What Wingate Wrought

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Everyone remembers T.E. Lawrence, but no one remembers Orde Wingate, his distant cousin and World War II counterpart:

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.


In 1936 Captain Wingate was dispatched to Palestine, then under British rule, to serve as an intelligence officer in the British force striving to put down an Arab rebellion. Notwithstanding his Arabist background, he became enamored of Zionism?—?so much so that even dedicated Zionists described him as a “fanatic.” Wingate admired the Jews for making the desert “blossom like the rose,” and he felt that they would be more valuable allies for Britain than the Arabs. This was not a view shared by the rest of the colonial administration, which, Wingate found, was “to a man, anti-Jew and pro-Arab.” “Everyone’s against the Jews,” he said, characteristically, “so I’m for them.”

At that moment the Jews were facing what would be the biggest Palestinian uprising until the 1980s. Like the Second Intifada, this revolt was marked by urban terrorism, with bombings and shootings targeting both British authorities and Jewish civilians. By rushing in 20,000 troops and taking punitive measures such as blowing up suspects’ houses, the British managed to regain control of the cities. This forced the rebels to focus on attacks in the countryside against isolated Jewish settlements and police posts as well as against moderate Arabs.

At first the Jews responded with havlagah (restraint), but as the violence continued they began fighting back. Wingate was at the forefront of the counterattack. He found that “on the approach of darkness, the virtual control of the country passes to the gangsters.” In 1938 he persuaded British and Zionist leaders to let him organize Special Night Squads to take back the night. They would be made up of British soldiers and Jewish “supernumeraries” who would venture stealthily out of fortified kibbutzim to “bodily assault” Palestinian gangs “with bayonet and bomb” and “thereby put an end to the terrorism.”

Eventually the Night Squads numbered 40 Britons and a 100 Jews who usually operated in squads of 10 men. Their practice was to march at night and attack at dawn. Wearing khaki shorts and rubber-soled boots, veterans recalled, they would spend long hours walking single file over “dry, very stony ground, which was generally hilly, often steeply so,” deliberately avoiding “the beaten path” and taking “a zig-zag or snakelike course.” “Complete silence is the rule in all cases,” Wingate instructed. “Members of Squads should try to cut down their smoking with subsequent coughing.” Their goal was to obtain “complete surprise,” and they often succeeded. Their unexpected appearance induced “panic” among the Palestinian rebels, whom Wingate dismissed as “feeble,” “ignorant, and primitive.”

In these raids Wingate displayed a flair for navigation in the dark, an “iron constitution,” and an utter disregard for danger. During one battle he was shot five times in a “friendly fire” accident but, although “white as a sheet” and “covered in blood,” he continued “giving orders in English and Hebrew quite calmly.”

He instructed the Night Squads to treat Arab civilians, “as opposed to the terrorist, with courtesy and respect,” but on one occasion he himself led a rampage through an Arab village to avenge the murder of a Jewish friend. Wingate later claimed that his squads killed at least 140 rebels and wounded 300 more, compiling a record unmatched by any British unit of similar size.

By the time Wingate left Palestine in 1939, he had earned the first of his three Distinguished Service Orders, Britain’s second-highest decoration, and the lasting gratitude of Palestinian Jews. Veterans of his Night Squads, including Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin, would become leading generals in Israel’s army, which they infused with his disregard of protocol, his insistence on fast-moving offensive operations led by officers from the front, and his emphasis on preempting terrorist attacks. “A dominating personality, he infected us all with his fanaticism and faith,” Dayan later wrote.

There’s much more.

(Hat tip to Weapons Man.)


  1. Tschafer says:

    It probably takes oddballs like that to win counterinsurgency wars. The fact the the U.S. military systematically weeds guys like this out of its ranks probably explains a lot about why we don’t do well in that type of conflict. Wingate sounds like a nut, but he won, whereas our higher ranks seem to be full of well-groomed, well-spoken, conformist losers.

  2. Guy says:

    “…raw onions, which he munched like apples because of their supposedly salubrious properties…”

    Words can be used as weapons. I bet with breath like his they could be used as Weapons of Mass Distraction to anyone he was talking to.

  3. Alrenous says:

    Wingate the wingnut won a war for wriches.

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