It was 1915, and seventeen-year-old Alfred Daniel Wintle was keen to get over to the continent and join in the fighting on the Western Front. He’d persuaded his father to let him enter the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and just four months later he was a commissioned officer. On his first night at the front, Wintle was introduced to his sergeant. No sooner had the two men shaken hands than a German shell exploded nearby, showering the fresh-faced young lieutenant in the sergeant’s entrails.
As more and more shells exploded around him, a petrified Wintle knew he had to pull himself together. So he stood to attention and saluted several times right in the middle of a thunderous German bombardment. 'Within thirty seconds I was able to become again an Englishman of action and to carry out calmly the duties I had been trained to perform,' he later wrote. It was a baptism of fire.
The young officer went on to see action at Ypres, the Somme and Festubert, several times making miraculous escapes from almost certain death. He also single-handedly captured a French village on the river Vesle near Reims. Things were going well for AD, as he liked to be called, but his luck ran out in 1917. At the Third Battle of Ypres, Wintle was helping to drag an eighteen-pounder field gun out of a crater when a shell exploded near him and knocked him for six.
Wintle woke up in a military hospital. The shell explosion had cost the nineteen-year-old the sight in his left eye, several of his fingers and one of his kneecaps. His right eye was also badly damaged. He wore a monocle for the rest of his life.
Naturally, it was unthinkable that a one-eyed teenager with a missing knee could be sent back to the front, so Wintle was sent back to England where he was informed his war was over. He was furious. As far as he was concerned, there was no fighting to be done in England.
He soon started making plans to escape the hospital and get back to the front. He made several attempts to escape, once going so far as to dress in a nurse’s uniform. It would have been the perfect disguise; unfortunately, his moustache and monocle were a dead giveaway.
Eventually released from hospital, Wintle was determined to return to France. He managed to persuade one of his father’s contacts to sign a warrant that allowed him to return to the front. He went on to have what he would later describe as a ‘moderately successful year of action’, earning the Military Cross for capturing vital intelligence along with thirty-five German soldiers single-handedly on the 4th of November 1918.
A week after being awarded the Military Cross, the armistice that brought World War I to a close was signed. Wintle wasn’t convinced. He was certain that the Germans would be back. Indeed when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, Wintle recorded the event in his diary as:
'Great War peace signed at last.'
The following day he wrote:
'I declare private war on Germany.'
Wintle described the years between World War I and World War II as ‘intensely boring’. He was sent to Ireland and then India. By this stage he had transferred from the Artillery to the First Royal Dragoons – one of the last remaining heavy cavalry units in the British Army. It was during his time with the Dragoons that he fell from his horse and broke his leg. While recovering in a military hospital, he was informed that a sixteen-year-old Dragoon by the name of Cedric Mays was dying in a bed in the same hospital. Furious, Wintle hobbled over to Mays’ bed and bellowed at him that a Dragoon never dies in bed and that he should stop dying at once. Mays would later say that he was too afraid to die after Wintle had shouted at him, and he later made a full recovery. The two men would remain friends for the rest of Wintle’s life.
As far as he was concerned, he belonged in a combat role, despite being forty years old, half blind and without the full use of his leg.
After recovering from his accident, Wintle was seconded to a military academy in France where he was a guest lecturer thanks to his fluency in French. It was in France that he became close friends with several French Air Force officers. Like Wintle, they could see the storm clouds gathering over Europe, and Wintle made a pact with them that should France fall, they would fly their squadrons to England with Wintle’s help.
When war broke out in 1939, Wintle was transferred to military intelligence in London. He was, again, furious about this. As far as he was concerned, he belonged in a combat role, despite being forty years old, half blind and without the full use of his leg. His superiors thought otherwise.
When France fell in 1940, Wintle was determined to keep his promise to his French Air Force friends. He rang through to a nearby airfield, telling them to get a plane ready for him for an immediate flight to Bordeaux. Unfortunately, he used the name of an officer, Air Commodore Boyle, who was actually at the base at the time. Boyle confronted Wintle when he arrived at the airfield. Determined to fly to France, Wintle drew a gun on Boyle and threatened to shoot him, telling the stunned officer that 'people like you should be shot.' He was overpowered and sent to the Tower of London. He was later formally reprimanded for drawing his gun on Boyle and sent to join his old regiment in Syria.
After a brief stint gathering intelligence in the Middle East, it was decided Wintle should be sent to Vichy France to gather intelligence on the treatment of British prisoners of war. Disguised as a teacher, Wintle attempted to make contact with the French Resistance. Unfortunately, his contact turned out to be a traitor who betrayed him.
Arrested as a spy, Wintle was incredibly lucky not to be shot. Instead, he was sent to a Vichy prison, where he informed his guards that, as an English officer, it was his sworn duty to escape. His guards didn’t take him seriously and were quite surprised when he did just that. Unfortunately, he was recaptured after checking into a local hotel because he was in desperate need of a bath.
Back in prison, Wintle languished for a year, bored out of his mind. Eventually, he told his guards that he was going on hunger strike, telling the prison commandant, Maurice Molia, that he wouldn’t eat again until the commandant and his men had smartened themselves up and submitted themselves to regular inspections because they were currently not fit to guard an English officer. An incredulous Molia refused, and so a two-week-long battle of wills began.
Over the next thirteen days, Molia did everything he could to get Wintle to eat, including having his own personal chef cook him a tempting banquet. When all attempts failed, Molia gave in. He told his men to smarten themselves up as requested and allowed Wintle to carry out his inspections. Satisfied, Wintle began eating again. Soon back to full strength, he used his inspections to scout out the prison and surrounding area. He had soon devised another escape plan. Using a bed spring from his bed, he managed to saw through the bars of his cell and jump out of the window, landing on a cart he had observed going in and out of the prison. He made his way to Spain – a neutral country throughout World War II – and from there he returned to England.
Wintle saw out the rest of the war behind a desk in London. His fighting days were finally over, and at the war’s end he retired from the army on a full pension due to disability. He had married his wife Dora in 1944, and the two settled down to what Dora presumed would be a quiet life in Kent. Colonel AD Wintle had other ideas.
In 1947, the last great battle of AD Wintle’s life began. His second cousin, Kitty Wells, died, leaving the bulk of her estate not to her family, but to her solicitor, Frederick Nye. Kitty had always been somewhat removed from reality, and Wintle was convinced that Nye had taken advantage of the confused elderly lady and made her change her will to his advantage.
Wintle’s protestations that Nye had stolen the money fell on deaf ears for the next eight years. In 1955, he decided he needed to drum up some publicity, so he invited Nye to a meeting to discuss the case. Nye agreed and when he arrived, Wintle forced the solicitor to remove his trousers and submit to being photographed. While Nye headed for the police station, Wintle headed for the newspapers, armed with his photographs of the ‘debagged’ solicitor. He was arrested and sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison for six months.
The stunt worked. The case was now in the public eye and Wintle pursued Nye through the courts for the next three years, losing every case he brought and bankrupting himself in the process. Undeterred, Wintle took the case to the House of Lords where he finally won, becoming the first non-lawyer to win a unanimous verdict in his favour. Nye was struck off.
AD Wintle spent the rest of his life writing books and indulging in his hobby of mixing concrete. He was writing his autobiography, The Last Englishman when he died in 1966. It was finished posthumously by a friend.
After his death, the editor of The Times published a letter Wintle had sent to him in 1946. It read:
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,
It was a fitting send off to one of the most eccentric and singular Englishmen who has ever lived.