Orde Wingate (1903-44), the most eccentric and innovative commander in World War II, was remarkably like his distant cousin Lawrence of Arabia. Both came from a guilt-ridden fundamentalist (Scots Presbyterian and Plymouth Brethren) background and grew up in an atmosphere of religious gloom and repression. Both were short and slight (5’6″ and only 130 pounds), and had fair skin, blond hair, and piercing blue eyes. They compensated for their unimpressive physique by testing themselves and toughening their bodies through extreme physical hardship—but also luxuriated in hot baths. Lawrence was an expert rider of camels, Wingate of horses.

Deliberately unkempt, both flouted military regulations and were hostile to mindless custom and blimpish authority. Brilliantly learned, they paraded their knowledge (especially about the history of warfare) and had unorthodox opinions on everything. Combining outrageous egoism with a sly sense of humor, they had an obsessive need to provoke and irritate, to indulge in exhibitionism and showmanship. Lawrence dressed in Arab robes; Wingate wore an antiquated pith helmet, carried an alarm clock with a bell instead of a wristwatch, conducted meetings and wandered around hotels while naked. A comrade commented on Wingate’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality: “One is charming, kind, almost deprecating. The other is nothing short of tyrannical, overweening and despotic. His energy and forcefulness are quite incomparable.”

Orde was related to Sir Reginald Wingate—High Commissioner in Cairo in the Great War, who had provided the gold that paid for Lawrence’s Arabian campaign—and frequently used Sir Reginald to advance his career. Lawrence and Orde had done intelligence work in the Middle East; both knew Arabic, and Wingate also spoke Hebrew. They used guerrilla tactics and, always leading from the front, attacked railways, blew up bridges, and diverted enemy troops from the main campaign. Incredibly brave but not very likable, they had manic, even messianic self-confidence. They sometimes went berserk and justified their ruthless slaughter by the “morality of punishment.” Wingate, defying regulations, often struck his officers across the face. Oddly enough, no one ever hit him back.

Both men were hero-worshiped by Winston Churchill and, when relatively junior officers, used their friendship with him to influence high-level decisions and change British policy in the Middle East. Churchill, acting on impulse, even took Wingate and his wife to the wartime Quebec conference; Wingate’s posthumously born son was conceived on the voyage to Canada. As passionately pro-Zionist as Lawrence was pro-Arab, Wingate saw himself as an Old Testament warrior, like Gideon or Joshua, and formed a close friendship with Chaim Weizmann (as Lawrence had done with Prince Feisal). Wingate wanted to harness the forces of Zion to the British cause and built the core of the Israeli army by leading Jewish night patrols against Arab rebels in Palestine. More loyal to the Jews than to the British, he has always been greatly honored in Israel.

Both men took suicidal risks, died in accidental crashes in their 40’s, and created heroic legends that Hollywood wanted to film. Like Lawrence, Wingate was (in the words of a colleague) “a military genius of a grandeur and stature seen not more than once or twice in a century.” But, unlike the more diplomatic Lawrence, Wingate was hated by the military establishment for “his rebellious scorn, his arrogance, his paranoid touchiness, his reckless rudeness, his flouting of convention, his personal scruffiness, his leftish ideas and (dare one suggest it?) his strange obsession with Zionism and the Jews.”

Orde Wingate was born in India in 1903, the son of a suspicious and pessimistic army officer. He spent four years at Charterhouse School and three at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and joined the Royal Artillery in 1923. After an intensive course in Arabic and service in the Sudan, he was posted to British-controlled Palestine, where his daring patrols (providing rigorous training for future generals like Moshe Dayan) marched all night to fight at dawn. In a classic “friendly fire” incident, he was wounded five times in the arms and legs by rounds from a Lewis gun that ricocheted off the flinty ground. After two years of fighting with the Night Squads, being wounded in battle, and narrowly escaping an attempt on his life, he was awarded a DSO. But he was considered politically unreliable and sent off to Ethiopia in the fall of 1940.

Wingate’s next sacred mission, which he espoused as passionately as the Zionist cause, was to lead a popular rising against the Italian occupation of the country and restore Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne. Wingate’s plan was to cut off and besiege the Italian garrisons in the Gojjam highlands and force them to surrender. Though outnumbered 20 to one, he defeated the Italians in his first pitched battle. He eventually drove them out of the country, achieving Britain’s first major victory in the war, and in May 1941 triumphantly led the emperor into Addis Ababa. Instead of reaping the rewards, Wingate was again hustled out of the country (he didn’t even attend the victory banquet) by superiors who feared he would meddle in local polities and use his influence in high places to oppose official policy. Overcome in Cairo by cerebral malaria, which intensified his depression, he stabbed himself on both sides of his neck but miraculously missed cutting the vital veins and arteries.

Wingate’s expertise in guerrilla warfare propelled him to Burma just after the fall of Rangoon and the British retreat to India in March 1942. Supported by Churchill, he became head of all operations behind Japanese lines. Inspired by cavalry raids during the American Civil War, Wingate had his troops suddenly attack the enemy. If his force was surprised, he said, they “could disintegrate into smaller prearranged parties to baffle pursuit, and meet again at a rendezvous fifteen to twenty miles further on its route. Supply should be by air, communication by wireless: these two weapons had not yet been properly exploited.”

In February 1943, Wingate took 3,000 men and 1,000 animals across the Chindwin River (inside Burma and flowing parallel to the Indian border) with the aid of ropes, inflatable dinghies, and makeshift rafts, without being detected. His principal target was the Japanese railroad that ran from Mandalay up to the Chinese border. After crossing the Irrawaddy (east of the Chindwin) and wreaking destruction along the way, he evacuated some of the wounded by air and struggled back through the jungle to India. Of the original force, only 2,182 survived. But the first Allied victory in Asia proved that British soldiers could defeat the Japanese on their own terrain, and Wingate was hailed as a hero in Burma and in England.

Promoted to major general, Wingate immediately began to plan the second Chindit expedition; in just five months, he managed to “raise, organize, equip, and train six long-range penetration brigades and get them into action before the onset of the 1944 monsoon.” He brought in his men by gliders, suffering many accidents, and successfully attacked trains, ammunition dumps, river barges, highway traffic, and telegraph lines. In March 1944, ignoring his American pilot who warned that the plane’s engine might fail, he crashed in the jungle. Deprived of his inspired leadership, his Special Force was disbanded early in 1945. In 1956, his old commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Sir William Slim, denigrated his achievements and damaged his reputation.

John Bierman and Colin Smith, two veteran British journalists, have produced a thoroughly researched, well-written, and dramatic narrative that moves along at a cracking pace (though they devote only one page to Wingate’s four formative years at Charterhouse). Having examined all the evidence, they are properly skeptical of myths, rumors, and scandal. Bierman and Smith provide a useful epilogue on Wingate’s reputation as well as on the fate of his family and friends, and offer a convincing analysis of his complex, quicksilver character.

Wilfred Thesiger—who fought under Wingate in Ethiopia, thought he deserved a knighthood for that campaign, and later became Lawrence’s leading literary disciple—concluded (in a passage not quoted by the authors) that “Wingate was ruthlessly ambitious, yet his aims transcended personal ambition. He was an idealist and a fanatic. He needed a cause with which he could identify himself, but his intolerance and arrogance required him to be in command. He should have lived in the time of the Crusades.” Wingate’s astonishing career shows that great intelligence, personal courage, and victory in battle were not enough to secure his legendary reputation. The military hierarchy he offended was determined to defeat him after death.


[Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion, by John Bierman and Colin Smith (New York: Random House) 434 pp., $29.95]