He was nicknamed Mad Jack by his men during the Second World War.
After coming face to face with Lieutenant Colonel John Churchill, the Germans probably had a similar, if less affectionate, moniker for the eccentric officer. Rather than wield a sub-machine gun in battle, the commando leader inspired his comrades by storming beaches armed with a bow and arrow and two-handed sword, dressed in a kilt and playing a set of bagpipes.
He enhanced his reputation by capturing 42 German prisoners with only his Broadsword and later escaping from one of the most daunting Nazi jails before the end of the war.
The colourful officer’s bravery – he is the only soldier in the war credited with killing enemy troops with arrows – earned him a chestful of gallantry medals, including two Distinguished Service Orders and a Military Cross. But even though his career was one of the most remarkable in the history of the Army, his story is not widely known.
Now the heroism of Lt Col Churchill, who died in 1996 aged 89, has been recovered by researchers at family history website findmypast.co.uk. His story has been put together from reports in local newspapers which have been placed online for the first time. Born 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 later left the Army to become a professional bagpipe player and appeared in films. He was also a highly skilled bowman, representing Britain in the World Archery Championships in 1939. At the outbreak of war he was recalled to the Army.
Carrying an English longbow and American Indian arrows on to the battlefield, Lt Col Churchill’s fearlessness under fire became his hallmark.
He often said that ‘any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed’. An account in the Dundee Evening Telegraph from May 1945 described his deadly attack against Germans hiding in bushes during the retreat to Dunkirk five years earlier.
‘He was on patrol when some Germans were detected in a thicket about 200 yards away,’ said the report. ‘He shot two arrows into the thicket. There were some strange noises and no answering fire.’
He was also in the thick of the action with his bagpipes while leading 2 Commando through Sicily, to Messina and the landings at Salerno, Italy.
Alongside a corporal named Ruffell, he took 42 German prisoners and captured a mortar post using only his sword, taking one guard as a human shield and then creeping between sentry posts and forcing the soldiers to surrender.
Mad Jack was finally captured in an attack on the island of Brac, off the then Yugoslavia, when, as bombs exploded around him, he continued to play his bagpipes until he was knocked unconscious.
He later escaped from the Sagan prison but was recaptured and interned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp until being released by the German army.