Tom Wintringham was born 1898 in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. He was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk and Balliol College, Oxford but abandoned his university career at the outbreak of the First World War to join the Royal Flying Corps. At the end of the war he was involved in a brief barracks mutiny, one of many minor insurrections which went unnoticed in the period. He returned to Oxford, and in a long vacation made a visit of some months to Moscow, after which he returned to England and formed a group of students aiming to establish a British section of the Third International: a Communist Party. As the party formed, 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 politics.
In 1923 Wintringham joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1925 he was one of twelve CPGB officials imprisoned for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny. In 1930, he founded a newspaper, Daily Worker, and was one of the few named writers to publish articles in it. In writing for the Communist party’s theoretic journal Labour Monthly, he established himself as the party’s military expert. In LM articles and in booklets on the subject, Wintringham formed the arguments against Air Assault and called for ARP precautions several years before Guernica. His arguments were the basis for the most successful of the Communist Party’s wartime campaigns, that for ARP provision, and shaped government policy on the issue in the years leading up to the war. Although at the centre of the CPGB organisation, he was often at odds with Party policy, believing in a communism of alliance and co-operation, rather than the dominant comintern ideology of class against class. Wintringham’s ideas became party dogma when the Comintern announced the ‘Popular Front’, a form of communism Wintringham was prepared to fight for.
In 1934, he became the founder, editor and major contributor of Left Review, the first British literary journal with a stated Marxist intent. Although published by Wintringham and funded by the CPGB, it embraced writers of all shades of socialism, regardless of their party affiliations. The journal established a pattern for what was to become cultural studies.
During the Spanish Civil War, Wintringham went to Spain as a journalist, but he joined and eventually commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Some socialist commentators have credited him with the whole idea of “international” brigades. He also had an affair with a US journalist, Kitty Bowler, whom he later married. 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 upon him. He spent some months as a machine gun instructor. When he returned to the battalion the next summer he contracted typhoid, was again wounded at Quinto in August 1937 and was repatriated in October. His later book English Captain is based on these experiences.
In 1938 the Communist Party condemned his wife as a Trotskyist spy but he refused to leave her – he quit the party instead. He came to mistrust the party’s subservience to Stalin’s Russia and Comintern.
Back in England, Tom Hopkinson recruited him to work for the newspaper Picture Post.
At the outbreak of World War II, Wintringham applied for an army officer’s commission but was rejected. When the Communist Party promulgated its policy of staying out of the war due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he strongly condemned their policies. Because of the appeasement policies of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, he also regarded the Tories as Nazi sympathizers and wrote that they should be removed from office. He wrote for Picture Post, the Daily Mirror, and wrote columns for Tribune and the New Statesman.
In May 1940, after the escape from Dunkirk, Wintringham began to write in support of the Local Defence Volunteers, the forerunner of the Home Guard. On July 10, he opened the private Home Guard training school at Osterley Park, London.
Wintringham’s training methods were mainly based on his experience in Spain. He even had trainers who had fought alongside him in Spain who trained volunteers in anti-tank warfare and demolitions. He also taught street fighting and guerrilla warfare. He wrote many articles in Picture Post and the Daily Mirror propagating his views about the Home Guard with the motto “a people’s war for a people’s peace”.
The British Army still did not dare 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 resigned in April 1941. Ironically, despite his activities in support of the Home Guard, Wintringham was never allowed to join the organisation himself because of a policy barring membership to Communists and Fascists.