John Brent Mills was born in Cape Town 1921. He attended Rondebosch High School and the University of Cape Town from which he graduated early to join the South African Army at the age of 18, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. He travelled north with the troops, ending up in Tobruk, where he was captured by the Germans. Struck down with dysentery, he was handed over to the Italians and invalided by hospital ship to Italy. Thus, unwittingly, began his love affair with that country when, after fleeing his internment camp on Italy’s signing an armistice, he hid in the hills with peasant farmers. They not only extended their generosity but also risked their own lives to feed and protect him and others like him on the run.
After the war Mills obtained his Masters degree in English Literature at UCT and then joined the South African Department of External Affairs. His first posting abroad was to the South African High Commission in London. It was there that he met and married Pamela Kirk and took her to post-war Italy on their honeymoon in 1948. He later secured two diplomatic postings to Rome, the last four and a half years as Ambassador to Italy and to the Vatican. His other postings were to Madrid, San Francisco and as Ambassador to Canberra, with stints back to Pretoria and Cape Town in between. After his retirement in 1982 he and his wife retired to Canberra to be closer to their three children.
Mills died in September 2009 after a debilitating form of Parkinson’s disease, which he endured with great courage. Despite this impediment he nevertheless managed to continue his creative talents up to a year before the end. In this he was effectively assisted by his wife, Pamela, an author in her own right. It is apposite to mention that Mills was widely known for his friendly and engaging relationships as well as his multifaceted interests. Apart from his literary skills, he was also a gifted painter, an excellent orator, an accomplished amateur performer on the stage, a voracious reader and a keen sportsman. One of his colleagues dubbed him a “veritable renaissance man, South African style”.