It’s July 22, 1943, and the menace of war hangs heavy in the air. The Allied forces are preparing to invade Sicily, off the boot of Italy, and the British No. 2 Commando regiment land close to the city of Catania. The men are led by their commanding officer, Jack Churchill – an imposing and heavily armed figure with an extraordinary weapon tied around his waist. And what this fearsome soldier does during the war will become the stuff of legend.
Yes, the No. 2 Commando’s leader would make quite the name for himself in the epic theater of World War II. The Brit was a charismatic – some would say eccentric – and seemingly fearless warrior. Indeed, the commanding officer was dubbed “Fighting Jack Churchill,” or perhaps even more terrifyingly, “Mad Jack.”
Now, Churchill became known for his immense bravery and cunning under fire. His exploits and gallantry in the global conflict would lead to him being bestowed with the Military Cross and Bar, coveted awards saved for the bravest British and commonwealth soldiers. Officially they are awarded for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy.”
Also, Churchill would become renowned for his unique choice of weaponry. Indeed, there were two weapons that “Mad Jack” would seldom – if ever – leave behind. Furthermore, they were not the arsenal one would immediately associate with World War II, like say, the Thompson submachine gun used by the U.S. army.
So what was it that Churchill did in World War II that was so extraordinary? Why is he such a legendary figure? What weapons and equipment could he not do without? Well, we’ll get to those answers shortly. Firstly, though, let’s take a look at the early life of this most remarkable of soldiers.
Churchill entered the world on September 16, 1906. And his full birth name was John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill. Interestingly, his place of birth was the city of Colombo, which is situated in modern day Sri Lanka. Back then, the country was a part of the British Empire, a colony known as Ceylon, or British Ceylon.
Upon his birth, baby Churchill was thrust into a long-established lineage of that family name. His ancestors and parents had settled in Oxfordshire, a county in southern England. And he was the first son of Alec Fleming Churchill and his wife Elinor Elizabeth. Churchill inherited Anglo-Scottish ancestry on his father’s side, and a degree of Irishness from his mother.
Now, Churchill was the eldest of three sons born to Alec and Elinor. “Mad Jack’s” two younger brothers were named Thomas Bell Lindsay and Robert Alec Farquhar. And both of his siblings would go on and join the fight against fascism in World War II. Sadly, the youngest of the Churchill brothers would lose his life in battle in 1942.
Anyway, the future soldier’s birth in British Ceylon was a consequence of his dad serving in the Civil Service as a district engineer at the time. “Mad Jack’s” father also served in Hong Kong, and became director of public works there. However, the Churchills would move back to the United Kingdom in 1917, at a time when World War I was raging.
Back home in England, Churchill would go on to attend Oxford’s Dragon School. After leaving there, he moved to the Isle of Man, a British dependency located between British shores and the Republic of Ireland. On returning to England from that vibrant island, he would begin his military rise.
Yes, Churchill would attend the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst after his basic schooling on the Isle of Man. The world-renowned training center readies all prospective British Army Officers for leadership. In particular, the Officer Cadets are taught to live by Royal Sandhurst’s sacred motto: “Serve to Lead.”
So Churchill passed his leadership audition at Sandhurst, graduating from the Military Academy in 1926. That very same year, he was placed into the British Army’s 2nd Battalion, known as the Manchester Regiment. And it would be the beginning of a great adventure for the young Englishman.
Indeed, a 20-year-old Churchill was dispatched to Rangoon, Burma with the battalion, and he served for several years in the territory. Like Ceylon where he was born, Burma – which is now known as Myanmar – was under British control at the time. The country in Southeast Asia would be a province of India from 1919 until 1937, later becoming a British colony until its independence.
Anyway, the adventurous Churchill apparently enjoyed riding across the Burmese landscape on his motorbike when he had any downtime. However, by 1936 he would leave the army. It has been claimed that perhaps there hadn’t been enough conflict during the period for him. In any case, it seemed to allow him some respite. Yes, Churchill went on to spend some time in Nairobi, Kenya, editing a newspaper, and even indulging in a bit of male-modeling.
Strikingly, the trained officer also considered acting. Writing for VICE in 2014, Mark Hay noted that Churchill appeared as a “bagpipe-playing, arrow-shooting extra in films like The Thief of Baghdad and A Yank at Oxford.” In fact, the bagpipes would become a real instrument of choice for him, despite his English heritage.
Indeed, Churchill was trained to play the bagpipes. In actual fact, he became so good at them that in 1938 he achieved second place in an army piping contest. This reportedly irked many Scots and caused a minor furor. Evidently noses were put out of joint by the fact an Englishman had bettered several of them in their traditional instrument.
But Churchill’s talents didn’t stop at bagpipes and acting. You see, “Mad Jack” was also a talented archer. So capable in fact that he was selected to represent Great Britain at the World Archery Championship in Oslo, Norway in 1939. Like his bagpipes, this skill set would serve him well as he moved forward into the next chapter of his life.
Of course, that very same year, there would be a major development in world politics. Nazi Germany, which had already annexed Austria and absorbed the Sudetenland into its borders, illegally invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on the nation, led by Adolf Hitler. So the second major global conflict of the century was underway.
As a result, Churchill re-joined the Army, and became a part of Great Britain’s force sent to France. And “Mad Jack” stood out immediately due to not one, but two, highly unusual choices of personal weaponry. First of all, Churchill carried with him an archer’s longbow, an armament dating back as far as the Neolithic period.
You see, the longbow was a key weapon for the English from the 13th to 16th centuries. What’s more, it was used to great effect by the British in the so-called Hundred Years’ War with France. But surely it had no place in a 20th century conflict? Then again, Churchill was not a conventional soldier.
Yes, “Mad Jack” would reportedly reach for his trusty longbow as the Allies retreated towards Dunkirk in mid 1940. As his unit launched a raid, Churchill surprised an unsuspecting Nazi patrolman, firing an arrow right into his body. The hit would make him the only British soldier to kill an adversary with that old-school weapon during World War II.
So the officer began to earn the respect of his superiors in the British forces for both his courage and tactical intelligence. What’s more, he began to employ guerilla warfare, often performing daring raids on the unsuspecting enemy. His bravery was commended when he survived being hit by German machine guns.
Churchill would then perform a memorable maneuver in May 1940. When a Nazi patrol ambushed a group of Churchill’s men near L’Epinette, France – he green lighted an attack on them. He then fired his longbow through one Nazi’s chest, as two of his comrades followed his lead, firing from their guns.
Following his exploits in L’Epinette and Dunkirk, Churchill decided to take the next step in his military career. After a new specialist fighting force was formed by the British for carrying out raids and reconnaissance in Nazi-occupied Europe, “Mad Jack” put his name forward. This well-drilled and agile force would be known as the Commandos.
Now, the initial maneuvers undertaken by the elite fighting unit were relatively minor, but in time they became more significant. By the time Churchill reached Nazi-occupied Norway in 1941 with No. 3 Commando, he had already moved up to deputy commander. And he essentially took the lead in a daring raid known as Operation Archery.
Yes, as the Commandos launched a daring attack on a Nazi garrison in Vågsøy, Norway, Churchill was right at the front and center of it. Just as the landing craft carrying the soldiers released its ramps, “Mad Jack” leapt into action in an unusual fashion. He blew into the bagpipes he had with him – blaring out “March of the Cameron Men” – before hurling a grenade at the enemy.
That instance of bravery, alongside other actions in Norway, would see him awarded with the Military Cross and Bar. Following Norway, the officer had a close brush with death in a farcical episode. You see, he was next to a hapless demolition expert when a charge was unintentionally detonated, the explosion sending shards of glass from a wine bottle “Mad Jack” was enjoying into his forehead.
After picking the glass out of his skin, Churchill was soon ready again to throw himself into battle. And his inimitable style of combat would next make its mark during the Allied campaign in Italy in July 1943. This time “Mad Jack” would be directing No. 2 Commando as they landed in the port city of Catania, Sicily, overlooked by the giant volcano Mount Etna.
You see, Churchill carried more than just his trusty longbow and bagpipes with him when he went into battle. He also strapped a Scottish broadsword across his midriff. Yes, you read that correctly: “Mad Jack” brought along a humongous sword in World War II, and it would be used to remarkable effect.
By mid-August 1943 the Allies had captured Sicily and the fascists were forced to retreat to mainland Italy. However, the Axis powers fighting there were able to keep hold of most of their armaments and equipment as they fled. Next, No. 2 Commando and Churchill – with his broadsword in hand – landed at Salerno, which lies close to Naples in the south of Italy.
And in the Salerno campaign “Mad Jack” would really live up to his moniker, with arguably his craziest wartime achievement yet. Churchill was tasked with capturing a Nazi observation position on the outskirts of nearby Molina, which overlooked a pass that winded down to Salerno’s beach. It was an extremely risky mission, and if it went wrong the eccentric Brit’s war, and indeed life, could be over.
Armed with his broadsword and aided by a corporal from No. 2 Commando, Churchill was able to creep into the small town and take control of the strategic German position. During the daring night raid the pair of them were able to capture an astonishing 42 Nazis. Even by his own illustrious standards, this was a badass effort.
Then Churchill and the corporal led their newly captured prisoners back down to the Salerno beach; the injured being transported by carts thrusted by detained Nazis. In John Parker’s book Commandos: The inside story of Britain’s most elite fighting force he is quoted as saying that it was like “An image from the Napoleonic Wars.” As a result, Churchill would be awarded with the Distinguished Service Order.
Now, Churchill – who once remarked “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed” – soon realized he had left behind his beloved weapon during the fighting in Molina. And when he wandered back to recover it, he bumped into a U.S. patrol who were unwittingly marching towards the enemy’s territory. When the patrol commander declined to change direction, “Mad Jack” told them he wouldn’t come back for a “bloody third time.”
Churchill’s next campaign with the Commandos would be in Yugoslavia, providing military support for Josip Tito’s Partisan resistance. In May 1944 “Mad Jack” was given instructions to attack the Nazi-held island of Brač. So he pulled together a force of some 1,500 Partisans and 44 Commandos. The new-fangled force’s landing was made without incident, but the Nazi gun emplacements were considerable, leading to them to delay the raid.
When the 40 Commando element of the anti-fascist force was ready, Churchill puffed on his bagpipes to signal the attack. “Mad Jack” directed an advance towards a heavily-fortified tower. And while he made it to the top, he was the only one of the resistance fighters standing. Astonishingly, instead of surrendering, he chose to stand and play “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his bagpipes until the Nazi forces rendered him unconscious with a grenade.
Fortunately for the quirky officer, the Nazis decided against killing him on the spot. This may have been because they falsely believed, from his surname, that he was a relative of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The eccentric Englishman was thus taken to Berlin for interrogation. But “Mad Jack” didn’t have the desired intel and was subsequently sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Remarkably, Churchill would almost escape the camp in September 1944, sneaking through a drain with a RAF comrade before being picked up by the Nazis just a few kilometers from the Baltic sea. After that, he was moved to Tyrol, Italy. Eventually, after being released, “Mad Jack” reportedly undertook an epic journey on foot to Verona, Italy – a cool 150 kilometers – where the U.S. Army picked him up.
Then in 1945, Churchill was sent to the Pacific Theater. But just as he made it to India after fighting the Japanese in Burma, World War II concluded with Japan’s surrender. Post-WWII, Churchill entered the Highland Light Infantry. He served in British occupied Palestine and led rescue and evacuation operations for Jewish settlers who were being assailed by Arab forces.
At 53, Churchill officially retired from military duty, living out his final years in the United Kingdom. And he died in 1996, just six months short of his 90th birthday. But his legacy as one of World War II’s most badass soldiers lives on. For you see, “Mad Jack” was born to fight. In fact, he’d remarked, “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”