Richard George Mitchell was born in Winkleigh on 15th November 1893, the fourth of seven children in the family. His father was William Mitchell, a carpenter, who had married Grace Ann Letheren about 1887. For a time they occupied a large house in the village with its own garden around it off the north side of the main street. The first Mitchell came to Winkleigh early in the 18th century and married into a well known family there and seems to have done well. Most of his immediate descendants generally produced around five or six children, most of whom were boys, so the name Mitchell has survived in Winkleigh until today. Mitchells run the blacksmith establishment on the south side of the village, while other Mitchells often became carpenters. Although Letheren is a name common among farmers and other more wealthy people in and around Winkleigh, Grace Ann’s father was an agricultural labourer. He frequently moved around the area as the farm labour opportunities were disrupted by the industrial revolution. Grace Ann became a domestic servant to the last Dunning who owned Townsend Farm on the west side of the village close to the Mitchell blacksmith.
Richard George was one of several Winkleigh boys who joined the Navy as a profession and who subsequently got caught up in the war. Richard joined as a Boy Cadet on 15 July 1910 at the age of 17, and he was assigned to HMS Impregnable at Devonport. At that time he was described as being 5ft 3žin tall with hazel eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion but with a rash on the right side of his jaw. The Impregnable had originally been named HMS Howe, designed as a 121 gun ship with the first screw propulsion. However, she was never completed for sea service because she was already made obsolete by the first ironclad warships, and never carried more than 12 guns. Renamed Bulwark in 1885 when she became a training ship, but was renamed Impregnable about a year later. At the beginning of April 1911, Richard was recorded in the 1911 census aboard the Impregnable at Devonport. Two months later Richard was transferred to HMS Donegal as a start to his Seaman’s training.
HMS Donegal had been a 101-gun screw-driven first-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on 23 September 1858 at Devonport Dockyard. By 1886 she was past her prime, and she was hulked and merged into the Torpedo School at Portsmouth, and her name was changed to Vernon. In 1895 she was moved to Portchester Creek, along with the rest of the hulks making up the school. Richard was only on the Donegal for a couple of months and then a month at Vivid, the shore establishment at Devonport before his transfer to HMS Caesar to complete his training. The Caesar was completed in January 1898 was the largest battleship ever built at the time, boasting four 46-ton 12-inch guns and twelve 6-inch guns as well as five torpedo tubes and 9 inches of Harvey armour. Although initially coal fired, she had been converted to oil. Richard was promoted to Ordinary Seaman on 15 November 1911 when he signed on for twelve years service, by which time he had grown to 5ft 7in with brown eyes and black hair. He later transferred to HMS Carnarvon on 25 January 1912.
HMS Carnarvon was a Devonshire-class armoured cruiser launched in 1903. She had four 7.5in guns, six 6inch guns, twenty smaller guns and two torpedo tubes. She was transferred to the 2nd Fleet at Devonport and became the flagship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron. While on board, Richard was promoted to Able Seaman at the end of June 1913. Richard continued to serve n the Carnarvon until 5 October 1914 when he returned to Vivid, the shore establishment at Devonport until he was assigned to HMS Warspite six months later.
Richard joined HMS Warspite on 1 April 1915 and no doubt was a member of the torpedo section. Interestingly, Ernest John Isaac also from Winkleigh and on the Roll of Honour joined the Warspite on the same day. Warspite was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship which served in both world wars and earned the most battle honours ever awarded to an individual ship in the Royal Navy, including the most awarded for actions in the Second World War. She was commissioned 8 March 1915, being 639ft 5in long with a design speed of 24 knots, a complement of 925 to 1,220 and impressive armament that was changed from time to time. During the gunnery trials Churchill was present when she fired her 15in guns and was suitably impressed with their accuracy and power. When Richard was assigned to her, she was joining the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. Late that year, Warspite was grounded in the River Forth causing some damage to her hull; she had been led by her escorting destroyers down the small ships channel. After repairs, she rejoined the Grand Fleet, this time as part of the newly formed 5th Battle Squadron which had been created for Queen Elizabeth class ships. In early December, Warspite was involved in another incident when, during an exercise, she collided with her sister-ship Barham, which caused considerable damage to Warspite.
Between 31 May and 1 June 1916, Warspite fought with the squadron in the Battle of Jutland - the largest encounter between Britain and Germany during the war, and the biggest naval battle ever. The German Navy, which had been blockaded with other shipping, decided to lure the Home Fleet to Jutland with the objective of destroying a large proportion of the fleet. Thus the German fleet started to amass off Jutland but the Home Fleet arrived a little sooner than expected and attacked immediately on arrival on 31st May 1916. Warspite sustained fifteen hits, incurring such considerable damage that she almost foundered. Her steering jammed while attempting to avoid her sister-ship Valiant. Warspite’s captain decided to maintain course, in effect circling, rather than come to a halt and reverse. This decision exposed Warspite. The manoeuvres made Warspite a tempting target and inadvertently diverted attention from the badly-damaged cruiser, Warrior. This gained her the admiration of Warrior’s crew, who believed Warspite’s movement had been intentional.
The crew regained control of Warspite after two full circles. Their efforts to end the circular motion had the consequence of placing her on a course towards the German fleet. The rangefinders and the transmission station were non-functional and only “A” turret could fire, albeit under local control with 12 salvos falling short of their target. Sub Lieutenant Herbert Annesley Packer was promoted and mentioned in dispatches for his command of “A” turret. Due to her condition, Warspite was ordered to halt and make necessary repairs. Warspite would be plagued with steering irregularities for the rest of her service life.
During the battle, Warspite had 14 killed and 16 wounded; among the latter warrant officer Walter Yeo, who became one of the first men to receive facial reconstruction via plastic surgery. Although extensively damaged, Warspite could still sail under her own volition, and was ordered home by Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, commander of the 5th Battle Squadron. While on her journey to Rosyth, Warspite came under attack from a German U-boat. The U-boat fired three torpedoes, all of which missed their target. Warspite later attempted to ram a surfaced U-boat. She reached Rosyth, where her damage was repaired, and upon the completion of her repairs, Warspite rejoined the 5th Battle Squadron. Further misfortune struck soon afterwards, when she again collided with a sister-ship, this time Valiant. The incident necessitated repairs. In June 1917, Warspite collided with HMS Destroyer. In the following month, Warspite was rocked at her moorings in Scapa Flow when Vanguard, a St Vincent-class battleship, exploded with the loss of hundreds of her crew when an ammunition magazine detonated. In 1918, Warspite had to be repaired after a boiler room caught fire. On 21 November, Warspite, under the command of Hubert Lynes, set sail to receive the German High Seas Fleet into internment at Scapa Flow following the signing of the Armistice.
Richard continued to serve on Warspite throughout the war and did not return to Devonport until 6 January 1920. HMS Warspite continued active into World War II, earning the most battle honours ever awarded to an individual ship in the Royal Navy, including the most awarded for actions in the Second World War. The day after returning to Devonport, Richard was seconded to the Royal Australian Navy for 2 years returning to HMA London Depot (for submarines) before going back to Devonport to take on more assignments including a number of cruisers, during which time he signed on for a further 12 years in the Navy. By this time his eyes had become grey and his hair snow grey, and he had acquired a tattoo of a peacock and snake on his right arm and shoulder. His early service record ends in 1928 when it is transferred to the War Department and is only available to relatives.
10 November 2012