Major General Orde Wingate was the most controversial British commander of the Second World War, and can split opinion seventy years after his death, not least every time something new is published about him. This is unsurprising: a man who ate six raw onions per day, ordered all his officers to eat at least one and who conducted press conferences in the nude while scrubbing himself with a wire brush is bound to leave an impression. However, much of the controversy runs deeper than this, stemming from his performance as military commander and leader, specifically during three episodes occurring late in a military career beginning with passing out from the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1923 and ending in death in an air crash in Burma in 1944.
First came the Palestine Arab uprising of 1936-1939, when Wingate, a captain on the Staff of General Headquarters in Haifa, was authorised by two British General Officers Commanding (GOC) Palestine, General Sir Archibald Wavell and General Sir Robert Haining, to train Jewish policemen, in British organised counterterrorist units known as the Special Night Squads. Wingate, a passionate Zionist, politicized this mission, turning it into the backbone of a personal campaign for a Jewish state, deploying his Night Squads in politically explosive pre-emptive and reprisal attacks on Arab villages believed to be hiding insurgents and using ‘robust’ methods to extract intelligence from prisoners.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Wingate was summoned by Wavell, now Commander in Chief, Middle East, in late 1940 to take over an operation organised by the MI(R) covert warfare branch of the British War Office aimed at escalating and steering guerrilla resistance in Italian occupied Ethiopia. Wingate succeeded far beyond MI(R)’s ambitions, raising and commanding ‘Gideon Force’, a purpose organised regular formation for operations deep inside hostile territory, which cooperated with local tribal irregulars in the Gojjam region of western Ethiopia to defeat an Italian force at least ten times its size and participated directly in restoring the Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne taken from him by the Italians five years before.
He is best remembered in Britain for the third episode, his command of Long Range Penetration Groups. These light infantry formations ostensibly using ‘guerrilla’ methods, supplied and supported by air, conducted two major operations deep inside Japanese occupied Burma, Operations Longcloth, of February-May 1943, and Thursday of March-August 1944, during which Wingate was killed in a plane crash while visiting troops at the front. These Long Range Penetration Groups are better remembered as the Chindits, a propaganda name derived from Wingate’s mispronunciation of Chinthey, the stone griffin figures which guard Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. As part lion, part dragon, the Chinthey seemed an appropriate symbol for an air-land force, and their mythical significance to the people of the region was not lost on Wingate, either.
Leadership is what happens when a leader figure causes a group to perform a goal-related activity which the group would not have performed without the leader’s influence.
We contend that while we are sceptical about explicit ‘lessons of history’, messages are sent by Orde Wingate the military thinker, practitioner and entrepreneur and leader of men in combat, important and relevant messages for today, particularly in the light of likely future missions for the armed forces of many of our countries. But what is the ideal of military command and practice on which we base our arguments? A broad approximation of the Sandhurst model is a good one: leadership is what happens when a leader figure causes a group to perform a goal-related activity which the group would not have performed without the leader’s influence. Moreover, in a confrontational activity like war, leaders think also about their opponents’ likely goal-related activities and how best they can thwart or disrupt them — a really effective combat leader doesn’t just get his own soldiers to follow his will, but the enemy, too. Indeed, Wingate was something of a pioneer of ‘effects-based operations’, a trendy buzzword for something that has actually been around for centuries. Wingate’s first thought in any military scheme being the desired effect he wanted to have on the enemy. To the uninitiated this might seem ahead of its time, and while Wingate’s admirers claim he was a ‘military genius’, his papers suggest not so much a great original thinker than an astute cherry-picker and synthesiser of existing ideas who had no compunction about presenting them as his own.
However, where Wingate seems to have been original, was in his view of what war and warfare actually were, and this brings us to his views on leadership. To Wingate, leadership was the hinge on which everything else swung is because he saw war as a clash of cultures, dialectical and human-centred; people engaged in fighting needed training, command and control and they also needed a degree of physical and mental conditioning. A great deal of his approach to training was aimed not just at convincing the people under his command that they were actually capable of doing things they had thought previously impossible, but that they were better at it than others, the enemy in particular. Subsequently, they would then go out into the field and demonstrate this not only to the enemy and third parties but most importantly, to themselves.
Following from this, when faced with a military problem, his aim seems to have been to turn what he saw as the typical British military virtues, fundamentally stronger self-discipline, and more aggression and initiative from all ranks — into tactical advantages by exploiting enemy weaknesses in these same areas. This seems to have begun in Palestine, where Wingate believed that the superior discipline, initiative and skill at arms of British soldiers, the leadership and tactical nous of British officers and NCOs, and the high intelligence and enthusiasm of police volunteers, if tied to an efficient intelligence and information network, would allow them to defeat many times their own number of badly trained and poorly coordinated terrorists. This might point to a degree of elitism, but he felt the qualities he was looking for were innate in any British, Jewish or Ethiopian soldier; they just needed the right kind of training and indoctrination and the right kind of leadership to bring it out.
In a paper he wrote after the Ethiopian operation, Wingate disparaged the methods of guerrilla warfare associated with his distant relative T.E. Lawrence
Wingate’s view was that guerrilla warfare and special operations hinged on strong, pro-active leadership from the front even more than other forms of warfare. When GHQ Middle East was gathering arms and personnel for insertion into western and southern Ethiopia, Wingate argued consistently and vociferously for teams of trained guerrilla warfare specialists to be inserted into Italian controlled territory because in his view, irregular and insurgent operations hinged on an activist minority, a ‘hard core’ of leaders, and the British might be able to take advantage of the situation by providing or enhancing it. This ‘corps d’elite’ would be more effective than ‘peddlers of war material and cash’ because resistance depended upon appealing ‘to the better nature, not the worse…We can hope that the rare occasional brave man will be stirred to come to us and risk his life to help our cause….All the rest the rush of the tribesmen, the peasants with billhooks, is hugaboo.’ In a paper he wrote after the Ethiopian operation, Wingate disparaged the methods of guerrilla warfare associated with his distant relative T.E. Lawrence, for whom he seems to have nursed a lifelong contempt, often using the words ‘Lawrence’ and ‘wrong’ as interchangeable. In this particular paper, he contended that Lawrence’s method of guerrilla warfare, consisting essentially of handing out weapons and money to local irregulars or tribal warriors who would then fight the enemy on their own terms under their own local chieftains, would not only be interpreted as a sign of British weakness, but would result in said weapons and money being misappropriated for the guerrillas’ own ends.
He then outlined the ‘right’ method:
Hitherto we had made the mistake of appealing to the cupidity and self interest of the Ethiopians by offering them money and poor quality war material. These qualities were all on the side of the enemy. Courage, faith and self respect, these were the qualities we could appeal to successfully because they were on our side. We had first to convince the Ethiopian, suspicious as he was of all white men, of our bona fides. This meant he must see us fighting not by his side but in front of him. His contact with our young officers must convince him that…we were not only brave soldiers but devoted to the cause of his liberties…[C]ease trying to stimulate the revolt from without, using agents, but…enter amongst the patriots using small columns of the highest fighting quality, with first class equipment, to perform exploits and to teach self sacrifice and devotion by example instead of by precept. By doing so we should not only fan the revolt to proportions that really threatened the enemy’s main bases, but should also assume its direction and control a most important factor in any future settlement.
Alongside this was what Wingate saw as the basis of good morale and combat motivation: all the nice rations, hearts and minds work and film shows in the world are a waste of time and effort if your soldiers and their local allies don’t think that you are serious about the cause you are fighting for, and serious about winning. Against what was seen widely as good practice at the time, Wingate believed intensely that the soldiers under his command, even the long-service professionals, should have some understanding of the political objectives they were fighting for, something which was grasped also later on by Field Marshals Montgomery and Slim but taken further by Wingate. From the Ethiopia operation onwards Wingate argued that penetration forces, without fail, should have what he called a ‘doctrine’, which in his terminology meant the political ‘message’ that military action should send to allies and potential allies in enemy-occupied territory, that Allied forces were ‘on their side’: ‘The force must operate with a definite propaganda…or creed of war…based on truth, and not lies. Lies are for the enemy. The truth is for our friends.’
This ‘propaganda or creed of war’ would shape the actions of penetration forces right down to the tactical level, including matters of planning, preparation, selection of objectives, the level of cooperation with local guerrillas, etc. It would also be the major source of combat motivation for all soldiers involved in what they would come to see as a common cause. Wingate knew that this particular concept would make him unpopular among many of his superiors in the Army and yet he pursued it regardless, convinced that not only was he right, but that his opponents were wrong, in some cases egregiously so. He took serious personal risks for ideals he believed in throughout his life. For instance he allowed the Jewish underground militia, the Haganah, to infiltrate his Night Squads and get free training from the British Army and then used them to using them to secure the areas around Jewish settlements in pursuit of Zionist policy which the British colonial office had proscribed. Furthermore, he then quite openly advocated a partition plan drawn up by the Zionist leadership, to the point of lobbying the Colonial Secretary while he was still a serving captain in an Army which expressly forbade active involvement in politics.
In other words, rather than a coherent insurgency, there were actually many competing narratives of what the war was about, leading to groups following their own agendas, alongside large numbers of ‘accidental guerrillas’ and opportunist bandits.
Unsurprisingly, his Jewish volunteers came to love the ground he walked on, because their cause was his and he was willing to risk everything for it. It is also interesting how disillusioned he became when the Ethiopian resistance did not live up to his expectations. He arrived in Ethiopia apparently as a passionate supporter of the cause of Haile Selassie and hoping to centre his ‘doctrine’ upon it. He soon discovered that the Emperor was not universally popular among his people, and, indeed, that Ethiopia under the Italians provided a perfect example of phenomena we have seen described more recently by Frank Ledwidge, Emile Simpson and Mike Martin. In other words, rather than a coherent insurgency, there were actually many competing narratives of what the war was about, leading to groups following their own agendas, alongside large numbers of ‘accidental guerrillas’ and opportunist bandits whose interest in the war was confined largely to what they could steal. It is interesting to read his correspondence from this time, seeing his growing cynicism and, indeed, towards the end, his requests to his theatre commander to be reassigned.
Wingate practised leadership by example from the front tactically as well as strategically, and expected those around him to do likewise. Not only did he never make his men do anything he wouldn’t do himself, literally, but he was, invariably, better at it. He personally took charge of his men’s training, even as a brigadier, demonstrating the techniques he wanted them to absorb, including strenuous physical activities like combat swimming, and because of this, as one former Chindit put it to me: ‘We knew what he wanted from us, and that he knew what he was talking about, from the moment he arrived.’ This extended into combat: a key feature of his times in Palestine and Ethiopia was his taking personal command of patrols deep into enemy territory and even the occasional night-time assault, frequently coming under enemy fire, getting into grenade range on at least one occasion, and being wounded seriously in Palestine. This was not an unmixed blessing, as it led to one of his worst habits, which was setting his troops jobs which were often rather too ambitious for their level of training and fitness: the worst example of this came with the first Chindit operation, on which some 600 men out of an 1800-strong force did not come back. Some were killed in combat, but many others fell to disease or exhaustion because Wingate drove them as hard as he drove himself, and he could not understand why they couldn’t march forty miles a day across jungle-clad mountains in 45 degree heat and 100% humidity on just a handful of nuts and the occasional onion a day like he could. Likewise, his habit of leading from the front whenever he could caused problems earlier on Ethiopia, where he effectively disappeared into the battle for almost a week, resulting the overall campaign he was responsible for freezing in place for this time.
Good leaders have also to be good delegators, and this can only happen if they build a good, trustworthy team around them, recognising and developing talent in others and being secure enough in themselves not to see other leaders around them as competition. One reason that Wingate felt he couldn’t do this in Ethiopia is that he was dealing with a group of almost entirely inexperienced junior officers, many of them essentially civilians in uniform who were assigned because they had local knowledge. While Wingate certainly believed in his liberationist mission, a couple of these went so far native that they effectively became partisans for various Ethiopian warlords, to what he saw as the detriment of the mission as a whole. He was luckier on earlier and later campaigns. In Palestine, among his trainees and junior commanders with the Night Squads was Lieutenant HEN Bredin, who also rose to the rank of Major General in the British Army, two other British officers who became battalion commanders in the Second World War, and three future generals in the IDF, including Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. Likewise, in Burma he was fortunate in having as his principal subordinates Michael Calvert, already a highly experienced unconventional warrior and who would go on to re-form 22 SAS after the war, and Bernard Fergusson, an experienced regimental and staff officer with superb personal connections and who, of all Wingate’s subordinates, was the closest to being his intellectual equal and the one who was least afraid to disagree with him in public.
This suited Wingate, who gave his Chindit Column commanders considerable devolved authority and expected them to show initiative at all times. Such can be discerned in Wingate’s propensity in operational orders to state his intent in terms of desired effect upon the Japanese (‘16 Bde will forbid the enemy possession of the areas INDAW, NABA and BANMAUK…’) and to offer a range of suggestions or options which subordinates might adopt or ignore as they saw fit. He also took an elastic approach to operations once troops were committed. Because he trusted them most, Wingate tended to select Calvert and Fergusson as his ‘spearheads’, assigning them the most important tasks and granting them more latitude and flexibility than others. There were noticeable differences between the three on operations and tactics: Calvert’s aim was, from the beginning, to ‘kill Japs’ in their ‘safe’ areas in as large a number as possible, mining and booby-trapping the route around him and constantly begging Wingate’s permission to send out fighting patrols and ambush parties, which he often led personally even when he was a brigadier. Wingate and Fergusson, conversely, aimed to divert Japanese strength away from the British main forces in Burma, Fergusson in particular being keen to infiltrate through the jungle to his assigned targets while avoiding any serious contact with the Japanese or any activity likely to draw attention, yet also visiting as many villages as possible to procure supplies and ‘show the flag’ and demonstrate to the locals that the British were in the area and they were there to win. To Wingate, both approaches were valid because they met his overall aim of imposing his will on the enemy, and because they worked.
Orde Wingate, therefore has important things to say to practitioners of 21st-century military operations, particularly counter-insurgency, covert and Special Forces operations, and proxy war, all likely to be with us for some time to come, and he has a lot to say about the role of leaders in this sort of operation — above all that they should be ‘true believers’ in the cause, or at least understand it, that they should command from the front, and that they should be left alone to exploit the situation as they saw fit.
Dr. Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has authored over a dozen papers on insurgency and special and covert operations and the role of educators in the British Army on combat operations. His book, Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior was published in October 2014.
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