With the sun suddenly blocked by German airplanes and the streets teaming with trucks and troops, Denmark peacefully submitted to Nazi control within 24 hours on April 9, 1940. But eight middle schoolers formed a resistance cell, stole weapons, committed sabotage and later captured, incarcerated and escaped prison, all before they were 18 years old. Credited as the spark for the Danish resistance of World War II, they were the Churchill Club.
Fourteen-year-old artist and son of a preacher, Knud Pedersen could not stomach the Danish potentates’ submission to Hitler. From his teachers to local policemen, everyone appeared to have accepted the occupation of Denmark. In response, Knud Pederson found several brave cohorts and formed the Churchill Club, a small group of middle schoolers. In a secluded room in Knud’s father’s church, the boys hashed out their plans to disrupt the Germans.
Understanding the power symbols, the boys created a blue image of lightning bolts extending from a cross. They would tag every enemy-occupied property in sight—cars, barracks, buildings—anywhere citizens would see the resistance symbol. Churchill membership earned simply by stealing a German weapon undetected. Secrecy from the adult world was paramount. Their first act of subterfuge was to form the false front of a bridge club. purportedly to play cards.
What began as simply cutting communication lines quickly escalated to patrolling with small containers of gasoline and matches. They looked for quick strikes upon targets of opportunity, puncturing truck tires, ripping cushions and leaving vehicles engulfed in flames.
These young masters of deception kicked balls over fences as ruses to recon areas, and they pestered German sentries with litanies of juvenile questions designed to distract the guards while other CC members gained entry to restricted areas. The CC would circle on bikes until they saw unsuspecting soldiers, and then they would acquire their unsecured weapons. Likewise, they would search uniform jackets in diners and pilfer supply trucks of ammo crates at the train station.
The boys were quickly accruing a cache of Nazi equipment, firearms, ammunition, and explosives. In an attempt to relocate some of their enemy armory, they loaded down a younger member with pistols fixed to his upper body and machine guns under a crumpled jacket, and every pocket on his person bulged with bullets. He rolled through multiple checkpoints and a guarded bridge to make it successfully to a new hiding location.
Their first major mission was at the Aalborg airport, which strategically became acquired by the Germans. Disguised by Nazi artists to resemble a farm, replete with painted wooden sculptures of barnyard animals, and the airstrip a vibrant green to masquerade as a pasture. After telling their parents they were playing bridge and would be home long after dark, they breeched the fence, broke windows and entered the building. After grabbing enemy equipment and stomping a picture of Hitler, they set the room ablaze by striking a well-placed match into a pile of documents.
On another night, the CC removed a large anti-aircraft weapon and carried it toward the water intent on sinking it. Confronted by German bullets zipping past their skulls, they dropped the weapon and escaped unscathed.
Using the cover of the church on Sundays during service, the boys would test fire the stolen weapons. None had touched a firearm before the occupation. The singing and organ music masked the reports of the rifles and machine guns. They also dissected newly acquired mortars, removing small, highly flammable magnesium discs. Armed with these new accelerants, the CC executed a railyard mission. With his scouts squatting in shadows with their pistol sights trained on the German sentries, Knud and others entered a boxcar containing airplane wings and assembly diagrams. Knud pushed the papers into a pile and lit the magnesium discs, creating a bright fire that nearly singed him. Although the raid was a success, members expressed their fear that their luck would run out, and before long, it did.
The Wehrmacht poured into the church, seizing the stockpile of pilfered pistols, rifles, ammunition, knives and explosives. Within 24 hours, the entire cell was located and in custody. Interrogated overnight and hauled to jail cells the next morning, the boys were unaware that they had been seen stealing pistols from German coats in a café. While incarcerated, the boys sang British songs to infuriate the Germans at the jail, wrote letters to the Danish warden to secure smokes while in the yard and engaged in hyper-dramatic banter about being executed for their actions.
Lined up along a wall, each of them holding a single-digit placard, and photographed for Hitler. When asked about their motives for their crimes, Knud expressed intention to kill Nazis. This made it clear to the court that the Churchill Club was a guerilla unit and not just juveniles. At the conclusion of their ten-day trial in the summer of 1942, the CC were sentenced to serve several years in prison.
During their trial, CC members stashed articles of clothing for an escape attempt, but their plans were quashed when a guard doing inspections noticed damage to the wire mesh covering over the yard. One of the boys had earlier used a knife stolen from the dining facility to create the hole. Another member prepped his clothing to conceal small items. After sentencing, his brother said goodbye, all the while slipping him a saw blade. Concealed in his jacket lining and fortunately missed by a guard during his search.
The CC returned to their cells immediately after their goodbyes, and they quickly went into action. They worked as a cohesive unit, and the remaining CC members in other cells sang songs about hanging Hitler and his henchmen. All the while drumming their spoons to mask the sound of the blade sawing a bar across a cell window. Eventually, creating a section large enough in the window to escape.
The boys also designed a painted wooden replacement rod that was convincing enough to pass inspections by the guards. Due to mandatory blackouts at night, the boys were able to escape, travel freely, commit sabotage and then re-enter their cell prior to dawn. During one mission, three members forced a German command vehicle into the harbor waters. On other nights, they burned multiple German vehicles, always returning to their cell before first light. The boys had also made contacts for a final, waterborne escape to Sweden, but all to no avail when the police caught them out one night traveling the streets.
From inception to incarceration, the Churchill Club operated secretly on the streets of Denmark for three seasons in 1942. During the several years they served in prison, their actions became well known from the pamphlets airdropped by the Royal Air Force, which detailed their exploits and called citizens to action. In America, teens read about their missions in Issue 27 of True Comics, published in September of 1943.
Other Danish teens committed acts of sabotage that mimicked the Churchill Club, calling themselves Denmark’s Freedom League. Eventually they were captured, but by then, multiple cells of resistance had begun to emerge across the country. Acts of arson and attacks on German barracks, trains and trucks continued, creating a hostile area of operation for the Nazi war machine. Throughout 1944, Denmark received many British airdrops of firearms and ammunition that supplied these indigenous rebels.
After two and a half years in prison, Knud Pederson finally returned home. His father converted their church into a base of operations, and preached while waving a pistol and damning Hitler. The Special Operations Executive, England’s vast World War II spy organization, recruited Knud. He trained on weapons and explosives and led SOE missions until the German surrender in May of 1945.
In 1950, as an impoverished art student, Knud Pedersen and his former fellow childhood rebels were invited to attend a private meeting with Winston Churchill. Knud’s artwork eventually became accepted into New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In his final years he faced pneumonia, but he forced himself to finish telling his story to author Phillip Hoose. Hoose documented Pederson and his compatriots’ valor during World War II. On December 18, 2014, Knud fell silent forever, but his life and spirit are commemorated in Hoose’s book The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and The Churchill Club.