In which G.M. Norton salutes a true eccentric British hero.
So far, we’ve looked at two eccentric military heroes as part of the Mad Dogs and Servicemen series. First of all, there was "Mad Jack" Churchill who went World War Two armed with a sword and a bow and arrow. Then there’s the splendidly named Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart. Known as ‘the unkillable soldier’, he was shot in the face, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear and still survived. Not content with that, he also chewed off his own fingers.
This week, I present to you the eccentric of all eccentrics, Lieut-Col. Alfred Daniel Wintle.
Prepare to be left agog.
Wintle was the son of a diplomat. Despite being born in Russian and educated in Germany and France (much to his dismay), he was immensely proud to call himself an Englishman. As he once penned to a chum, “I get down on my knees every night and thank god for making me English.”
After attending schools abroad, Wintle came to England and enrolled in the Military Academy at Woolwich.
With the outbreak of the Great War, Wintle had quite an experience on his first night on the Western Front. Shortly after being introduced to his sergeant, the poor man was killed by artillery fire, splattering Wintle with his remains.
During the Great War, Wintle claimed to have captured a village single-handedly.
He saw action at Ypres, the Somme, La Bassée and Festubert. It was at Ypres that he lost his left eye, along with a kneecap and some fingers. His right eye was also damaged, leading him to wear a monocle.
Against his wishes to carry on the good fight, Wintle was sent back to a convalescence home in Blightly. Worried that he was missing all the action on the foreign fields, he disguised himself as a nurse to make his escape. Unfortunately, not many nurses were known for wearing monocles so his cover was quickly blown.
Upon the end of the war, the entry in Wintle’s diary for 19 June 1919 read, "Great War peace signed at last." Demonstrating a devilish sense of humour, the following day’s entry was as follows, "I declare private war on Germany."
Not surprisingly given his antics, he is said to have regarded the period between the First and Second World Wars as “intensely boring”.
The Second World War was an eventful time for Wintle. After the French threw in towel, he requested an aeroplane so that he could fly to France and rally the troops. When this request was flatly refused, Wintle put a gun to the head of an RAF Air Commodore. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his high spirits, Wintle found himself arrested and taken to the Tower of London (yes, really).
Being such a stickler for military standards, when the guard lost the arrest warrant on the journey to the Tower, Wintle demanded that it be replaced. As no senior officer was available, Wintle took it upon himself to sign the new arrest warrant.
Now, imprisonment in the Tower of London doesn’t sound like a bed full of roses but actually, it was better that. Here is an account of his time under His Majesty’s Pleasure:
“My life is in the Tower had begun. How different it was from what I had expected. Officers at first cut me dead, thinking that I was some kind of traitor; but when news of my doings leaked out they could not do enough for me. My cell became the most popular meeting place in the garrison and I was as well cared for as if I had been at the Ritz.I would have a stroll in the moat after breakfast for exercise. Then sharp at eleven Guardsman McKie, detailed as my servant, would arrive from the officers' mess with a large whisky and ginger ale. He would find me already spick and span, for though I have a great regard for the Guards, they have not the gift to look after a cavalry officer's equipment. The morning would pass pleasantly. By noon visitors would begin to arrive. One or two always stayed to lunch. They always brought something with them. I remember one particularly succulent duck in aspic - it gave me indigestion - and a fine box of cigars brought by my family doctor. Tea time was elastic and informal. Visitors dropped in at intervals, usually bringing along bottles which were uncorked on the spot. I don't recall that any of them contained any tea. Dinner, on the other hand, was strictly formal. I dined sharp at eight and entertained only such guests as had been invited beforehand. After a few days of settling in. I was surprised to find that - as a way of life- being a prisoner in the Tower of London had its points.”
As one might expect, Wintle managed to wriggle himself out of the three charges he faced and returned to military duty once more.
One might be forgiven for thinking that this is where the story ends. However, Wintle’s greatest triumph was to come when he became the first non-lawyer to achieve a unanimous verdict in his favour in the House of Lords.
This legal hullabaloo began when Wintle suspected that some skulduggery was afoot when his elderly relative left £44,000 to her solicitor.
Rather than pursue it through the correct channels, Wintle had other ideas. He forced the solicitor called Nye to remove his trousers before taking photographs in an attempt to make him return the dosh. These unorthodox methods backfired when Wintle was imprisoned for six months on an assault charge. Thankfully, Wintle then went through the proper legal proceedings to contest the will.
Wintle’s accusations were rejected both by jury and in the Court of Appeal. This lengthy legal case, taking around ten years to resolve eventually landed in the House of Lords. Forced to represent himself as he was now down to his last brass farthing, he spectacularly won the case. Due to the public outcry, solicitors were later banned from drafting wills in their own favour and Nye was struck off.
Lauded in the press for his spirited advocacy and plucky endeavour, Wintle was the subject of a This Is Your Life television show in the 1960s.
An autobiography titled, ‘The last Englishman’ is sadly out of print. A used hardcover version is available from Amazon for the princely sum of £357.85. If you have the cash to splash for a new copy, then one is available for £1,325.49.
An hour-long BBC dramatisation starring Jim Broadbent as Wintle was also made in the mid-1990s, called ‘Heroes & Villians: The Last Englishman’. Frustratingly, this also appears to be rather difficult to get hold of.
Anyway, I’m off to sell a kidney or two.
Protagonist of ‘Norton of Morton’
Protagonist of ‘Norton of Morton’