Smart Thinking

Remembering ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill, WWII’s most unconventional soldier

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War photographs tell myriad tales of heroism, sacrifice and tragedy. Even so, few are more outlandish than those of 'Mad Jack'

There are hundreds of stark photographs from World War II: curious pictures, tragic pictures, terrifying pictures of troops mid-assault or under-fire, and in that sense there’s little that is unusual about this particular image. But look a little closer and at the figure leading the charge in the bottom right-hand corner, and you will notice a flash of steel at his side.

The man is Lieutenant-Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, colloquially known as ‘Mad Jack’ because he fought with a basket-hilted broadsword. Tales of his exploits are legion, but perhaps the most notable was when he captured 42 German soldiers – complete with weapons and a mortar – armed only with his sword during the Salerno beach landings of 1943. Equally mythic was his propensity to fight with a longbow – in 1940 he made the only recorded killing of the war with an arrow – and his prowess on the bagpipes, which he would often play mid-combat.

This image, an official War Office photograph, is the only known picture to survive of ‘Mad Jack’ and his broadsword in action. It’s a training exercise at Inveraray and dates to 1941, but nonetheless it captures his fearless, if unconventional, approach to war. The photographer is unknown, but clearly the spectacle of the advancing soldier jumping ashore with sword drawn was an opportunity not to be missed, even if it looks as though Jack was almost too quick for him.