Gail Michener’s Mini Blog
This is a retroactive blog about my search for information on the World War II experiences of my father Stoney Mitchell, in particular the 3 weeks he spent as an evader in Denmark from 12 March to 5 April 1945. When I began my search in late 2010, many decades after the events of 1945, I naively assumed that only limited archival information would be available and that I would soon exhaust the available sources. Now, in 2014, I realize that although I have the big picture about my father’s training and operational experiences in Bomber Command and I have discovered almost every place and person relevant to his evasion across Denmark, more questions can still be asked, more people interviewed, and more archives visited.
Many people ask me how I found the information on my father’s evasion across Jutland, Denmark. The search has been rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the picture will be. Unexpected leads, serendipitous contacts, copious archives, numerous books, and the interest and thoughtfulness of many people in Australia, Britain, and Denmark continue to yield unanticipated details.
The goal of this mini blog is to trace the steps that led me from my father’s Danish memorabilia to a several-year search for the people and places involved in Stoney Mitchell’s war-time experiences. I plan to add to this blog, albeit at a somewhat desultory pace whenever I have no exciting leads to pursue. So, check back every so often to see if I have added an update on the next step I took in my search for information.
In the Beginning
Undoubtedly I heard my father Stoney Mitchell telling friends and family on his return to Australia about his escapades in Denmark after the Lancaster on which he was navigator was shot down in March 1945, but as a babe in arms I was too young to form memories of those tales. A cigarette case with an etched map of Denmark on the lid, two Danish identity cards with different photographs of my father in the name of Harald Nielsen, and three Danish paintings were such an integral and ever-present part of growing up in the family home in Adelaide, South Australia, that I never questioned their significance. My only relevant recollection is of my father telling me that the painting with a landscape showed the view from the room in which he was protected by Danes who hid him from the occupying Germans. In my childhood memory, the farm house was the only place he stayed in Denmark and he was there for 3 weeks, but now I know that this was just one of seven safe houses in which Stoney hid over a 24-day period before being smuggled to Sweden.
My father Stoney Mitchell kept in touch with several of his Danish helpers during the post-war years, and my parents planned to visit Denmark when returning to Australia from a holiday in England in 1959; however, we were unable to do so due to travel complications. Not until 1976 did my parents make that trip to Denmark, but by then I was living in Canada, married, raising a child, and pursuing an academic career. Denmark was a dormant topic in my life and might well have remained so if not for a chance conversation between two of my Australian cousins who then let me know that the web site Airwar Over Denmark not only had a page about the crash of my father’s Lancaster but a photograph of my father. I was beyond amazed when I saw that the photograph was contemporary with the one of Stoney’s false Danish ID cards – clearly taken on the same day and at the same place but differing in details such as the direction Stoney is glancing. That gave me the idea that I might be able to locate the brick wall in the background of the image, and in June 2011 I was able to stand at the very location in the back garden of a house in Herning where the photographs had been taken in March 1945.
What’s in a name? Stoney or Harold?
My father’s full name, as given in his birth certificate, was Harold Albert Stoney Mitchell, but he was known by different monikers depending on person and place. Professionally, as a solicitor, and formally, as President of the Moree Rotary Club, he used the name H.A.S. Mitchell. To his mother in his childhood he was “Boy”, to distinguish him from his twin sister Kath, who was “Girl”. To other members of his Australian family, including older siblings and various nieces and nephews, he was Harold. But to his friends he was known by his third given name of Stoney, the family surname of his paternal grandmother Sarah Stoney from Ireland. Thus Stoney was not a nickname and had no reference to his personality.
Two ID Cards
My father Stoney Mitchell has two false identity cards made in Denmark.
More on what’s in a name? Harold or Harald?
When Resistance members in Denmark forged false identity cards for Allied evaders, it was essential to choose a Danish name that the evader could recall spontaneously if questioned by authorities. Evaders were “tested” by the Resistance in practice sessions to ensure that they could state and sign their false name quickly and accurately; if not, another name was selected. Writing 32 years later, Mervyn Bertie who co-evaded with my father, reported “I was first allotted Nils Nielsen which was later changed to Peter Nielsen as I was more consistent with the latter signature.” For my father, the Danish Resistance chose his first given name of Harold. With a minor spelling modification the English Harold became the Danish Harald, and solicitor Harold Albert Stoney Mitchell became konsulent Harald Nielsen on his false identity card. Merv and Stoney were required to present their identity cards when the car taking them from one safe house to another was stopped by a German patrol. Toldstrup, the senior Danish Resistance member accompanying Merv and Stoney, blustered his was through the checkpoint by insisting they were all on their way to an important meeting. Consequently, the two Australians only needed to hand over their ID cards without having to speak.