Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Heroic Anachronism

I'm not all that big on war stories and war heroes but Jack Churchill was the stuff of legends.
Rather than wield a rifle or sub-machine gun in battle, the commando leader inspired his comrades by storming beaches armed with a Scottish broadsword, a longbow, a kilt and a set of bagpipes.  Known as Mad Jack, he was very fond of saying "any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed",  Lt Col Churchill’s fearlessness under fire became his hallmark and made both Robin Hood and Rambo look like sissy school girls.
Born John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill in Surrey in 1906, he was educated on the Isle of Man and at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He joined  the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment in 1926.  He spent his first few years in the army learning to play the bagpipes, despite his lack of Scottish heritage, and riding his motorcycle across the entire Indian subcontinent just for the hell of it.  Jack later left the Army to pursue his bagpipe playing career.  In that time he also worked as a newspaper editor, a professional male model, represented Britain in the 1939 World Archery Championships and appeared in films. Probably because of a shortage of people hiring bagpipe musicians.
At the outbreak of the second world war he was recalled to the Army and posted in France just as Blitzkrieg was beginning and British troops were being pushed back towards the sea.  Well Mad Jack wasn't going to have any of that Jerry Blitzkrieg malarkey.  Jack launched small-scale guerrilla raids and surprise attacks on German positions and supply depots.  Riding his trusty motorcycle and armed only with a his longbow and and broadsword, he would assault the Germans medieval-style catching them completely off-guard.  Despite being shot in the neck by a machine gun, Mad Jack Churchill battled throughout the Dunkirk campaign, at one point even winning the Military Cross for bravery when he rescued a wounded British officer from a German ambush.
Jack returned to England and signed up to a new organisation known as the Commandos.  He wasn't sure what a Commando was, but it sounded like something he'd been waiting for.  His first mission was to lead the Number 2 Commandos to take out the artillery batteries on Maaloy Island, as part of the amphibious assault on the German base in Vaagso, Norway.   As the landing craft raced towards their LZ, he belted out "The March of the Cameron Men" on the bagpipes to inspire his men, probably alerting the Germans to the oncoming attack.  When the assault ramp swung open, he lead the charge at the head of his men, with his trusty sword in hand.  Two hours later, British High Command received a telegram from the front: "Maaloy battery and island captured.  Casualties slight.  Demolitions in progress.  Churchill."
He was also playing his bagpipes in the thick of the action while leading the 2 Commando through Sicily, to Messina and the landings at Salerno, Italy, where he won another award for bravery.  His squad was charged with taking out an artillery battery that was pinning down a nearby British force, despite the fact that it was garrisoned by a force much larger than his own.  Churchill  had his men charge the town from all sides in the middle of the night, screaming as loud as possible.  The Germans were surprised and confused, and offered poor resistance.  The 50 men of Number 2 Commando took 136 prisoners and inflicted an unknown number of casualties. Another night on the same campaign, he single-handedly took forty-two German prisoners and captured a mortar crew William Wallace style using only his broadsword, by taking one patrolling guard as a human shield and sneaking from sentry post to sentry post forcing the soldiers to surrender under threat of his sword.
Mad Jack was finally captured in an attack on the island of Brac, most of his unit had been killed and as bombs exploded around him, he continued to play his bagpipes until he was knocked unconscious by an explosion. The Germans took him to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. But it would take more than some Nazi concentration camp to hold Jack Churchill. One night in September of 1944, he escaped by crawling through and abandoned drain.  He was later recaptured while walking towards the Baltic coast and sent to a prison camp in Austria. This too would prove to be insufficient to hold the likes of Jack Churchill, for one night when the camp lighting failed in  April 1945, he simply walked away.  He marched 150 miles through the Alps, liberating vegetables he found along the way, until finally he met up with a U.S. Armoured division and was sent back to England.
By this time the war in Europe was more or less over, Jack expressed interest in fighting the Japanese, but as his train was pulling into the station in Burma he received word that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and the Pacific Campaign would soon be over. But still, Jack's adventures weren't finished yet.  At the age of 40, he qualified as a paratrooper and went on to see action in Palestine, where he earned fame for defending a Jewish medical convoy from an Arab ambush while wearing his full military dress uniform.  After Palestine, Churchill went on to serve as an instructor at a land-air warfare school in Australia and became an awesome surfer.  He even designed and built his own surfboards and eventually retired from the army in 1959 and died in 1996.


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