Behind Tom Wintringham's mild-mannered Captain Mainwaring-esque 1940's appearance of spectacles, bald pate and trimmed moustache, boiled a revolutionary fervour. In many ways Wintringham was years ahead of his time, yet he was also trapped and stunted by it.
Well-educated and from a wealthy family, Wintringham was attracted to Communism following his service in the First World War and was imprisoned for sedition in 1925. He began the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and became an expert in military tactics. He led the British Battalion of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and was twice wounded. Yet from the start his Communist standing was dogged by suspicion of his bourgeois background and he was expelled from the party in 1938.
Wintringham's Communism modified to become what he termed `revolutionary patriotism' - belief in the nation's population to bring about a Socialist future. His hour came in 1940 when the Nazis threatened Britain's very survival. He injected revolutionary zeal into the staid growth of the Home Guard, founding a battle training school and writing a widely respected book of military theory. He went on to broadcast on the BBC, write for Picture Post and the Daily Mirror and became a 1940's household name. He was of the same mould as Orwell, Spender and other prominent thinkers of the left and was also a skilled poet. However today, Wintringham is not mentioned in the same breath as any of the above.
Despite his many achievements, Wintringham was more human than superman. His central weakness throughout his life revolved around women - his treatment of them and his polygamy. His political background dogged him from start to finish and his baiting of the army top brass' Colonel Blimps ended with the latter's victory and his dismissal from his own battle school. Not downhearted he went on to jointly form a new political party Common Wealth, yet this too faded within five years. As he aged, his revolutionary fire tempered somewhat and although, like Orwell, he finally saw the evils of totalitarian communism, he never renounced Stalin. Although he continued to broadcast, he ended his days writing `erotic fiction' and few obituaries were written at his death.
Tom Wintringham was a truly remarkable and fascinating man and this book is no less so. The juxtaposition of Wintringham's historical milestones alongside his very human personal story makes this biography very appealing. Using a wide-variety of unseen and far-flung archives, Purcell's scholarly yet extremely readable work at last puts Wintringham on the map of twentieth century, something that should have happened many years ago.