Tuesday, 19 February 2008

"Eccentric" doesn't cover the half of it

Recently I discovered the existence of a gentleman by the name of Jack Churchill. Or more properly Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Malcolm Thorpe Flemington Churchill, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar. Also known as "Fighting Jack Churchill" or "Mad Jack Churchill" depending on the source.

Never heard of him?

Born in Hong Kong of English parents, he graduated from the Sandhurst Military Academy in 1926 and joined the Manchester Regiment. Serving in Burma, he picked up a few notable habits that would become his trademarks. One was a love of motorcycles. He took a course in signals in Poona while stationed in Rangoon. The 1,500 mile trip from Calcutta to Poona (after having caught a ship from Rangoon to Calcutta) was part of the adventure. On the same bike he travelled the 500 miles from Maymyo to Rangoon, a trip harder by the absence of roads. In Maymyo he picked up another trademark: he learnt the bagpipes from the pipe major of the Cameron Highlanders. Not something normally associated with Englishmen.

Churchill served through the Burma Rebellion of 1930-1932 before returning to England. Peacetime service seemed to grate on him as he found various ways to annoy his fellow officers. Piping the orderly officer to the Guard Room at 3:00 AM, or at one point turning up on parade carrying an umbrella. When the battalion adjutant asked him to explain himself, Churchill's reply of "because it’s raining, sir," did not endear him to his superior.

Inevitably Churchill resigned his commission after 10 years of service and went on to pursue a variety of things. He continued his piping and in 1938 placed second in the officers' class of the Piping Championships at Aldershot. Not bad since he was the only Englishman out of the seventy or so competitors. Also at this time Churchill took up archery. His eventual skill with the bow got him work with Sabu on The Thief of Baghdad as well as The Drum, and A Yank at Oxford. He became so good that he represented Britain at the world championships in Oslo in 1939.

Then in 1939 Poland was invaded and "Mad Jack" re-enlisted. The war-diary of 4th Infantry Brigade, to which Churchill's battalion belonged, commented on this extraordinary figure. "One of the most reassuring sights of the embarkation [from Dunkirk] was the sight of Captain Churchill passing down the beach with his bows and arrows. His high example and his great work ... were a great help to the 4th Infantry Brigade."

In addition to his Robin Hood weaponry, Churchill also carried a basket-hilted claymore. Later on, asked by a general who awarded him a decoration why he carried a sword in action, Churchill is said to have answered: "In my opinion, sir, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed."

He won his first Military Cross during the retreat to the Channel, when he hitched six trucks together to salvage a disabled British tank; although in the end he could not save the tank, he did rescue a wounded British officer.

After Dunkirk, Churchill returned to England and promptly signed up as a member of a new organisation known as the Commandos. Whatever a commando was, he would be one. It was here he also met the woman he would marry.

Training was completed, he took part in the assault on the German base in Vaagso, Norway. While the two companies he commanded advanced on their target, Churchill stood in the lead craft, and played on his pipes "The March of the Cameron Men". His report at mission's end was simply: Maaloy battery and island captured. Casualties slight. Demolitions in progress. Churchill.

For his actions at Dunkirk and Vaasgo, Churchill received the Military Cross and Bar. He received the Distinguished Service Order in 1943 for capturing the battery at Salerno, while commanding Number 2 Commando. Leading from the front, Churchill infiltrated the town with only a corporal in support. He kidnapped a sentry and forced him to make his comrades surrender. Churchill and the riflemen walked out of town with 42 prisoners and a mortar squad.

1944 saw Churchill and his Commandos in Yugoslavia, where they supported the efforts of Tito's partisans. The commandos raided the German-held island of Brač and assaulted hill 622. Only Churchill and six others managed to reach the objective. A mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill, who played "Will Ye No Come Back Again?" on his pipes as the Germans advanced. He was knocked unconscious by grenades and was flown to Berlin for interrogation after being captured. He was placed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In September 1944, he and an RAF officer crawled under the wire through an abandoned drain and set out to walk to the Baltic coast, only to be recaptured near the coastal city of Rostock, only a few miles from the sea. In time, they were moved to a camp at Niederdorf, Austria. Churchill escaped from Niederdorf in April 1945 and walked 150 miles to Verona, Italy where he met an American armoured column.

The Pacific war was still going and Churchill was sent to Burma, where the largest land battles against Japan were still raging, but by the time he reached India, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed, and the war was effectively over. "You know," he said to a friend only half joking, "if it hadn't been for those damned Yanks we could have kept the war going for another 10 years."

However, Churchill wasn't finished yet. At 40 he qualified as a paratrooper, completing jump school. His movie buddy Robert Taylor asked if he could appear in Ivanhoe as an archer on top of Warwick Castle.

He went on to serve in Palestine, where he earned fame for defending a Jewish medical convoy from an Arab ambush - radioing for backup and providing small-arms fire while wearing his full military dress uniform. Another time he and twelve other men evacuated a hospital full of Israeli medical personnel when they came under attack by Arab rockets.

After Palestine, Churchill went on to serve as an instructor at a land-air warfare school in Australia and become a hardcore surfer. He even designed and built his own surfboards. He retired from the army in 1959, recipient of two awards for bravery.

Later in life, passengers on a London commuter train were often startled by seeing an older male passenger rise, open a window, and hurl his briefcase out into the night. The passenger would then leave the car and wait by the train’s door until it stopped at the next station. It was Churchill, of course, enjoying his little gesture and reasonably sure that his fellow passengers could not know he had thrown the case into the garden of his house. It saved him carrying it home from the station.

Churchill passed away at his home in Surrey in 1996. Sounds like he would have been an interesting chap.


Zoe Connolly said...

"Sounds like he would have been an interesting chap."

Indeed, sir! Thank you for posting his story.

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

What a character! Thank you for posting the background on such a unique gentleman.