In 1940, the German commanders overseeing the push into France began to receive strange reports from the field. Seemingly at random, bodies were turning up that appeared to have been pierced by broad-head arrows or hacked with a basket-hilted claymore sword. In a war of rifles, artillery, and tanks, such injuries were obviously out of place and even a little bit daunting for the close, personal combat they implied. These strange casualties were the calling cards of Captain Jack Churchill.
Jack Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill was born on September 16, 1906, in Hong Kong to English parents, and lived his entire life with an affection for all things Scottish. A lifelong soldier, Jack knew no fear, and in fact thrived on violence. He graduated from the royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1926 and was commissioned to the Manchester regiment, but he left the army in 1932, exasperated by the seemingly endless stretches of peacetime in Europe. He spent his idle time mastering the bagpipes, a pastime considered quite unusual for an Englishman. Nevertheless, it was a pastime at which he excelled.
His leisure came to an end with Germany’s attack on Poland. Jack promptly reenlisted and was assigned back to the Manchesters. he entered into combat with the rest of his regiment, but with an important difference; Jack insisted upon carrying a bow, sword, and arrows with him. His name, being a bit of a mouthful, was abbreviated by his comrades to “Fighting Jack Churchill” or sometimes just “Mad Jack.” When the English put out a call asking for commando volunteers, Jack didn’t know what a commando was, but hearing it would involve more actions, he signed up.
While training for the commandos, Jack became famous among his fellow trainees for playing his bagpipes at 1 A.M., scolding sloth, and delivering ad hoc speeches such as: “There’s nothing worse than sitting on your bum bottom doing nothing just because the enemy happens to leave you alone for a moment while he has a go at the unit on your flank. Pitch in and support your neighbor any way you can!”
Mad Jack finished his commando training in 1940, and one of his first missions was to lead the Manchesters on an ambush against a Nazi patrol near l’Epinette, France. As his fellow soldiers remained out of sight, Jack crept to a favorable position, set aside his gun , and notched a barbed arrow onto his longbow. He pulled back the string and let the arrow loose, piercing the German sergeant an signaling the Manchesters to open fire. Hence Mad Jack became the first and only British soldier in the course of the war to kill an enemy with a bow and arrow.
In December 1941, as the Manchesters attacked a German-controlled beach in Norway, Jack once again secured his infamy by standing at the bow of the lead craft while playing “March of the Cameron Men” on his bagpipes. As his craft landed on the beach, he leaped from the boat, threw a grenade, and headed for the bay at full sprint. His report at mission’s end was matter-of-fact: “Maaloy battery and island captured. Casualties slight. Demolitons in progress. Churchill.”
In another attack, Mad Jack and one of his enlisted men managed to sneak up on a pair of German sentries making rounds. He leapt at the unsuspecting soldier, sword in hand, and shouted “Hande hoch!” The Germans obeyed, dropping their weapons and raising their hands. Jack’s enlisted companion escorted one of the prisoners back to camp. Jack, meanwhile, wrapped his belt around the other sentry’s throat and headed farther into German territory. At each guard post Jack’s prisoner would say something to lull the guards into complacency, at which point a mustached madman with a sword would jump out and order them to drop their arms. All in all, 42 German prisoners were captured that night.
In 1944, Jack’s luck took a slip when he was ordered into an impossible situation. Most of his squad was killed, and Jack was taken captive. After being hauled to Berlin for questioning, he was sent to a concentration camp at Niederdorf, Austria, where he was meant to stay until war’s end. He might have done so, but when the power went out one night. Jack was prepared. He had a rusty can and some onions. it was all that he needed. In the darkness and confusion, he simply slipped away from the guards and walked out of the camp.
The rusty can became a cook pot for the vegetables he liberated from the Nazis along his journey. Jack stayed off the road to avoid detection, and held a steady route south until he encountered a column of tanks bearing the white star of the U.S. Army. By the time he stepped out of the brush and snapped out a brisk Sandhurst salute, he’d been free for eight days and had walked 150 miles. Churchill was soon back in service, but by then the war in Europe had almost ended. Never one to let circumstances get him down, Jack asked to be put back in action, noting hopefully, “There are still the Nips, aren’t there?” By the time he was redeployed, however, the atomic bomb had been dropped and the war was over.
Mad Jack continued in the army until 1959, qualifying as a paratrooper and serving in the Palestine conflict. Even in retirement his eccentricities continued. On his train rides home each day, he frequently startled train conductors and passengers by throwing his attache case out of the train window. Before he died in 1996, he explained that he was tossing his case into his own backyard so he wouldn’t have to carry it from the station. It must have seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do for a man who once said, “People are less likely to shoot at you if you smile at them,” and “In my opinion, sir, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”