Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Legend in his Lifetime

This was written to go on the back of the posters supplied to the Horse & Groom and laminated together, so that they could be handled by customers in the bars of the pub where I met the colonel in 1956: see West Malling Revisited.

Colonel Wintle was a legend in his lifetime. He appeared on the two famous celebrity programmes of the '50s, television's This is Your Life and radio's Desert Island Discs. The highlights of his long-running legal battle with a Brighton solicitor were reported in The Times. His death on 11 May 1966 resulted in obituaries worldwide: that in the New York Times was headlined Eccentric English War Hero Dies.

This legal struggle demonstrates the colonel's three salient characteristics: resourcefulness, courage and tenacity. The issue was the legality of the will of a feeble-witted female cousin of his by which the solicitor, who had drawn it up and had had it witnessed by two of his clerks, would be the major beneficiary of it, instead of the colonel and another cousin.

The colonel's first attempt to have the will overturned on his cousin's death was unsuccessful. He took drastic action to keep the cogs of the law turning. Under an assumed name he invited the solicitor to a hotel room whereupon he announced that he was going to place a dunce's cap upon his head, debag him and then take photos of him. This he did. The solicitor sued for assault and the colonel was jailed for six months. On finishing his time as prison librarian he resumed his attempts to overturn the will, all of which failed before successively higher courts until only the House of Lords was left. By this time the costs of earlier actions had so impoverished him that he could not afford to retain barristers when bringing his case to the highest court in the land.

Colonel Wintle conducted his case alone and unaided. He won it. He was the first layman to do so. Barristers at the Middle Temple gave him a champagne reception to celebrate.

This was not the only occasion on which his impetuousness had landed him in serious trouble. The colonel, a fluent French speaker, had been an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre before the war and was friendly with several airmen who were in 1940 senior officers in the Armée de l'Air.

He was in London in May that year when the German panzer divisions sliced through the allied front line, resulting in their armies withdrawing in confusion to Dunkirk and the French government fleeing from Paris to Bordeaux. With the capitulation of France imminent, Wintle saw an opportunity to persuade some of these officers to fly their squadrons to England and continue the war against Germany from there.

To do this, though, he needed an RAF plane to take him to France, something which an air commodore he approached refused to provide. At this he drew his revolver and aimed it at the stump of the thumb of his left hand: he had lost the tip of it (along with three fingers, a kneecap and an eye) in action in the First World War.

"Give me a plane at once, or I'll shoot this off!" The air commodore thought that he was being threatened and raised the alarm. The colonel was seized, thrown into the Tower of London and court-martialled. He was reprimanded, but the high command decided that this enterprising and audacious officer could indeed do valuable service in France whither he went on clandestine operations a year later.

Inevitably he got captured by the Vichy French Milice but astonishingly was not shot out of hand but was incarcerated for months in Fort Ste Catherine in France. There he treated his gaolers as if he were their commanding officer and reprimanded them mercilessly for their poor turn-out and slovenly behaviour until he succeeded in sawing the bars of his cell and escaping by jumping into a rubbish truck conveniently below.

Some of the stories in his so-called autobiography, assembled posthumously from his writings by an unreliable journallst, may be economical with the truth. I believe that the true story of this remarkable Englishman should now be told.

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