A service of thanksgiving has taken place for the life of a daring flyer who took part in one of the first RAF missions of the second world war.
The service at All Saints’ Church, Collingham, followed the cremation of Squadron Leader John E. F. Mitchell DFC, who died on New Year’s Day, aged 98.
Standard bearers paraded at the church to honour the man who flew many sorties during the war, first as a wireless operator and then as a pilot.
After leaving grammar school aged 16, and having seen a Zeppelin airship in flight, Squadron Leader Mitchell applied to be a boy entrant at RAF Cranwell, then a radio college.
He became a wireless operator because he was too young to be a pilot, and eventually was signals leader in charge of radio staff.
Squadron Leader Mitchell was posted to Wiltshire and then to Yorkshire, where he flew in Whitley bombers with 58 Squadron.
On September 3, 1939, when war was declared, he was among the aircrews to take to the skies over Germany to drop thousands of propaganda leaflets in the hope that public opinion could be swayed away from thoughts of war.
In an account of his war service, Squadron Leader Mitchell wrote: “At 11.15 hours on September 3, 1939, we listened to (Prime Minister Neville) Chamberlain’s fateful broadcast, and as darkness fell ours was among ten Whitleys laden with propaganda leaflets which got airborne for Germany, my log book recording that the ‘Anti-Nazis War’ had begun.
“On that first operational sortie I was flying with my regular pilot, Flying Officer ‘Peggy’ O’Neill, aboard a familiar Whitley, K8969.
“Even so it was the most surreal of experiences to be droning over a blacked-out Germany, where millions of people were both ready and willing to kill us.”
Distinguished Flying Cross
The five-man crew flew through the Ruhr Valley, specifically targeting Essen and Dusseldorf, before flying over the Maginot Line and turning for home.
At the end of 1939, Squadron Leader Mitchell and the crew were reassigned as air cover, escorting convoys in the English and Bristol channels and the Irish Sea.
Squadron Leader Mitchell went on to complete a first tour of 30 operational bombing missions over Holland, Germany and Italy.
He joined 207 Squadron, based at Langar Airfield, in May 1943 and finished a second tour, this time of 36 sorties, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in January 1944.
After qualifying as a pilot, he completed 1,600 flying hours, many in Shackletons and later in the jet-engined Vampire.
For the remainder of the war his duties included anti-submarine patrols and teaching young pilots.