The Other Churchill

“In my opinion, an officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed.”
Lt. Col. Jack Churchill

Recent events affirm once again the old axiom that war is hell. The war in eastern Europe triggered by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor Ukraine groans on into yet another freezing winter, and the war between Israel and the bloodthirsty terrorist group Hamas, continues to cause massive casualties among innocent people who are trapped in the middle. At the same time, other global hotspots in the South China Sea, along the coast of terrorist ridden Yemen and elsewhere threaten to burst into flames at any moment. Meanwhile such leaders as the megalomaniacal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the current leadership of Iran unceasingly plot yet further outrages. Even the Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro Moro casts lustful eyes upon the territory of his neighbor Guyana. Years ago, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet empire fragmented into fourteen independent states, the world experienced a sigh of relief. Could a new era of good feeling be dawning? Alas, it was not to be, and one fears will never to be.

Despite the horrors of modern warfare, it seems that flamboyant, larger than life characters often rise to the surface during times of conflict. Not that they loved war but that they seem to have been made for the cataclysms  that defined them. They are often recognized and remembered for their idiosyncrasies. In the course of World War II, such unique insignia as Sir Winston Churchill’s outsized Cuban cigars, General Douglas MacArthur’s corncob pipe and General George Patton’s brace of ivory handled six shooters have become part of our folklore.

One equally outsized but less well-known figure to emerge during World War II is Lt. Col. John Malcom Thorpe Churchill, often known by the handles Mad Jack Churchill or Fighting Jack Churchill. Perhaps remarkably, he had no relation to Sir Winston. Mad Jack was observed on more than one occasion leading a charge against enemy lines while waving a Scottish Claymore sword. He toted a bow and quiver of arrows and on at least one occasion, took out an enemy with a well-placed metal tipped arrow, the only person known to have made a kill with an English long bow during World War II. 

Mad Jack seems to have been made for the war and the war for him. At times, he led his commando unit into battle while wailing away on his bagpipes to the tune of  “The March of the Cameron Men.”

Churchill seemed to love all things Scottish. Perhaps he saw himself as a highland warrior from an earlier era. Be that as it may, sixty kills were attributed to him during World War II. He saw action on multiple fronts. On one occasion, he took 42 German soldiers’ prisoner and marched them back to British lines while brandishing only his sword. Afterward,  when asked about his characteristic sword, he responded, “Any officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed.”

Early in the war, he led raids against German lines along the Maginot line and across the French countryside. During that action, he was wounded in the neck by German fire, but continued to fight on. On one occasion, he rescued a severely wounded fellow officer, putting his own life at risk by doing so, an action that caused him to be awarded the Military Cross for Bravery back in the UK in the aftermath of Dunkirk.

It was after the escape from Dunkirk that he volunteered for commando training and was installed as leader of the legendary 2 Commando. While leading that unit, he took part in a raid against German emplacements in Norway. Landing in Italy at Salerno, he was awarded for yet another heroic action after leading his unit in eliminating a heavily fortified German position at the town of Piegoletti, where heavily fortified troops and artillery had been inflicting heavy casualties on UK troops. Spreading out his small group of 50 commandos, he surrounded the town and stormed it by night, inflicting heavy losses and taking 136 prisoners.

Who was this apparent madman who undertook such outrageous risks and often emerged triumphant? He was born on the island of Ceylon in the  Indian Ocean, now the nation of Sri Lanka, in 1906. After his family returned to the UK from years in British outposts like Hong Kong, he graduated from the British military academy at Sandhurst in 1926. He was a gifted bagpiper and an award-winning archer, representing Britain in 1939 in the Archery World Championship. At times, he served as a model and as an extra in movies like The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank in Oxford. Between the wars, he resigned his commission in the army in 1936 and returned to civilian life, but, as war broke out across Europe, he reenlisted in 1940.

In all of his actions, he exemplified legendary British pluck, pushing the envelope and emerging victorious time after time. But his luck finally ran out in 1944, after being dispatched to the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea where his unit was charged with fighting in support of Josef Broz Tito’s Yugoslav partisans. Knocked out by a German grenade, he was taken prisoner and moved to the notorious death camp at Sachsenhausen. But that was not the end of the story. Instead, he led a small band of fellow prisoners in digging a tunnel and escaping. Recaptured near the coast of the Baltic Sea, he was transferred to the Tyrol where the SS was ordered to execute him and 140 others. However, the German commander Captain Wichard von Alevensleben defied the order and set them all free. Churchill hiked to Verona in Italy, where he met up with a US unit.

After the conflict in Europe ended, Churchill was sent to Burma to continue the battle against stubborn Japanese forces in southeast Asia, but the atomic bombs that vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war there before he could go into action. Disappointed, he growled, “If it weren’t for the damned Yanks we could have kept this war going for another ten years.”

His career, however, was far from over. Sent to British mandated Palestine in 1948 during the war triggered by the successful effort to establish the independent state of Israel, he intervened in an attempt to rescue the Hadassah Medical Convoy who were trapped in a bus and under heavy enemy fire. Despite orders to not intervene in the conflict, Churchill led the evacuation of 700 Jewish doctors and their patients after 77 had been killed in their fiery bus. This event is detailed in the book O Jerusalem, by Larry Colins and Dominique Lapierre, and excellent history of the 1948 war.

What does a warrior do with his life when there is no longer a war to fight? Churchill remained active for many years, training Australian special forces and serving again as an extra in movies like Ivanhoe.

He survived back in his home country until passing away at the age of 96 in 1996. While Jack’s brother Thomas also served in British special forces and penned a memoir entitled Commando Crusade about the two men’s experiences during World War II, one can hope that more books and films will appear highlighting the life of this larger-than-life hero.


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Lorin Swinehart
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