Simanaitis Says

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“ONE OF THE most famous photographers of Winston Churchill,” David Olusoga wrote, “is also one of the more controversial.” Olusoga’s article in BBC History Magazine is titled “The Gun in Churchill’s Hand will Always be Linked with Mobsters.”

Winston Churchill inspects coastal defenses on July 31, 1940. Image by TOPFOTO/JENI NOTT from BBC History Magazine, August 2019.

The controversy was abetted by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who, according to Olusoga, “seized on the image, turning it into a poster that denounced Churchill—predictably—as a ‘gangster.’ ”

This Nazi poster associates Churchill with Heckenschützen, snipers. Source:

Olugosa is professor of public history at the University of Manchester, and he offers a brief history of the weapon in Churchill’s hands, a Thompson submachine gun. Here are tidbits on the Tommy gun gleaned from Olusoga’s BBC History Magazine article and my usual Internet sleuthing.

General Thompson and inventor John Bell Blish. U.S. Army General John T. Thompson devised his rifle repeating mechanism based on an idea of John Bell Blish. The Blish Lock, patented in 1915, was to exploit static friction, aka stiction, of cartridges in a gun barrel. Blish claimed this stiction could be used in automatically preparing the next firing of the weapon.

In fact, during development of Thompson’s machine gun, its operation was identified as a delayed blowback, a concept already in use with other repeating weapons.

A Tardy “Trench Broom.” Olusoga writes that Thompson’s submachine gun “was described at the time as a ‘trench broom’: the gun that would sweep the Germans out of the Hindenberg Line.”

Work continued on the Thompson submachine gun right up until the end of World War I. Indeed, two days before the initial shipment was to leave the U.S., the Armistice was signed.

General Thompson and his weapon. Note this one was fitted with its 20-round magazine, not the iconic 50-round drum.

A Marketing Quandary. Since WWI was seen as “the war to end all wars,” there was no ready market for the Tommy gun. Consider as well its $200 price in contrast to a $50 war-surplus Curtiss JN4-D Jenny.

I’d have preferred the Jenny-in-a-crate.

“Some of the first guns sold,” Olusoga writes, “were smuggled to Ireland and used by the original Irish Republican Army. Others from those early batches stayed in the United States, where some ended up in the hands of men who, although technically civilians, were engaged in their own form of warfare.”

The Chicago Piano, Chicago Typewriter, Chicago Organ Grinder. According to Olusoga, in 1925 “two Chicago gangsters, ‘Polack Joe’ Saltis and Frank McErlane, attacked another Chicago gang with Tommy guns.”

Soon afterward, Al Capone armed his men with such weapons. Olusoga comments, “But the event that transformed the Tommy gun from the ‘trench broom’ to the infamous ‘Chicago typewriter’ was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.“

Image by C. Corleis.

No longer would we mistake a slick-suited guy with a violin case for a musician. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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