Mad Jack Chambers, the only archer in World War Two.

‘Mad’ Jack Churchill: Soldier with sword, longbow and pipes

In his Times Past column this week, historian Jonathan Smyth looks at Mad Jack Churchill whose mother was from Co Cavan...

There was a touch of Errol Flynn about ‘Mad’ Jack Churchill’s swashbuckling persona as he went into battle with a broad sword and longbow. His daredevil bravery earned him the nickname ‘Mad’ Jack sometimes known as ‘Fighting’ Jack who not unlike Flynn, also appeared in a number of movies. ‘Mad’ Jack’s memorable motto was, ‘Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.’

Jack Churchill was born John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill on September 16, 1906, in Colombo, British Ceylon. His mother Elinor Elizabeth was the daughter of John Alexander Bond Bell of Kilnahard, County Cavan and his father Alec Fleming Churchill came from Oxfordshire and worked as a district engineer in Ceylon’s civil service, a job previously held by his father, John Fleming Churchill. Shortly, after Jack’s birth the Churchills returned to England and lived in Dormansland, Surrey. Jack’s brothers were Thomas Bell Lindsay Churchill and Robert Alec Farquhar Churchill. Robert, later known as ‘Buster’, was tragically killed in the Second World War.

Sword and Archery

As the second World War raged, Captain Jack Churchill headed into battle as the leader of ‘Two Commando’ dressed in a kilt and instead of having a machine gun he was armed with a set of bagpipes, a broadsword attached to his side and longbow and arrows slung over his neck and shoulder. Churchill was a fantastic shot with the bow and arrow, and he represented Britain in the 1939 world archery championships. The website tell us the story of him using his archery skills in the war as reported in the Dundee Evening Telegraph in May 1945 when on patrol some Germans were detected in bushes about 200 yards away. Churchill shot two arrows into the bush and recalled there were strange noises but no answering fire.

Churchill and his men were ordered on another occasion to capture a German observation post near Molina, Italy that controlled the pass leading down to the beachhead at Salerno. Having the help of Corporal Ruffel they captured forty-two German prisoners and took control of the military post with ‘Mad’ Jack only using his sword for a weapon, he over-powered one of the German guards and used him as a human shield creeping around the sentry posts forcing the Germans to surrender.

In the course of taking on the German military post Jack lost his treasured sword after a bout of hand-to-hand combat. As soon as the captured Germans were secured, he walked back to Salerno to find his blade, and on the way met a lost US military patrol heading towards the enemy but they did not listen to his warning. ‘Mad’ Jack told them he had no interest in going back the way they were headed for a ‘bloody third time.’ For his action at Salerno he won a Distinguished Services Order medal. In the same war he won a second Distinguished Services Order medal and a Military Cross for action in raids across Europe in countries like Norway, Sicily, and Italy.

In 1944, the MacLean Mission took him to Yugoslavia where he led the Commandos in support of Josip Tito’s ‘Partisans’. With an assembled team of Partisans to fight alongside ‘43 Commando’ and a troop from ‘40 Commando’ they attacked Brac Island; it was under German control and the raid was too dangerous to continue because of German gun fire and Jack withdrew the soldiers and decided to try a fresh assault on the following morning.

Next day Churchill and six soldiers did get past the enemy and as gunfire hailed down on them ‘Mad’ Jack played his bagpipes to keep the men in good spirits. However, the force of an exploding grenade thrown by a German rendered Churchill unconscious. When he regained his senses he found himself in the hands of the Nazis. When they discovered his name to be Churchill, German intelligence put him on a plane to Berlin where he was marched through the streets in chains. After some heavy questioning they sentenced him to a special prison in a concentration camp that they reserved for relatives of Winston Churchill. But as it happened, he was not actually related to the British Prime minister even though they shared the same surname. Later, Jack and three RAF men escaped the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in September 1944. They were re-captured and found themselves in the deadly hands of the SS, but fearing for their lives asked a German soldier for help, and luckily, questioning was transferred to the army and the SS were dismissed. Churchill escaped the concentration camp on three occasions until they were all eventually released in 1945. Jack’s brother, Thomas, also led a Commando unit in the Second World War and wrote a book ‘Commando Crusade.’

As already mentioned, he appeared in a number of movies. In 1924, Jack appeared playing the bagpipes in the Douglas Fairbanks Snr silent film ‘The Thief of Bagdad.’ Then in 1952, he was in the MGM movie Ivanhoe starring Robert Taylor, which was filmed in England. In the film, Jack Churchill played an archer shooting from atop Warwick Castle. Later, during his years as an instructor of land and air warfare in Australia, he took up windsurfing and, when he returned to Britain, became the first person to surf the ‘five-foot tidal bore’ of the River Severn.

Jack Churchill died in 1996 and, apart from his unique appearance on the battlefield with bagpipes, longbow and sword, there is another story to add to the eccentric life-story of the man whose mother’s family hailed from Co Cavan and it was from the time following his retirement from the army. Churchill went home each evening by train and, when nearing the stop he got off at, it is said that he perplexed and frightened the railway guards and passengers, by throwing open the carriage window as he fired out his briefcase. Once, when asked by an inquisitive person what he was doing, Jack replied that it was handier to fling the briefcase into the back garden than have to carry it all the way back from the station.


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