In the history of warfare, there are a few universal constants—a historian once stated that all of military technology could be categorized into hit, cut, throw, and burn. Sharp sticks, rocks, and clubs turn into swords, bombs, and guns. Follow the evolutionary trail upward long enough and you get to cannons, and, (eventually) missiles, but no matter how sophisticated the device, you are still hitting, cutting, throwing, and burning.
Some weapons disappear over time: I'm not aware of any modern army still using the atl-atl, war clubs, or catapults. Other weapons make surprising returns: take, for example, the British longbow.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, archery became the passion of English males. Both men and boys endlessly practiced with the longbow—a yew bow roughly six feet long, with an incredible pull weight of up to 140 pounds. To develop the muscles required to use such a bow took years and years of hard work, but a good archer could release a dozen arrows every minute, with a range of 400 yards.
These bows gave the English victories over the French during the Hundred Years' War, in such battles as Agincourt and Crécy. There is a tendency for every army to prepare to fight the next war exactly like the last. (And history has proven that if you are fighting the French, this will work for decades). But eventually, the French learned, used the same system, and defeated the English. Of course, it did take 100 years… A very large piece of paper, would allow us to plot the French Military Learning Curve.
During the American Revolution, the Continental army was desperately short of everything. Somehow, George Washington had to raise an army, train it, equip it, find officers to lead it to victory over the best army in the world...AND pay for it all. The colonies manufactured very few guns. To outfit a man with a flintlock musket, powder, shot, and provisions, cost on average the equivalent of two weeks' wages.
Benjamin Franklin had a novel solution. While the fledgling country could not make sufficient muskets, it could produce bows and arrows in an almost unlimited number. Franklin argued that compared to a musket, a bow and arrow fired faster, was more lethal, and had a longer range than the Brown Bess Musket that the British army was using. We will never know how such an army would have fared against the British, because the French decided to exact a little revenge for Agincourt and supplied America with sufficient muskets, powder, and bullets to help the colonies gain independence.
So the bow is dead—tossed out as useless in modern warfare. Well, not quite yet!
John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill—commonly called Mad Jack or Fighting Jack—was not ready to let a few of those ancient weapons go. For years to come, historians will continue to argue whether Jack was a shrewd soldier or simply stark raving mad.
Jack was born in Ceylon and was educated first on the Isle of Man, and then at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Graduating in 1926, Jack served as a lieutenant in Burma for ten years, where he passed the time practicing archery, playing the bagpipes, and racing motorcycles. Growing bored of a peacetime army, he resigned his commission and got work as an editor for a Nairobi newspaper, as a male model, and had small acting parts in several movies, in which he demonstrated his archery skills. (You can catch a glimpse of him in The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank at Oxford.)
When Hitler invaded Poland, Jack rejoined the army and served with the British Expeditionary Force in France. When France surrendered, the British forces at Dunkirk were surrounded by the German army, making their eventual escape all but impossible. When a German patrol came close to his unit stationed near the Pais-de-Calais, Churchill killed the sergeant leading the patrol. His weapon?—the longbow he carried! When he shot the sergeant in the chest with a barbed arrow, he became last British soldier in history to kill an enemy with a British longbow.
Back in England, Churchill joined a new unit, the Commandos, primarily because it sounded dangerous. Almost immediately, he became known for his unusual fighting style. On a raid in Norway, he left the landing craft on a motorcycle, his longbow and bag pipes on his back, and a Scottish basket-hilted sword on his hip. As he charged the enemy forces, he was heard screaming his war cry, "COMMANDOOOO!"
The effect on the enemy can only be imagined. The legend of Mad Jack began growing immediately.
The sword became something of a trademark for him. In the photo to the right, you can see him in the bottom right, sword in hand, leading troops ashore during a training exercise. According to Mad Jack, "Any officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed."
In 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill led a Commando raid on the coast of Sicily to remove a Nazi observation post. It was a dark night, so Mad Jack left most of his unit in safety and crawled forward to scout out the enemy position. When he finally returned, he had 42 German prisoners that he had captured at sword point! When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, he stated: “I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry, ‘jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently,”
In 1943, Mad Jack led a Commando raid into Yugoslavia where he was to link up with partisans. Though he and six commandos made their objectives, they were surrounded by Germans who methodically surrounded the unit and began attacking them with hand grenades. When all of his men were either killed or incapacitated, Mad Jack continued to play "Will Ye No Come Back Again" on his pipes until he was rendered unconscious by a grenade.
Hitler had a standing order to execute all captured Commandos, but either the Nazis respected Mad Jack's bravery or they incorrectly believed he was related to Winston Churchill.
Now, a prisoner, he was taken to Berlin for questioning (you can imagine how well that worked) and then he was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This move was, in part, to prevent him from engaging in any more arson attacks on German facilities. In September 1944, Churchill and a RAF pilot crawled under the wire and through a drain, and then attempted to walk 125 miles to the Baltic coast. When they were captured, the two were just a few miles from the coast.
In April 1945, he was taken to a camp in Tyrol where the prisoners were guarded by SS troops. When a delegation of prisoners told senior German Army officers they feared being executed by the SS officers at the end of the war, the German Army forcibly took over the camp from the SS and released the prisoners.
Churchill, now 93 miles behind enemy lines, began making his way, traveling at night, toward the Allied troops. Along the way, he used water from puddles in the road to drink and to cook in a rusty can the onions he liberated from farms in the occupied territory. He eventually made it to an American armored unit outside Verona.
Churchill was then sent to Burma, but by the time he arrived, the war was over. Furious, Mad Jack stated: "Damn those Yanks! If they’d stayed out of it we could have been fighting for another ten years."
After the war, Churchill served in the Palestine conflicts, and was posted to instruct at a training camp in Australia. There, he became an avid surfer, who eventually designed his own boards. When he retired in 1959, he took up surfing in England, being the first person to surf down the 5 foot tidal bore on the River Severn. In his later years, he could be seen sailing coal-fired boats on the Thames River.
Lt. Colonel Jack Churchill, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, died in 1996 at the age of 89. As far as anyone can tell, he was the last individual to ever use either a basket-hilted sword or a British longbow in combat.
But wait a while. These kind of weapons have a way of popping back up.