“Mad Jack” Churchill: WWII British Officer, Archer, and Adrenaline Junkie

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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William Tecumseh Sherman famously stated, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

If Sherman’s goal was to abbreviate war by gritting his teeth and indulging in it without pleasure, then he was a very different type of soldier than Jack Churchill.

See, “Mad Jack” Churchill didn’t want the great war of his life—World War II—to end at all. He was having too much fun. In some ways, he was like the eccentric thrill-seeking billionaire Richard Branson, only instead of windsurfing, his thing was braving machine gun fire so he could get close enough to hit German soldiers with his sword.

Did that make him a psychopath? Look, I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure “psychopath” isn’t even in the DSM-5, so that’s a moot point.

Let’s just say that Jack Churchill was wired a little differently than the rest of us. It’s a lesson one unfortunate German sergeant learned in May of 1940 when he looked down to see a longbow arrow sticking from his chest.

Quixote Ugly

Before I start rattling off the insane feats of combat that luck afforded Jack Churchill—who, get this, did not die in combat—let’s take a moment to chew on his background. How do you even make a fear-deficient, martially anachronistic, murderous Don Quixote?

“Oi, Jack—we all love the pipes, mate, but maybe shut it while we’re on recon, yeah?”

To start, he wasn’t born “Mad Jack.” Instead, he was born in 1906 as John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, which is too many names, so he went by “Jack Churchill.”

As the son of an old Oxfordshire family, he had a quiet upbringing in Oxfordshire, England, where he—ah, I’m just messing. He was born in Hong Kong, where his old man was the director of public works. Jack spent his time there exploring rural areas around Hong Kong until his family moved back to England in 1917. He had developed an unslakable thirst for adventure and exploration early on, so he kept that up in England.

As an adult, he got into the soldiering life straightaway, and graduated from the Royal Military College in Sandhurst in 1926. From there, he went back to Asia and was stationed in Burma (now Myanmar) with his regiment.

It seems like the army wasn’t enough to satisfy Jack’s adventuring spirit (especially not during peace time), so he spent his free time in Burma riding a motorcycle across most of the country, just to see what was where. Oh, and he learned to play the bagpipes. Why not?

Eventually, Burma, bagpiping, and British army-ing weren’t enough for Jack Churchill. In 1936, he left the military and moved to Nairobi, Kenya.

“What does an on-sabbatical professional soldier do for money in Kenya?” you might be asking. Well, for one, he became a newspaper editor. And, like so many of us who work in publishing, he supplemented his income by working as a model. After that, he went home to England and acted in a couple of movies.

You: “Wait a second—I remember him from The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank at Oxford!”

Yup! He was in both of those movies!

OK, truth time: I haven’t seen either film, so I can’t speak to his acting ability. But Churchill didn’t get the parts just because he was a handsome fella who could read lines. He was also an accomplished archer, and he had become pretty damn good at bagpipes too—he competed in both on the international stage.1

War!

Jack had competed at the World Archery Championships in Oslo, Norway, up until 1939. At that point, all fun and good things had to be put on hold while Germany worked through some aggression issues. That meant canceling archery competitions—particularly in countries that suffered German occupation, like Norway.

But, by Jove, Jack Churchill had only just begun his archery career in earnest! What was a professional soldier with a talent for bowmanship to do? After all, it was 1939—the age of the machine gun had changed things, and the English longbow was pretty much obsolete as a weapon of war.

I’m not 100 percent on which guy in this photo is Jack, but I think it might be the guy all the way to the right, holding a sword.

To be clear, these are my lamentations, not Jack’s. For him, wearing anything less than a longbow and basket-hilted Scottish broadsword was simply incorrect. His motto: “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”

Anyway, anachronism, shmamachronism—were barbed arrows not still pointy? Were human bodies not still fleshy and soft? And if the bow failed, he’d still have his sword. And if his sword wasn’t up to it then, sure, he also had a revolver.

For Jack, World War II provided a new venue for putting his archery (and swordfighting) skills to the test. But he’d need a role that would afford him the opportunity to take risks, and get nice and close to the enemy—so he joined a group of commandos that would raid German-occupied areas in Europe.1

“Mad Jack” Earns His Nickname

You could write a book about the crazy sh*t Jack Churchill did during World War II, but there was one defining operation that earned him his greatest claim to fame, as well as his nickname.

During the famous Dunkirk evacuation in May of 1940, Jack Churchill was part of an infantry regiment in France. His company commander was injured, so Jack took over, naturally.2

Jack and his small group of soldiers sat in a tower that overlooked a small, deserted town—they were prepared to ambush the German patrol that was scheduled to pass through at any moment.

Jack was kitted out: he had his longbow, arrows, broadsword, bayonet, grenades, a couple of knives, and a revolver on his belt. For the soldiers under his command, he was a fearless sight, bristling not only with modern arms, but with the iconic weapons of the earlier Englishmen and Scots he clearly emulated. It helped to ease the anxieties of his men.

This was the plan: Jack, from his tower, would signal the attack, at which point his infantry, hiding in the nearby streets and buildings, would open fire on the German patrol.

Sure enough, the German patrol approached: a tight column of soldiers led by a young sergeant. Jack stood up straight, bow in hand, and announced to his troops: “I’ll shoot that first man with this arrow! Ready!”

With that, Churchill loosed an arrow. The German sergeant had heard the commotion and spotted Jack in his tower. He raised his hand, and charged his breath, about to shout a command, or maybe an “Oh, f*ck.” Before he could make a sound, the arrow hit him just below the neck, killing him instantly.

With that, the ambush was on, as the other British ambushers fired more conventional weapons—rifles—at the rest of the German patrol.

The Germans were pinned down. Jack, being an aggressive type, pressed his advantage. He descended his tower, held up his sword and yelled—what else?—“Charge!”

His infantrymen surged forward, firing and yelling, while Jack stayed back, counting to 10. As the fighting switched from suppressing machine gun fire to hand-to-hand combat, he ran full speed into the side of the press of German soldiers and just went medieval (well, technically early modern period) on them with his broadsword.

He struck down three of them before they even realized what was happening, then two more after they saw what was happening (still pretty surprised, I bet), then he shot two more with his revolver, which he had in his left hand.

At this point, the German patrol decided, “f*ck this,” and one of them raised a white cloth. Churchill’s men took the rest of the patrol prisoner, and Jack Churchill became a legend.3

Jingo Unchained

Soon after, Jack Churchill volunteered as a commando to conduct raids on German occupiers. He fought his way across Europe: Italy, Norway, Yugoslavia, and places in between. All the while he cultivated his unique modus operandi: charging into battle either with his sword drawn or while playing the bagpipes, throwing grenades, and somehow not dying.

“Take this, Jerry!”

Not only did he not die, but it appeared that Churchill managed to bend the rules of modern war through sheer force of character. While marching through Sicily with only his sword an revolver, he once captured 42 German soldiers. How? He simply walked into an occupied town at night, silently capturing two German sentries, then took one of the prisoners with him. They moved from post to post, as Jack lured the German soldiers with the voice of their captured comrade, then forced them to surrender. He then marched the prisoners—and their gear—back to British lines. Afterward, even Churchill acknowledged that his actions were a little over the top, saying it was “a bit Errol Flynn-ish.”4

These are just two of many unbelievable accounts of Jack Churchill’s time in the war. Even when his luck ran out and he was captured by the Germans, his spirits were uncrushable. At a hilltop battle, surrounded by the enemy, Jack found himself the only surviving, unwounded defender, after all his companions were killed or wounded. With his ammunition spent, he dropped his weapon and started playing “Will ye no come back again” on his bagpipes until a German grenade knocked him unconscious.

He would eventually escape German prisoner-of-war camps—twice—and somehow survived the war in Europe. In fact, after Germany surrendered, he made his way to the Pacific theater to keep the fight going, and wasn’t happy when Japan surrendered before he arrived. He had only reached India when he heard the news, and said to a friend, “You know, if it hadn’t been for those damned Yanks we could have kept the war going for another 10 years.” He was apparently only half joking.

A retired-from-the-field Jack Churchill, looking absolutely bored.

After World War II, Jack kept at it, becoming a parachutist and eventually serving as the second-in-command of a battalion in Palestine. Despite his best efforts to get himself killed thousands of miles from his home, Jack died in 1996 in Southern England, at the age of 89.5 6

So, what did we learn here? I’m not sure, really. Some people slip and fall in the tub, and that’s it. Others bring a sword and bow to the 20th century’s biggest gunfight, taking every risk they can find along the way, and walk away relatively unscathed.

Hell of a story, though.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Serena, Katie. (2018, April 14). Mad Jack Churchill: WWII’s Bagpipe Playing and Sword Wielding Badass. Retrieved from http://allthatsinteresting.com/jack-churchill
  2. Smith, Robert Barr. (2017, July 17). “Mad Jack” Churchill—A Rare Breed of Warrior. Retrieved from http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/mad-jack-churchill-a-rare-breed-of-warrior/
  3. War History Online. (2015, October 18). “Mad” Jack Churchill Became the Only Man During WWII to Kill an Enemy Soldier with an Arrow Fired from a Longbow. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/mad-jack-churchill.html
  4. Smith, Robert Barr. (2017, July 17). “Mad Jack” Churchill—A Rare Breed of Warrior. Retrieved from http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/mad-jack-churchill-a-rare-breed-of-warrior/
  5. Smith, Robert Barr. (2017, July 17). “Mad Jack” Churchill—A Rare Breed of Warrior. Retrieved from http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/mad-jack-churchill-a-rare-breed-of-warrior/  
  6. War History Online. (2015, October 18). “Mad” Jack Churchill Became the Only Man During WWII to Kill an Enemy Soldier with an Arrow Fired from a Longbow. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/mad-jack-churchill.html

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Serena, Katie. (2018, April 14). Mad Jack Churchill: WWII’s Bagpipe Playing and Sword Wielding Badass. Retrieved from http://allthatsinteresting.com/jack-churchill
  • Smith, Robert Barr. (2017, July 17). “Mad Jack” Churchill—A Rare Breed of Warrior. Retrieved from http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/mad-jack-churchill-a-rare-breed-of-warrior/
  • War History Online. (2015, October 18). “Mad” Jack Churchill Became the Only Man During WWII to Kill an Enemy Soldier with an Arrow Fired from a Longbow. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/mad-jack-churchill.html