Orde Wingate was arguably the most innovative and certainly one of the most eccentric senior soldiers the British have ever produced whose habitual insubordination enraged his superiors reports Colin Smith
TODAY Ron Dermer will cross the Potomac over the Arlington Memorial Bridge to visit the National Cemetery where the murdered Kennedy brothers lie among some of the casualties from every conflict America has ever fought.
There he will do something that Israeli ambassadors to Washington have been doing on March 24 for 40 years. At the headstone of a British war hero he will lay a wreath for the man who in Hebrew is called HaYedid: the Friend.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Orde Wingate, arguably the most innovative and certainly one of the most eccentric senior soldiers the British have ever produced whose habitual insubordination enraged his superiors. And when the mood and the climate took him he was quite capable of absently receiving his male visitors lounging stark naked on a camp bed; or of munching raw onions as if they were apples and insisting that his troops did the same for the good of their health.
Even more unsettling for many of the officers in the Palestine Britain ruled after 1918, where a visceral anti-Semitism was not unknown, were Wingate’s Zionist sympathies. Although distantly related on his mother’s side to Lawrence of Arabia and himself an Arabic speaker who practised it at every opportunity, his unalloyed support for its Jewish settlers was considered contrary to British interests.
Yet, it was Winston Churchill himself who famously eulogised him as, “a man of genius who might well have become a man of destiny”.
Wingate died on March 24, 1944 on a night flight in an American crewed bomber that crashed in the Naga Hills on India’s northeastern border.
He was en route to one of the strongholds established well behind Japanese lines in Burma by the British troops he named Chindits, a corruption of the Burmese word for the mythical griffin like stone sentinels outside their temples: Chinthé. He was 41.
Within five years he had rocketed from major to major general, an unprecedented rate of promotion. In the process he had been awarded, for leadership and valour in the field, two bars to the Distinguished Service Order he first won during the Palestinian Arab revolt of the late 1930s when he was badly wounded commanding the Jewish irregulars he had raised and trained.
He called them the Special Night Squads and in Israel, where streets and a major sport stadium are named after Wingate, the Squads are regarded as the start of its army.
The first of Wingate’s World War Two awards came for his role in the conquest of Mussolini’s East African possessions. Leading 2,000 British officered Sudanese and barefoot Ethiopian patriots, he restored the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne in Addis Ababa by bluffing the Italians they faced a similar threat to the British conventional forces entering Ethiopia from the north and south.
Wingate had been selected for the task by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, then Middle East supremo, who admired his achievements in Palestine.
When Wavell was sent to the Far East to try and turn the tide against the Japanese, he again summoned Wingate.
In 1943, he received his third DSO for the operation that overnight made him and his Chindits household names. This first expedition occurred in the early spring of 1943.
For Operation Longcloth, Wingate divided his 3,000 rigorously trained British and Gurkha infantry into seven columns and found enough gaps in the Japanese positions along the east bank of the Chindwin river to get them and about 1,000 terrified pack mules over it.
For the next two months they probed the enemy’s vulnerable innards while RAF signallers attached to the columns directed parachuted replenishment of rations and ammunition. By the end of the war such airdrops were commonplace.
But they were Wingate’s invention and in 1943 a considerable innovation enabling the Chindits to hit and run almost at will.
In less than nine months the Japanese had captured Hong Kong, Singapore and almost all of Burma, and in South East Asia Britain’s military’s reputation had never been so low.
The Chindit operation was as unexpected as it was daring and provided British propaganda with a welcome distraction from yet another recent setback when an attempt to recapture Burma’s Arakan coast had ended in dismal failure.
From the beginning Wingate’s men had looked different from the other British troops. Bombay Bloomer shorts had been replaced by light weight trousers; steel helmets by Australian felt slouch hats. Shaving in the Burmese jungle was considered a waste of time and water and beards were encouraged.
Churchill was enthralled by Wingate’s exploits and wanted to hear from his own lips what next he had in mind. Two months after the last of those Chindits who were ever going to make it had one way or another straggled back across the Chindwin – almost a third were lost – Wingate found himself confronting a much larger expanse of water from the deck of the Queen Mary. Shortly after his arrival in London, Churchill had invited him to dine at Number Ten.
There, over an informal supper, he had asked him to leave with him that night on a train for the Clyde from whence the liner was starting its five-day dash across the North Atlantic.
The prime minister was about to start his sixth round of wartime talks with President Roosevelt, and he wanted to take some martial celebrities with him. His delegation already included the RAF’s Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, whose Dam Busters, like the Chindits, had made some American front pages.
Churchill also arranged that Wingate’s strikingly good looking young wife Lorna – a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they first met and almost half his age – was sharing his cabin.
They had not seen each other for 18 months and, after eight years of childless marriage, they conceived on the voyage the son who would never see his father.
Wingate’s visit to North America must have been beyond his wildest dreams. He was about to be promoted to major general but he was still only a brigadier and probably the lowest ranking British officer ever to be granted personal audience with the US president.
But like proud parents, on August 18, 1943 Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten, recently appointed South East Asia’s Supreme Commander, ushered Wingate into the Oval Office to sell Roosevelt the idea that Long Range Penetration had worked once and with American help would work even better a second time.
Wingate was crisp, concise and brilliantly persuasive. He emerged from the meeting with what amounted to a private airforce. Eventually known as 1st Air Commando it would have150 Waco gliders and 25 Norseman and Dakota transports to deliver his Chindits deep into the enemy’s vitals within hours of leaving India.
Close air support would be provided by 30 Mustang fighters and 15 Mitchell light bomber. In addition there would be 100 Vigilant and Sentinel light plane, flying jeeps capable of using small jungle clearings to resupply forward units and evacuate their wounded.
As well as the light aircraft, they even had six of the new-fangled helicopters to help them, the first time they had been employed operationally anywhere in the world.
Churchill was delighted. “You explained a large and complex subject with exemplary lucidity,” he told him.
“Such is always my practice sir,” replied Wingate, rarely one for false modesty.
Orde Charles Wingate was born in 1903 at Nainital, a British hill station in northeastern India close to the Nepalese border. But what might have appeared an orthodox entry into his country’s military caste was nothing of the kind.
Colonel George and Ethel Wingate were Plymouth Brethren, Christian fundamentalists who believe the end is almost always nigh. Orde and his siblings were brought up in the belief that the Second Coming might well occur in their own lifetimes and eternal damnation could only be avoided by those willing to suffer for their redemption.
Strict observance of the Sabbath was the norm and not only in domestic circumstances. While campaigning against Naga headhunters in the same Assam-Burma borderlands where his eldest son would die Wingate Senior adamantly refused to march his men on a Sunday.
Colonel Wingate was a firm believer that sparing the rod spoilt the child. By the start of World War One, when he was retired, there were seven children and some of the girls were beaten almost as often as the three boys. “We lived in a temple of gloom,” recalled Orde’s brother Nigel who followed him into the army and was badly wounded in Italy.
Living in the Surrey commuter town of Godalming, Orde was the first of his brothers to attend as a day boy its famous public school Charterhouse: motto Deo Dante Dedi – ‘God having given I give’.
This was something the Colonel and his lady, whose private income of £515 a year subsidised her husband’s army pension, had been practising this for years. Quite apart from the irregular support for the Brethren the Wingates made generous donations to a charity sworn to convert to Christianity Central Asia’s devout and warlike Muslims.
This kind of largesse required certain domestic economies. “We were reared on a diet of porridge, bread and dripping and the sincere milk of the word,” recalled his sister Sybil who after Cambridge would become a senior civil servant, committed socialist and active member of the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, her eldest brother went to Charterhouse in a suit that was of a distinctly cheaper cut to his fellows. With it went the boots considered more durable than the shoes everybody else wore.
Nor did he have any of the attributes that could have outweighed these things. The school played soccer rather than rugby which might have suited a young male who would be five foot six when fully grown. But team games bored him.
At most schools his otherness would have invited bullying. And being a dayboy where almost everybody else was a boarder was already quite different enough. But those who tried often wished they hadn’t.
In a 1959 BBC Home Service radio programme on Wingate an old schoolmate spoke of him charging his tormentors with fists flailing. “He feared no one.”
After Charterhouse came Woolwich Military Academy from where Wingate would be commissioned into the Royal Artillery. And here occurred an episode that marked him out as exceptional.
Just like the prefects in their old schools senior cadets were far more involved in enforcing discipline than the teaching staff. Their ultimate punishment was to make a transgressor run naked through a gauntlet of knotted towels before tossing him into a deep tank of freezing water.
Wingate who was that rare thing: a gentlemen cadet who had never boarded at school and learned the art of communal living. His face didn’t fit and some of the seniors almost felt it was their duty to drive him out of the academy and save the army from a bad egg.
Their chance came because of the thing he was most enjoying at Woolwich. Wingate had learned to ride there. After a slow and painful start he was now taking fences with its drag hunt and would soon establish a reputation for himself as a daring point-to-point jockey.
When a popular cadet missed his ride because Wingate failed to return a horse to the stables in time the seniors decided that this was their chance. He was notified he was to be punished with a run.
The ritual demanded that he reported to one of the rugby fields after dark where he would be expected to strip naked and sprint between two lines of seniors with their knotted towels and swagger canes.
Most victims got it over with by running head down with one hand over their genitals. Not Wingate. Among the gauntlet was Derek Tulloch, who would later become a close friend and chief of staff. “Once undressed Orde walked, very slowly, the whole way down the line with a dangerous look in his eye,” said Tulloch who retired a major-general.
When he got to the end Wingate vaulted to the edge of the water tank and dived in. Tulloch was not the only one who left feeling ashamed and the status of the principal player soared. What was intended to be a gross humiliation had become a kind of triumph and a harbinger of all the great things to come.
Wingate inhabits an unquiet and overcrowded grave. When a search party reached the crash site of the fully bombed-up Mitchell bomber taking him to his Chindits they discovered a deep 20-foot wide crater with wreckage and inextricably mixed body parts scattered around it.
There were nine people aboard the aircraft. Four of them were British passengers: Wingate, his aide de camp and two war correspondents. None of the dead were recognisable though Wingate’s scorched pith helmet survived.
At first the remains were buried on the spot and a cross bearing their names erected. Later what could be found was moved to the British war cemetery at Imphal. But in November 1950, because there were more Americans than British on the aircraft and the bodies could not be identified, the remains were exhumed and reinterred at Arlington.
This prompted furious protests from both the Wingate family and Chindit veterans. In 1974, on the 30th anniversary of his death, a gesture was made towards these family grievances when the grave was rededicated with a handsome upright headstone and a wreath laid by Jonathan Orde Wingate, the son born six weeks after his death. It was at this time that the Israelis began to lay their annual wreath.
Cyprus-based Colin Smith is the author (with the late John Bierman) of Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion