In a war that featured, for the first time, “modern” formidable weapons such as grenades, mortars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and armored tanks, one eccentric young soldier decided early on to buck traditional convention and stick what he was most comfortable with. Thus, John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, who came to be known as “Mad Jack,” fought in World War II using a sword, bow, and a quiver of arrows, an arsenal that proved quite effective and earned Mad Jack two Distinguished Service Orders, a Military Cross, and a promotion to commanding officer. When asked about his outdated weaponry, Mad Jack flatly stated, “In my opinion, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Romantic and sensitive, Mad Jack was an avid reader of history and poetry, knowledgeable about castles and trees, and compassionate to animals, even to insects. But on the battlefield, enemy soldiers called him the “British Demon”.
Jack Churchill graduated from the Royal Military Academy in 1926 and prior to World War II, worked as the editor of a newspaper, male model, and movie extra (he appeared in The Thief of Bagdad with his bow and arrow). In between, Churchill found time to shoot his bow and arrow for Britain during the 1939 World Championships in Oslo, Norway and to tour across India on his Zenith motorcycle. During his 1,500 mile trek across India, he made newspaper headlines when he crashed his bike into a water buffalo. The newspaper report noted how Churchill pushed his motorcycle across the many railroad bridges that spanned the rivers and canyons, by stepping on the sleepers (railroad ties) while balancing his motorcycle on the narrow rails.
By the time World War II erupted, Churchill had already grown bored with the army and had left after 10 years of service. He happily returned to service noting that his “country has gotten itself into a jam in my absence.” Armed with his trusty basket-hilted claymore sword strapped to his side and his bow and arrows slung around his neck (the weapon was silent, accurate to 200 yards and lethal), Mad Jack marched onto the battlefield and began wreaking havoc on the enemy, earning a reputation as a British “demon” inside the combat zone.
Barely a year into service, word of a battlefield “demon” began to spread amongst the German troops. In May 1940, Churchill and his unit ambushed a German patrol near Lepinette, France. Churchill gave the signal to attack by cutting down the enemy’s sergeant with a carefully-aimed barbed arrow through the neck (and thus becoming the only British solder known to have felled an enemy with a longbow in WWII). Later Churchill was seen returning to camp on his motorcycle, his bow strapped to the side, and a German officer’s cap dangling from the motorcycle’s headlight.
On December 27, 1941, Churchill’s battlefield antics earned him further acclaim. In a raid on the German garrison at Vagsoy, Norway, Churchill was seen leaping from the boat as the ramps fell on his landing craft. Bagpipes in hand, he bounded forward playing “March of the Cameron Men” before hurling a grenade and rushing into battle, ahead of his troops, bagpipes tucked under his arm, bow and arrows around his neck, and his Scottish broadsword swinging from his waist. His heroic actions that day earned him a Military Cross and Bar award.
Two years later, Churchill’s legendary status grew further after he commanded an attack against a critical German observation post in a town near Salem. Churchill, who used his bow and arrow to silently pick off the enemy soldiers one-by-one, and three other men successfully infiltrated the town and captured the post, taking 42 prisoners who were so frightened by the British “demon” that they surrendered to the four men on the spot. He lead the captured prisoners back down to the Salem beachhead with the wounded being pushed on carts by dreary German prisoners. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions that day.
Next, Churchill was sent off to Yugoslavia where he led a series of raids against the Germans from the island of Vis. In May 1944, he initiated attacks on several heavily mined hilltop positions. Mad Jack led one group up one of the hills, with fighting so fierce, all but six men perished on their way to the top. At the top of the hill, the battle continued and before its end, all had perished except for Mad Jack who found himself in unprotected, open view of the enemy. In such in indefensible position, Churchill did what any sensible soldier would have done – he began playing Will Ye Not Come Back Again on his bagpipes as the bombs continued to explode around him until he was knocked unconscious by the German grenades and captured. Less than 48 hours after his capture, he wrote a factitious note to the German commander:
At the bottom of the letter, Mad Jack signed his name followed by his home telephone number.
A few months after his capture, Churchill escaped the prison camp by climbing through a drain pipe underneath the camp’s protective barbed wiring and walking casually down a nearby beach. He was recaptured soon thereafter and placed in a more secure facility in Austria where he once again escaped by walking away when the camp’s lighting system temporarily failed. This time he evaded capture until he eventually came across a friendly garrison who transported him back to safety.
When the Pacific War wound down after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Churchill was said to be unhappy with the sudden end of the war. He was quoted as saying:
“If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years.”
Mad Jack continued military service after the war’s end. He qualified as a parachutist and was sent to Palestine as second-in-command of the 1st Battalion (becoming the first and only officer to command both Parachute battalions and Commando units). By 1948, he was stationed in Israel in order to battle the spreading acts of terrorism in the region. On April 13, 1948, Arabs ambushed a Jewish convoy of medical doctors who were heading to a local hospital near Churchill’s commanding station. Churchill ordered reinforcements for his small force and while waiting, walked alone towards the ambush, smiling and carrying a blackthorn stick in hand. “People are less likely to shoot you if you smile at them,” he later told his battalion. Churchill managed to evacuate some of the Jews captured during the ambush as well as 500 patents who had been penned down at the nearby hospital.
In later years, Churchill served as an chief instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia where he picked up surfing as a pastime. He designed his own surfboard and became the first person to ride the River Severn’s five-foot tidal bore.
After retirement, Churchill devoted himself to his hobby of buying and refurbishing steamboats on the Thames; he acquired 11, which made journeys from Richmond to Oxford. He was also a keen maker of radio-controlled model boats, which he sold at a profit. Despite his advanced age, he also took part in several motorcycle speed trials.
In retirement, Mad Jack’s eccentricity continued. He startled train conductors and passengers by throwing his suitcase out of the train window each day on the ride home. Churchill would open the train window, hurl out his briefcase, then calmly return to his seat. He later explained that he was tossing his case into his own back yard so he wouldn’t have to carry it home from the station.
Churchill retired from the army in 1959 and died at 89 years of age in Surrey on March 8, 1996. He left behind a wife, two sons, and the legend as one of the world’s most courageous, but eccentric, military soldiers.