The Magazine

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
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Few took up this admonition as eagerly or excessively as Clarke’s fellow army officer Orde Charles Wingate. “Popularity,” Wingate believed, “is a sign of weakness.” Considered by his peers to be either a “military genius or a mountebank” (opinions differed), he had been locked in an unceasing war against his superiors from his earliest days.

Even as a young cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he “had the power,” recalled his best friend, “to create violent antagonisms against himself by his attitude towards authority.” Later, as a junior officer, Wingate was known to begin meetings with generals by placing his alarm clock on the table. After it went off, he would leave, announcing, “Well, gentlemen, you have talked for one hour and achieved absolutely nothing. I can’t spend any more time with you!”


 Wingate’s first rebellion was against the stifling religious atmosphere in which he was raised. He was born in 1903 to a father who was a retired Indian Army colonel with a devotion to a fundamentalist Protestant sect called the Plymouth Brethren. He and his wife brought up their seven children, including “Ordey” (his family nickname), in what one of his brothers called a “temple of gloom,” with prayer mandatory, frivolity forbidden, and “fears of eternal damnation” ever present. By the time Orde arrived at Woolwich, to train as an artillery officer, he had left the Plymouth Brethren, but he never lost his religious outlook. For the rest of his life he would be deeply influenced by the Bible, on which he had been “suckled” and which a friend said “was his guide in all his ways.” Another legacy of his childhood was that he developed a violent aversion to being regimented. At Woolwich he was in constant trouble, and he formed a low opinion of the “military apes” who tried to discipline him.

After graduation he learned Arabic, and in 1928 he joined the British-run Sudan Defense Force as an officer overseeing local enlisted men. He battled elusive gangs of slave traders and poachers within Sudan, learning the hit-and-run tactics he would employ throughout his career. He also developed many of his unconventional habits, such as wearing scruffy clothing (“his socks were very smelly and all in holes,” a subordinate later noticed), subjecting himself to great danger and discomfort, and receiving visitors in the nude. (He would become notorious for briefing reporters in his hotel room while “brushing his lower anatomy with his hairbrush.”) Other Wingate trademarks: a pith helmet, which he wore in the manner of a nineteenth-century explorer; an alarm clock, which he carried (he claimed “wrist watches are no damned good”); raw onions, which he munched like apples because of their supposedly salubrious properties; and a beard, which he grew from time to time in contravention of the King’s Regulations, which permitted only a mustache.

While returning home on a steamship from the Sudan in 1933, he met an Englishwoman, Ivy Paterson, and her 16-year-old daughter, Lorna. Ivy noted Wingate’s “medium height” (he was five feet six inches tall), the “forward thrust” of his head, and his “beautiful hands.” But his most impressive feature was his eyes: “Rather deep set, and of a periwinkle blue, they were the eyes of a prophet and a visionary. .  .  . [I]n their fire and intensity, one was aware of the unusual force of his personality.” That impression was reinforced when she heard Wingate hold forth in what another listener described as a “sandpaper voice” (“like the grating of stone against stone”) on almost every “subject under the sun”​—​including his love of Beethoven and his dislike of “the wireless,” as radio was then known. “He spoke brilliantly. But he could also be very quiet and silent for long periods.”

Ivy’s daughter, Lorna, was instantly smitten. Orde was 30 years old and already engaged, but he, too, fell in love with this winsome schoolgirl. They married two years later shortly after her graduation from high school. His former fiancée was devastated but remained so devoted to Orde that she never married, because she felt no other man could match him. This was evidence of the strong devotion that Wingate could instill to counterbalance the antipathy he so often engendered.

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