Tabby Angier is the custodian of a pipe which belonged to a soldier who lead an incredible life. It is an instrument of war with a particularly commanding sound. Here she tells us about the wartime escapades of a man who is ranked as one of the world’s greatest adventurers, Jack Churchill.
Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming ‘Jack’ Churchill D.S.O. and Bar, M.C. and Bar 1906-1996 – ‘Fighting Jack Churchill’ and ‘Mad Jack’ – was a courageous, daring and eccentric soldier, just the sort of larger than life character you would like to have as a friend and ally, especially in a perilous situation in war. He was a romantic and sensitive man, compassionate to animals and knowledgable on many subjects.
Jack was born into an aristocratic Oxfordshire family, but was not related to Winston Churchill, although later the German army thought he was. Following Sandhurst, he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment in 1926. He served in the 2nd Battalion in Burma and India between 1926 and 1932, including service in the 1930-32 rebellion in Burma. (He received the Indian General Service Medal with Burma clasp).
Throughout his life he was keen motor-cyclist. In 1926, Jack rode down a railway line (as there was no road) 500 miles from Maymyo in central Burma via Mandalay to Rangoon simply to visit a friend, then months later rode his 1923 OHV Zenith bike 1,500 miles across India from Poona to Calcutta, in order to catch a boat to return to his battalion.
Whilst staying in Maymyo with the Cameron Highlanders, Jack was enthralled by its pipe band, and became a pupil of Pipe Major Cameron. Later, back in England, he was taught by Donald Fraser (ex P/M Seaforths) who had played at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt in 1882. Jack became a very good player. In 1931, his bagpipe was made (probably by a special order) by Robertson of Edinburgh. African blackwood, full silver, engraved and hall-marked. Incidentally, it was the first pipe played on foreign soil after Dunkirk.
At the Aldershot Tattoo in 1938 Jack came second in the Officer’s class of the Piping Championships, the only Englishman out of 70 entrants. He also developed his skill at archery, which had started as a hobby, and was selected as a member of the British Team for the World Archery Championships in Oslo in 1939. He returned, just in time to enter the war, in which he excelled as a warrior.
During the ‘phoney’ war, Jack served with the British Expeditionary Force in France, with the 2nd Manchesters. In December 1939 he patrolled the German outposts on the Maginot Line using his longbow and arrows (which could kill, silently, at 200 yards) during that bitter winter. He then volunteered to assist the Finns against the Russian invasion of their country; he had time for some skiing in Chamonix before the expedition was cancelled!
In 1940, Jack Churchill was awarded the M.C. for holding the village of L’Epinette, near Bethune. Again, he used his longbow to good effect. After Dunkirk, Jack was the first volunteer for the Army Commandos. He was now in his element. His first operation was the raid on Vaagso, in Norway December 27th, 1941. He led two troops of No. 3 Commando in the assault on the heavily defended coastal battery on Maaloy Island. He went into battle playing The March of the Cameron Men, then, sword in hand, leapt ashore into the smoke-screen laid by Hampdens [twin-engine medium bombers – Editor] of the Royal Air Force. Surprise was complete, and the island was captured. When celebrating with a captured bottle of Moselle from the German C.O.’s hut – a demolition charge exploded nearby breaking the bottle and gashing Jack’s head.
In September 1943, during the Salerno landings in Italy, Jack, commanding No. 2 Commando, sword in hand, with only two other commandos, captured more than 40 prisoners at Pigo Letti, and marched them back to his Brigade area. It is thought that Jack was recommended for a V.C. but it was watered down to a D.S.O., perhaps because of his unusual methods and style.
On June 3rd/4th 1934, Jack was taken prisoner, during the assault on the Island of Brac, the third largest island in the Adriatic, launched from the Island of Vis, with Yugoslav partisan forces. Jack led the night attack on hill 622 playing his pipes at the head of No. 40 Royal Marine Commando, commanded by Lt. Col. J.C. ‘Pops’ Manners D.S.O who was killed at Jack’s side. The main attack failed due to heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. Jack lay on the summit with a small group of Royal Marines then he rolled on his back, blew up his pipes and played Will Ye No Come Back Again? There was then a grenade attack and he was seized by men of the German 118th Jager Division which garrisoned the island. Jack was interrogated by Major General Keubler. Jack could not persuade him that he wasn’t related to Churchill. He was flown in a Heinkel III to Berlin and imprisoned in Sachenhausen concentration camp and chained to the floor for the first month. His pipes and sword were taken and subsequently exhibited in the War Museum in Vienna. He, in the company of Squadron Leader James R.A.F, tunnelled his way out, but was recaptured and later sent to Niederdorf in Austria. On the 20th April, 1945 the floodlights failed and he walked away from a working party ,and survived on gathered vegetables cooked in a rusty tin which he kept in his jacket, with matches, for eventual use. He crossed the Alps, and eventually spotted an American armoured column in the distance. He raced to catch them despite an injured ankle.
Soon after his escape, the end of the war left him frustrated having missed a lot of action. He was, in due course, made a full Colonel of No. 3 Commando Brigade. Jack had many more adventures after the war, particularly in Palestine, and commanded the 5th Scottish Parachute Battalion. He was the only officer ever to command both a Commando and Parachute battalion.
After the war he also served with the Seaforths and H.L.I. I understand Jack played his pipes at war memorials after the war. He died on the 8th March, 1996, aged 89.
• From the November 2014 Piping Times.
• Postscript: In the summer of 2018, Jack Churchill’s Robertson pipes were sold to a museum in Norway. The museum already had Churchill’s sword and long-bow in addition to some other personal items. Jim Stout, ex-Sovereign’s Piper, recorded ‘The March of the Cameron Men’ – the tune Jack played when he stormed into Norway – for the museum.