Orde Wingate is perhaps so famous that there is no need to summarize his life. There are a plethora of good biographies, pro and con, about him for these purposes; but just for the argument, let us summarize a few points here. His father was first cousin to Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor of the Sudan before, during, and after the First World War and one of the key sponsors of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”)’s military activities in the Hejaz, Jordan, and Syria (Sir Reginald was mainly the supplier of the gold sovereigns Lawrence use so promiscuously to buy his beduin confreres, without which they would hardly ‘lift a finger’ as it were). Throughout his life, Wingate referred to him as “Cousin Rex” (it was through him too that he was later to find out that he was a distant cousin to Lawrence on his mother’s side) and at key junctures in his career was able to turn to him for a helping hand ‘up the greasy Pole’ as Disraeli was wont to call it.
From early youth Wingate, who was at first home-schooled because his parents wished to keep him away from pernicious influences before going as ‘a day boy’ to the famous British Public School of Charterhouse and from there to the British Military Academy at Woolwich, always felt himself “a man of destiny” – a phrase echoed in Churchill’s famous encomium to him at the end of this article – and he was, despite his ill-timed and unhappy death. Born in India where George, his father, was a colonel and part of ‘the British Raj’; he was brought up with his numerous brothers and sisters in the extreme Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian sect known as “the Plymouth Brethren” and, not surprisingly, always felt a kinship with Oliver Cromwell as a man destined to do great things related to the Bible, from which he always quoted liberally to his troops before going into battle – but this from the Old Testament, never the New, which he felt was unrealistic and unsuited to the choice of profession he had made. The Old Testament suited him perfectly.
Encouraged by “Cousin Rex” to perfect his Arabic at London University’s prestigious School of Oriental Studies and, under his ‘tutelage’, likewise, posted to the Sudan in the late twenties/early thirties; he learned the ways of tracking and treating his body and his spirit hard in hunting both ivory poachers from Ethiopia and slavers from Somalia. He had previously, as a bored young officer in England after Military Academy graduation, participated in fox hunting and ultimately, steeple-chasing where he won not a few competitions and cups – developing a demeanor and attitude that was seen to be ‘utterly fearless.’ It was under these circumstances that he developed his ideas of guerrilla warfare, almost always fighting at night, knowing how to track in difficult terrain, driving both man and beast to their limits.
At the end of his service in the Sudan, he made the famous “Trek to Zerzura,” which was actually written up by him for the Royal Geographic Society, made famous by the recent English Patient movie and Count Almasy, with whom “Cousin Rex” encouraged him to cooperate; but in his usual manner, he made the trek alone in 1933. On the voyage home, following this show of exploration bravura and totally exhausted, he met his future wife, the lovely and charming 16-year old Lorna, whom he was to marry two years later just as he was being posted to Palestine as an intelligence officer.
It was during “the Arab Revolt” in 1936 and, thereafter, that he encountered his true “calling” as it were, which he always knew he had – to lead a Jewish Army into battle; and, while there, many consider that he laid the foundations for the Israeli Army to come – if not totally ''the Army,'' certainly many of its future officers like Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon and its fighting methods. He even said as much at one of the “Training Sessions” he organized in 1938 (with future Field Marshall Archibald Wavell’s blessing), i.e., “we have come here to lay the foundations for the Jewish Army.” Of course, for most run-of-the-mill English officers, who were largely pro-Arab anyhow and against more Jewish immigration to Palestine at this crucial time, such language was blasphemous bordering even on “treason” and just increased the number of enemies he always seemed to accumulate at GHQ’s.
Not for Wingate. He taught Jewish settlers and Haganah enlistees to go out from their previous closed-in and defensive-like stockade enclosures, fearlessly at night like their enemies, to often blindly track the land with nothing but a compass, a flashlight, and a topographical map, to hunt and ambush marauders and terrorists. He felt that Jewish soldiers could be as good or better than any of their British counterparts; and, reporting the same to “Cousin Rex,” he founded the combined units known as “Special Night Squads” (SNS) composed of mixed Jewish and British personnel.
Always hated a GHQ, too, for his sloppy dress, his lack of respect for authority, his eccentricity (often he would sit in his tent naked with nothing but a pith helmet or stand in front of his recruits reading passages from the Bible – usually about his favorite character Gideon, who only wanted to fight with ‘picked men’ and, in whose environs, Daburiyyah, he did much of his fighting – and actually called his force in Ethiopia, when he arrived there “Gideon Force”), and seemed to revel in either shocking or affronting his superiors; he was so successful in protecting the pipelines and stopping cross-border raids that he was finally expelled from Palestine at the instigation of the Mufti and his confreres and most of the other anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish-settlement Headquarters rank and file officers in 1939, just at the time it was most needed – with the proviso, never to return to Palestine.
He never did, but before he left, he even urged his Jewish friends and associates, by whom he was called “the Yedid” – “the Friend” (he was very close to Chaim Weizmann) – to start the Uprising against the British right then and there by themselves raiding the oil refinery at Haifa – again virtual “treason”; but in the face of Hitler’s pronouncements and depredations, he felt this was the only way they would be able to “save” their European Jewish brethren. In this, he turned out to be, sadly, almost completely correct – even prophetic. He even volunteered to lead them – he felt that strongly about the situation.
Who knows, perhaps if he had known or made contact with the Jabotinsky Revisionist faction at the time, he might have been more successful. Even the later Altalena tragedy or fiasco between Labor and Revisionist Zionists might have been avoided – again, who knows? But he did not. He left the country in disgrace, never to return (except on one airplane-refueling stop on his way to India and Burma later); but he never gave up the idea of returning to found a Jewish Army, which he thought would be the best in the world since he considered the Jewish fighting man, when properly trained, to be the best; and perhaps under his leadership it would have. Wingate never lost a battle in his life. This was in May, 1939 just at the time Hitler’s armies were advancing across Europe. In London, Wingate continued working feverishly through everyone he knew, including Weizmann and Ben Gurion (who were much more phlegmatic and less impetuous and incautious than he), to get a Jewish Army into action.
His next action was to be Ethiopia. It was to be the first British victory in the Second World War and he did it all with irregulars, including kibbutz volunteers, he had trained in Palestine and had specially brought down at his request; and it was done, once again, through his old protector Archibald Wavell, whom at this point had become a full General and Commander-in-Chief of all British Forces in the Middle East. Apparently Wingate had already predicted to one of his sisters that one day he would restore Haile Selassie to his throne in Ethiopia. He also apparently told the same thing during their courtship to his future wife Lorna – whom he married in 1936, the same year he was posted to Palestine.
The Italian invasion there (in collusion with the French) had begun in 1934, just after Wingate had left the Sudan and finished his Zerzura Expedition. By 1936, despite League of Nations condemnation and native resistance, Mussolini had succeeded in expelling the Emperor. Wingate was sent in by Wavell, who remembered his earlier effectiveness with irregular forces in Palestine, in November, 1940. By May 5th, 1941 after a series of engagements fought by mixed British, Palestinian, and native forces in Northern Ethiopia, Wingate mounted on a white charger was escorting Haile Selessie who, frazzled and weary, preferred riding in a Ford convertible into Addis Ababa six years after his discomfiture.
Now the events that led to Wingate’s greatest fame and demise were about to unfold. First of all, it was in Ethiopia that Wingate had his first encounter with then Colonel, later Field Marshall, William Slim who had command of a small mechanized unit, which had suffered many reverses coming up from the South with a mixed group of Kenyans, British, and Indian Army units, which had also been badly mauled. Wingate’s extraordinary success doubtlessly did not sit very well with these groups or these commanders. Once back in Cairo, Wingate’s report of the Ethiopian Campaign (Wavell now having departed) was flatly rejected at GHQ and all those he recommended for DSO’s denied. In turn, Wingate considered that his extraordinary success there entitled him, once more, to return to Palestine and raise an Army of Jewish Volunteers (this did eventually transpire, but much smaller and later than Wingate envisioned – called, as everyone now knows, “the Jewish Brigade”).
Then in despair, all his hopes having been dashed; on July 4th, 1941Wingate did the unthinkable for a British Officer – he tried to commit suicide, plunging a bayonet into his throat in his room at Shepheard’s Hotel and only being saved from cutting both his carotid artery and jugular vein (he had stabbed himself from both sides) by the involuntary tightening of his neck muscles. By September, he was on a Hospital ship on his way back to England – he was later determined to have been suffering from severe cerebral malaria – which docked in his family’s native Northern Scotland in mid-November.
Now in disgrace for the second time, though people like the famous explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who had served under him in Ethiopia, thought he deserved a Knighthood for his achievements there (by a twist of fate, the General Cunningham of the unsuccessful British/Kenyan Southern Forces and Slim’s superior too – who had Wingate banished from Ethiopia – was ultimately the last British Governor of Palestine when Jewish Independence was declared in 1948); nevertheless Wingate did not have to wait long for the final triumph and tragedy of his life. (To be continued and concluded in Part II).