Robin Hood in World War II
If you are reading these lines, it is very likely that you are familiar with the figure of Robin Hood, the legendary medieval English archer. It is less likely, however, that you have heard of another Saxon of comparable greatness - or insanity. I am referring to Jack Churchill, nicknamed Mad Jack. He is credited with the phrase "any officer who goes into action without his sword is not properly equipped". But who is this peculiar character?
Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming, better known as "Jack" Churchill, was born on 16 September 1906 in Colombo (in present-day Sri Lanka, which was still British Ceylon). His father, Alec Fleming Churchill, had been posted there as a district engineer with the Ceylon Civil Service. After his birth, the family returned to his birthplace, the county of Surrey in south-east England. Shortly afterwards, however, in 1910, they moved to Hong Kong, where his father served as director of public works and became a member of the Executive Council of the administrative region. In 1917, before the end of the Great War, the family returned to England. Thus, at the age of just over ten, our protagonist had already travelled halfway around the world and had experienced many adventures.
Jack was educated at King William's College, and graduated as a British Army officer from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1926. Upon graduation he was posted to the Manchester Line Infantry Regiment in Burma, where he fought against the anti-colonial movements. It is worth mentioning that in the town of Pyin Oo Lwin he met a Scottish regiment and began to develop a remarkable fondness for the bagpipes.
In 1936, after ten years of active service, Jack retired from the army to work in a variety of fields. Firstly, he was a newspaper correspondent and editor in Nairobi. He also spent time honing his skills on the bagpipes - he played the bagpipes in military concerts - and the bow - he took part in the 1939 world outdoor archery championships in Oslo. In addition, he worked as a model and was an extra actor in a few films (e.g. A Yank at Oxford, 1938).
But we have not yet got to the really interesting part. With the outbreak of the Second World War after the Wehrmacht's 1939 invasion of Poland, Churchill (our Jack Churchill, to avoid confusion), then aged 33, re-enlisted in the army and was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Jack, however, did not go into combat like the rest of his comrades. Instead, he began to earn his nickname "madman" by walking around the front lines in the midst of modern warfare, armed with an English longbow, a claymore (a Scottish sword) and a bagpipe with which he played patriotic songs. It is said that on one occasion he ambushed a German patrol and shot down an enemy with a lethal arrow from his bow, in true Robin Hood style. However, it is unlikely that this was the case, as there is no evidence to support it. What does seem certain, given the testimonies of his subordinates, is that he gave the signal to attack with a terrible shout as he raised his trademark medieval sword in the air.
After fighting on the French front, he took part in the Battle of Dunkirk (1940) and volunteered to join the British Commandos. The training course took place in Scotland. There he met Rosamund Margaret Denny, whom he married in 1941. After being inducted into this elite unit, Churchill was one of the commanders responsible for an assault operation against a German detachment in Vågsøy, Norway. Of this particular action, it is said that Jack was playing the military march March of the Cameron Men on his bagpipes as he approached the enemy. At the end of the piece, he threw a grenade and charged the Germans. In any case, for his merits in this campaign he was awarded the Military Cross.
In July 1943 Jack was transferred to Italy, where he was tasked with capturing a German observation post outside the village of Vietri sul Mare. This post controlled an important pass leading to the nearby beach at Salerno. In this context, our protagonist - armed, of course, with his sword and bow - and his men infiltrated the village and accomplished their objective, taking 42 German soldiers prisoner. This action earned him the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). A year later (in 1944), as part of Allied operations in Yugoslavia, his command was stationed on the island of Vis (in present-day Croatia), where he supported the local partisans and in June carried out an assault on the island of Brač, occupied by German forces. Unfortunately, the operation went badly and Jack was captured. He was later interrogated in Berlin, apparently because the Nazis believed he had some connection with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After his interrogation, he was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg.
It was not long before he escaped with another captive, who disappeared during the escape. However, Jack was intercepted by a German patrol as he neared the Baltic coast. As the end of the war approached and the Axis forces had begun a gradual retreat, the Germans sent him to a makeshift prison camp in an Austrian town, guarded by members of the Schutzstaffel (SS). In April 1945, during a transfer, Jack again took the opportunity to escape, escaping near the Brenner Pass on the Austrian-Italian border. From there he marched to Verona, where he joined the members of an American convoy that was then stationed in the city. And after all this, incredible as it may seem, the indefatigable Jack still intended to fight on.
He was thus sent back to Burma, where Allied troops were conducting offensive operations against the Japanese. Churchill did not have time to reach his destination, however, for in August of that year Hiroshima and Nagasaki were brutally bombed and Japan promptly formalised its surrender. But the end of the war was not to stop Jack's frenetic activity - far from it. When the war ended, Jack completed his parachute course and was sent to the then British Mandate of Palestine, where he worked as an instructor and led a battalion of parachute forces for thirteen long years. Jack Churchill finally retired from the army for good in 1959 and enjoyed a quiet life in England until his death on 8 March 1996 in Surrey.
If you have made it this far, dear reader, I must say that I owe you an apology. An apology, yes, for the use of a misleading title. However, knowing everything you read a few minutes ago, it is not so far-fetched to say that Robin Hood fought in World War II, is it?