We look at a rich mix of militia tactics and anti-fascist politics in a British bestseller from the dark days of 1940.
Tom Wintringham’s New Ways of War was a response to the acute national crisis Britain faced in the summer of 1940.
He sums it up himself in the opening lines: ‘In September 1939, the Germans overran Poland. In April 1940, they seized almost the whole of Norway. In May, they broke through Belgium and France, reaching the sea. In June, they took Paris and defeated France. In each of these campaigns, they have shown us new ways of war, which we must learn.’
This is typical of his style – simple, clear, concise. It is a style he sustains throughout this short book, for his intended audience was not professional soldiers but the new ‘People’s Army’ coming into being under the shadow of imminent invasion. ‘A government of a country that has been long accustomed to peace,’ he explains, ‘is naturally reluctant to put explosives and lethal weapons in the hands of its citizens. A government that represents the propertied classes is always terrified by the fear of revolution. If we are to have a People’s Army, we must break down this reluctance and this fear, and find for ourselves a government that will entrust to the people the means for their defence.’
Writing thus, it is little wonder that Wintringham was viewed with suspicion by the Establishment. He may have been from a solidly middle-class background, and he may have looked like a mild-mannered science boffin, with his gangly frame, domed bald head, and wire-rimmed specs. But Tom Wintringham was, in fact, a red-blooded revolutionary. A founder member of the British Communist Party, he was imprisoned for sedition in 1925, helped set up The Daily Worker in 1929, and commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigade at the Battle of Jarama in Spain in 1937.
A man like Wintringham would usually have been on the margins of public life. Not in the summer of 1940.
What Wintringham calls ‘the propertied classes’ were divided. The old appeasers, represented by Halifax, were for making peace with Germany. The hawks, led by Churchill, were for last-ditch resistance. But the Army had left most of its equipment at Dunkirk, and the country appeared wide open to a Nazi invasion. It was clear, too, that Britain faced massed aerial bombing, and no-one was sure what the impact would be. The section of the Establishment that wanted to fight had no choice but to seek alliances with the anti-fascist Left. Wintringham and his comrades, for once, were needed.
Blimps and blitzkrieg
Wintingham set up a training-school for the new Home Guard at Osterley Park in West London, employing International Brigade veterans and exiled Spanish explosives experts as tutors. He wrote articles in the popular illustrated magazine Picture Post. Then, in August 1940, he published his principal military treatise, New Ways of War. It sold 75,000 copies in the first few months. The actual readership was almost certainly much higher, as wartime paper shortages meant that books tended to be passed around.
In the book, Wintringham was withering in his denunciation of military blimps.
‘The “Charge of the Light Brigade” idea … still to a large extent dominates the training and tactics of the British Army,’ he complained, citing as evidence contemporary training-manuals which advocated ‘shock action’ with swords and bayonets. Square-bashing was equally to be deplored: it was largely counterproductive, since it turned soldiers into automatons, as if they were going to fight in the close-packed lines of the Battle of Waterloo. Plans for static linear defence in the manner of the trenches of the First World War were also redundant – as the failure of the French Maginot Line in May 1940 had demonstrated.
The ‘new way of war’ which the British had to come to terms with was, of course, the German blitzkrieg. It had been pioneered by Ludendorff on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918, where it involved the abandonment of lines and their replacement with ‘blobs’: small groups of specialist troops forming either a firebase (in defence) or an ‘infiltration’ force (in attack). Since then, the effectiveness of offensive tactics had been greatly enhanced by the development of armour, motorised infantry, and air-power. This made possible a qualitative shift from mainly static, defensive warfare to a fluid, fast-moving war of movement.
His analysis of blitzkrieg defined the threat the British faced.
But Wintringham’s real purpose was to explain how it could be defeated – by a ‘People’s Army’. In Spain, none of the 500 or so volunteers of his British Battalion had received more than six weeks’ training when they first went into action. In the Battle of Jarama, they lost most of their machine-guns, were scattered by tanks, and suffered about 50% casualties. Yet, they held their position, despite facing an enemy four times as numerous and 20 times greater in firepower. This, for Wintringham, was the model to be followed.
The essence of Wintringham’s tactical answer to blitzkrieg is what might today be called ‘the swarm’. It involved creating a web of firebases and small, mobile, independent groups of fighters. And the men and women of the ‘People’s Army’ had to be highly motivated, self-reliant, and daring.
Air attack, he argued, is essentially a question of morale. ‘The dive-bombers sound like all the archangels of Hell. They are literally the most terrifying things that exist on Earth. And they kill very few people. There is only one thing to do about bombers. That is, stay in a hole and pay attention to your business.’
Part of that business was tackling the armoured spearheads of blitzkrieg, whose advance air attack was designed to facilitate.
‘We have to imbue anti-tank troops with the idea that tanks are something to be hunted,’ he proclaimed. The road-block and the close-quarters ambush were discussed in detail. The ideal weapon, he insisted, was a large grenade, and ‘there is no reason whatever why a great industrial nation such as ours should not make plenty of grenades in a week or two’ – but he also offered handy advice on how to make your own in the meantime.
The panzers can be stopped, was the message. But only if there was mass mobilisation and arming of the people, and only if the people were inspired with the sense that they were fightinga war not for empire, but for ‘the freedom of all peoples’. The imperialist war had to be turned into an anti-fascist crusade. Tactics and politics were, in Wintringham’s view, inseparable.
He had seen it in Spain: ordinary men transformed into heroes by their ideals. He had written about it in another short book published earlier in 1940: Armies of Free Men. And now his aim wasto turn the British people into an army of freedom-fighters in the frontline of the global struggle against fascism.
New Ways of War is both military treatise and political polemic – a manual for waging a popular liberation struggle. The war for which Wintringham was preparing people never came. But similar wars have been fought many times in many places since 1940: wars of popular resistance against high-tech armies. In that sense, NewWays of War stands as a military classic still relevant today.