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Tom Wintringham's  Home Guard

Tom Wintringham (1898 - 1949)

Grimsby-born Tom Wintringham had served in WW1 in the RFC, was  a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and former editor of the Daily Worker. He had been arrested for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny in 1925. In 1936 Wintringham was a pioneer of the concept of the International Brigades in Spain, had served as an instructor  and was briefly commander of the British Battalion. Although expelled from the CPGB in 1938, Wintringham remained a confirmed Marxist and differed only tactically in believing it was necessary to maintain the 'popular front' and work with the British Government to defeat fascism, rather than waiting for a future workers’ revolution.


In April 1939, Tom Wintringham called for twelve divisions of 100,000 men 'formed in the same way as the International Brigades, by voluntary enlistment from among ex-servicemen and youths'. Wintringham’s proposal was ignored, not least because it was part of his wider proposals to make the army more democratic. (Churchill, who made a similar suggestion around the same time, was also ignored). The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) were finally created on 14 May 1940 amidst considerable official confusion as to their purpose. Into the uncertainty stepped Wintringham with a series of newspaper and magazine articles that were confident and aggressive, exactly meeting the aspirations of the new LDV, rather than the low-key armed special constabulary envisioned by the government. Wintringham had regular columns in the Daily Mirror, Tribune, New Statesman and Picture Post and frequently broadcast on the BBC.  On 17 May his article in the Tribune demanded ‘Arm the People’.  Even on 31 May, as the Dunkirk evacuation was underway,  a supremely confident article in the Daily Mirror  maintained that invasion would be a difficult job for the Germans and preached an aggressive policy as ‘real defence always means attacking’ rather than passively holding a defence line. Wintringham ended with the rousing slogan  





The MOI continued to report on 15 June that there was a lack of confidence in what was seen as an amateurish and ill-organized government handling of the LDV but on the same day came the first of Wintringham’s influential articles in Picture Post, titled  ‘Against Invasion: the lessons of Spain’. The pioneering photo-journalism of Picture Post gave an unparalleled impact to his words, preaching an uncompromising defence policy of public participation and aggression. In the absence of any other immediately available training material, 100,000 copies of the article were distributed by the War Office as the first training leaflet for the LDV. This  effectively gave official sanction to Wintringham’s position as unofficial public strategist for the LDV/Home Guard. Extra copies of the 29 June issue of Picture Post containing Wintringham’s ‘Arm the Citizens’ article also had to be printed due to popular demand.  It is perhaps no coincidence that Churchill  pointed out to the Cabinet on the following day ‘It would be very unfortunate if there was any failure to make the fullest practicable use of the widespread desire for combatant service’ and asked for an enquiry into the arrangements for the equipment and employment of the LDV. A new start was needed and on 22 July the Cabinet agreed to rebrand the LDV as the Home Guard.

Wintringham put words into action and his unofficial Home Guard Training School was opened at Osterley Park on 10 July 1940, with Tom Wintringham as Chief Instructor. It was funded by Edward Hulton, the owner of Picture Post,  on land provided by Lord Jersey. The innovative course had an internationalist mystique using veterans of the Spanish Civil War as instructors. Wintringham’s flair for publicity and the backing of Hulton’s Picture Post gave it an international reputation. This helped convince the USA that it was worth investing in Britain's defence and also warned Nazi Germany that it would face an unparalled defence in depth that would make invasion difficult. It had always been understood by the War Office that the Home Guard would have a harassing role in support of its more static defence of 'nodal points' but Wintringham took this further and promoted their potential, not only as guerrillas, but also as a future resistance force. In The Home Guard Can Fight (1941) Wintringham wrote: ‘Part of the Home Guard’s job is to carry on the struggle, if necessary, in areas temporarily overrun by the enemy.  This last duty it can only carry out if it learns some of the tactics of guerrilla war’.  He asked 

 - Are you prepared to be cut off behind the enemy’s advance, and to keep on harassing him when there is no one to give you orders?

- Could you lie low, if necessary, for several days, and then seize the chance for sabotage or raiding?

This was essentially the role of the Auxiliary Units but in the Summer and Autumn of 1940, at the time of greatest need, it was Osterley that trained most potential guerrillas. Crucially, these were then expected to return to their localities and train more men. Wintringham went further, to preach a concept of the Home Guard as a Resistance, abandoning their uniforms and fighting on in utmost secrecy as civilians in small sabotage teams hidden within the community. It moved the teaching from the strategy of the War Office and its Auxiliary Units to that of the SIS;  it is possible that SIS had covertly influenced the teaching at Osterley in order to use the students as a potential reservoir of recruits for Section D and the Resistance. The Osterley students were taught how to make themselves independent of regular forces, with home-made explosives and crude, but effective, incendiary devices with chemical timers.  The course included advice on how to destroy ammunition dumps and vehicle parks,  how to prepare ambushes,  and how to poison the water supply in occupied areas.

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The War Office did not wish to encourage the high profile guerrilla role of the Home Guard and at the end of September, after  the dramatic front cover of the 21 September  Picture Post with Wintringham's rousing article 'The Home Guard Can Fight', the Osterley School was closed down and replaced by a more low-key school at Dorking, Surrey. Denbies House, Dorking, designated as No. 1 Training School. The commandant was  Major Hugh Pollock (Royal Scots Fusiliers), who had edited the serial publication Battle Training in 1939, to which Wintringham was a contributor. The Osterley instructors still dominated the course but it was  Hugh Slater who, rather than Wintringham, carried much of the workload. Wintingham  was, by now, hugely disillusioned by the formal structure of the Home Guard. In May 1941 he made a blistering attack on the command structure in the Picture Post, tabulating how this preserved the traditional social order with senior command being in the hands of elderly gentry and aristocracy. To him, such men were out of touch not just with military strategy but also with a changing modern society.  Ironically, he resigned from the School at the point when the War Office had decided to commission him as a major in the Home Guard. Wintringham consequently never received any official recognition for his ground-breaking work with the Home Guard.


Wintringham’s writings contain the most overt socialist content in promoting the Home Guard, and there was some government concern in 1940 that it might be hijacked as a revolutionary socialist militia.  Although the ever-suspicious MI5 took the risk seriously, the supposed threat relied almost entirely on the reputation of Wintringham and the War Office took a more relaxed attitude. Wintringham had already drifted away from the Communist Party and he had no organised support with which to attain his political aims. He remained bitterly disappointed over the lack of support shown to his work with the Home Guard by socialist parties and the International Brigades Association, prior to the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941.  Although his political views hardly endeared him to the officer class and he was undoubtedly an irritant to the War Office, he was not the outcast as sometimes imagined. Immediately before war broke out, Wintringham was commissioned to write articles for the serial publication Battle Training in Word and Picture, which was officially approved by the War Office.  MI5 had blocked his appointment to  a post in the  War Office during September 1939 on the grounds that it might give him access to confidential information but, during June and early July 1940 and again in the autumn, he was employed by the War Office to undertake  lecture tours. His best-selling New Ways of War was one of the few Home Guard books (alongside Hugh Slater's Home Guard for Victory) recommended by the War Office. The book combined inspiring and  practical advice sandwiched between sections arguing the case for political change. 


In 1942, Wintringham founded the Common Wealth Party and twice unsuccessfully stood for parliament. After the war Wintringham and many of the founders of Common Wealth left and joined the Labour Party. Tom Wintringham died in 1949 and his passing went almost unnoticed.  He was an uncomfortable reminder to the political far left of their dismissive attitude to the war in 1940 whilst his championing of a revolutionary militia was unwelcome to the right. By the time of the TV Dad’s Army series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the midst of an IRA bombing campaign, the idea of the Home Guard being taught ruthless techniques of guerrilla warfare by a revolutionary socialist was unpalatable and a much more cosier vision of the Home Guard entered the national psyche.The memory of Tom Wintringham was almost lost to history until Hugh Purcell's biography The Last English Revolutionary, first published in 2004. Somewhat ironically many on the left, whose predecessors had ignored or had poured scorn on Wintringham in 1940,  then adopted him as a hero of a radical socialist outlook on the war.


For further details of Tom Wintringham and the role of the Osterley Training School see Fighting Nazi Occupation (2015) and To The Last Man (2017).

Available from Paul Meekins Books.

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