By Jay Holmes
On March 24, 1944 at an air base behind Japanese lines, British Major-General Orde Wingate boarded an American crewed B-25 Mitchell Bomber for a flight to Imphal, India. Wingate was likely intending some heated arguments with members of the RAF staff and members of British Army General Slim’s staff.
The arguments were in no way unusual. Wingate was highly opinionated, particularly in presenting his ideas about special operations. The fact that at 41 he was usually the youngest flag officer in attendance at any meeting did not keep him from forcefully arguing his point of view. But the great Orde Wingate had had his last argument.
On the way to Imphal, the plane crashed, and Wingate, the other passengers, and the crew members were all killed. It is perhaps an ironic tribute to Wingate that arguments still surround the details of the crash.
Orde Charles Wingate was born in Naini Tal, India on February 26, 1903. His father was a very religious British military officer. His equally devout Christian mother was a distant cousin of the ever eccentric but highly effective T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame.
When Wingate was two, his father retired from the army, and the family returned to England, where Wingate spent most of his childhood. Wingate was homeschooled. When he did enter a British public school at age 12, his parents did not allow him to participate in sports or other social activities because they did not want his religious values corrupted by British society. Instead, he went straight home to face academic tutelage from his well-educated parents. In particular, his parents demanded that he become an expert on the Bible.
In 1921, Wingate was accepted to the Royal Military Academy at Woolrich. When senior cadets tried to haze him in the form of a gauntlet run, Wingate instead challenged each of them to try to hit him one at a time. They all declined.
In 1923, he received his commission in the British Army. He was posted to a battery in the Salisbury Plain in Larkhill, England, where he sharpened his already considerable skill in horsemanship.
In 1926, Wingate received an appointment to attend the prestigious Military School of Equitation where he quickly out-rode the young cavalry officers in attendance. When Wingate failed to hide his pleasure in besting some of Great Britain’s finest cavalry officers, he made some enemies.
In 1926, Wingate was sent to the School of Oriental Studies in London to study Oriental Languages. He passed his language exams in March of 1927.
In 1928, Wingate was temporarily transferred to the Sudanese Defense Force. He quickly retrained his native soldiers and instituted new border patrol tactics. His team successfully ambushed many slave traders and poachers moving through the Sudan. Wingate was soon promoted to the rank of Major. While he was highly successful in the field, his argumentative style made him more political enemies within the British hierarchy in the Sudan.
image from cakitches.com
In 1933, Wingate returned to Great Britain and helped in the modernization and mechanization of Britain’s artillery forces. During the process, he furthered his reputation as a brilliant but arrogant officer with little regard for tradition.
In 1936, Wingate was sent to the British Mandate of the Palestine as a staff intelligence officer. Because of his Christian religious devotion, he became highly involved with Jewish political groups there.
Bedouin raiders frequently attacked the Palestine from across the Arabian border as a consequence of “the Arab Revolt of 1936,” and the attacks were worsening. Keep in mind that this was British territory at the time, and Israel did not yet exist. The Bedouin raiders were attacking the British and Jews.
Without much concern for British Foreign Office opinions or policies, Wingate began to actively train and assist Jewish fighters in forming small commando teams.Finally, after obtaining the consent of British General Wavell, these teams began nighttime counter insurgency operations and they were highly successful in ambushing Bedouin raiders. At Wingate’s instigation, his teams crossed over the Palestine Mandate border and raided whatever villages housed or supported the enemy.
Captain Wingate with Moshe Sharett, second Prime Minister of Israel, image from ynetnews.com
Reports of Wingate’s village attacks by eventually landed on Wavell’s desk, and Wavell reprimanded Wingate. However, the British Command apparently left Wingate on a long leash, and the cross border counter raids continued. Though many of the Jewish and British leaders found them to be morally objectionable, the spectacular results that Wingate achieved gained him the respect of many senior British leaders in both the military and the government.
Eventually, Wingate’s close relationship with Jewish political leaders made the British command uncomfortable In 1939, the British Army transferred Wingate back to Great Britain.
Moshe Dayan, who would later be Chief of Staff of the Israeli Military, claimed that Orde Wingate taught the early Israeli fighters everything they knew. Wingate still remains a hero in Israel today.
In the fall of 1939, when Great Britain became involved in World War II, Wingate was in charge of an anti-aircraft unit in England. He suggested to senior officials in the British Army that a Jewish Army be formed to take control of the British Palestine and all of Arabia in the name of the UK. Not everyone in the British Government received Wingate’s idea cheerfully, and some suggested he was of questionable sanity.
When General Wavell, who was commanding the British Mid-eastern forces at the time, heard of Wingate’s suggestions, he requested that Wingate be transferred to Cairo where he could put his talents to use in organizing strikes against the Italians in Ethiopia.
Wingate and Emperor Selassie inspecting Gideon Force, image from ordewingate.net
Wingate quickly organized what would become the famous “Gideon Force,” made up of British volunteers, Sudanese, Ethiopians and some Jewish irregulars who had answered Wingate’s call for help. The Force of 1700 successfully attacked Italian communications and supplies in Ethiopia. They also managed to tie down several thousand Italian soldiers in defensive garrisons while a British Army attacked from the north. During their campaign, the Gideon Force remarkably captured over 20,000 Italian soldiers and destroyed vast quantities of Italian supplies.
In Sunday’s post, we will look at how Major-General Orde Wingate and his Long Range Penetration Forces influenced the course of World War II in Southeast Asia, and how a British major general came to rest at Arlington.