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Robert Mitchell

Veteran of the Yangtze Incident

Veteran of the Yangtze Incident

Born: May 13, 1930: Died: March 7, 2014

Robert Monteith Mitchell, known as Roy, who has died aged 83, was a veteran of the Yangtze Incident in 1949 in which the Royal Navy ship HMS Amethyst was trapped on the famous river for three months during the Chinese Civil War. The Amethyst was fired upon without warning by the advancing Chinese Communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) and was under siege for 100 days. The crisis later inspired the film Yangtze Incident starring Richard Todd.

Mr Mitchell was born in Glasgow and lived most of his life in the family house in Fleurs Avenue, Dumbreck. At the age of 16, he played rugby for Cartha Rugby Club and took part in their first game after the Second World War. After secondary school, he decided to do his national service by joining the Royal Navy in 1947. Like most national servicemen, he saw it as a way of seeing the world before getting on with his life, which in his case, meant studying physics.

Two years into his naval service, he was transferred to the frigate HMS Amethyst in the Far East as an Able Seaman Radar Operator. On a routine visit 100 miles up China's River Yangtze, the Amethyst was fired upon without warning by the Chinese Communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) which triggered off one of the Royal Navy's most dramatic post- Second World War incidents known as the Yangtze Incident.

On the first day, 21 of the crew including the captain and ship's doctor were killed and more than 40 were wounded. The ship was badly damaged with shell holes and broken superstructure, although the engines remained intact. Over the next few days, the navy tried to rescue the ship, but were unsuccessful and other ships, notably HMS Consort, incurred fatalities.

For 100 days the ship and crew, including Mr Mitchell, were under siege from the PLA who were now on both sides of the river with powerful shore batteries covering the ship. Food and fuel were in short supply.

The Acting Captain John Kerans opened protracted negotiations with the PLA but when it became apparent that negotiations had reached an impasse he put in place an audacious and high-risk plan. Using a passing Chinese sloop for cover at night, the Amethyst started its 100-mile journey to the sea and freedom. In spite of fire from the shore and no pilot with knowledge of the many shallows in the river, the ship made it.

Mr Mitchell and the crew each received a special bravery medal from King George VI, which was presented at Buckingham Palace. The incident also inspired the 1957 film The Yangtze Incident starring Richard Todd. He completed his naval service in 1955 without experiencing further action. He said he joined the Amethyst as a boy and came out a man, although for many years he was unable to speak about the trauma he experienced.

He then studied physics at what is now Strathclyde University. He developed a deep and lifelong interest in the theories of space, time, energy and motion. After university he set out privately to explore and question some of the major theories of physics. He was able to do so with the support of his family and a modest lifestyle.

All his life he was a prodigious walker. When young, he spent a month walking nearly the length of the Loire Valley and he did it in style in a kilt. He walked in many parts of Scotland, particularly in Skye and the Carradale area. In Glasgow, in the later years, the neighbouring children knew him as "the man who walks everywhere".

Extremely well informed, he had a love of geography and Scottish history as well science and languages. He took a great interest in Scottish politics and joined Craigton Branch of the SNP in the 1980s.

His love of walking made him suited to the campaign methods at election times when he stood as a candidate for Glasgow City Council. He was often seen in friendly discussion with his opponents who found it difficult to engage him in the more aggressive forms of discourse which were standard at the time.

He became chairman and then president of the branch. When Nicola Sturgeon won the Govan seat as a first-past-the-post Scottish Parliament member, it was he who delivered an acclaimed reply to the MSP from the branch at the celebration dinner in a south side restaurant.

His father, also called Robert Monteith Mitchell, was an accomplished engineer specialising in designing and building machinery for the bakery industry. His late eldest sister Elise was one of the earliest chiropodists in Scotland and, unusually, chose to work in a poorer part of Glasgow for over 20 years before joining the staff of Glasgow University where she became deputy head of the department and was popular with the chiropody students. His late youngest sister Betty became a senior secretary at the offices of Esso in Glasgow. The universal reaction to anyone who met or knew Roy was that he was a gentleman.

Courteous, modest and friendly, he was always interested in and respected the other person's viewpoint, even if it did not coincide with his own. He lived in Pollokshields in Glasgow before moving to Auchlochan Retirement Village in Lanarkshire.

He is survived by his sister Florence. Florence was appointed matron of the Victoria Hospital, Glasgow in 1968 and at the time was the youngest hospital matron in Scotland.

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Transport Tragedy

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