Orde Wingate served in the British military as a determined battlefield commander, but he found himself drawn to the uneven virtues of his Old Testament heroes: David and Saul, Job and Moses. He lived a life close to the earth. He chose tactics and strategies that ensured his own body would drip sweat and blood—along with those of his men. Despite the unequivocal support of Winston Churchill, Wingate remains one of the most controversial generals of the Second World War, and David Rooney directs his squarely at the center of Wingate’s historical reputation.
Rooney argues that Wingate’s memory suffered a posthumous attack from jealous officers in the Indian Army. The chief offender, Major-General Stanley Woodburn Kirby, wrote the Official History of the war against Japan, shaped Field Marshal Slim’s autobiography, and marked and altered Christopher Sykes’ biography of Wingate; in brief, he held exceptional influence and dramatically effected the memory of Wingate’s strategic and tactical prowess, as well as his psychological fitness. Rooney aims to correct the record, and show that a smear campaign did in fact take place.
Rooney’s book begins with a conventional biography of Wingate. The story opens with the trauma of Wingate's birth in India, which very nearly killed his mother when she suffered a dangerous hemorrhage. She recovered, and they moved to England. Wingate’s family belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, where he and his brothers and sisters received love and encouragement from their parents even as the Bible threatened them with eternal damnation.
Wingate attended Charterhouse as a young man, and later the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Rooney then passes through the many distinct phases of Wingate’s life, and usually agrees with Christopher Sykes and other Wingate biographers in his interpretations. As a young officer, Wingate's first loves were hunting, horses, and brashness. He loaned money freely, especially to his own soldiers. He developed his best male friendship to David Tulloch, who later served under him in the Chindits in Burma. Wingate dragged one young woman, Peggy Jolly, through a multi-year engagement, before bashfully abandoning her to marry a much younger woman. With the help of family connections, he escaped the doldrums of artillery camp life through a course in Arabic and a trip to Sudan. There he gained valuable leadership experience directing patrols against poachers.
Wingate eventually posted to Palestine as an intelligence officer, and this is where his life accelerated into violence at a drastic pace. Upon reaching Palestine in 1936, he found the country in the midst of an Arab revolt against British governance and Jewish settlements. Unlike the British establishment, his sympathies stood with the Jews, rather than the Arabs. He began actively campaigning for the Zionist cause. With the support of General Archibald Wavell he formed tactical units known as Special Night Squads to protect Jewish settlements. The Special Night Squads consisted of British officers, British non-commissioned officers, and Jewish soldiers. They met with some success, at least tactically, and represented one of the first serious uses of force on the part of Jewish settlers. He proved an outstanding battlefield leader.
“You have a lot to learn,” Wingate told his soldiers, “and a lot to forget, but I shall give you a basis for your study of the art of war. Do not take notes—just listen and digest. Great soldiers are serious, diligent and of outstanding moral character. In war personal qualities are the most important—a coarse and savage man makes a bad soldier.”
Wingate stressed surprise, economy of force, and security as the principles of SNS warfare—in fact, he would insist on these three elements throughout his remaining campaigns. Of course, nearly all battlefield commanders say something to similar effect. But Wingate met his principles with a disciplined set of operating procedures that personally showed his men how to conduct such warfare with modern weapons. He loved the details of map-reading and the employment of machine guns, but he could also step back and offer an appreciation of the wider strategic picture.
From there on out, a short-lived pattern emerged: Wavell posted to a new assignment, and tasked Wingate with finding a way to take the fight to the enemy. Shortly after deploying Wingate, Wavell would find himself reassigned, and Wingate’s support from GHQ would slowly evaporate.
As the Second World War began to grip the world, Wingate aggressively took the fight to the enemy during a time when the much of the world found itself back on its heels. He possessed uncanny powers of imagination that allowed him to see the enemy’s blind spots, as well as Britain’s own untested strengths. He did so with the SNS in Palestine, and then Gideon Force in Ethiopia.
His most famous battles came with the units he formed in India and took into the jungles of Burma—the “Chindits.” After his first Chindit campaign, his fame exploded and Churchill took Wingate to Quebec to meet the American military leaders as an example of a British officer eager to fight the Japanese. The Americans (at least in Quebec) loved Wingate, and offered him tremendous support via aircraft; the Americans also formed a unit later known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ as their own version of Wingate’s “long range penetration” columns.
Wingate returned to Burma and led an expanded Chindit force back into the jungles. The forces at his disposal reached their height—he began executing the largest Allied airborne operation prior to D-Day, and disrupted Japanese operations throughout the area.
His battlefield opportunities as a commander, however, met with a sudden end. Travelling back and forth over the jungles of Burma, his transport aircraft crashed into a mountainside. The impact killed all aboard. Command of Wingate's Chindit forces fell into the hands of detractors and ineffective military leaders; many died in the subsequent battles. Time and again, outsiders such as General Joseph Stillwell ordered the Chindits into battlefield actions that defied Wingate’s strict procedures of engagement, which he designed to minimize exposure and maximize concentration of firepower. Curiously, Wingate’s best friend, Brigadier Tulloch, foolishly recommended one General Lentaigne as Wingate’s successor. Lentaigne despised Chindit tactics. Morale plummeted as Lentaigne repeatedly denigrated the Chindit approach and grew ‘windy’ to the tempestuous orders that inevitably fall from above during any battle.
While the bulk of Rooney’s book simply recounts the story of Wingate’s biography, his critical contribution manifests itself at the end of the book, as he shows the influence Kirby had on British history. For Rooney, Kirby stands as the most obvious example of jealousy within British forces for the fame and success of Orde Wingate, a man who rose in ranks from captain to major general in less than eight years. Kirby and the Indian army military establishment accused Wingate of forming a ‘private army.’ Kirby also discounted Wingate’s strategic and tactical innovations, and undermined his reputation through a series of sleight-of-hand psychological portrayals of Wingate as a madman and loose cannon, a man with poor grip on strategic possibility. Rooney shows that Kirby’s version of Wingate appears not only in the official history, but also in General Slim’s autobiography, and—most importantly—in the Christopher Sykes biography of Orde Wingate, perhaps the most thorough and detailed record of Wingate’s life. If Rooney is right, then Sykes’ biography—which appears objective at first glance—actually misleads. Rooney found, among other items of evidence, record of Sykes thanking Kirby for his careful reading of a draft of the Wingate biography, and his numerous corrections.
Rooney won the match with Kirby. Wingate was not a loose cannon. He worked hard to work with others, though not to get along well or be liked. It remains a little less clear if Wingate had quite the positive impact on modern strategy that his supporters insist upon. Rooney notes that Wingate’s strategies served as forerunners to the strategies used extensively in Vietnam. Vietnam, of course, was no more successful than the Chindit campaigns. Wingate's strategies also make an appearance in the modern firebases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet again, one cannot call these operations victories without outrageous equivocation. Such operations work best when used in conjunction with standard, sweeping campaigns of organized political violence designed to uproot and annihilate opposing political positions by any means necessary, but that’s not what happened in Burma (not while Wingate lived), and did not happen in Vietnam nor Iraq nor Afghanistan. In each case, scattered patrols supported with air power and good logistics failed to destroy the political opposition. I am not arguing that Wingate anticipated any of these campaigns—he kept his eyes on the battle in front of him, so much so that he did not have a plan ready in case of his own death, much less any serious shift in the strategic outlook in Burma (or world politics). I argue that Wingate introduced tactics that seem effective only within a hopeless strategic environment. His methods buy time, and bring out courage and willfulness in the troops involved. But clear political victory must remain elusive without stronger methods involving greater material resources. Wingate’s tactics tempt political leaders into initiating conflicts they lack the strategic vision to win.
Hence it is possible that Wingate was a good commander, and yet that his military innovations did not actually contribute to winning any war. Wingate’s battlefield maneuvers, however, represent an instance of aggressive action at the height of British difficulties in the Middle East and Far East. Churchill was not mistaken about that, and that is why Churchill found Wingate such an attractive figure, one worth taking to Quebec and granting personal support. If an interesting brand of madness effected Wingate’s mind, it did not lessen the psychological usefulness of Wingate’s actions. Men and material (and mostly material) win wars, but human beings need leaders with confidence and verve who possess the guts to say that victory remains possible. Courage invents confidence, and confidence begets courage; the two characteristics loop together among the minds of the many.
Rooney’s book provides a welcome correction to the history of Orde Wingate. Rooney’s most important contribution probably rests in showing the extent of the smear campaign that discredits Wingate as a human being and effective leader. It represents a tragedy of written record that such distortions influenced the Sykes’ biography of Orde Wingate. (Even with the distortions, Sykes' biography probably remains the best available). Wingate stands as one of the most interesting soldiers of the Second World War, one who died in action for his country and earned the respect of both his commanders and his men. He deserved better than he got.