Tom Wintringham – How an Oxford Communist Founded the Home Guard


Tom Wintringham (1898-1949) was born in Lincolnshire and was a prominent member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). An excellent scholar in his youth at Oxford University, he delayed his education (during WWI) to join the newly formed (and highly experimental) Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the Royal Airforce). Near the end of WWI, Wintringham was involved in a minor barracks dispute often described as a ‘mutiny’, and when the war finished, he travelled to Moscow as a private person to witness the early stages of the Communist Revolution. This was during the very difficult years of the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) which saw the UK, USA, Japan and other countries invade Russia and attempt to overthrow the early Government of the Workers (i.e. Soviet). Following the hundreds of thousands killed during WWI (where Russia was an ally to the West), this Western military action cost the lives of tens of thousands of Russians – but Lenin the leader of the Russian Revolution – never once responded with anger or racism towards the West. Instead he looked beyond this bourgeois incursion and continued to speak directly to the International Working Class. This impressed Wintringham and upon his return to Oxford in the UK, he organized a group of students to form the British section of the Third International – a general trend of leftwing political development that led to the eventual establishing of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 – which Wintringham promptly joined. Upon graduation, he relocated to London ostensibly to pursue a career as a lawyer, but in reality to pursue his political work.

In 1925 Tom Wintringham was briefly imprisoned by the British government as one of the twelve leading CPGB officials accused of seditious libel. This was a purely political move by the conservative British establishment that opposed the empowerment of the workers who were agitating for better working conditions and higher pay. The CPGB leadership were prosecuted and imprisoned for disseminating literature to workers comprised of the works of Marx and Engels (i.e. Scientific Socialism), and the further explanatory works of Lenin. The call to International Revolution was viewed as unacceptable by the British middle class that held all the political power in the country. This experience did not change Wintringham in any way, but simply confirmed his belief that workers in bourgeois countries – and anyone who supported them – were routinely oppressed by an unjust system. Imprisonment was counter-productive and only served to strengthened his Communist beliefs. The time in enforced confinement allowed him to study and deepen his understanding of Scientific Socialism, and to plan more efficient and effective revolutionary action for the future. This is a clever ‘Marxist’ approach that sees the reality of physical circumstance used to its maximum positive effect. In a country that operates a system-wide blanket of class oppression, the prison system of that country represents a highly condensed version of that oppression – and therefore placing Marxists into its custody is the height of bourgeois stupidity, as the experience itself only serves to confirm how Marx is ‘right’ to those who already adhere to his philosophy. The illogicality of this situation is the same as using ‘oppression’ to prove that ‘oppression’ does not exist. When the full weight of an oppressive governmental and economic system is used against individuals, they must adapt quickly and learn to think on their feet. Even when living in society the establishment is used by the middle class in such an oppressive manner so as to ‘exclude’ the workers from power in every possible way. In prison that oppressive power simply intensifies and explains how the bourgeois attempts to control the working class, simply through the application of varying levels of oppression. Mainstream society is a bourgeois prison for the worker with a broad remit of oppressive operation, whilst a bourgeois prison operates through an intensified and narrow remit – either way the worker is oppressed. Learning to oppose a highly oppressive government either in society or in its prisons, must be considered one of the influential experiences that made Wintringham consider that the ideas of flexibility and adaption should be the basis for modern warfare.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) General Franco rose-up against the democratically elected government of Republican Spain. Franco’s rebellion was rightwing and supported by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Catholic Church. The governments of the UK and France refused to condemn Franco’s rebellion or the atrocities he carried-out in name of fascism against the Spanish people. The UK and France also refused to support or assist the Spanish Republic. This appeasement of fascism led directly to Franco’s victory in 1939 and Hitler’s successful invasion of France and war with Britain. Only the Soviet Union came to the aid of the Spanish people and through the Communist International organized the so-called ‘International Brigades’ made-up of anyone (male or female) from around the world who wanted to volunteer to fight in Spain against fascism. It is believed that Wintringham himself suggested to the CPGB the idea of International Brigades – an idea that Stalin agreed with and endorsed. Marx had taught that the working class was truly ‘International’ in character and that racism was a bourgeois ideological sham designed to keep the workers fighting amongst themselves and not uniting to fight the bourgeoisie – the real cause of all their class-related suffering. An International Brigade operated on the Marxist principle of ‘Internationalism’, whereby all people were considered equal. Wintringham went on to command the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade very effectively, and was wounded in the incredible Battle of Jarama that saw many British deaths.

Tom Wintringham returned to the UK after the Spanish Civil War and worked as a journalist. He used his experience of fighting fascism in Spain to call for the establishment of a ‘Home Guard’ in the UK made-up of ordinary people defending the area within which they lived from the threat of armed invasion. He wrote a number of progressive books on modern warfare which emphasized guerrilla fighting but were also critical of the class-based system of the UK military. This Communistic thinking immediately made him unpopular with the rightwing Winston Churchill and the middle class officer corps. One such book laid the theoretical roots of Britain’s Home Guard in WWII and was entitled ‘How to Reform the Army’ (1939). Wintringham suggested that twelve divisions be formed (of 100,000 volunteers comprised of ex-soldiers and youths) similar in organization to the International Brigades that fought in Spain. As Winston Churchill detested Communism, he prevented Wintringham from joining the regular British Army during WWII as an Officer (this was part of a broader British government campaign that saw all Spanish Civil War veterans from enlisting either in the Home Guard or the Regular Forces during WWII) and refused to acknowledge the validity of his ideas for home defense. Due to this official apathy, Wintringham opened a private Home Guard Centre in Osterly Park where he trained recruits in guerrilla fighting, demolitions, anti-tank operations, hand to hand combat, and street fighting techniques in July 1940. Churchill had the British Army take over the running of the Home Guard Centre at Osterly and had Wintringham and his colleagues quietly removed, whilst expanding Wintringham’s Home Guard nationwide. Churchill also made it illegal for any private citizen (such as Wintringham) to establish any military force on private property. As the International Brigades were premised upon the Marxist principle of equality between the sexes, Wintringham’s original idea for the Home Guard included women as well as men – but the British Army of the day (supported by Churchill) looked down on this idea. However, this did not prevent ‘women only’ unofficial Home Guard units being formed such as the Amazon Defense Corps and the Women’s Home Defense. Later, a small number of women were allowed to join the main Home Guard but only in non-combative supportive roles. In the final analysis the Oxford educated Tom Wintringham studied Marxism, became a Communist, fought for the rights of the workers, was imprisoned for his beliefs, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and became a remarkable and original military thinker and writer. It is obvious that the principles of Scientific Socialism (formulated by Marx and Engels) influenced Wintringham’s thinking regarding the creation and structure of both the International Brigades and the British Home Guard. It is interesting to consider that in the Soviet Union ‘Guard’ units in the military were considered prestigious military formations that probably date back to Peter the Great. A Guard formation was considered in the USSR the ideological and military backbone of the country and were expected to halt and destroy any invading enemy. The Soviet Border Guards, for instance, were comprised of highly motivated individuals who trained to defend the USSR during any first phase of an invasion. Although trained to decisively win, it was no secret that their real task was to hold-off an over-powering enemy for as long as possible, with the idea of allowing the regular military forces time to effectively deploy. This sounds very similar to the eventual purpose of the British Home Guard which was to be used as a ‘blocking’ border guard during WWII. Although Tom Wintringham died in 1949 (at just 51 years old) it is also believed that his notion of a ‘World Guard’ (which was to be drawn from men and women of every nation) was the fore-runner to the formation of the United Nations Peace-keeping Force. Whereas Churchill and other middle class politicians in the UK admired Adolf Hitler and refused to condemn fascism, it was ordinary British people like the Communist Tom Wintringham that paved the way to refusing to accept Nazism and in developing a cogent mobilizing response to the threat of German invasion of the UK after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France in 1940. In the early days of WWII, Churchill had no idea of what to do, and so he stole the ‘Communist’ ideas of Wintringham and made them national policy – albeit whilst writing the Communist influence (and Wintringham) out of history. Whether Churchill liked it or not, the British Home Guard was a ‘Communist’ military formation premised upon the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Tom Wintringham was a British genius who should be recognized not only for his outstanding intellect but also for his immense bravery.

Books by Tom Wintringham

War! And the way to fight against it., Communist Party of Great Britain, London, 1932

Air Raid Warning! Why the Royal Air Force is to be doubled, Workers’ Bookshop, London, 1934

The Coming World War., Wishart 1935

Mutiny. Mutinies from Spartacus to Invergordon., Stanley Nott, London 1936

English Captain., Faber 1939[3] (also in Penguin)

How to reform the army (‘Fact No. 98′), London, 1939

Wintringham, Tom (1940). Deadlock War. Faber and Faber. ASIN B000OEKCHS.

New Ways of War., Penguin Special 1940

Armies of Freemen., Routledge 1940

Ferdinand Otto Miksche: Blitzkrieg, translated by Tom Wintringham, Faber, London, 1941

Levy, Bert “Yank”; Wintringham, Tom (Foreword) (1964) [1942]. Guerilla Warfare (PDF). Paladin Press. Retrieved 15 April 2014.

Peoples’ War., Penguin Special 1942

Freedom is our Weapon. A Policy for Army Reform., Kegan Paul 1941

Politics of Victory., Routledge 1941

Weapons and Tactics from Troy to Stalingrad., Houghton Mifflin, Boston, USA 1943, republished 1973 with Col. John Blashford-Snell ISBN 0-14-021522-0

Your M.P. By ‘Gracchus’. Gollancz 1944

We’re Going On – Collected Poems, Smokestack Books, UK, 2006

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