OPINION: the Wingate legend & history’s great ‘What if?’

OPINION: the Wingate legend & history’s great ‘What if?’

Orde Wingate
Orde Wingate
Ian Bloom
Ian Bloom

By Ian Bloom, Historian

Seventy years ago, on 24 March 1944, a US Airforce B-25 Mitchell bomber from 1st Air Commando Group fell out of the sky into the Manipur jungle in north-east India. It had not been shot down by nearby Japanese forces. The cause of the crash is still a mystery.

All 10 military personnel on board died. Seven were American. Since individual body parts could not be identified, the human remains were collected and buried together, initially in a nearby village, then re-interred at the Arlington military cemetery in Virginia.

The most senior passenger on board was not, in fact, from the US. He was Orde Wingate, the youngest Major-General in the British Army. Like George Orwell, Wingate was born in India in 1903.

Unlike Orwell, Wingate made his name through deeds rather than words. Wingate was a distant cousin of Lawrence of Arabia and a brilliant, maverick strategist.

On hearing of his death, Winston Churchill, who along with President Roosevelt, had backed the young soldier, said Wingate “… was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny”.

His untimely passing fuelled conspiracy theories about why his plane went down – and speculation about what he might have achieved had he lived. This is because Wingate was probably the most passionate Zionist among non-Jewish officers to have served in the British armed forces.

Wingate’s parents were devout members of the Plymouth Brethren. He shared their belief in the literal truth of the Old Testament. Educated at Charterhouse School and the Royal Military Academy, he was commissioned in 1923.

Orde Wingate
Orde Wingate

He always had a gift for languages. He learnt Arabic in London in 1926 and, after service in Sudan, he was posted to Palestine and became fluent in Hebrew. His deeply held religious beliefs caused him to identify completely with the return of the Jewish people to Israel.

In 1938, Wingate dramatically ended Arab raids into Jewish settlements. He invented the Special Night Squads and gave the future leaders of the Israel Defence Forces a crash-course in how to win against numerically stronger forces. He trained and taught the early members of the Haganah how to conduct surprise night-time attacks and use hit-and-run tactics. His handpicked pupils included Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon.

Wingate was so successful that Arab pressure on the British authorities resulted in his transfer to Egypt. Depressed by this enforced posting, he attempted suicide in a Cairo hotel, survived and formed the Gideon Force, a unit of irregulars who took on, and defeated, vastly superior Italian forces and returned the Emperor Haile Selassie to the Abyssinian throne.

This triumph led to an invitation to attend the Quebec Conference in 1943, where he persuaded Churchill and Roosevelt to back his plan to create and lead the Chindits and disrupt the Japanese army in Burma with his trademark, unconventional style of deep penetration guerrilla warfare.

Wingate was always eccentric. As his career developed, his impatience with authority grew. His personal oddities – no other wartime commander regularly wandered around HQ naked or wore a string of onions around his neck and an alarm clock on his wrist – and combative contempt for his colleagues were certainly divisive.

Orde Wingate, known in Israel simply as "The Friend" enters Addis Ababa on horseback in 1941
Orde Wingate, known in Israel simply as “The Friend” enters Addis Ababa on horseback in 1941

When the wartime papers relating to the Burma Campaign were released 20 years ago, it became clear that the 1960’s Official History of the “Forgotten Army” had not been written by his admirers.

Wingate’s role had become a footnote. There was uproar. Fifty years after the war ended, the old battles were re-fought and reputations re-assessed in the press.

Counter-factual, or “what if”, history is always entertaining. Along with what if Henry VIII’s first wife had given birth to a healthy boy, and what if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated in 1914, we can add what if Orde Wingate had survived the war? What would he have done in 1947/48 when the Jews in Palestine fought first the British and then the neighbouring Arabs to establish the State of Israel?

Six weeks after Wingate died, his young wife Lorna gave birth to a son. She called him Orde. He was probably the only baby ever to have Chaim Weizmann and Emperor Haile Selassie as his godparents. I had lunch with “young” Orde in the late 1990s. I asked him on whose side he thought his father would have fought. He said he had always been intrigued by that question, and had asked his mother, a fervent Zionist in her own right.

He told me that Lorna was in no doubt. “Oh, your father would have resigned from the (British) Army and joined the Israelis”, she had said. “And they would have made him their Commander-in-Chief.” He added several senior Israelis had later confirmed that would have been the case.

After all, to this day, Wingate is known in Israel simply as “The Friend”. I wonder how post-war Britain would have reacted to its most controversial General, a fearless officer, and holder of the Distinguished Service Order and two bars, leading Jewish troops who took on and killed British soldiers as Jews fought for Israel’s right to exist.

I wonder, too, whether a man regarded as a military genius might have captured the whole of Jerusalem in 1948 and perhaps changed Middle Eastern history.

Finally, could Wingate, aged 53, have led the IDF in the Suez conflict of 1956 and, at 64, in the Six Day War? And, if he had, might either outcome have been different?

Sometimes, the “What ifs?” of history are even more fascinating than the real thing.

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