It is the evening of Saturday 14 July 1956 and I am a twenty-two-year old undergraduate and reservist, doing my annual fortnight’s camp at RAF West Malling. A couple of us are in the Horse and Groom on Wrotham Hill when a short, erect, moustachio’d and be-monocled old buffer comes up to us and says, “Couldn’t help but hear you chaps talking about flying. Had a bit to do with you lot in the last war. Name’s Colonel Wintle.” We chat – or, rather, he does – till closing time, when he says, “Must carry on tomorrow ack emma at my place.”
Sunday morning sees us at Coldharbour, the old Kentish farmhouse which is his home, where he tells us over coffee about the shyster solicitor who had drawn up a will for Wintle’s simple-minded cousin whereby said shyster inherits most of her considerable estate, virtually cutting out her long-time companion, Wintle’s sister. “Had to do something about it. Debagged him. Took photos. Here they are.”
Wintle was prosecuted for assault and banged up for six months in Wormwood Scrubs. Many years later I learnt that he had carried on his campaign more conventionally. He lost in the Probate Division of the High Court. He lost in the Court of Appeal. With no money left, he learnt the law himself and pleaded his own case before the highest court in the land, the House of Lords: he won.
“Cavalry Officer Jumps Last Fence to Win”, thundered The Times the next day. Wintle became a household name, always on the wireless and the television, retelling stories about his life. There was the one about his imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1940 for using a drawn revolver to try to get a senior RAF officer to provide a plane to fly him to Bordeaux: he was convinced he could induce French airmen to continue the war from England. Then there was the one about his undercover mission in Vichy France in 1941-2 and his escape from prison in Toulon, using a file made from a bedspring to saw through the cell bar! And capturing a village single-handed, and many such …
Back at Coldharbour, morning coffee has given way to gin and tonic. He shows us a WWI military tunic with four bullet-holes diagonally across it. He then lifts his shirt and shows corresponding scars on his chest. We finally make our way back to our camp with splendid tales to tell about a gallant and bibulous old warrior.
A year ago I was looking for a subject for a biographical thesis for the university course I was completing and finally picked Colonel Wintle. Wikipedia informed me that he had written an autobiography, which I promptly got. I looked at once for his account of being machine-gunned in the chest. Of this there was no mention, nor in his army service record. He had been severely wounded, to be sure, but by a shell which had blown off most of his left hand, his kneecap and an eye: hence his monocle.
The Colonel, later research made clear, had been a distorter of facts and a practical joker all his life. It now seems that we had been victim of a particularly elaborate hoax, involving – as it must have done – stick-on scars from a joke shop. But, if I was tricked, there is some satisfaction in knowing that I was at least duped by that master trickster, “Freddie” Wintle.