The first thing the Nazi garrison on Vågsøy Island, Norway, would have heard when the British No. 3 Commando battalion landed on December 27, 1941, was the sudden blaring drone of bagpipes. One commando stood at the fore of the landing craft, facing the impending battle and playing the peppy, martial "March of the Cameron Men." Upon coming to a halt onshore, the soldier jumped from the craft, hucked a grenade at the Germans, then drew a full sword and ran screaming into the fray.
That maniacally fierce soldier was 35-year-old Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, and his stunts at this battle, known as Operation Archery, were hardly the most bizarre and semi-suicidal of his life. Over the course of World War II, "Mad Jack," as he came to be known, survived multiple explosions, escaped a couple of POW camps, captured more than 40 Germans at sword point in just one raid, and in 1940 scored the last recorded longbow kill in history. And that's just the CliffsNotes on his wartime rap sheet.
For many war junkies and badass aficionados, Mad Jack's exploits are the epitome of military romanticism. His recorded statements, full of swagger like "Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed," and, "I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry 'jawohl' and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently," seem like the physical manifestation of some midcentury boy's adventure tale. The Royal Norwegian Explorers Club found him such a paragon of brawn and endeavor that, in a book released this March, they named him one of the greatest adventurers of all time.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Not much is known about Churchill's youth, save that he graduated from Britain's premier Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1926 and, at age 20, was shipped off to Burma, where he spent the next few years driving his motorcycle around the region. Possibly bored by a long peacetime, Churchill left the army for a period in 1936 and spent some time as a Nairobi newspaper editor, male model, and a bagpipe-playing, arrow-shooting extra in films like The Thief of Baghdad and A Yank at Oxford. By the end of the decade, he'd become so obsessed with the pipes that he took second place in a 1938 military piping competition at the Aldershot Tattoo, causing a mild scandal because an Englishman had beat out so many Scots. The next year, his archery habit landed him a place as Britain's shooter at the World Archery Championship in Oslo.
As soon as the Nazis invaded Poland and war became imminent, though, Churchill rushed to the battlefield. The longbow came out almost immediately during the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, France, in mid 1940. He took to practicing guerilla tactics, staging raids, and earning commendations for his bravery, even surviving a clipping by machine gun fire. Then, while watching a German force advance from a tower in the little village of L'Epinette, Churchill signaled his attack by shooting a Nazi sergeant through the chest with a barbed arrow, immediately followed by a hail of bullets from two fellow infantrymen in tow.
The next year, in 1941, Churchill volunteered to join the newly formed British commandos, with whom he launched his screaming Nordic raid. After emerging from the battle unscathed, a British demolition "expert" accidentally detonated a charge next to him, sending shards from the bottle of wine he was drinking into his forehead. But he was back on his feet soon after, joining the 1943 campaign in Italy, where he snuck out one night with a corporal, creeping from one German post to the next and surprising the guards with his claymore. By the end of the night he'd captured 42 prisoners with a sword and soon after earned the Distinguished Service Order.
In 1944, Churchill was sent to assist Josip Broz Tito's forces in Yugoslavia, leading a full frontal assault on a well-defended tower on the island of Brač. Leading a charge through strafing fire and mortars, he was one of only seven men to reach the target and, after firing off every bullet he had, found himself the last man standing. So he stood playing "Will Ye No Come Back Again?" on his pipes until the advancing Germans knocked him out with a grenade blast. The Nazis reportedly ignored orders to kill him out of respect, but it probably helped that they assumed he was a relative of Winston Churchill, which prompted them to send him to Berlin for interrogation. After proving he had no valuable intel and causing panic by lighting a trash fire during one of his moves, he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
He promptly escaped the camp, shimmying under a wire fence, and attempted to walk about 125 miles through Nazi territory to the Baltic Sea. He was captured just miles from the shore and transferred to another camp, this time in Italy. As should have been expected by then, he escaped in 1945, sneaking away during a power outage and walking about 100 miles using a stolen rusted can to cook what he considered liberated vegetables looted from Nazi-held fields until he found an American regiment in Verona and convinced them he was a British officer.
While his equipment might have seemed outdated, it did serve its purpose on the battlefield. "Both the longbow and the claymore were extremely effective in the right circumstances," says British weapons historian Mike Loades. "Both are capable of maiming and killing." Based on images of Churchill, Loades suspects he used a lightweight bow with a draw weight under 40 pounds, versus the 100-pound of medieval bows and 180-pound modern warbows. But, says Loades, "unarmored German troops during WWII present a softer target than men in armor during the middle ages. Consequently a really heavy bow would not be necessary." Modern bowhunters say a 70-pound draw bow can drop a deer easily at 20 yards, and a 40-pound bow would have a greater range, if lesser impact, so its killing potential in early modern times was still notable. Plus the bow had the benefit of silent firing.
Churchill probably didn't use his bow for stealth warfare, though. This was a man known to charge enemies waving a sword and screaming "Commando!" at the top of his lungs. Loades thinks this sort of bravado might have been a tactic used to intimidate the enemy into fearing the charge of an unexpected madman. But that tactical pomp and ceremony had limited utility, and wearing a sword could bog one down in landings and hamper movement through tight presses of men. "WWII infantry warfare entailed a lot of crawling on your belly and maneuvering into ambush positions," says Loades. "The clatter and clutter of a sword would not be helpful in such situations… That is why I refer to [Churchill's] advocacy of the sword in modern battle as Romantic affectation."
Loades still recognizes and admires Churchill's bravery. But his survival may have had just as much to do with his assumed insanity as it did with his skill and true grit. Bill Millin, the Scottish piper who played on the beaches of Normandy as memorialized in The Longest Day, later met German prisoners who'd seen him on the beaches. They told him they didn't fire because they thought he was obviously crazy. Similarly, there may be as much pity and confusion as intimidation and fear on the other side of the stories of Mad Jack.
Then there's the grim twist just under the surface of Churchill's Romanticism and braggadocio. The last of his famous lines is a brief requiem for the end of his beloved war: "If it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years." As Loades rightly points out, little glimmers into Churchill's psyche like this suggests his madness wasn't all fun story fodder worthy of lionization.
"Shooting someone with a longbow as the overture to opening up with rifles doesn't suggest a specific advantage for using the longbow in that situation," says Loades, "but rather a macabre curiosity of using the situation to see what it was like to kill someone with a longbow. Of course to the enemy, they were going to die either way, but I'm not entirely sure this is the clear-cut, honorable boy's adventure story it first appears to be."
If there was a glint of psychopathy in Churchill during the war, he kept a tight lid on it later in life. After the war, he continued to bounce from adventure to adventure. He showed up briefly in Burma again before training in his 40s to become a parachutist. But his new pursuits involved a lot less blood, and sometimes even outright nonviolent heroism, as when he moved to Palestine and protected a medical convoy and evacuated hundreds of Jewish doctors during the violence surrounding the formation of Israel. Years later he eschewed active battle completely, moving to Australia, where he paid the bills as a land-air warfare instructor but spent much of his time fostering a love of surfing. He'd later return home to England to design his own boards and surf the five-foot tidal bore of the River Severn while working a desk job for the military. By the time he'd retired in 1959, Churchill had mellowed out enough that we was content to spend the last 37 years of his life sailing coal-fired ships along the Thames with his wife, piloting radio-controlled model warships, and raising a family. Whether or not, in his shockingly placid sunset years, he still broke out the bow and blade form time to time for some old kicks remains unknown.