T. H. Wintringham

The Truth About Guerrilla War

Source: The Tribune, #247, September 19, 1941, pp. 8-9
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Transcribers note: Tom Wintringham was the Tribune’s anonymous ‘military correspondent’ from May 1940, this essay published under his own name, was written in response to criticisms of Wintringham provoked by his earlier anonymous article in Tribune—hence THW referring to himself in the third person to maintain the anonymity of the military correspondent.


Has a democracy any advantage over the Nazis when it really makes up its mind to fight? Is guerrilla warfare any use to-day? TOM WINTRINGHAM, first commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, and founder of Osterley Park Training Camp for Home Guards, answers critics of his policies—now adopted with such success by the Russians.

WHAT is the relation between guerrilla warfare and mechanised warfare? This question is raised by the TRIBUNE’S Military Correspondent in his article of August 15th and by the letter, answering part of this article, from G. D. H. Douglas in the TRIBUNE for August. It is a question that seems to mc to need still further discussion, because socialists engaged in warfare need to know enough about the general outline of how war is earned on to free them from reliance on non-socialist “experts.”

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TO put the matter in Marxist terms, I consider that guerrilla warfare and mechanised warfare are dialectical opposites which can and will interpenetrate. To put the matter less philosophically, a modern army needs to wage both sorts of war, and if it cannot wage both it should do its best to develop the type of war it can wage to the limits of possibility.

I have been pointing out for more than a year that Fascism, because of its class characteristics, can to day only wage mechanised warfare; it cannot arm the population subject to it, or to any great extent its own civilian working classes; and if its forces—Regular or irregular—tried to wage guerrilla warfare they would lack the support of the civilian population which is always necessary for this type of fighting. A socialist democracy on the other hand, or a bourgeois democracy that dare arm its working class and peasantry, is able to wage guerrilla warfare as well as mechanised warfare. When such a combination of the two types of warfare is fully achieved, with a correct balance between them, then I believe the nations that combine the two will be ahead of the Nazis in the technique of war.

Is Infantry Any Use?

The combination of these two methods of warfare, their “interpenetration,” has already begun. In mechanised warfare decisive success in battle is largely gained by manoeuvre by vehicles, as the Military Correspondent of the TRIBUNE points out. On what principles can normal infantry without vehicles—marching infantry—play a useful part in this type of battle? I say that they can only do so by adapting their tactics considerably to include those tactics normal to guerrillas.

These infantry forces, which still form the bulk of every large army and have still a great part to play in war, must split themselves up into relatively small units acting in relative isolation, must use tank-proof country and other cover, must counter armour by invisibility and must be prepared for fighting at very close quarters against armoured troops. In other words guerrilla warfare should not be thought of simply as Hemingway stuff; it is not only the exploits of small half-organised bands behind the enemy line.

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That in brief outline is view that I have been developing and defending since Dunkirk. Douglas is quite correct in stating that, before that time I under estimated the potentialities of tanks and aircraft. The reason for this is probably the fact that tanks and aircraft during the first half of the war in Spain were wrongly used, or used on too small a scale to be of great effect. It was only in the latter part of that war, after I had left Spain, that the Germans developed and practiced in miniature the tactics of the Blitzkrieg; the combination of massed tanks, motorised infantry, dive bombers, etc. for attack on a narrow front, and the typical shifting of their thrusts from one thrust-point or direction of thrust to another did not sec these developments in Spain; and my friends who remained there longer than I did never reported them, as far as I can find.

But I think Douglas is unfair to me when he points out that its one chapter of my Penguin New Ways of War I do not mention the use of British tanks and aircraft in order to oppose German tanks and planes. This booklet was written in June, 1940, primarily for the Home Guard; and as the chapter in question says in its first paragraph, it deals with “The methods by which it is possible to meet German tanks and planes.” It was obviously then impossible for the Home Guard to use British tanks and aircraft against German tanks and planes; they hadn’t got any. They have none now and are not likely to have any, and should not have any. It was also in June 1940 very nearly impossible for our Regular Army to meet German tanks with their own tanks. They hadn’t got enough.

The Use Of Tanks

I was dealing with a thing that was possible, not with some ideal of the future. That is why in that booklet and at Osterley I recommended the methods—and as far as I can find out, all the methods—by which the infantry of the Red Army and the population of the Soviet Union are not only meeting the Panzer Divisions hut in many cases stopping them.

I still differ profoundly from those who say, as my friend Hugh Slater says, that “tanks are the only effective anti-tank weapons.” If this were true it would seem un likely that we could beat the Nazis before about 1946. Luckily it is not true. Other and far cheaper weapons, used correctly, can be fully effective against tanks. We ourselves need all the tanks we can possibly make (and we badly need the dive-bombers we have not yet started making). But we do not need the tanks principally as anti-tank weapons for defence: we need them for the offensive, for manoeuvre by vehicles. This type of manoeuvre should be directed against the flanks and rear of the enemy’s weakest and least protected units—against unarmoured men.

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WHAT is possible in warfare, and what, is ideal are often at variance. Let us take a topical example. It is, I am convinced, perfectly possible for the British Army, as it now exists, to land a considerable force of infantry with a rather weak force of fighting vehicles on European soil, and so establish a second front. But it is physically impossible for them to land a force largely, or even sufficiently, equipped with fighting vehicles; the tanks do not yet exist.

Those military writers who stress continually the vital importance of the armoured force, as some International Brigadiers have been doing, may be doing useful work as far as their writings influence our tank factories. But their writings are in fact also being used as supporting arguments by those who claim that a British invasion of Europe is impossible. Those who claim this, say “everyone agrees that we must have several armoured divisions for such a job, and these divisions are not yet ready.” Well, I do not agree.

Douglas writes “guerrillas, we believe, cannot stop Panzer divisions—but they can harrass them.” I agree. But an infantry trained in guerrilla tactics and in tank-hunting, and supported by a very small proportion of armoured vehicles, can I believe stop the Panzer divisions; it can so enmesh them and so separate them from their own infantry that they become of relatively little value. If that is “underestimating the Panzers,” then I am glad that the Russians are as guilty of this underestimation as I am.

The Russian Home Guard

“LENINGRAD, Sunday. Every factory is training its reserves. The men learn to handle a rifle, throw grenades and fire bottles. Special attention is paid to anti-tank warfare.”

That is from the Soviet War News of August 26. The training described is exactly that given at Osterley fifteen months ago. The only difference is that in Russia “every factory” is learning. Fifteen months ago I was fighting for a Home Guard 4 million strong, which would necessarily have included men from every factory. That fight did not succeed, and we need not now discuss why it did not succeed.

But when Douglas writes that I am “obsessed with guerrilla tactics” I do not feel like denying it. It is not a bad thing for socialists, and particularly for revolutionaries, to be obsessed with the tactics suitable for, and attainable by, the masses of the population, while leaving it to others to specialise in the tactics of the knights in armour.

I have stressed this guerrilla business because in fact Bill Alexander, in the review mentioned, and W.R. in the Volunteer for Liberty in June this year, did deny all value to guerrilla tactics. W.R. wrote that “the fantasies of petrol bottles, smoke bombs, snipers in woods, cocoa tin grenades, conjured up by strategists of picture weeklies have been blown to bits” by Panzer divisions. Reading the official Soviet account of the defence of Odessa I find the “fantastic” population of that city are using all these methods, with one change. These proletarians use caviare tins instead of cocoa tins! I’ve no objection.