In memory of 'the friend'

Orde C. Wingate, who died in 1944, has been called the father of the Israeli army.

orde Wingate (photo credit: )
orde Wingate
(photo credit: )
Daniel Nadel, a Jerusalem resident who for many years has chaired an annual observance in memory of Zionist hero Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate, asked a speaker not long ago to discuss the topic "Who Was Wingate?" Nadel had just encountered two Israelis who didn't know who Wingate was. One of those people worked at the Knesset, and the other for the army. Israelis may know Wingate's name in connection with the Wingate Institute of physical education, the Yemin Orde youth village or various local streets and landmarks. Less familiar is the life story of this Bible-reading Christian who has been called the father of the Israeli army. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote that Wingate would have become Israel's first chief of General Staff, had he not been killed in World War II. Moshe Dayan and other Israelis who served in Wingate's Special Night Squads saw him as a leader who, as Dayan put it, "taught us everything we know." Wingate came here as a captain in British intelligence during the Arab uprising in 1936. He recruited Jews for counter-insurgency operations, which soon put Arab attackers on the defensive. His pro-Jewish stand eventually led to his recall to England in 1939, with a note in his passport forbidding him from ever returning to Israel. In 1941 he ran an insurrection in Ethiopia, defeating a numerically superior Italian occupation force and restoring Emperor Hailie Selassie to the throne. In 1943 he led 3,000 jungle fighters, the famous Chindits, behind Japanese lines in Burma, and the allied world hailed him as a hero. On March 24, 1944, while commanding a second, much larger Chindit operation, Wingate died in a plane crash in Burma. He was 41 and a major-general. He received Britain's Distinguished Service Order three times in six years - for valor in Burma in 1943, in Ethiopia before that, and in Mandatory Palestine in 1938. Wingate was unusual by any standard. He was bold, eccentric, a brilliant tactician, a person of great determination and immense physical endurance, a fierce warrior who said it was wrong to hate one's enemy, a loner and an outsider who once tried to take his own life but went on to become a hero so celebrated that a popular American comic strip used to mention him. Among the qualities that connected Wingate to Israel were his vision, political involvement and affinity for the Jewish people. In 1937, after four months in the country, he told his cousin Sir Reginald Wingate that the British Empire should ally itself militarily with the Jews. Although the Jews had no army at the time, he said they would be better soldiers than the British and could provide the key to preserving the Empire. He saw a general war coming. He said the League of Nations' failure in Ethiopia in 1936 made the war inevitable. He said Mandatory Palestine could take in one million Jews in seven years. This was when Britain was moving toward barring Jews from entering at all. Wingate was close to Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Sharett and other Zionist leaders. His banishment from the Holy Land came after his commanders objected to his lobbying for the Jewish cause while on leave in London. During World War II, Wingate preached long-range penetration - attacking deep behind enemy lines. He said armies could extend the range of ground forces by exploiting aircraft and radio, two factors then relatively new in warfare. He felt that his concept of building strongholds behind enemy lines could become the way to take not only Burma but also Hanoi and Bangkok, and eventually China. Wingate often seemed to be an outsider, but he has been called an "insider's outsider." Through most of his career he had patrons in high places, among them Sir Archibald Wavell, Sir Edmund Ironside, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Winston Churchill. Churchill took Wingate with him to the 1943 Quadrant conference in Quebec. There, Wingate briefed president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and won US support for an ambitious airborne operation that became his last campaign. Churchill eulogized Wingate in the House of Commons as "a man of genius who might well also have become a man of destiny." Wingate's detractors also held strong opinions. One biography itemizes what other officers disliked about Wingate - "his rebellious scorn, his arrogance, his paranoid touchiness, his reckless rudeness, his flouting of convention, his personal scruffiness, his leftish ideas and (dare one suggest it?) his strange obsession with Zionism and the Jews." In 1939 Wingate made an official declaration: "Neither I nor my wife nor any member of our families has a drop of Jewish blood in our veins." He said this in a formal appeal against critical evaluations he received from his commanders. He added, "I am not ashamed to say that I am a real and devoted admirer of the Jews.... Had more officers shared my views, the [Arab] rebellion would have come to a speedy conclusion some years ago." Wingate grew up in a Protestant movement known as the Plymouth Brethren. He knew the Bible from childhood. He evidently identified with the warrior Gideon. He made his base at Ein Harod, where Gideon recruited his little army. When he was sent to liberate Ethiopia, Wingate called his command "Gideon Force." In the last year of his life, he proposed the name "Gideon Force" for the second Chindit expedition but was turned down. After Wingate arrived in Israel in 1936 and told the Jews he wanted to help them, they were suspicious. He was, after all, a British intelligence officer. By Wingate's own account, all other British officials in Israel in those days disliked Jews. In time, the Jews recognized that this unorthodox Christian who aspired to command a Jewish army was indeed their friend. That's what they came to call him - "Hayedid," in Hebrew - "the friend." And that's how Israelis remember him still. At a time when the world was turning its back on the Jews, Orde Wingate chose to be their friend. (Adapted from a talk by Joseph M. Hochstein at a Jerusalem program in memory of Orde C. Wingate.) A program marking the 65th anniversary of major-general Orde C. Wingate's death will take place at 2 p.m. on Tuesday at Ammunition Hill under the sponsorship of Jerusalem Post 180 of the Jewish War Veterans of America.