Described by one his officers as “a military genius of a grandeur and stature seen not more than once or twice a century,” Charles Orde Wingate (26 Feb 1903—24 Mar 1944) remains to this day a controversial, if not mythic, figure.
An eccentric man, reputed to keep a large alarm clock dangling from his belt, eat raw onions which he kept on a string around his neck (although there is little photographic evidence of these), and instruct orders half-naked, Wingate came to be seen as something of a madman for more than this alone. Raised in the Plymouth Brethren faith, he regarded the old testament as the literal truth, and laced his fiery speeches and official writings with biblical rhetoric. But in the eyes of many, a worse offense was that he hardly looked like a proper British officer. In an army which celebrated impeccable “grooming standards,” he was often poorly turned out with untidy kit, filthy uniform and usually sported a beard. He was certainly different and remained in frequent contest with the regular army establishment over the idea of unconventional warfare.
Nevertheless, he first attracted the attention of his superiors while in Palestine in 1937-38, when he formed Jewish “Special Night Squads” to tackle roving bands of Arab troublemakers. In 1940 he was appointed to lead a force of irregulars in Ethiopia, whom he christened “Gideon Force” – after the old Testament hero who defeated 15,000 men with 300. With a strength of never more than 1,700 men, including a thousand spear and rifle-armed Ethiopian warriors, Wingate and “Gideon Force” went after the Italian army.
In January 1941, he seized the Ethiopian border town of Ulm Idla, making it the first town to be liberated by his force. Next in March, combining daring with bluff, he drove a 6,000-strong Italian infantry unit backed by several thousand auxiliaries along with artillery and mortars, from the garrison fort of Bure, guarding the approaches into the Gojjam Province. But this victory proved a mere prelude of what was to come. Now reduced to only 1,000 men, Wingate then routed a force of 12,000 Italians, plus thousands of Pro-Italian Ethiopian warriors from the key town of Debra Markos. Finally, Wingate a chased after a group of about 10,000 Italians retreating from their last stronghold at Amba Alagi. Both sides ran out of food and their clothes were reduced to rags, but as cold weather set in that May, the Italians surrendered on the 19th. Gideon force had captured some 19,000 enemy troops and kept occupied vastly greater forces.
It was a brilliant effort, but for his troubles Wingate was given only a minor staff posting in Egypt. Depressed and suffering from malaria, he tried to kill himself by cutting his throat in a Cairo hotel.
“You know, I’m not the only great soldier who has tried to commit suicide,” he told his doctor later. “There was Napoleon for instance.”
Only the influence of his superior, the benevolent Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, allowed Wingate a further posting – to India, to command what would become the Chindits. It was tragic then that Wingate died at the height of his mortal fame in a plane crash in March 1944, returning from a visit to his forward troops in the field.
After his death, his men were badly misused by U.S. General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell (who hated the British and in turn, has come to be reviled by the British; one recent English documentary continues this, calling Stilwell an “unsavory character”). The surviving Chindits, wracked by disease, malnutrition and atrocious losses, were only evacuated by executive order weeks later.
For all his charm and force of character, Wingate also had an irascible temper. This has allowed detractors and revisionist historians to question his sanity and military acumen. In reality, Wingate’s perpetual impatience with select subordinates and even senior commanders was his greatest Achilles’ Heel. In this way, he could be a mirror of his American counterpart, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. On one typical occasion, during a meeting with General Giffard, chief of the 11th Army Group, Wingate elected to have his subordinate, Brigadier Joe Lentaigne, chair the proceedings. Suddenly exasperated with Lentaigne (see below) whom he felt was not being “tough” enough, Wingate derided him publicly and took over as chairman.
At another time in 1944, after flying back from Ledo to Comilla following a heated meeting, Wingate was enraged to find that his personal ground transport was not waiting for him at the airport. He set upon his long-suffering GSO1, Lt-Colonel Francis Piggot in the mistaken belief that he had been responsible, kicking him out the open door of the still taxiing aircraft. When Lt-General Henry Pownall demanded an apology, Wingate told them brusquely that, “I always used to kick my younger brother off moving buses and quite suddenly the old impulse came over me.” In the end, the recipients of Wingate’s ire were as restricted as those in an exclusive club, primarily the officers of his staff in whom he had little faith.
Yet for all his flaws, Wingate was a man who showed that the impossible could be made possible and by this virtue alone becomes something more than exceptional. He was, in the words of historian Shelford Bidwell, a leader “capable of flashes of genius,” and a man who waged a continuous struggle with himself and the world as part of a lonely devotion to no other object than the categorical defeat of the enemy.
Winston Churchill, an admirer who was nevertheless appalled by Wingate’s eccentricities, said of him after his death: “There was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny. He has gone, but his spirit lives on….” But perhaps the best euological words came from his opposition, from the famed Japanese Lt-General Renya Mataguchi, who upon hearing the stunning news of Wingate’s death after the war, said: “I realized what a loss this was to the British Army and said a prayer for the soul of this man in whom I had found my match.”
In February 1944, his Chindits were dropped deep in Burma, but Wingate himself was killed in an aircrash in India in March. He was a controversial figure, an intense, mercurial man who loved to innovate and lead but who resented higher authority. He held a deep religious conviction that he was an instrument of a greater power, and he seemed infused with a mythical, almost fanatical quality. General Sir William Slim, who knew him both in Africa and in India, described him as "strange, excitable, moody creature, but he had a fire in him. He coul ignite other men."
He was one of nine men who died in the crash of a U.S. Army Air Corps transport plane in India on March 25, 1944. They were originally buried in India, but moved to a common grave in Section 12 of Arlington National Cemetery on November 10, 1950.
(more information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orde_Wingate)