Orde Wingate: Friend Under Fire

By Michael B. Oren

The new historians take aim at the father of the IDF.

While conducting research in Washington recently, I took a break and looked up an old friend. A cab brought me to his “neighborhood”—the Arlington National Cemetery—where the information center provided me with his exact address: section 12, grave number 288. This was the final resting place of Maj.-Gen. Orde Wingate, a British officer widely regarded as the father of modern guerrilla warfare. A brilliant tactician and a daring innovator, Wingate was credited by many with turning the tide against Axis forces in Ethiopia and Burma during World War II. Winston Churchill hailed him as “a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny.”1 Yet Wingate had his share of detractors, as well; if some admired him as a hero and a visionary, others denigrated him as an egotist, an eccentric, even a madman.

On one point all his observers agree: Wingate was a Zionist. An implacable advocate for Jewish statehood in the late 1930s, when the British had all but abandoned their promise to create a homeland for the Jews, he formed and led the Special Night Squads (SNS), a Jewish fighting force that saved dozens of settlements from destruction during the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and trained military leaders such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, who would later form the core of the Israel Defense Forces. Wingate dreamed of one day commanding the first Jewish army in two thousand years, and of leading the fight to establish an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel.

A vivid literature has grown up around Wingate. The earliest books about him were penned by war correspondents and comrades-in-arms, mostly those who served with him during the campaigns in Burma and Ethiopia. Slender works by Charles Rolo, Bernard Fergusson, Wilfred Burchett, Leonard Mosley and many others told of Wingate’s dash and endurance, his coolness under fire and his unflagging leadership.2 But for every favorable account of Wingate, another emerged assailing him. Particularly censorious were Britain’s official military historians, I.S.O. Playfair and Woodburn Kirby.3 Though bound by tradition to be dispassionate and fair, these writers went out of their way to denounce Wingate as solipsistic, unstable and impudent.

So contrasting were these portraits that additional works were later written—most notably Peter Mead’s Orde Wingate and the Historians and David Rooney’s Wingate and the Chinditsto reconcile them. A more nuanced Wingate also emerged from a number of biographies, which went beyond specific military campaigns to cover his entire life. Orde Wingate by Christopher Sykes highlighted the pivotal place that Zionism held in Wingate’s thinking. Exhaustive in its details, scrupulously balanced, the book remained ambivalent about its subject, much as Sykes was about Zionism in general. Wingate becomes more categorical and sympathetic in Trevor Royle’s biography, Orde Wingate: Irregular Soldier, published in 1995. Though Royle provides few additional facts beyond those put forth by Sykes, by adopting a less academic tone he makes Wingate more accessible.4

These biographies continued what was essentially an internal British debate. In Israel, on the other hand, history books and school texts have always lauded Wingate as a heroic, larger-than-life figure to whom the Jewish people owed a deep and enduring debt. Israel Carmi, who had fought under Wingate in the SNS, portrayed his contribution to the Zionist effort in glowing terms in a memoir, In the Path of Fighters, while Avraham Akavia, another SNS veteran, sympathetically depicted his commander’s full career in Orde Wingate: His Life and Works.5

In recent years, however, as the heroes of the Zionist movement have been increasingly criticized by Israel’s “new historians,” the figure of Wingate has come under fire in the Jewish state. Taking the lead has been the journalist-historian and best-selling author Tom Segev. In March 1999, in reviewing Yigal Eyal’s The First Intifada, a study of the Arab Revolt, Segev described Wingate as “quite mad, and perhaps a sadist, too,” and reproved Eyal for “turn[ing] a blind eye to the war crimes committed by Orde Wingate and his men.”6 In his own book published a few months later, Days of the Anemones: Palestine During the Mandatory Period, Segev portrays Wingate as delusional and homicidal, “a madman” who “employed terror against terror.” Though he does cite praise for Wingate from David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Sharett, Segev refuses to grant him any redeeming qualities, even as a military commander.7

One might have expected the wholesale disparagement of a man who had until now been universally revered by Israelis to spark a wave of criticism. Instead, Segev’s revisionist view has hardly been noticed by the Israeli press. One prominent exception was Gideon Levy, a columnist for the daily Ha’aretz, who wrote an article in July 1999 praising Segev’s exposure of Wingate as “an oddball with sadistic tendencies” and a “villain” who “tortured Arabs.” Segev has performed an invaluable service by exposing “the dark sides” of the Wingate myth, Levy wrote, and called for the inclusion of those “dark sides” in the public school curriculum.8 So successful was Segev in recasting Wingate’s image that a month later, in reviewing a new biography of Israel’s first Sephardi chief rabbi for Ha’aretz, Yehiam Padan noted regretfully that Wingate “was, until this year, considered a friend of Israel.”9 Though calls to change the way Israelis are taught about Wingate have not yet been heeded—most textbooks continue to portray him glowingly—the Education Ministry’s recently published history text, A World of Changes (1999), is the first government-sponsored textbook covering this period to ignore Wingate’s contributions to Zionism entirely.10

It is significant, then, that just as Wingate has come under fire in Israel, a new biography by British authors has appeared casting him in a positive light. Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion by John Bierman and Colin Smith, is the most comprehensive biography to date. Here, Wingate appears in his full complexity, his pugnaciousness and peculiarities, his brilliance and courage. It is a book that must be read by anyone who wishes to understand this influential Zionist figure.

Journalists stationed in Cyprus, Bierman and Smith have extensive experience covering the Middle East, and show no particular affection for Israel. On the contrary, their text bristles with barbs against the Jewish state (“not quite the ‘light unto nations’” that Wingate intended) and its army (a tool of “territorial expansion,” demolishing Arab houses "con brio on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip”).11 But despite their feelings for Israel, and despite their failure to consult the wealth of Hebrew-language sources about Wingate—surely the book’s greatest flaw—Fire in the Night captures the nature of Wingate’s Zionism, and the impact it had on his actions in Palestine. Wingate, the authors realize, saw Jewish independence in the land of Israel as more than just a historical imperative. It was the driving force of his life.

harles Orde Wingate was born in 1903, one of seven children in a strict Protestant family. “On Sundays,” write Bierman and Smith, “the entire family dressed in black, attended… prayer meetings… in the morning, and devoted the rest of the day to Bible studies and other ‘improving’ pastimes.”12 Both his father and grandfather were army officers who became missionaries, and were devoted, among other pursuits, to converting the Jews. Though often poor, the Wingates came from distinguished Norman and Scottish stock, and among Orde’s prominent cousins were Sir Reginald Wingate, the governor of Sudan, and T.E. Lawrence, who gained fame for his exploits in Arabia during World War I.

As a student, Wingate proved to be unexceptional, disinterested in sports and socially inept. Though often discouraged and depressed, Wingate harbored a strong sense of his own destiny, a conviction that he was fated to do great things, lead armies, liberate nations. After graduating from military academy in 1923, he mastered Arabic at London’s School of Oriental Studies and secured a post with the Sudan Defense Force. Fighting bandits, he developed the hit-and-run and night-fighting tactics he would later use, to such devastating effect, in much larger battles. “A most successful expedition conducted with great dash and judgment,” the force’s commander commented on one long-range patrol which Wingate commanded.13 Yet Wingate also experienced prolonged bouts of depression—“nervous attacks,” he called them, which he was able to endure only by ceaseless repetition of the phrase “God is good”—and began exhibiting some of the eccentricity that later became his trademark: Eating raw onions, steeping tea through his socks, greeting guests in the nude.

From the

Orde Wingate: Friend Under FireThe new historians take aim at the father of the IDF.
The DissidentVixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger and Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture by Richard Pipes
Operation Cast Lead and the Ethics of Just WarWas Israel's conduct in its campaign against Hamas morally justified?
Lawrence of JudeaThe champion of the Arab cause and his little-known romance with Zionism.
Zohan and the Quest for Jewish UtopiaAdam Sandler's hit comedy reflects a deep divide between Israeli and American Jews.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2024