Tom Wintringham is credited with transforming Britain’s Home Guard in 1940. Wintringham, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, was an expert in guerilla warfare, and set up a school teaching such tactics at Osterley Park to the west of central London.
Wintringham was born in Grimsby in 1898. He gained a place at Balliol College, Oxford University, where he read Law. However, he gave up his studies to join the Royal Flying Corps and served in World War One. He left the Army in 1919.
He had a colourful life following his departure from the Army. Wintringham became a journalist who specialised in military matters. He established a journal titled ‘Left Review’ and in 1923, Wintringham joined the British Communist Party. In 1926, he was jailed for sedition and inciting soldiers to mutiny – part of the lead up to the General Strike; Wintringham was one of the planners behind this strike.
In 1936, Wintringham went to Spain to cover the war from a journalist’s viewpoint. Wintringham joined the Republican side and became the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. He fought at the Battle of Jarama and in 1937, Wintringham was seriously wounded at Quinto and was forced to return to Britain. However, in the time he spent in Spain, he learned a great deal about guerilla warfare and got to know experts in this field. Wintringham believed that guerilla warfare was a true ‘people’s war’ for freedom.
While in Spain, Wintringham had an affair with an American journalist called Kitty Bowler. They later got married but Bowler was condemned as a Trotskyite spy and Wintringham was expelled from the British Communist Party for refusing to leave her. However, he had already become worried at the subservient behaviour of the British Communist Party to Moscow and it is likely that a split would have occurred at some time.
In 1940, Wintringham set up a school in guerilla fighting at Osterley Park, West London. His intention was to train the Home Guard in tactics that would impede the Germans if they ever invaded. Wintringham brought over some Basques he had met in Spain who were experts in explosives. There was no traditional army training at Osterley Park – no drill etc. The training was entirely in guerilla warfare. Wintringham and his team was credited with turning round the Home Guard. The evidence suggests that while men in the Home Guard were willing, they were becoming less than happy with their training and morale was starting to drop. Men in the Home Guard wanted to do something meaningful that would help the war effort and drill did not fit the bill. Training in guerilla warfare and street fighting for the Home Guard volunteers started within 20 minutes of arrival and in the first three months Wintringham and his men had trained 5,000 volunteers. They were simply taught what they needed to know. The fame of Osterley Park was such that journalists from America did reports on it. Wintringham’s book on guerilla warfare, ‘New Ways of War’ became a best seller.
However, Wintringham never received the support from the government that his work merited and many referred to him as the ‘Red Revolutionary’. There were some who believed that he was covertly creating an army of highly trained subversives that would surface when the country was at its weakest. Wintringham had been at Osterley Park just three months when the army took it over and, in a curious recognition of the work done by Wintringham, set up three other schools in guerilla warfare throughout Britain based on his model.
Wintringham’s left wing credentials came to the fore again in 1941 when he, along with some other socialists, established the Common Wealth Party. The party had three principles: common ownership, vital democracy and morality in politics. Wintringham nearly won a by-election in Edinburgh in 1943. In the 1945 election, one member was elected to Parliament out of the twenty three candidates they put up for election. The Common Wealth Party polled 110,634 votes out of a total of 25,085,978.
Tom Wintringham died in 1949.