What Wingate Wrought
The astonishing raids of a Special Operations pioneer in Palestine, Abyssinia, and Burma
Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By MAX BOOT
In 1936 Captain Wingate was dispatched to Palestine, then under British rule, to serve as an intelligence officer in the British force striving to put down an Arab rebellion. Notwithstanding his Arabist background, he became enamored of Zionism—so much so that even dedicated Zionists described him as a “fanatic.” Wingate admired the Jews for making the desert “blossom like the rose,” and he felt that they would be more valuable allies for Britain than the Arabs. This was not a view shared by the rest of the colonial administration, which, Wingate found, was “to a man, anti-Jew and pro-Arab.” “Everyone’s against the Jews,” he said, characteristically, “so I’m for them.”
At that moment the Jews were facing what would be the biggest Palestinian uprising until the 1980s. Like the Second Intifada, this revolt was marked by urban terrorism, with bombings and shootings targeting both British authorities and Jewish civilians. By rushing in 20,000 troops and taking punitive measures such as blowing up suspects’ houses, the British managed to regain control of the cities. This forced the rebels to focus on attacks in the countryside against isolated Jewish settlements and police posts as well as against moderate Arabs.
At first the Jews responded with havlagah (restraint), but as the violence continued they began fighting back. Wingate was at the forefront of the counterattack. He found that “on the approach of darkness, the virtual control of the country passes to the gangsters.” In 1938 he persuaded British and Zionist leaders to let him organize Special Night Squads to take back the night. They would be made up of British soldiers and Jewish “supernumeraries” who would venture stealthily out of fortified kibbutzim to “bodily assault” Palestinian gangs “with bayonet and bomb” and “thereby put an end to the terrorism.”
Eventually the Night Squads numbered 40 Britons and a 100 Jews who usually operated in squads of 10 men. Their practice was to march at night and attack at dawn. Wearing khaki shorts and rubber-soled boots, veterans recalled, they would spend long hours walking single file over “dry, very stony ground, which was generally hilly, often steeply so,” deliberately avoiding “the beaten path” and taking “a zig-zag or snakelike course.” “Complete silence is the rule in all cases,” Wingate instructed. “Members of Squads should try to cut down their smoking with subsequent coughing.” Their goal was to obtain “complete surprise,” and they often succeeded. Their unexpected appearance induced “panic” among the Palestinian rebels, whom Wingate dismissed as “feeble,” “ignorant, and primitive.”
In these raids Wingate displayed a flair for navigation in the dark, an “iron constitution,” and an utter disregard for danger. During one battle he was shot five times in a “friendly fire” accident but, although “white as a sheet” and “covered in blood,” he continued “giving orders in English and Hebrew quite calmly.”
He instructed the Night Squads to treat Arab civilians, “as opposed to the terrorist, with courtesy and respect,” but on one occasion he himself led a rampage through an Arab village to avenge the murder of a Jewish friend. Wingate later claimed that his squads killed at least 140 rebels and wounded 300 more, compiling a record unmatched by any British unit of similar size.
By the time Wingate left Palestine in 1939, he had earned the first of his three Distinguished Service Orders, Britain’s second-highest decoration, and the lasting gratitude of Palestinian Jews. Veterans of his Night Squads, including Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin, would become leading generals in Israel’s army, which they infused with his disregard of protocol, his insistence on fast-moving offensive operations led by officers from the front, and his emphasis on preempting terrorist attacks. “A dominating personality, he infected us all with his fanaticism and faith,” Dayan later wrote.
In his own army Wingate was looked upon as a cantankerous wild man. He was accused of having “forfeited our general reputation for fair fighting” and seen as a potential “security risk” who “puts the interests of the Jews before those of his own country.” (Wingate shared confidential documents with Zionist leaders.) The British commander in Palestine, General Robert Haining, thought he “played for his own ends and likings instead of playing for the side,” and dismissed his service as “nugatory and embarrassing.”
But even his detractors had to admit that he had a gift for unconventional warfare that was reminiscent of his distant kinsman T. E. Lawrence, who was also diminutive in stature. The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who knew both men, said that Wingate’s “intenseness,” “whimsicality,” and “originality” all reminded him of Lawrence: “I thought of Lawrence more than once when Wingate sat opposite me, arguing fiercely, and boring me through with his eyes.” The pro-Zionist Wingate bridled at the comparison with his pro-Arab relative, whose reputation he thought was exaggerated by “a great amount of romantic dust.” But the comparisons only grew stronger after Wingate’s involvement in the reconquest of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called.
In an act of unprovoked aggression that alarmed much of the Western world, Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Britain had given refuge to Emperor Haile Selassie but had provided no real help until Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940. Thereupon the emperor was whisked to Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, and the task of returning him to power was entrusted to the Special Operations Executive. Detailed for this assignment was Orde Wingate. He would have preferred to lead an army of Jewish soldiers to fight with the allies in North Africa. As a consolation he applied his “ruthless energy” to the cause of Haile Selassie, a Coptic Christian who styled himself the Lion of Judah and claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. An acting lieutenant colonel on loan to SOE, Wingate was to lead a band of irregulars that he called Gideon Force after the ancient Israelite fighters.
On January 20, 1941, Wingate crossed from western Sudan into Abyssinia with the emperor, 1,600 Sudanese and Abyssinian fighters, 70 Britons, and 20,000 camels. Two conventional British columns with a total of 60,000 troops, mainly Indians and Africans, marched at roughly the same time, one from northern Sudan, the other from Kenya to the south. As Gideon Force advanced, it left a trail of dying camels; the warm-weather dromedaries turned out to be ill-suited for Abyssinia’s chilly highlands. But while the number of camels shrank, the ranks of fighters grew as tribesmen were recruited to the “patriot” cause. These guerrillas, in turn, were directed by SOE “operational centers,” consisting of one British officer and four NCOs. The campaign, Wingate later noted, could not “have succeeded without the patriot support.”
The Italian army of occupation numbered 300,000 men. Thirty-five thousand of them were deployed against Gideon Force, and they had armored vehicles, artillery, and air support—all of which Wingate lacked. He did not even have adequate supplies, having to rely on “captured Italian rations or local produce.” Making maximal use of his puny numbers, Wingate staged numerous assaults on Italian forts, usually at night, telling his men to move fast and “goading everyone to superhuman effort.” By the time the Italians had assembled for a counterattack, the attackers were gone.
Wingate also skillfully employed bluff. He entered one newly liberated Italian fort to find the telephone ringing. An officer at another fort was calling to ask where the British were. Wingate instructed an Italian-speaking American war correspondent to “tell them that a British division ten thousand strong is on its way up the road,” “advising them to clear off.” This the panicked Italians did posthaste.
Addis Ababa, already abandoned by the Italian Army, was taken by South African troops after a slog through what a contemporary magazine described as “misty rain and quagmires of red mud” on April 5, 1941. Wingate had the privilege of leading Haile Selassie into the capital a month later, on May 5. The emperor eschewed a white horse procured for the occasion, preferring the comfort of a car, so Wingate himself rode at the head of the victory parade. “I hope when we meet my subjects they will know which of us is emperor,” Haile Selassie commented wryly. The unofficial “emperor” had not won the campaign single-handedly, but he had played an important role; his tiny force had captured more than 15,000 enemy troops and killed 1,500 more.
Wingate thought his Abyssinian campaign could be a model for other occupied lands, “wherever there is a patriot population” that could be roused “by men of integrity and personality.” He believed that employing a “corps d’élite” on a long-range “penetration” mission to galvanize local forces, as he had done, would be far more effective than what he wrongly denigrated as Lawrence’s “wasteful and ineffectual” approach of providing “war materiel and cash” to local leaders. He claimed, “Given a population favorable to penetration, a thousand resolute and well-armed men can paralyze, for an indefinite period, the operations of a hundred thousand.”
Despite what the official British military history rightly labeled a “remarkable achievement,” Wingate was peremptorily sent back to Cairo and reduced to his regular rank of major because, as usual, he had offended his superior officers with his “rude and dictatorial and insistent” ways. One senior general was heard to grumble, “The curse of this war is Lawrence in the last,” although in fact Lawrence had shown far more tact in his dealings with General Allenby and his staff than Wingate ever displayed with anyone.
Wingate had long battled depression. “I’m not happy,” he said, with typical modesty, “but I don’t think any great man ever is.” During the Abyssinian campaign he had also contracted cerebral malaria. Despondent at the lack of another assignment, he plunged a rusty knife into his throat while alone in a Cairo hotel room. An alert officer next door heard him fall and rushed him to the hospital, saving his life. Supposedly one of his colleagues from Abyssinia, exasperated by Wingate’s incessant abuse, visited him at the hospital to demand, “You bloody fool, why didn’t you use a revolver?”
Attempted suicide might have ended Wingate’s career, but he was fortunate that General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had previously made use of his services in Palestine and Abyssinia, still had faith in him. Wavell had been appointed commander in India, and he summoned Wingate to see what he could do to make life uncomfortable for the Japanese armies sweeping through Burma.
Wingate arrived in India in March 1942, a few weeks after the fall of Rangoon. The Japanese were firmly in control, and there was no hope of a conventional counter-offensive in the short term. Nor was there a serious prospect of using indigenous forces as he had done in Palestine and Abyssinia. Some hill tribes remained loyal to the British (Wingate would employ them as guides and guerrillas), but the majority of Burmese had no desire to fight for their former colonial masters. Wingate nevertheless believed the Japanese would be vulnerable to attack by “long-range penetration” troops such as Gideon Force. “In the back area are his unprotected kidneys, his midriff, his throat, and other vulnerable points,” he wrote. “The targets for troops of deep penetration may be regarded therefore as the more vital and tender points of the enemy’s anatomy.” The key to such action was “to maintain forces by air and direct them by wireless,” both common practices today but novel ideas at the time.
To implement his ideas, Wingate was elevated to brigadier and given command of the Seventy-Seventh Indian Infantry Brigade, the foundation of what later became known as the Chindits (a corruption of “chinthe,” a lionlike creature that guards Burmese temples). Although they would be sent on a mission far more arduous than an ordinary military operation, the Chindits were hardly picked troops. The largest elements were a British battalion made up mostly of married men in their thirties who had been performing garrison duty and a Gurkha battalion of peach-fuzzed young recruits. As Wingate noted, they “never dreamt they would serve as shock troops.” After subjecting these “ordinary” men to a tough training regimen designed to teach them “to imitate Tarzan,” Wingate divided them into seven columns of roughly 400 men each, with 15 horses and 100 mules for transport. Each column was accompanied by a two-man Royal Air Force team equipped with powerful radios to coordinate air support, thus anticipating the military practices of later decades.
On February 13, 1943, “Wingate’s Circus,” as the 3,000 Chindits called themselves, began crossing the Chindwin, the “strangely beautiful” river separating Burma from India, using inflatable boats and rafts. Two of the columns ran into heavy resistance and turned back, but the rest kept advancing, blowing up bridges and railroads and ambushing Japanese patrols. The air drops worked well aside from the occasional “death by flying fruit,” as some of the men referred to “injuries caused by dropped supplies.” The RAF even dropped spare kilts, false teeth, and monocles as needed. More than 2,000 Chindits then crossed the “swiftly flowing,” mile-wide Irrawaddy River. They were now at least 200 miles inside Burma, and enemy attacks, the intense heat, and various tropical diseases were taking their toll. As one of Wingate’s aides noted, “malaria, scrub typhus, dysentery, and even cholera are endemic.”
Wingate decided to turn back on March 26, 1943. The Chindits were now nearly surrounded by three crack Japanese divisions, so he told his men to break up into smaller parties and find their own way home. This was when the expedition turned truly “horrid.” Small groups of Chindits, generally 20 to 40 strong, had to traverse hundreds of miles of “incredibly thick” jungle and “fiendishly steep and rocky” hills and then cross two major rivers with the enemy on their heels. Rations had been “grossly inadequate” to begin with; they were designed to sustain paratroopers for only a few days in the field. Now, as supply drops grew less frequent, the “food problem” became “acute.” “Everyone was weak from lack of food,” wrote Major Bernard Fergusson, a column commander who was tormented by “visions of chocolate éclairs and birthday cakes,” “and morale depends more on food than on anything else.”
Of the 3,000 Chindits, only 2,182 “emaciated” survivors returned, the last on June 6, 1943, their “stomachs caved inward,” ribs sticking out, muscles transformed into “stringy tendons.” Most would be judged unfit for future service. Some had marched 1,500 miles carrying, initially at least, more than 70 pounds of equipment.
Fergusson later conceded that the first Chindit expedition had few “tangible” achievements: “We blew up bits of a railway, which did not take long to repair; we gathered some useful intelligence; we distracted the Japanese from some minor operations, and possibly from some bigger ones; we killed a few hundred of an enemy which numbers eighty millions; we proved that it was feasible to maintain a force by supply dropping alone.”
The biggest impact of Operation Longcloth, as the expedition was known, was not apparent until Japanese generals were interrogated after the war: They said that the difficulty of defending against Wingate’s raid led them to mount an offensive against India in 1944 in order to prevent future incursions. That attack failed and left them too weak to prevent the British recapture of Burma the following year. Against this indirect impact must be weighed the expedition’s staggering cost.
General William Slim, commander of the Fourteenth Army, which ultimately retook Burma, judged the raid an “expensive failure” on purely military grounds but a public-relations triumph: “Skillfully handled, the press of the Allied world took up the tale, and everywhere the story ran that we had beaten the Japanese at their own game.” This psychological fillip was important to soldiers and civilians alike at a time when Japan still reigned supreme in Asia.
Among those impressed by the Chindits’ achievement was Winston Churchill, who began to wonder whether Wingate “was another Lawrence of Arabia.” He took Wingate, by then a national hero, to his meeting in August 1943 with President Roosevelt and the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Quebec. Though only a junior general, Wingate so impressed the senior brass that they agreed to vastly expand his long-range penetration force and to provide him with his own air force. Thus was born No. 1 Air Commando, which would consist of almost 400 transport aircraft, gliders, light aircraft, fighters, and bombers, all provided by the U.S. Army Air Forces—the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations wings and of the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (“The Night Stalkers”). Their motto was “anyplace, anytime, anywhere,” and they would prove as good as their word, not only dropping supplies and providing fire support as “flying artillery” but also evacuating casualties.
Armed with high-level authorization, Wingate returned to India, only to run into unremitting hostility from the British headquarters in New Delhi. Part of this was due to the natural skepticism of conventional officers who resisted “a new approach to war.” But Wingate did not help his own cause. One staff officer recalled that when challenged he “replied with a long-winded diatribe accusing almost everyone of stupidity, ignorance, obstruction, and much else besides.” This officer concluded that Wingate was “a thoroughly nasty bit of work.” Wingate was typically unrepentant. “It is because I am what I am, objectionable though it appears to my critics, that I win battles,” he shot back.
Wingate was too weak to fight back effectively at first because on the way to India he had contracted typhus after foolishly drinking the water from a flower vase during a refueling stop. (He was thirsty and the canteen was closed.) But as he recovered his strength he got the upper hand against the “marsupial minds” at headquarters. He was promoted to major general and given command of some 20,000 men, or two divisions’ worth of Special Forces. The first expedition had been mounted with one brigade. Now he had six.
A new feature of the second Chindit expedition would be the establishment of fortified strongholds in enemy territory. Wingate defined the stronghold as “an orbit round which columns of the Brigade circulate,” “a defended airstrip,” “a magazine for stores,” and, more colorfully, “a machan overlooking a kid tied up to entice the Japanese tiger.” In other words, the strongholds were designed to goad the Japanese into costly and futile attacks. (The French would borrow this innovation in 1953 when they decided to establish a redoubt in a remote valley of Indochina known as Dien Bien Phu.) In the process, however, the Chindits would sacrifice the guerrilla’s advantages of speed and mobility.
Operation Thursday, the second Chindit expedition, began with one brigade marching overland at the end of February 1944. The bulk of the force was to begin its fly-in on Sunday, March 5. At 4:30 p.m. that day, just half an hour before the first C-47 cargo aircraft was to lift off from an airstrip in India, an American reconnaissance flight revealed teak logs blocking one of the landing sites in the jungle, code-named Piccadilly. Had the landing been blown? Or had the trees been placed there in the course of normal logging operations? It was later revealed to be the latter, but there were more than a few anxious moments for the cluster of senior commanders huddled on the airstrip. Finally the decision was made to proceed, diverting the flights that would have gone to Piccadilly to another landing zone, Broadway, located 150 miles inside Burma.
The first C-47 roared off at 6:12 p.m. on March 5, followed by more aircraft at 30-second intervals. Each airplane towed two gliders full of men jammed in with their supplies. Not all of the gliders made it over the 7,000-foot mountains. Ten of them crashed in India; six others got lost and came down in the wrong part of occupied Burma. For the 37 gliders that reached Broadway, the trouble was only beginning.
Near the landing zone, the tow ropes were released and there was a “sudden tremendous silence” as the gliders headed for the dark ground. The men had no seat belts as they braced for impact. Reconnaissance flights had not revealed the presence of two deep ditches that were used by elephants to drag timber to the river. Some of the first gliders had their undercarriages ripped off and lay blocking the makeshift airstrip. The gliders just behind them had to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage. Many did not make it and created more obstructions. Attempts to clear the wreckage and help the wounded were complicated by the arrival of more gliders, which emerged from the darkness with the force of bombs. “At times the rending, tearing, crunching sound of wings and fuselages being torn apart was quite deafening,” recalled “Mad Mike” Calvert, commander of the first brigade to be inserted, “then all would be quiet for a moment until the cries of the wounded men arose up from the wrecks. Their pitiful calls for help pierced into my shocked mind as I worked with the others to clear up the mess.”
Calvert had been given a choice of signals to send: “Pork Sausage” if the landings were successful; “Soya Link” (a widely hated pork substitute) if not. At 2:30 a.m. on Monday, March 6, he sent out “Soya Link,” thereby stopping all further flights. In India the faraway commanders figured the “Japs” had ambushed the leading parties. But in fact the Japanese were nowhere to be seen; they were befuddled by the errant gliders landing for hundreds of miles around. At Broadway, 30 Chindits had been killed and 20 wounded but more than 350 had landed unharmed. With the aid of a bulldozer that somehow emerged unscathed from the wreckage of a glider, they worked to clear and improve the airstrip. At 6:30 a.m. Calvert was able to send out “Pork Sausage.” That night C-47s began landing at Broadway, bringing in reinforcements. Another stronghold, Chowringhee, named after Calcutta’s main street, was established not far away.
By March 13, 1944, eight days after the first landing, more than 9,000 men and 1,350 animals, mostly mules whose vocal cords had been cut to prevent them from braying, had arrived in Burma, along with 250 tons of stores and batteries of field guns and antiaircraft guns. Wingate announced, “All our columns are inside the enemy’s guts. . . . This is a moment to live in history.”
He would not live to see the rest of the history unfold. On March 24, while shuttling between bases in India, his B-25 bomber plunged into a hillside for reasons that remain mysterious. The man who had pioneered the concept of “long-range penetration operations” was just 41 years old—even younger than T. E. Lawrence when he died.
One of his brigade commanders, Joe Lentaigne, took over the Chindits, but he was no “wayward genius,” as one of his men described Wingate; no one was. The Chindits were soon subordinated to the acerbic American general “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who made no secret of his disdain for “Limeys.” He proceeded to decimate the Chindits in a lengthy campaign during the monsoon season, which turned roads into knee-deep mud and made it difficult to provide air support, by throwing them repeatedly against well-entrenched Japanese troops.
By the end of June 1944, while on the other side of the planet fresh Allied troops were beginning the liberation of France, the Seventy-Seventh Brigade, 3,000 strong initially, had only 300 fit men left, and they were, one of them noted, “yellow, bedraggled, bearded scarecrows.” In the 111th Brigade even fewer were still able to fight—only 119 men. The brigade commanders demanded to be pulled out, noting that Wingate had not envisioned leaving them behind enemy lines for more than three months. Stilwell, stubborn to the end, resisted. Not until August 27, 1944, were the last Chindits flown out—almost six months after the initial landings.
The Chindits had lost 3,628 killed, wounded, and missing, or 18 percent of the force, and 90 percent of those casualties had occurred under Stilwell’s command. They would fight no more. In 1945 they were disbanded. A similar fate was suffered by Merrill’s Marauders, an American long-range penetration brigade trained by Wingate that was also “destroyed” in Burma under Stilwell’s brutal directives. Survivors of both units would curse Vinegar Joe for decades to come.
Controversy still shrouds the Chindits’ operations. Did they substantially weaken the Japanese hold on Burma, as some experts argue, or only shave a “few months,” as the official history has it, from the time when northern Burma would have been liberated anyway by regular Indian Army troops? Contemporaries could not agree, and neither can historians. The only certainty is the courage and resilience the Chindits displayed while being pushed to the edge of human endurance and beyond.
Wingate’s ability to inspire strong feelings, for and against, did not end with his death. Churchill paid glowing tribute to him as “a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny.” This was an opinion shared by most of his men. One Chindit wrote, “When you first met him you thought he was a maniac—after a week you would have died for him.” Yet not all of his subordinates were in “awe of him.” A Gurkha officer said, “We did not like him. . . . We were terrified of him.” Another officer recalled debating with his colleagues, “Is he mad?” The strain of antipathy was much stronger among the staff officers over whom Wingate rode roughshod. One of them penned an acidulous assessment of him in the official British war history; it suggested that “the moment of his death” may have been “propitious for him.” This was the first and probably last time that any official history celebrated the death of a senior officer.
Jack Masters, a Chindit officer who became a well-known novelist, rendered perhaps the most evenhanded verdict when he wrote 16 years after his commander’s death:
The same might be said about many other successful military leaders, from Alexander the Great to George S. Patton; winning wars is not a business that rewards those who are too amiable and agreeable. Wingate’s achievements were not on par with other great commanders throughout history, but he still deserves to be remembered for his restless, innovative spirit—and his devotion to the cause of liberty in foreign lands, whether Israel, Ethiopia, or Burma.
Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and author of the new book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright, 2013), from which this article is adapted.