"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 4, 2017

Never Bored: The Many Wars of Alfred Wintle



War, as William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, is hell. What goes less often remarked is that war is also weird. And it was never weirder than when Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Daniel "I am never bored when I am present" Wintle was in the house. It is often hard to believe that Wintle really existed, rather than living in a P.G. Wodehouse novel as a parody of the "patriotic true-born Englishman." He could have been Roderick Spode's more madcap brother. We are talking here about a man who got down on his bended knee every night to thank God for making him an Englishman, "the greatest honour He could ever bestow. After all, he might have made me a chimpanzee, or a flea, a Frenchman or a German!"

Ironically enough, Wintle, the son of a diplomat (secondary irony) was born in Ukraine in 1897, a fact he naturally liked to keep hidden. During his service in WWI, a German shell left him without the fingers of his left hand and his left eye. His right eye was so damaged that he had to wear a monocle for the rest of his life. Such was his hatred for the Hun that he considered the sacrifice well worth the loss. What upset him far more was that his injuries were keeping him from the Front. He made an attempt to escape the hospital disguised as a nurse, but his monocle (not to mention his mustache) gave him away. Wintle's politically-connected father was eventually able to persuade the army to allow him to return to battle. Wintle returned the favor by single-handedly capturing thirty-five of the enemy, a feat that earned him the Military Cross.

Wintle was probably the only person on the planet who was sorry to see the war end. Never was there a less peaceful man. His reaction to the Armistice was to write in his diary, "I declare private war on Germany!" He made such a pest of himself nagging his military superiors to restart the conflict that they finally posted him to Ireland, just to be rid of him. Wintle handled his exile in characteristic style. During a spell in Aldershot Military Hospital (he had broken his leg when falling from a horse) he saw in a nearby bed a young man named Cecil Mays. Mays was suffering from a combination of mastoiditis and diptheria, and simply waiting for the end. Doctors had written the boy off as a hopeless case. Not Wintle. He considered a soldier dying away from the battlefield as a violation of army regulations. Wintle indignantly hobbled over to the stricken boy and bellowed, "You will stop dying at once! And, when you get up, get your bloody hair cut!"

Such was the Power of Wintle that the boy obeyed. Mays went on to make a full recovery and lived to the age of 95. He was, Mays later said, "too terrified to die."

During his convalescence, Wintle turned to writing fiction, hiding his identity behind the pseudonym "Michael Cobb." (He explained that "For a cavalry officer, to be literate, let alone write, is a disgrace.") He achieved a fair amount of success. One of his novels, "The Emancipation of Ambrose," was even turned into a movie.

Wintle's dearest wish came true in September 1939, when hostilities towards his archenemies, the Germans, were resumed. Much to his disgust, however, when he sought to reenter active service, he found the army had little desire to take on a half-blind, half-fingerless man in his forties. He contemplated forming his own private platoon to fight the Nazis, but--unfortunately for the history books--that particular plan came to nothing. Wintle sulked on the Home Front until the British disaster at Dunkirk. Aflame with rightous fury at this debacle, Wintle marched up to the Air Ministry and demanded they give him a plane. He wished to fly to Bordeaux and order all the French airmen there to instantly join the RAF.

The Air Commander, A.R. Boyle, showed a lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Wintle pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot Boyle. Wintle was then escorted to the Tower of London to await his court martial.

On his way to his cell, Wintle learned that his arrest warrant had been lost. The exasperated prisoner marched off to the warrant office to get a new one. There, he learned that he was the only one present with sufficient rank to issue the order. With, no doubt, an air of "I have to do everything around here," he did so.

Yes. Wintle arrested himself.

When word got out about the circumstances of his arrest, the guards at the Tower treated Wintle as a hero. He was virtually given the run of the place. He had his own servant, as many visitors as he pleased, and was given the finest delicacies to eat--so much so, that he came down with indigestion. "Being a prisoner in the Tower had its points," he later noted.

Wintle's trial went just about the way you'd think. When asked to respond to the charge that he had pointed a gun at Boyle with the words, "People like you ought to be shot," Wintle added a further number of people who would benefit from patriotic assassination--a list which included the War Secretary. His court martial threatened to become such an embarrassing farce for the Government that they reduced his punishment to a "severe reprimand" and packed him off to Syria, where he did intelligence work. In 1941, he was transferred to Occupied France. For reasons that frankly escape me, his superiors thought this least subtle of men would make a good spy.

Wintle went about the place with gold coins strapped under his armpits and carrying an umbrella. (This last was because he considered it to be a true Englishman's duty to have an umbrella at all times, although "No true gentleman would ever unfurl one.") Surprise, surprise, his cover was soon blown, and he was arrested and sent to a Vichy prison camp. Wintle sportingly informed his guards that he considered it his duty to escape, particularly since his captors were all "swivel-eyed sons of syphilitic slime-frogs" completely unfit to guard the the shining likes of a British officer. He was also so appalled by the lack of proper military dress-sense shown by the slime...uh, French guards that he went on a two-week hunger strike.

True to his word, Wintle did escape, and successfully fled into Spain. There is a legend--which I can only earnestly hope is true--that the camp commandant and his men were so chagrined by this defeat (not to mention their former prisoner's stinging words about their slovenly habits and general lack of morals) that the entire garrison turned their coats and joined the Resistance.

After the war, Wintle decided to run for Parliament. He did this not to uphold the political system, but to destroy what he saw as a hopelessly corrupt structure from within. "Guy Fawkes," he declared, "was the last man to enter Parliament with good intentions. You need another man like me to carry on his good work."

Regretfully, the voters of his district failed to agree with this novel and energetic political platform, and he lost the election. It was around this time that he wrote a letter to the "Times," which has rightly gained a certain immortality:
Sir,
I have just written you a long letter. On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste-paper basket. Hoping this will meet with your approval.
I am, Sir, Your Obedient Servant,
A.D. Wintle
Our hero closed the 1940s by making his own unique form of legal history. Wintle's cousin, Kitty Wells, was, hard though that may be to believe, an even stranger character. Wintle's characterization of her as a "jelly-fish" was blunt, but not inaccurate. Wells was a reclusive woman of limited intelligence and even more limited interests. Her sole occupation in life was to write and post herself letters. When they were delivered, she would open and read them with as much excitement and delight as if they had been from a far-off loved one. She then tenderly stored the precious letters all over her house.

Wintle's sister Marjorie had been Wells' sole caretaker for many years, so when Kitty died in 1947, it was a surprise to learn that her will left most of her estate of £115,000 not to the loyal Marjorie, but to Kitty's solicitor, Frederick Nye. Nye had, of course, drawn up the will for his client.

Wintle was outraged by this bit of sly dealing. He denounced Nye as "a cad, a liar, a thief, and an embezzler." He filed suit against the solicitor. That was not enough for Wintle, however. Yes, he wanted Nye to return the money, but more importantly, he wanted Nye humiliated before the world. He wanted his suit to get as much publicity as possible.

So, naturally, there was nothing else to do but kidnap the man.

One fine day in April 1955, Wintle phoned Nye. Disguising his voice, he claimed to be an old acquaintance of the solicitor's, Lord Norbury. He arranged a meeting at a flat Wintle had rented for the occasion. When Nye arrived at the door, Wintle yanked him inside, produced a gun, and ordered Nye to write a check to Marjorie for the sum of £1,000. Then, he had Nye put on a dunce cap and take off his pants. He took several photographs of Nye in this undignified pose and then kicked the still-pantsless man into the street.

Wintle happily showed the photos to everyone he met, and had Nye's pants exhibited in his club's trophy room. That evening, Wintle's busy day's work was crowned by his arrest for assault and (due to the check he had forced Nye to sign) fraud. At his trial that summer, the judge instructed jurors to throw out the latter charge, ruling that "if a person honestly believed he was entitled to something he could have no intent to defraud." Wintle readily pled guilty to the assault charge, and received six months in prison. When he heard the verdict, Wintle loftily told the courtroom that "It will be a sad day for this country when an officer and a gentleman is not prepared to go to prison when he thinks he is in the right."

Wintle spent his time in Wormwood Scrubs studying the law. He was far from finished with Solicitor Nye. In fact, he had barely begun to fight. "I deal with matters from a military point of view," he said. "I regard Mr. Nye as an enemy, and I do not disclose my plans until they are matured. Then I launch my heavy artillery on him and we get busy."

Wintle's "heavy artillery" took the form of endless lawsuits against Nye. He was perfectly happy to spend every dime he had in endless lawsuits, if he could only bankrupt the enemy camp, as well.  (Among his legal advisers was none other than Cecil Mays, who by then was a successful civil servant with a law degree.)  After a number of reverses in the Court of Appeal, Wintle launched the extreme step of taking his legal campaign to the House of Lords. As by then he had no money left for attorneys, he represented himself. It was an utterly daft idea.

And it was utterly successful. He won his case. It was the first time a person representing himself managed to persuade the House of Lords to reverse a decision made by the Court of Appeal, and wouldn't you just know that Alfred Wintle would be the guy to do it. In 1960, Wintle's victory was complete when Nye was disbarred.

Alfred Wintle was not, I repeat, not a man to be messed with.

Wintle died in May 1966 at the age of 68. It must have been a great disappointment to the old warrior that he died quietly at his home and not on a battlefield. His autobiography may have been titled, "The Last Englishman," but that designation hardly does credit to the man's character. Wintle surely was "The One-Of-A-Kind Englishman."

2 comments:

  1. What a story!That man was something else!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Why hasn't this man's life been turned into a movie? Every country should have an Alfred Wintle - every other country would be scared to death of them. The closest I've come to reading about someone similar was the positively dull (compared to Wintle) Carton de Wiart - wounded eleven times in battle, he called his memoirs "Happy Odyssey".

    I may not have wanted to be friends with Wintle, but by Harry, I'd want him as an ally. Maybe.

    ReplyDelete

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