counter-insurgency warfare. He had fought Somali guerrillas alongside the newly created Kenyan Army; he fought both Arab and Jewish insurgents in Mandatory Palestine; and he tried to keep the peace in Zanzibar when Arab and African citizens tried to massacre one another. More importantly, Mitchell had dealt with the EOKA insurgency in Cyprus. The Cyprus Emergency saw British troops employing the same successful tactics they utilized against the Chinese communists of Malaya, but it also saw British junior officers dismantle an ethno-political terrorist group that targeted British officials for assassination.

In Aden, the National Liberation Front and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen controlled the streets. These two groups attracted the “detribalized” men of Aden, many of whom regularly listened to Cairo Radio, an engine of Arab Marxism that Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser used in order to spread anti-Western ideas throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The “Arabists” in the British Army did not trust the Adeni at all. To them, the Adeni were “Loafers” and “Suk Rats.” Unfortunately, the Labor government identified themselves with the nationalists of Aden, many of whom also represented left-wing labor unions. This led to a permanent freeze on British combat operations in the city. British troops were supposed to quietly train their replacements (the South Arabian Army) then leave the city to its fate. FLOSY and NLF had other ideas.

Beginning in 1961, these two groups began a reign of terror that targeted not only the British Army and its Arab supporters, but also British civilians. On December 10, 1963, an NLF grenade attack on British high commissioner Sir Kennedy Trevaskis killed two and wounded twenty-four. A more infamous grenade attack occurred on December 23, 1964, when an NLF terrorist threw a grenade into a Christmas party hosted by a Royal Air Force officer. A sixteen-year-old girl died in the attack. All told, the British officials in Aden recorded 3,710 terrorist “incidents” between 1964 and 1967.

Despite this, the British Army maintained its passive status quo. This changed only on June 19, 1967. On that day, FLOSY and NLF agents within the British-trained Aden Armed Police mutinied and killed twenty-two members of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, the Royal Northumbrian Fusiliers, and Lancashire Regiment. Most of the casualties came when NLF/FLOSY gunmen surprised a convoy of British troops in armored cars. With their own men lying dead in the middle of the Crater district of Aden, the British brass decided to pull back and leave that district to the terrorists. Even the British tanks in Aden received stand-down orders.

A weak curfew was called, SAS agents entered the Crater, and snipers ringed along the hills overlooking the city traded shots with insurgents. Other than these tepid measures, the British fully abandoned the Crater.

Lt. Col. Mitchell saw this cowardice firsthand. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were due to take control of the remaining British outposts in the city just a few days later, so Mitchell was shadowing the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers when the mutiny broke out. Mitchell decided upon a completely different tact when it came time for his men to walk the streets of Aden.

“I took flamboyant risks in order to demonstrate to my own officers and NCOs that we led from the front,” Mitchell would later say about his leadership style in the summer of 1967. These “flamboyant risks” included telling a Scottish bagpiper to play “Monymusk” on July 3rd. On that same night, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched into the Crater without losing a man. Mitchell called this moment and the playing of the bagpipes “the most thrilling sound in the world.”

It stirs the blood and reminds one of the heritage of Scotland and the Regiment. Best of all it frightens the enemy to death.

Mitchell, whom the British press dubbed “Mad Mitch” because of his flagrant disregard for the orders handed down by his superiors, further demoralized his Arab enemies by unleashing the full wrath of his soldiers.[1] This became colloquially known as “Jock’s Law,” a type of tribal warfare wherein the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders acted more like conquerors than a regiment on the eve of leaving for good. The Jocks (the Scottish version of “Tommy” or “GI Joe”) became a law onto themselves—they beat suspected terrorists out in the open or pummeled them into submission at their regiment’s headquarters in the Crater. Some of these Jocks stole money from the Adeni, whom they considered dirty “wogs.” Much of this brutality was captured on camera, and to the surprise of the Wilson government, the British public loved it. The birth of “Jock’s Law” in Aden made “Mad Mitch” a hero. With camera’s rolling, “Mad Mitch” always reminded British viewers back on the home islands: “They know if they start trouble we’ll blow their bloody heads off.”

Mitchell, whom later historians have characterized as a “surreal relic of Britain’s colonial past: a crazed fusion of the Celtic madman, belligerent imperialist and cantankerous military commander,” angered the British establishment because he thumbed his nose at the idea that London should gracefully bow out of the world stage. Although the British Army punished Mitchell for his success in Aden by making a promotion impossible, “Mad Mitch” ultimately proved to the world that pure violence can be more effective in controlling unruly populations than any velvet glove treatment.

The Jocks of Mitchell’s regiment also proved the power of tribal thinking. Unlike their predecessors, the Scottish soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders effectively pacified FLOSY and NLF because they thought and fought more like a clan army than like rule-bound soldiers of a neoliberal state. The British establishment let the Argylls die out in 1974 after a three-year reprieve engineered by Mitchell himself. This is how the modern state treats its heroes.

Mitchell left the army in the late 1960s and  immediately went to work covering the Vietnam War for the Daily Express. He would later advise Prime Minister Ian Smith on how to deal with Marxist terrorists in Rhodesia and taught the mujahideen how to strike fear into the heart of the average Soviet soldier. In 1969, Mitchell published Having Been a Soldier, an incendiary memoir that excoriated what he called “white Arabs.” White Arabs were and are those Westerners who always seem to come down on the side of non-European peoples whenever the two meet in conflict. Mitchell also still had enough venom left to also criticize the inefficient bureaucracy of the Overseas Development Administration. The group, which supposedly helps developing countries mired post-war turmoil, only hindered Mitchell’s attempt to remove land mines from Cambodia.  “They don’t seem to understand that 250 people a month are being injured by these mines,” he said.

The life of “Mad Mitch” and his band of rogue warriors from the Highlands represents one of the last moments of true masculinity within the British armed forces. Rather than submit to the whims of the terrorists or the weak-willed Labor bureaucrats, Mitchell and his beloved regiment fought in the old way—the way that helped Britain to conquer almost half of the world. The last days in Aden provide a look into what postwar Britain could have been if the right men decided to lead the country out of its despair.

[1] Mitchell considered his superior, General Philip Tower, unqualified for the task of fighting in Aden. “For some reason I can  never understand, [General Tower] always wanted to talk about infantry tactics as if he understood what it was like to be a fighting infantryman.”

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3 Comments

  1. The YouTube video, if it’s not already linked in the article:

  2. His autobiography is good. I find war biographies tend to come in two flavors – the first is usually written very passively. Everything happens to the author who is powerless and never has a response other than how terrible it all is. This guy was of the second variety which is rarely passive, and mostly about how he took the situation in and responded or learned from it. He was a very live wire, one of a kind, and he is missed.

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