Mitchell, Ruth (c. 1888–1969)

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Mitchell, Ruth (c. 1888–1969)

American author whose adventures as the only American woman member of the Yugoslav Chetnik resistance forces during World War II kept her embroiled for years in bitter political controversies. Born around 1888; died in Belas, Portugal, on October 24, 1969; daughter of John Lendrum Mitchell (U.S. congressional representative, 1891–93, and senator, 1893–99) and Harriet Danforth (Becker) Mitchell; sister of William "Billy" Mitchell (1879–1936, brigadier general and advocate of the uses of air power in modern warfare); married Stanley Knowles; children:Ruth Knowles ; John Knowles.

Ruth Mitchell—daughter of a reforming U.S. senator, granddaughter of a robber baron, and sister of the famous and controversial advocate of naval aerial bombing, General William "Billy" Mitchell—gravitated toward a life of travel and intrigue. Although her inherited wealth would have enabled her to live a life of leisure, she chose instead to embark on a series of adventures that provided material for her writings. She came from a clan of Scots and her ancestry included strong-willed and unpredictable women and men. Her paternal grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, had left a modest bank clerkship in Aberdeenshire in 1839, arriving as a young man on the Wisconsin frontier. By the time of the Civil War little more than two decades later, he had turned a tiny insurance firm and a bank into the nucleus of a financial empire. As president of what was then the world's largest rail system, the 5000-mile Chicago, St. Paul & Milwaukee Railroad, he (like other robber barons of his day) accumulated a vast personal fortune that remained virtually untouched by taxation. In his final years, his financial empire centered around the giant Marine National Exchange Bank, and at his death, Alexander Mitchell was known to people in the Midwest as "the Rothschild of Milwaukee."

Ruth's father John Lendrum Mitchell inherited the business empire, but his interests were literature and the arts, experimental farming, philanthropy, and politics. Spending much of his youth traveling, he spoke five languages and was educated in Dresden, Geneva, and Munich. The Mitchell manor house, situated on an estate near Milwaukee named Meadowmere, was a showplace for displaying exquisite works of art, antique furniture, and other rare items John had discovered on his travels. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1891 and to the Senate two years later at a time when the United States was in the throes of economic depression, John Mitchell was a pioneer of advanced social thinking. He shocked his fellow millionaires in Congress by advocating such radical measures as the eight-hour work day, the progressive income tax, an anti-injunction law, and the "free silver" monetary reforms proposed by William Jennings Bryan.

His freckled, red-haired daughter grew up in Washington, D.C., in a large house on Capitol Hill, in the block now occupied by the Old Senate Office Building. While her father spent countless hours working for progressive legislation, Ruth's mother Harriet ran a tight ship at home. Six feet tall, Harriet Mitchell sat so rigidly upright that she never touched the back of her chair. She had ten children in all, of whom by far the most famous would be Billy, her first child, born in Nice, France. In time, Ruth's big brother Bill would be known as Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, a tireless advocate of the uses of air power who revolutionized modern warfare. Convinced that his thinking was correct, he antagonized many traditionalists in the U.S. military establishment and before his death in 1936 saw his career destroyed when his ideas threatened not only the status quo but powerful individuals whose rank rested on old patterns.

Although she grew up with nine competitive siblings, Ruth's unique personality developed early in life. Because of her family's wealth and social prominence, she displayed formidable self-confidence and as a child thought nothing of carrying on adult conversations with such luminaries as President William McKinley. She enjoyed the family's extensive travels and lived in Germany for a number of years, learning to speak perfect German. An expert equestrian, she could also perform creditably on the lute and violin. Although she felt at home throughout the world, Mitchell was particularly drawn to England, where she and her husband Stanley Knowles lived during World War I. During this period, she had two children, a son John and a daughter Ruth.

She and her family lived in the English countryside of Surrey at Chiddingfold Manor, and Mitchell transformed the coach house there into a miniature theater. Every year, 200 local children were kept busy making costumes and painting scenery for plays, written by Mitchell, in which they performed. The Chiddingfold Players became famous in the area, earning praise from the local press and drawing considerable audiences. With energy to spare, Mitchell launched a publication, the Friendship Travel Magazine, to share her love of travel with children. Within three years, the magazine had 50,000 subscribers. When letters came in asking if the places described in the magazine could actually be visited, Mitchell created a travel bureau, "The Young Adventurers," an early form of young people's travel based on low-budget reliance on hiking and youth hostels. Soon, thousands were seen rambling through less-trod regions of Belgium, France, and Germany, where they often spent their nights in renovated castles.

The rise of Nazi power in Germany ended Mitchell's experiment in international friendship. The Third Reich banned the German branch of the Young Adventurers program, seeing it as a threat to the spirit of nationalistic exclusivity they wished to cultivate among German youth. Seeking a new outlet, Mitchell took up photography, a skill she mastered quickly. A number of newspapers and magazines began buying her photographs, and she was soon in the Balkans on assignment. Sent to Albania in 1938 by the Illustrated London News to cover the wedding of King Zog and Queen Geraldine , Mitchell fell in love with the impoverished, history-rich region.

She was living in Yugoslavia in a house on the Adriatic when the Balkans were drawn into the expanding carnage of World War II. In late 1940, Fascist Italy invaded Greece but was badly defeated. By early 1941, Adolf Hitler had decided to bail out his bumbling ally and expand Nazi Germany's power into the Balkans. A nationalist coup d'état directed against multinational Yugoslavia's pro-Axis government sealed that nation's fate in late March 1941.

Sharing the impetuous personality of her late brother, the following month Mitchell appeared in newspaper stories across the United States. In an Associated Press news story dated April 2, 1941, she was described as having been sworn in as the first American woman member of the Komitaji, a near-legendary group of Serbian guerilla fighters who had a history of 400 years of mountain warfare against the region's Ottoman Turkish occupiers. Becoming a member of the general staff as a dispatch rider, she swore to defend Serbia's liberty to the death in the presence of Kosta Pechanatz, the white-bearded leader of the Komitaji. On the table in front of her were the implements of initiation, a dagger and a revolver. High in a corner of the room was a skull and crossbones, all that remained of a young man who had recently been killed. Pechanatz crossed her name off the list of those who had just applied for membership, explaining to her: "We just cross the name off, my girl, because we consider you dead when you become one of us. We value our lives as nothing. We may all be dead in a few weeks. I expect to die myself this time. How about you?" Mitchell replied instantly, "I am willing, too." Pechanatz then handed her a vial of poison, telling her it was a Komitaji boast that no member would be taken alive by the foe.

On April 6, 1941, the German Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade, reducing the city to rubble. Mitchell joined the exodus of refugees fleeing from the stricken city, walking on foot for ten days to reach Dubrovnik on the Adriatic. Here she was able to secure a travel document from an Italian officer and was ready to board a small ship to escape the German forces who had just arrived in the area. To celebrate her impending departure, she decided to go for a final swim. On the way back to her room, with a wet bathing suit slung over her shoulders, Mitchell was arrested by a German soldier. He allowed her to change her clothes, which enabled her to hide her Chetnik papers (with the onset of war, the Serb patriots of the Komitaji now called themselves Chetniks). Had these incriminating documents been found on her, Mitchell's fate would have been grim indeed.

Imprisoned by the German occupation government in Belgrade, she was accused of spying and court-martialed twice. After the second trial, which lasted four days, she was sentenced to death. Speaking to the judges in perfect German, she told them of the serious impact such a measure would have on U.S. public opinion. The judges then informed her that the evidence in the case would be transmitted to Berlin for reconsideration on a higher level. For the next several months, Mitchell was moved from prison to prison—from Belgrade to Graz, to Salzburg, and then finally to an internment camp at Liebenau in Württemberg, the area of southwestern Germany close to the Swiss frontier. Throughout the time of her detention, Mitchell's family and friends, many of them influential, worked behind the scenes in Switzerland to secure her release. In 1942, even though the United States and Nazi Germany were now at war, she was released (along with 184 other Americans in exchange for German nationals living in the United States) and repatriated home on the Swedish ocean liner Drottningholm.

The Drottningholm arrived safely in New York harbor in late June 1942. Mitchell was clothed stylishly in a dress that she said was the result of the combined efforts of several hundred British women with whom she had shared internment. Her hat, which came from Hendaye on the French-Spanish border, looked, according to The New York Times report, "as though it was fresh off Fifth Avenue." By no means averse to publicity, Mitchell was at the White House in late August to present President Roosevelt with a basket woven from the wrappings of Red Cross food packages, a token of thanks from the more than 300 British women who had also been kept at Liebenau along with Mitchell.

Scarcely settled in, Mitchell became an indefatigable defender of the Yugoslav Chetnik cause in the United States. By early 1943, the Chetniks were losing a fierce propaganda war fought by the anti-Nazi forces in Yugoslavia for Allied support. The Chetniks, led by Draza Mihajlovic (Mihailovich), were a Serb-dominated guerilla movement that was often accused of collaborating with the occupying German and Italian forces in order to gain an advantage over their rivals, the Communist-led partisan forces of Josip Broz Tito. Fiercely loyal to the Chetniks and strongly anti-Communist, Mitchell used every opportunity to make a convincing case for continued American support for the Mihajlovic forces. As honorary chair of the Serbian National Defense Committee in the United States, she spoke before many organizations, gave interviews, and published a book, The Serbs Choose War, as well as a pamphlet entitled Ruth Mitchell, Chetnik, Tells the Facts about the Fighting Serbs, Mihailovich, and "Yugoslavia." Her efforts were in vain, because by mid-1943 both the British and American governments had decided, largely for military and strategic reasons, to switch their support from the Chetniks to Tito's partisans.

Incensed, Mitchell felt that she and her fellow Chetniks had been betrayed. She continued to appeal to public opinion to reconsider policy changes favoring Tito and attacked Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information, whom she accused of having delayed publication of her book. Davis responded by suggesting that Mitchell had been "making all sorts of wild statements." Soon she was no longer part of a mainstream dialogue. Instead, she found a receptive intellectual home in the pages of The American Mercury, a journal of the extreme Right that in July 1943 published an article in which she alleged that Mihajlovic and his forces had been the targets of a "worldwide communist smear that failed." Whereas the reality of the situation was much more complex and often muddled, to Mitchell "her" Chetniks—whom she saw as victims of a frame-up—represented the forces of Good, while Tito—whom she incorrectly described as a Hungarian, and who had been "parachuted in from Russia during November 1941"—was an incarnation of Evil.

Tito's partisan forces, assisted by the Soviet Army, liberated Yugoslavia in 1944–45. The Chetniks, branded as Nazi collaborators, were either executed on the spot or placed on trial as traitors to the new Yugoslavia. At the Mihajlovic trial in Belgrade in 1946, the chief of security for the quisling government, Dragomir Yovanovitch, claimed that the woman he had seen in Gestapo headquarters in Belgrade in August 1941, in the company of a group of collaborationist Chetniks, was none other than Ruth Mitchell. In the United States, Mitchell responded to Yovanovitch's serious charges by admitting that she had indeed been seen with the Gestapo on the occasion of her arrest and court-martial for Chetnik activities.

The matter was never clarified, and much remains unexplained regarding Ruth Mitchell's activities in the Balkans before and after April 1941. Was she arrested while on an intelligence mission for the British? Was she simply a wealthy American tourist and adventurer caught up in the maelstrom of events? Was she a double agent? While it is possible that documents in some archive yet to be opened will clear up the matter, it is more likely that we will never know what precisely motivated her activities. Perhaps she was an amateur spy, and not a very good one at that. As early as mid-May 1941, only a few weeks after she had so dramatically sworn allegiance to the Chetnik cause, Mitchell was described by a Montenegrin Chetnik leader as having become a "nuisance" to his organization.

Ruth Mitchell faded from the public view after the mid-1940s and returned to Europe. In 1953, she published a biography of her famous brother, My Brother Bill. She lived her final years in Albufeira, Portugal, and died in a nursing home in Belas, Portugal, on October 24, 1969.


"Bombing Can't Win, Elmer Davis Says," in The New York Times. August 10, 1943, p. 5.

"Chetnik Trial Told of Ruth Mitchell," in The New York Times. June 21, 1946, p. 9.

"Croat Chief is Put On Komitaji 'List,'" in The New York Times. May 14, 1941, p. 6.

Davis, Burke. The Billy Mitchell Affair. NY: Random House, 1967.

"Fight on Fascism Urged by Adamic," in The New York Times. December 13, 1943, p. 7.

"Gen. Mitchell's Sister Safe in Nazi Prison," in The New York Times. June 7, 1942, p. 17.

"Late Gen. Mitchell's Sister Joins Yugoslav Komitaji to Fight Nazis," in The New York Times. April 3, 1941, p. 3.

Lawrence, Christie Norman. "Danielle—Chetnik," in Irwin R. Blacker, ed., Irregulars, Partisans, Guerrillas: Great Stories from Rogers' Rangers to the Haganah. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1954, pp. 268–285.

Milazzo, Matteo Joseph. The Chetnik Movement and the Yugoslav Resistance. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Mitchell, Ruth. "General Mihailovich: The Story of a Frame-Up," in The American Mercury. Vol. 57, no. 235. July 1943, pp. 25–34.

——. My Brother Bill: The Life of General "Billy" Mitchell. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

——. Ruth Mitchell, Chetnik, Tells the Facts about the Fighting Serbs, Mihailovich, and "Yugoslavia." Arlington, VA: The Serbian National Defense Council, 1943.

——. The Serbs Choose War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1943.

"New York Man Dies on Evacuation Ship Sailing From Lisbon With 949 of Americans," in The New York Times. June 21, 1942, p. 22.

"President Gets Basket From British Women," in The New York Times. August 26, 1942, p. 8.

"Renews Attack on OWI," in The New York Times. July 16, 1943, p. 5.

Robertson, W. Graham. Old Chiddingfold: A Village Pageant-Play. Chiddingfold, Surrey: The Pageant Committee, 1921.

"Ruth Mitchell at Lisbon," in The New York Times. June 19, 1942, p. 3.

"Ruth Mitchell, Who Fought With Chetniks, 81, Dies," in The New York Times. October 26, 1969, p. 82.

"Serb Patriot Held in Yugoslav Row," in The New York Times. July 13, 1943, p. 9.

"Serb Warned on Threat," in The New York Times. July 17, 1943, p. 6.

Thayer, Mary Van Rensselaer. "Ruth Mitchell: American Chetnik," in The American Mercury. Vol. 56, no. 229. January 1943, pp. 16–23.

"Tito is Condemned by Miss Mitchell," in The New York Times. June 24, 1946, p. 7.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia