In his Times Past column this week, historian Jonathan Smyth takes a look at Mad Jack Churchill whose mother was from Co Cavan…
There was a touch of Errol Flynn about the swashbuckling persona of “Mad” Jack Churchill as he went into battle with a broadsword and longbow. His daredevil bravery earned him the nickname “Mad” Jack sometimes known as “Fighting” Jack who, much like Flynn, also appeared in a number of films. “Mad” Jack’s memorable motto was: “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is badly 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 was from Oxfordshire and worked as a District Engineer in the Ceylon Civil Service, a position previously held by his father, John Fleming Churchill. Shortly after Jack was born, 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 during World War II.
Sword and archery
As World War II raged, Captain Jack Churchill rode 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 saber strapped to his side and a longbow and arrows slung over his neck and shoulder. Churchill was a fantastic shooter with the bow and arrow, and he represented Great Britain at the 1939 World Archery Championships. The website www.history.wordpress.com tells us the story of him using his archery skills during the war, as the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported in May 1945, when on patrol Germans were detected in bushes about 200 yards away. Churchill fired two arrows into the bush and recalled there were strange noises but no reply fire.
Churchill and his men were ordered on another occasion to capture a German observation post near Molina, Italy, which controlled the pass leading to the Salerno bridgehead. With the help of Corporal Ruffel they captured forty two German prisoners and took control of the military post with ‘Mad’ Jack using only his sword as his weapon he overpowered one of the German guards and the used as a crawling human shield. around the guard posts forcing the Germans to surrender.
During the capture of the German military post, Jack lost his precious sword after a hand-to-hand fight. As soon as the captured Germans were secured, he returned to Salerno to find his blade, and on the way encountered a lost American military patrol heading towards the enemy, but they did not heed his warning. “Mad” Jack told them he had no interest in going back in the direction they were headed for a “third time”. For his action in Salerno, he won a medal of the Distinguished Service Order. During the same war, he won a second Distinguished Service Order medal and a Military Cross for participating in raids across Europe into countries such as Norway, Sicily and Italy.
In 1944, the MacLean mission took him to Yugoslavia where he led the commandos in support of the “partisans” of Josip Tito. With a team of partisans assembled to fight alongside ’43 Commando’ and a troop of ’40 Commando’, they attacked the island of Brac; it was under German control and the raid was too dangerous to continue due to German fire and Jack withdrew the soldiers and decided to attempt another assault the next morning.
The next day, Churchill and six soldiers rode past the enemy and, as gunfire rained down on them, ‘Mad’ Jack played his bagpipes to keep the men in good spirits. However, the force of an explosive grenade thrown by a German rendered Churchill unconscious. When he came to his senses, he found himself in the hands of the Nazis. When they discovered his name was Churchill, German intelligence put him on a plane to Berlin where he was paraded through the streets in chains. After heavy interrogations, they condemned him to a special prison in a concentration camp which they reserved for the relatives of Winston Churchill. But as it happened, he wasn’t actually related to the British Prime Minister, even though they shared the same surname. Later, Jack and three RAF men escaped from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in September 1944. They were captured again and ended up in the murderous hands of the SS, but fearing for their lives, they asked for help. to a German soldier and, fortunately, the interrogation was transferred. to the army and the SS were fired. Churchill escaped from the concentration camp three times until they were all finally liberated in 1945. Jack’s brother Thomas also led a commando unit in World War II and wrote a book Commando Crusades.
As already mentioned, he appeared in a number of films. In 1924, Jack appeared playing bagpipes in Douglas Fairbanks Snr’s silent film “The Thief of Baghdad”. Then in 1952 he was in the MGM film Ivanhoe with Robert Taylor, which was shot in England. In the film, Jack Churchill played an archer shooting from the top of Warwick Castle. Later, during his years as a land and air warfare instructor in Australia, he took up windsurfing and, on his return to Britain, became the first person to surf the “tidal bore”. five feet” from the River Severn.
Jack Churchill died in 1996 and, apart from his one-time appearance on the battlefield with bagpipes, longbow and sword, there is another story to add to the eccentric life story of the man whose maternal family was from Co Cavan and it was from the time following his retirement from the army. Churchill returned home each evening by train, and as he approached the stop at which he got off, he is said to have puzzled and frightened the railway guards and passengers, by opening the car window so he was pulling out his briefcase. Once, when asked what he was doing by a curious person, Jack replied that it was more practical to throw the briefcase into the back garden than to have to carry it from the station.
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