National treasure Dad’s Army has been turned into a film, but the men of the Home Guard were far from a joke, finds PETER FROST
ONE of next year’s biggest movies will be Dad’s Army. Directed by Oliver Parker, it will star Catherine Zeta-Jones, Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson and Michael Gambon.
Filming began in Yorkshire in October 2014 and it is due to be released early next year. Already the trailer is out and various stars are plugging the film in the media.
Today we treat the Home Guard as a bit of a laugh. Dad’s Army, as it is usually known, has been the butt of many jokes and the subject of the hilarious TV programmes and now the new film.
In fact the Home Guard was a serious attempt at building an organised resistance that would fight a guerilla war if Hitler’s plan to invade Britain came to pass. It would be the final defence to stop our country falling under the Nazi jackboot. No joke really.
Civilians trained in guerilla warfare and classic resistance techniques like street fighting, sabotage and civil disobedience would be the last bastion against the nazi invaders and the British traitors, some of them members of the aristocracy, press barons and even the royal family who would have undoubtedly thrown their lot in with the nazis.
The man who dreamed up this fighting group, officially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, was Tom Wintringham (below) — a long-time communist and Marxist, military theoretician and historian who had fought in the trenches in WWI.
Wintringham learnt about guerilla warfare commanding the British Battalion of the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war. Tom is pictured below with other members of the Brigade.
When he wasn’t fighting he was a noted journalist and writer particularly on politics, military affairs and military history.
Wintringham was born 1898 in Grimsby. In 1915 he won a scholarship to study history at Balliol College, Oxford, but left university to join the Royal Flying Corps. Poor eyesight stopped him flying so he worked as a mechanic and motorcycle despatch rider.
At the end of the war he was involved in a mutiny before going back to Oxford. Already sympathetic to communist ideas, he spent his first long summer holiday in Moscow.
Back in England he assembled a group of students aiming to establish a British section of the Third International. This grouping would be one part of what would eventually become the Communist Party.
Wintringham graduated from Oxford and moved to London, ostensibly to study for the bar at the Temple, but in fact to work full-time in left-wing politics.
By 1923 Wintringham had joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and in 1925 he was one of the 12 CPGB leaders jailed for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny.
In 1930 he helped to found the Daily Worker, the predecessor of the Morning Star, where his name became well-known.
At the same time in pamphlets and articles in other communist publications he established his reputation as the party’s military expert.
Even before nazi planes bombed the Basque town of Guernica — a rehearsal for later Blitz bombing — he called for air raid precautions. The CPGB took up this campaign and even shaped government policy.
At the start of the Spanish civil war Wintringham went to Barcelona, initially as a journalist for the Daily Worker. He soon swapped his pen for a rifle, joining and eventually commanding the British Battalion of the International Brigade.
While in Spain he met and started a romance with left-wing US journalist Kitty Bowler, who was reporting on the republican cause.
Later Kitty (below with Tom) would become his second wife.
In February 1937 he was wounded in the Battle of Jarama. While injured in Spain he became friends with Ernest Hemingway, who based one of his characters on Tom.
A seriously infected wound saw him near death. Kitty visited him in military hospital and discovered he was suffering from typhoid and septicaemia.
Patience Darton (below), a nurse with the International Brigades, saved his life: “I poked around with a pair of scissors and found he had a lot of pus in his wounds which had been sewn up too tightly. And that was it; he got better very quickly.”
Once recovered he was repatriated. He wrote a book, English Captain, based on his time in Spain.
Kitty came to England with him but in 1938 the CPGB accused her of being a Trotskyist and a spy. Tom refused to leave her and was expelled from the party.
He found a job on Picture Post magazine. He also started to campaign for an armed civilian guard to repel any fascist invasion. As early as 1938 he was calling for what would become the Home Guard.
He taught volunteers tactics of guerrilla warfare. When war came he applied for a commission but was rejected.
In Picture Post, the Daily Mirror, Tribune and the New Statesman he wrote articles calling for all-out war against the nazis.
The Communist Party was deeply divided. Some comrades urged staying out of the war due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Wintringham strongly condemned the comrades who wanted to stay out of the war.
He was even stronger in his criticisms of prime minister Neville Chamberlain. He regarded the Tories as Nazi sympathisers and campaigned for them to be removed from office.
In May 1940, after Dunkirk, Wintringham began to campaign for the founding of squads of Local Defence Volunteers, the forerunner of the Home Guard. He started his own military training school at Osterley Park, London.
There he taught volunteers the guerilla warfare techniques he had learnt in Spain.
Along with other ex-International Brigade comrades he taught street fighting, anti-tank warfare, sabotage and demolition, all the skills in fact that would be essential to resist a nazi invasion.
He wrote many articles in Picture Post and the Daily Mirror putting forward his views about the Home Guard under the slogan “a people’s war for a people’s peace.”
The colonel blimps of the army did not trust Wintringham because of his communist past. After September 1940 the army began to take charge of the Home Guard training in Osterley and Wintringham and his comrades were gradually sidelined.
Wintringham was driven out. He resigned in April 1941. Ironically, despite his role in founding the Home Guard he was never allowed to join the organisation itself because of a rule barring membership to communists and fascists.
He helped to found the briefly popular socialist Common Wealth Party. The party advocated the three principles of common ownership, vital democracy and morality in politics. Later he and Kitty joined the Labour Party.
In his later years he worked mainly in radio and film. He continued to write about military history, opposing atomic weapons and championing Mao’s China and Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Tom Wintringham died on August 16 1949, aged 51.
With the Dad’s Army TV series and the new film, it has become fashionable to laugh at what could have been in reality the last bastion in the battle against the nazis.
See the film, have a good laugh, but never forget what Dad’s Army really stood for: a civilian guerilla resistance movement that could have stood between us and the horrors of a nazi occupation.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 14 October 2015