12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame

Mike Wood - December 1, 2017

“War is always the same. It is young men dying in the fullness of their promise. It is trying to kill a man that you do not even know well enough to hate. Therefore, to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world.”

So wrote Lyndon B. Johnson, of the Vietnam War, in his State of the Union Address in 1966, when that conflict was at its height. War is as old as humanity and the association between war and madness is one that has been around as long as conflict itself. The theatre of war is one of the few areas of life where being slightly bonkers is actually a help rather than a hindrance: the ability to place oneself in the path of danger without regard for the consequences, to put fear to the back of one’s mind, to continue when all sense would tell one to give up – these are values that are beneficial in a soldier that would mark out an average person as a madman. Of course, the madmen that we list in this article are the ones, largely, who survived to tell the tale, or at least, were around to have their story told for them. The majority of crazy soldiers end up heroically dead, a status in which the second word somewhat outweighs the first.

There is an arresting line in the final episode of the classic British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the trenches of World War One and ending with the slaughter of all the characters, in which the captain of the troop – who has previously attempted to get out of going “over the top” by claiming to be mad – reflects on the futility of such an act in the midst of such a conflagration. “Who would have noticed another madman around here?” says Captain Blackadder, before facing his fate.

Our list, drawn from combatants in the Second World War, brings together a motley crew of soldiers who were crazy enough to run into fire and calm enough to go behind enemy lines, smart enough to think of hare-brained schemes and mad enough to then carry them out. We travel through all the major theatres of the conflict and a few lesser-known ones as well, taking in resistance fighters from Czechoslovakia and Finland, a British stage magician who made an army disappear, a Polish count who snuck into Auschwitz and a legless fighter pilot and a Japanese soldier who kept on fighting until 1974. These are the fighters who make Rambo look sane: the 12 Craziest Soldiers of World War Two.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Fighting Jack Churchill, sword in hand. Warfare History Network.

1 – Jack Churchill

There are plenty of mad soldiers out there, so to gain a reputation for being slightly nuts among fellow fighters is quite impressive. Jack Churchill – aka “Fighting Jack”, aka “Mad Jack” was about as mad as they come and thus is the ideal person with which to begin this descent into insanity. He was known for the phrase “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed” and certainly lived up to that reputation: he would run into battle clutching a Scottish broadsword, supplemented by a longbow and also carrying a full set of bagpipes. That’s unusual enough, but it gets weirder: Jack Churchill wasn’t even Scottish.

His story was similar to many of the British officer class in the Second World War: he was born to a military family that was stationed abroad in the colonial service – in Jack’s case, Hong Kong – and educated at a private school back in the old country. He went through Sandhurst, the main officer training finishing school in Britain, before being posted to Burma. Churchill did ten years before leaving the army and beginning to indulge his eccentricities. He was at various points an actor, a male model and a newspaper editor, while also winning competitions for his archery and bagpipe playing (which was seen as an outrage, as an Englishman had beaten many Scots at piping).

By the time the Second World War broke out, Jack Churchill was more than ready to emerge as “Mad Jack“. He rejoined and was sent to France along with the Manchester Regiment. His first action as an officer was to kill a German sergeant with a longbow – the first and only confirmed longbow kill of the entire war. “He and his section were in a tower and, as the Germans approached, he said, ‘I will shoot that first German with an arrow,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” later explained his son, Malcolm.

Churchill was involved in the Dunkirk evacuation and, after repatriation, fought in Norway, where he lead a charge while playing “The March of the Cameron Men” on his bagpipes. Later in Italy, he took part in the Salerno landings – Scottish broadsword, longbow and pipes in tow – and in Yugoslavia, where he took command of a 1500 strong force before being captured on the island of Brac, having alerted his fellow commandos to the attack by playing a Highland march on his bagpipes. Subtlety and stealth were not among Jack Churchill’s strong points.

Churchill escaped twice – once walking over 200 kilometers from Berlin to Rostock before being taken prisoner again – and eventually was moved to a camp in the Austrian Tyrol. When the Germans left, fearing the advancing Allies, he walked 150 kilometers to freedom in Italy. Mad Jack finished the war in Burma in 1945, where, it is reported, he was disappointed that the Americans had dropped the nuclear bombs on Japan and ended the war, saying “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

Peacetime did not suit Jack Churchill and he struggled to settle back into civilian life. Stories abounded of his further eccentricities: one held that he would launch his briefcase into his own garden as the train passed his home, to save him carrying it with him, while another told of his exploits surfing on the River Severn. He died in 1996, laying to rest a man who, frankly, appears not to have enjoyed the idea of sitting still one little bit.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Didby Tatham-Warter, without umbrella. Wikipedia.

2 – Digby Tatham-Warter

From one English eccentric to another: if there is at some level a semblance of logic in carrying a broadsword like Mad Jack Churchill did (in the sense that it is least a weapon, if an archaic one) then there seems little point to carrying an umbrella, as Digby Tatham-Warter did. The man known only as Digby – partly because of his cumbersome double-barrelled surname, partly because there weren’t too many other Digbys knocking about the British Army – was as mad a member of the British officer class as any.

Like Churchill, he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and joined the colonial service, finding himself in the Raj in 1937. He was due to join the local Indian Army but never did, preferring to stay in the British forces and give himself more time to indulge in his pastimes of hunting tigers and wild boars. He missed the early part of the war while in India, but in 1942, after his brother was killed in the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa, he went to England to link up with the Parachute Regiment. He didn’t do much fighting initially – he once commandeered a Dakota plane to take his friends to a party – but when he did eventually see combat in the Netherlands, he took to it with aplomb.

He trained his troops in Napoleonic era bugle call messaging, in case their radios broke, and decided, as he couldn’t trust himself to remember the necessary codewords, that he would carry his umbrella with him at all times, the logic being that “only a bloody fool of an Englishman” would do such a thing. He was, in some small way, right. As if the sight of a soldier sporting an umbrella into battle wasn’t enough, he topped it off with a bowler hat, charging with his bayonet towards the German lines looking more like a city gent with a gin and tonic than the parachute commander that he was. When faced with an enemy armored vehicle, he did the obvious thing: he disabled the driver by poking him in the eye with his brolly. He spotted a military chaplain in distress and rescued him, telling the stricken clergyman “Don’t worry about the bullets, I’ve got an umbrella.”

Tatham-Warter was later captured, but escaped and was taken in by a local Dutch woman. Knowing that they would be easily rumbled as British officers, the Dutch Resistance dressed Digby and his companion up as painters and gave them Dutch identity documents, telling them to pose as deaf-mutes – the Germans were oblivious, failing to spot the two Brits despite them living in the same house as several Nazi soldiers. All the while, the pair were bicycling between escaped soldiers, delivering messages and organizing an evacuation. He eventually made his way to the Rhine, where he crossed over the lines and was taken back to Britain.

Digby Tatham-Warter was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploits in the Netherlands and, after the war finished, served in Palestine and East Africa. He continued to live in Kenya when he left the forces and is credited as one of the pioneers of the concept of the safari – a fitting role for a man who once delighted in hunting tigers. History doesn’t record if he still carried his umbrella while out photographing animals, however.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Hiroo Onoda after surrendering in 1974. Rare Historical Photos.

3 – Hiroo Onoda

Our first two military maniacs have been British, but our third takes us to the other side of the world. While the war for most people ended in 1945, for one man it continued well into the 1970s – that man was Hiroo Onoda, the last of the Japanese holdouts of the Second World War. Like our first two soldiers, Onoda was a lifelong soldier from a military family: his lineage could be traced back to an ancient clan of Samurai and his father served in the Imperial Japanese Army as late as 1943. Hiroo followed his footsteps into the forces and joined up in 1940, aged just 18. His training was in the intelligence service but, as the war turned on Japan, he was dispatched to the remote Philippine island of Lubang with the mission of making life as difficult as possible for the advancing Americans. He did not fail.

When Hiroo Onoda landed in February 1945, the writing was on the wall for the Japanese, but they fought on nonetheless. The remaining Imperial soldiers were all killed or captured, leaving Hiroo and just three other men. Fearing for their lives but unwilling to give up, they absconded to the mountains of the interior of Lubang and began a campaign of guerilla attacks on the Americans. The war ended in August 1945, but the Japanese continued to attack and angered Lubang residents by stealing their livestock to feed themselves. Local Filipinos left leaflets to inform the Japanese soldiers that their hierarchy had surrendered to the Americans that read “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”, but they were ignored as Allied propaganda. They fought on and later in the year, another round of leaflets was issued that featured the official surrender notice from their commanding general. Again, they were dismissed by Onoda and his three comrades.

The four became three in 1949 when one of the Japanese surrendered, causing the remaining holdouts to become even more cautious in their interactions with the Filipinos. They were presented with family photos dropped from the air in 1952, but again these were judged by Onoda to be a trick and disregarded. One of the three was shot in 1953 by local fishermen, but that still did not encourage them to come out and surrender: instead, Onoda painstakingly brought his injured comrade back to fitness, only for him to be shot again and killed in 1954. Now two, they held out for a further 18 years, until the other soldier was shot while engaging in guerrilla activity, leaving Hiroo Onoda on his own.

He was finally contacted in 1974, by the unlikeliest of sources: an eccentric Japanese hippie, Norio Suzuki, who had made it his life’s work to find Onoda. “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier,” explained Onoda late in his life. “Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…” Suzuki would return several times to Lubang and meet with Onoda, but could not convince him to give up. It took for the Japanese government to find his old commander, by then much older and working as a bookseller, and fly him to the Philippines, where he personally delivered the orders to Hiroo that ended his war. Onoda was still heavily armed, with a sword, a dagger, grenades a fully operational rifle and over 500 bullets.

It was not all plain sailing for Onoda. The local Filipinos were angered that he had killed people and stolen extensively while conducting his one-man guerilla war, but the President of the country, Ferdinand Marcos, decided to pardon him on the grounds that he thought that the war was ongoing. The Japanese Army offered to pay him for all the extra time that he had served, but he refused to accept the money, while he was unable to cope with the attention that he received: he had gone from decades of near-complete isolation to being an international celebrity overnight. He released an autobiography, entitled “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War and lived to the ripe age of 91 before dying in Tokyo in 2014.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Simo “White Death” Häyhä. Business Insider Nordic.

4 – Simo Häyhä

Crazy comes in many forms. If refusing to believe that the war is over despite overwhelming evidence that it is or having no fear of death whatsoever count as madness, then sitting in the snow for hours on end to win the war does as well. That’s where Simo Häyhä enters our story. He was known as “White Death” by the Soviets, whom he fought in Finland’s Winter War of 1939-1940, a conflict that really pushes the definition of a cold war.

The Winter War was a conflict that ran alongside the Second World War rather than as a direct part of it, though the ripples from it strongly influenced the wider conflagration. The Soviet Union had invaded Finland such after the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939 with the goal of providing a buffer zone for their major city of Leningrad, but – somewhat predictably for a war fought in the far north of Europe from November to March – became bogged down in freezing temperatures and heavily damaged the reputation of the Red Army. Later historians have suggested that the poor performance of the Soviets in this war encouraged the Nazis – who at the time were allied with the Russians via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – to later invade the USSR.

One of the biggest obstacles that the Red Army faced was Simo Häyhä. He was the star sniper of the Finnish forces with over 500 confirmed kills, the most of any sniper in history. In fact, his success in halting the Soviets through targeted assaults from long-range greatly influenced later Red Army tactics, resulting in them placing great faith in their own snipers.

On the all-time sniper kill list, Häyhä is followed by 10 Soviet soldiers. His accuracy, brevity and perseverance were his strengths: he managed all 505 of his kills within the Winter War – which only lasted 3 and a half months – and the majority of them in daylight, which was only a small window of the day in such a northern location, as well as in extreme cold. Häyhä averaged 5 kills a day, but on some days he racked up more than 25, all of them without a telescopic sight – he thought that using a scope in such bright conditions, caused by the reflections off the snow, made him an easier target for enemy snipers. His gun was his own, bought 15 years before the war on the completion of his one year of mandatory military service. He had used it for all the intervening years for sport hunting and knew it like the back of his hand, ensuring that he was accurate and could maintain it in the punishing Arctic cold.

Häyhä would sit rather than lying prone – the usual sniper pose – because he thought that it improved his accuracy, and was able to get away with it because of his short height, just 5 feet 3 inches. He would wear all white camouflage and pack snow around himself and his gun to disguise the smoke and muzzle flash, sitting in the freezing snow with ice in his mouth to mask his own breath. With 505 confirmed kills, most achieved in just 3 months while dressed as a snowman, we think that more than qualifies Simo Häyhä, the White Death, for inclusion on our list.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Leo Major, complete with eye patch. History of Sorts.

5 – Leo Major

How do you top a human sniper snowman? Well, a one-eyed, one-man army might come close. Leo Major was a man who barely knew the meaning of fear and found his calling shortly after joining the Canadian Army in 1940. He wasn’t a career soldier – in fact, his only joined up because he was unemployed and wanted to prove to his father that he wasn’t a failure – but once he arrived on the Western Front, he took to it like a duck to water.

Major was involved in the D-Day landings, taking part in the Canadian part of the line at Juno Beach. He made an early mark on his fellow soldiers, managing to take down a German Hanomag half-track armored car single-handedly, before, several days later killing four SS men. He was injured by a grenade, however, and lost an eye, earning himself the nickname “pirate”. He fought on, using his extreme bravery to scout out enemy lines and then place himself as a sniper, arguing that having just one eye actually assisted his aim.

His finest hour would come in early 1945 as the Canadian forces moved north into the Netherlands. He was on one of his regular scouting missions on his own and came across two Germans – he captured one and then used him as a human shield to entice the other. When the second went for his gun, Major shot him. He moved on towards the Nazi garrison and managed to capture the commanding officer, causing the whole group to hand themselves over. Major began – single-handedly, remember – to march a huge group of enemy soldiers away and was spotted by an SS patrol, who opened fire and killed several of their own men. In total, he took 93 prisoners, all on his own.

Major was just getting started. Despite suffering a broken back in a land mine incident, he escaped from hospital and returned to the front, where he was sent to recon the Dutch town of Zwolle with a fellow Canadian soldier. When his partner was killed, Major continued alone and captured an officer who was drinking in a local bar. Conversing in French – Major was Quebecois, while the officer came from the French-speaking region of Alsace – he convinced the German that the Canadians were going to blow Zwolle to bits at dawn the next day. He let him go and the officer ran back to headquarters, spreading the news of the incoming assault.

Major then fired his machine gun randomly throughout the city, chucking grenades and creating the impression that a huge force had arrived – all the while, as patrols were sent out to investigate the noise, he would capture them in groups of 10 and take them to the Canadian forces. By dawn, the whole SS garrison was convinced that they were surrounded and about to be destroyed, so they fled. The Canadians entered the city and liberated it without a shot being fired.

Major was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal – he would win another for his bravery in the Korean War – and eventually retired to his home in the Montreal suburbs and would die there in 2008 at the age of 87.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Charles Coward at the Nuremberg Trials. The Jewish Chronicle.

6 – Charles Coward

Across all of our military madmen, there are not many that might regularly be described as cowards. If anything, they tend to have an excess of bravery. One man who could compete with any of them for nerve and courage under duress was Charles Coward, a coward by name but certainly not by nature. He was also known by another moniker: the Count of Auschwitz, a name that he earned through his ability to smuggle Jews out of the death camp and, on one occasion, to smuggle himself in.

Coward was a quartermaster in the British Royal Artillery when he was captured in 1940, shortly before the Dunkirk evacuation. He was one of the many British officers who took their orders to sabotage and disrupt the enemy if captured to heart, managing to free himself on several occasions, even at one point breaking out and making his way into a German field hospital, where he was accidentally awarded the Iron Cross while posing as an injured German. He would sabotage any work operation to which he was assigned and made at least 9 escape attempts before finding himself stuck in Auschwitz on a forced labor battalion.

There were over a thousand Brits stuck in the camp and Coward, as a German speaker and former quartermaster, was put in charge of the Red Cross packages that were assigned to them. This gave him access to the trains that arrived at the camp, where he saw the thousands upon thousands of Jews that were deposited at Auschwitz every day. Via Coward and other workers, the British prisoners of war donated portions of their food rations over to Jews and sent coded messages back to Britain, smuggled with the Red Cross. He even managed to swap clothes with one Jewish inmate for an evening and sneak himself into the Monowitz camp to experience the conditions with his own eyes.

Later, Coward would take Red Cross chocolate rations and use them to bribe SS officers to get the dead bodies of forced laborers from the work details, from which he would take the identity documents and then give them over to Jews: he himself estimated that he saved at least 400 Jews from the gas chambers in this way. Eventually, the British prisoners of war were taken to a different camp and then marched from Poland to Bavaria, where they were met by the advancing Americans and freed.

The level of bravery involved bordered on madness, but Coward would continue it after the war. Using the experiences that he gained at Auschwitz, he became a star witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials, providing testimony to the conditions of the camp and even physical details such as the location of the gas chambers. He was awarded the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the state of Israel in 1963, the highest award is given to gentiles who assisted and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Jasper Maskelyne. Maskelyne Magic.

7 – Jasper Maskelyne

This list has been heavy on British eccentrics, whether they be sword-wielding pseudo-Scotsmen or umbrella-toting, bowler-hatted paratroopers, and our next entry might be the wackiest of the lot. Certainly, if Jasper Maskelyne had known was Jack Churchill and Digby Tatham-Warter had been up to, you can bet that he would have done something even more mad to make himself stand out. Maskelyne was a born performer and relentless self-publicist, as well as a noted teller of tall tales, so we must take many aspects of his life with a pinch of salt, but if even half of them are true then he deserves his place on this list.

Unlike so many of our previous entrants, he was not from a military background, though he was certainly performing in his own family business when he came to prominence. Jasper Maskelyne was the son and grandson of two of the most famous stage magicians in Britain and followed his conjuring ancestors into the trade, appearing to great success all over the country in the 1930s, starring in films and publishing books on the performance of magic. When war came, he volunteered for the Royal Engineers with the idea that he might put his talents to work for the war effort – with one tale being that he made a German dreadnought appear in the River Thames to convince his superiors of his worth.

He was assigned to camouflage, but paid little attention in training and was convinced that he was more talented than his peers: in fact, some of the other recruits reported that, predictably, he was poor in military affairs though very entertaining when they were relaxing in the evenings. Nevertheless, he was posted to North Africa and set about training infantry there in techniques to evade capture and disguising vehicles.

One later biographer described his time in North Africa as “either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research)”, and there is – as one might expect from a magician – quite some doubt about just how much he did. According to Maskelyne, he was responsible for feats as grand as making the Suez Canal disappear (which he did by shining lights upwards from the water to dazzling German fighter planes), making entire armies appear to be somewhere else via an elaborate system of dummy tanks and soldiers and relocating the entire city of Alexandria. Other reports say that the Suez Canal trick was merely planned and never executed, the dummy machinery plan was simply to labor intensive to have actually have been carried out and that by the end of the war, Maskelyne was doing nothing more vital to the military effort than what he had been busy with before the war: he was entertaining the troops with his stage magic.

If anything, the greatest deception that Maskelyne pulled off might well have been convincing people that he was important: his name lives on as one of the most unusual stories of the Second World War, despite there being little to no concrete proof that he did any of the things that he said he did. As any good conjurer know though, a great magician never reveals his tricks. And if the British Army were successfully able to make whole canals and cities disappear, then it was some trick indeed: and one not to be shared too widely.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Witold Pilecki in Auschwitz. Marina Amaral.

8 – Witold Pilecki

Above we have told the story of the bravery of Charles Coward, the British soldier who smuggled himself into Auschwitz for one night and helped scores of Jews to escape from the death camp. If his bravery bordered on madness, then that of Witold Pilecki is truly insane: where Coward managed to spend one night in Auschwitz, Pilecki volunteered to be sent there indefinitely in an attempt to raise a resistance movement there and subsequently escape. Unbelievably, he managed to do both.

Pilecki was a commander of a cavalry platoon in the Polish Army when war broke out and, when the Polish government surrendered, he refused to stand down and continued fighting the Nazis as a partisan. He was one of the founders of the Tajna Armia Polska, the first iteration of the Polish resistance and in 1940, he produced an audacious plan to get himself sent to Auschwitz to gather information about the situation there and arrange a rudimentary resistance movement. The higher-ups of the Polish Resistance agreed and Pilecki was given permission to go out during a Nazi raid and get himself arrested.

It bears mentioning that at the time of Witold Pilecki’s scheme, there was hardly any concrete knowledge of the death camp system: Auschwitz was known to exist, of course, but not many people knew what was taking place there and Pilecki was intent on finding out. In the camp, he was sent out on work battalions and managed to set up the ZOW, a united resistance movement across the German prison system. Through this, Pilecki and his comrades were able to leak out information about what was taking place in Auschwitz, even setting up a covert radio station to broadcast the numbers of arrivals at the camp, as well as smuggling in extra rations. Pilecki managed to contract pneumonia during his time undercover, but retained his strength sufficiently to escape in 1943 after two and a half years spent at Auschwitz. He made his flight in the middle of an April night, overpowering the man sent to guard them, severing communications networks and then making their way out.

Once out, Pilecki linked up with the TAP – now called the Home Army – and recommenced resistance activity, coordinating ZOW organization from the outside and writing a report that broke open Auschwitz to the wider world: known as Witold’s Report, it was the first detailed description of the death camps that had been received by the Allies. Later, Pilecki was a leader during the Warsaw Uprising – though he initially enrolled as a regular soldier and was only promoted when he finally revealed himself – and found himself again captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he sat out the rest of the war.

Having survived such an ordeal – in and out of Auschwitz, participating in the Warsaw Uprising and then being sent to a Stalag – one might have expected Witold Pilecki to become a national hero, but instead, he would find himself again on the wrong side of history. He aligned himself with the Polish government in exile in London, but on the ground in Poland, the Soviet-backed communist regime was taking power. He lived under assumed names again, but when his identity was discovered, Pilecki was arrested by the communist secret police and executed in 1948. When the verdict in his show trial was announced, he told the judge that “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” It would not be until the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 that Witold Pilecki would get the recognition that his sacrifices deserved.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Tommy Macpherson in regimental tartan. The Times.

9 – Tommy Macpherson

We have heard the tale of Jack Churchill, the bagpipe and Claymore-toting maniac who fought in the Highland Regiment, but he was not the only Scottish-themed crazy in the British Army. Forgetting for a moment that Jack Churchill wasn’t actually Scottish, the honor of the maddest Scot in the Second World War might well go to Tommy Macpherson, otherwise known as the Kilted Killer. Macpherson, a native of Edinburgh and a former Scottish rugby international, was one of the most decorated soldiers of the war, picking up, among other honors, the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre three times and the Legion d’honneur.

Macpherson was a borderline aristocrat, having been educated at one of Scotland’s most expensive schools and gained a commission as an officer into the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and was sent to North Africa as a reconnaissance man. His team found themselves cut loose while attempting to prepare a landing site for an attack on Erwin Rommel’s headquarters and were captured by the Germans – though not after walking over a hundred miles in just their shorts, without food, water or a map. He attempted to escape after escape for two years, eventually managing to free himself: whereupon he reported straight back for duty and was sent on a top-secret mission to help the French Resistance.

Tommy Macpherson was parachuted into southern France in June 1944, all the while wearing his full battle dress and kilt. He later wrote, “Just as I arrived I heard an excited young Frenchman saying to his boss, ‘Chef, chef, there’s a French officer and he’s brought his wife!” Their mistaking me for a woman wearing a skirt was an easy error to make. As a British officer parachuted into a resistance situation…your only authority was your own personality, which I had tried to reinforce with my kilt and a degree of flamboyance”.

He was a remarkably effective resistance fighter: he destroyed infrastructure and was a constant thorn in the side of the Germans, brazenly driving around in a car emblazoned with a Union Jack and a French Resistance flag. He killed countless enemy combatants, earning himself a personal bounty on his head as well as a nickname: “the Kilted Killer”.

Macpherson continued his assault for months until the Axis forces in the Auvergne were surrounded by Allies and surrendered. It is reported that he drove through machine-gun fire in his Highland battle dress to give the surrender notice to the Germans, totally unarmed and – unbeknownst to his adversaries – with no authority to do so. He simply told them that a barrage was on its way and the Germans believed him, giving up en masse.

After the war, Tommy stayed in the army and found himself promoted through various Scottish regiments of the British Army, eventually retiring as a Colonel of the Gordon Highlanders. He retired in 1968, was knighted by the Queen in 1992 and died in 2014, having published his memoirs, entitled Behind Enemy Lines.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Douglas Bader attempts to swivel his prosthetic legs into a fighter plane. WW2 Gravestone.

10 – Douglas Bader

There are soldiers who are mad because they are brave and others whose eccentricities lead them to appear insane to others. But of all those that we have spoken of here, there is one whose madness was simply to be taking part at all: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Bader was a flying ace with 22 credited aerial victories, a national hero in Britain and one of the most famous soldiers of the war, respected by both enemies and comrades alike. Moreover, he did this all despite having lost both of his legs.

Bader first joined the Royal Air Force in 1928, joining their officer training college, but regularly sailed close to the wind with authority, drawing censure for racing cars and motorbikes while also finishing almost last in his class. His tendency towards thrill-seeking would have drastic consequences: after qualifying as a pilot he was often reprimanded for performing dangerous air acrobatics and in December 1931, he crashed his plane at an air show and lost both of his legs. He was invalided out of the RAF and worked for an oil company for several years, though he would write letters to the Air Ministry asking to be allowed back in. When war came in 1939, he got his wish.

When he returned to the air, Bader proved himself quickly to be an exceptional talent. Many suspected that his amputated legs actually assisted him in the air: when many pilots would blackout because of the g-forces caused by flying, he would not, as the blackouts were caused by blood rushing from the head to the feet and, without feet, he was not affected as much. He was promoted to flying the famed Spitfire planes, the symbol of the Royal Air Force, participating in air cover for the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain.

His success was exceptional: his unit, 242 Squadron, was responsible for 62 aerial victories in the Battle of Britain and Bader was given the Distinguished Flying Cross. Disaster, however, was around the corner. Bader was shot down in August 1941 and parachuted to safety, but only after his prosthetic leg had become entangled in his plane. When in captivity, the Germans respected him so much that Göring himself gave permission for a replacement leg to be sent from Britain to Germany.

Bader refused to cave while in a prisoner of war camp. He would continually attempt to escape – despite, of course, being on prosthetic legs – and when unable to, would hurl abuse at the prison guards. He was eventually moved to Colditz Castle, the most secure Stalag in Germany, where he sat out the war. Such was his esteem back home that, when the British organized a flypast to celebrate victory, Bader was chosen to lead it.

After the war, Bader somewhat sullied the great reputation that his flying had built. A movie of his life, Reach for the Sky, was released and furthered his fame, but many came to associate the lead actor of the film with the man himself: where the screen portrayal had been a demure, quiet man, the real Bader was anything but, with a foul mouth and strident opinions. His later political support for Apartheid and white-supremacist governments in Rhodesia did not help his public image, while he would correspond with several of his former adversaries from the Luftwaffe, many of whom were unrepentant Nazis, something which appeared to matter little to Bader. Nevertheless, when he died in 1982, he was feted by the British public as a leader of the gallant resistance of World War Two.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. The Daily Mirror.

11 – Jan Kubis & Jozef Gabcik

Some of the craziest soldiers, as we have seen, are those who are most willing to put themselves in the path of danger without any regard for their own safety. In that regard, the names of Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik will go down as some of the most lunatic around. Their bravery and dedication to the cause of Czech liberation will go down through the ages and, since we’re discussing lunatic behavior, perhaps so will the actions of their victim, Reinhard Heydrich, also known as the Butcher of Prague.

Jan Kubis & Jozef Gabcik were picked from a whole range of Czech and Slovak officers by the British intelligence services to carry out the attack, which was designed to destabilize the Nazi regime in Czechoslovakia and inspire the locals there to form a resistance movement similar to that was active in Poland, France and Holland. The pair had shown their fighting chops previously: Kubis had served with distinction against the Nazis as part of the French Foreign Legion and had found himself in Britain after the capitulation of France, while Gabcik had trained as a paratrooper in the UK and beat out 20 competitors to be picked for the task.

Their target was Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader in Prague. Heydrich was up there with the very worst of the Nazis: he had founded the SD, the Nazi intelligence agency, had chaired the Wannsee Conference in which the Holocaust was decided upon and had to led the forces which had summarily executed those who showed resistance to the Nazi war machine in Czechoslovakia. It was not for no reason that he was known as “The Butcher of Prague”.

Kubis and Gabcik were parachuted into Prague in December 1941 and spent months researching how best to attack Heydrich. They ascertained that – despite being the most hated man in Czechoslovakia – he drove to work every day in an open-topped car with just one driver. They picked a suitable curve in the road, where he would be forced to slow down, and, when he came past, sprang out. Gabcik attempted to open fire but his gun stalled and ruined the element of surprise, but Kubis was more successful: as Heydrich attempted to return fire at Gabcik, Kubis launched a briefcase stuffed with grenades at the car and it exploded. Neither of the Czechs knew that their attack had worked and fled – both were also injured by the blast – and only discovered the next day that Heydrich had been hit heavily. The Butcher of Prague eventually died, although historians attribute it as much to poor medical care after the attack as to anything caused by the attack itself.

Nevertheless, their attack had had its intended effect and now the retribution began. Hitler was dissuaded from killing 10,000 Czechs as a punishment and instead thousands were sent to the concentration camps, including those from the ancestral homes of the perpetrators. Kubis and Gabcik, however, had one last stand left in them. They holed themselves up in an Orthodox Church in the center of Prague and, along with two other Czech resistance members, took on 750 SS soldiers. They held out for six hours, withstanding tear gas and machine guns, only for their refuge in the crypt of the church to be flooded with water. They took down an estimated 14 SS men and injured 22 more before Gabcik killed himself and Kubis was mortally wounded. The pair would go on to be feted by both Czechs and Slovaks, and their bravery was never forgotten in their native lands.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Bhanbhagta Gurung. Wikipedia.

12 – Bhanbhagta Gurung

Our final military madman is one that few will have heard of, but whose bravery to the point of insanity is nye on unbelievable. Bhanbhagta Gurung was a Gurkha, a Nepalese soldier contracted to the British Army and – in a very competitive field – perhaps the greatest Gurkha of them all. He was a Victoria Cross recipient, the highest honor that a member of the British Army can receive, as well as being awarded the Star of Nepal, the equivalent honor in his native land.

Gurung won his award in 1945, at the tail end of the war, when fighting against the Japanese in Burma, while pinned down with sniper fire. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells the story: In Burma, on 5th March, 1945, a Company of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles attacked an enemy position known as Snowden East. On approaching the objective one of the, sections was forced to ground by very heavy Light Machine Gun, grenade and mortar fire, and owing to the severity of this fire was unable to move in any direction.

While thus pinned, the section came under accurate fire from a tree sniper some 75 yards to the South. As this sniper was inflicting casualties on the section, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung, being unable to fire from the lying position, stood up fully exposed to the heavy fire and calmly killed the enemy sniper with his rifle, thus saving his section from suffering further casualties. The section then advanced again, but when within 20 yards of the objective was again attacked by very heavy fire.

Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung, without waiting for any orders, dashed forward alone and attacked the first enemy fox-hole. Throwing two grenades, he killed the two occupants and without any hesitation rushed .on to the next enemy fox-hole and killed the Japanese in it with his bayonet. Two further enemy fox-holes were still bringing fire to bear on the section and again Rifleman Bhahbhagta Gurung dashed forward alone and cleared these with bayonet and grenade.

During his single-handed attacks on these four enemy fox-holes, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung was subjected to almost continuous and point-blank Light Machine Gunfire from a bunker on the North tip of the objective. Realizing that this Light Machine Gun would hold up not only his own platoon which was now behind him, but also another platoon which was advancing from the West, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung for the fifth time went forward alone in the face of heavy enemy fire to knock out this position.

He doubled forward and leaped on to the roof of the bunker from where, his hand grenades being finished,’ he flung two No. 77 smoke grenades into the bunker slit. Two Japanese rushed out of the bunker partially blinded by the smoke. Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung promptly killed them both with his Khukri (the traditional Gurkha sword). A remaining Japanese inside the bunker was still firing the Light Machine Gun and holding up the advance of No. 4 Platoon, so Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung crawled inside the bunker, killed this Japanese gunner and captured the Light Machine Gun.”

The citation later went on to describe Gurung’s “complete disregard for his own safety” – bravery that only a madman would show.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare

National Public Radio – Meet the Man Who Sneaked into Auschwitz

History Extra – The World’s Deadliest Sniper: Simo Häyhä

Owlcation – World War 2 History: Leo Major, the One-Eyed One-Man Army

Outonu – Pilecki: The Man Who Unveiled the Holocaust and Ended Up Executed by The Communists

All That’s Interesting – How Charles Coward Rescued Jewish Prisoners from The Nazis and Became Known As ‘The Count of Auschwitz’

War History Online – Maj. Tommy Macpherson, the “Kilted Killer” Who Tackled a Panzer Division on His Own!

History UK – Douglas Bader, The Double-Amputee Flying Ace of The Battle of Britain

Kafkadesk – On This Day, in 1942: Operation Anthropoid Was Carried Out By Jozef Gabčík And Jan Kubiš

The Independent – Bhanbhagta Gurung VC: Soldier Who Saved Fellow Gurkhas

The Himalayan Times – Gurkha Officer Reminisces About Heroics of His Grandfather