Orde Wingate: Friend Under Fire

By Michael B. Oren

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

As in Palestine, Wingate alienated his superiors in Ethiopia with his arrogance, his disdain for hierarchy and his support for the country’s independence from all empires, whether Italian or British. “To give the black races of Africa a chance to realize a free civilization,” he wrote at the height of the battles there, “is a worthy cause for which to die and more worthy than a mere defense of one’s own midden.”22 And while Wingate was again commended for bravery for his efforts in Ethiopia, the army leadership never forgave him for his insolence and his support for native independence. Posted to Cairo to await reassignment, Wingate languished there for months while the battle for North Africa raged. Idle, depressed and suffering from severe malaria, he took a knife to his own throat one night in July 1941. He survived the attempt, and during his long and painful convalescence, shunned by fellow officers, he received a long line of visitors from Palestine, including David Ben-Gurion.

Wingate’s saga might have ended there had Wavell not again intervened. Now commander of the Far East Theater, the general accepted Wingate’s plan for a “long-range penetration unit” to work behind enemy lines in Burma. The Japanese, whom the British believed to be invincible in the jungle, were at the time poised to invade India. Wingate’s raiders—“Chindits,” he later called them, after the mythic Burmese lion—were something of a last hope. Though the army continued to resist his efforts, Wingate managed to construct his force and, in January 1943, march it across the Chinese Himalayas into Burma.

The fighting was brutal. A third of Wingate’s men were lost, and most of the remainder rendered unfit for service. Yet the Chindits succeeded in thwarting Japan’s invasion plans, and in shattering the myth of Japanese supremacy. Wingate returned to find himself a celebrity and a favorite of Prime Minister Churchill, who took him and Lorna to meet President Roosevelt at the Allied summit in Quebec. There, before the leaders of the free world, he presented his plan for using light, mobile forces to defeat the Japanese in Burma, and it was accepted. After years of vilification by his superiors in the army, Wingate was at last vindicated. But for him, the impact of his success was to be measured not in Burma but in Palestine. His dream remained to return to “Eretz Israel,” as he referred to it, and to farm the soil until called upon to lead the Jewish army to victory and independence. In one of his last letters to Lorna, who was no less ardent a Zionist, Wingate wrote a transliteration of the Hebrew verse “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its strength,” adding his prayer that “our lot takes us there together, to the place and the work we love.”23

By early 1944, Wingate, now a major general, commanded a Chindit force four times as large as the first. He led his men back into Burma, but on March 24, while flying to a forward position, the Mitchell bomber carrying him crashed in the jungle. No identifiable remains of Wingate were ever found, save for his trademark pith helmet. Charges of foul play were later raised and never conclusively settled. Since five out of the nine men aboard the Mitchell bomber were Americans, their common remains-several pounds of bones-were interred at ArlingtonNationalCemetery, far from the places in which Wingate was revered as a hero.

Orde Wingate, who had just turned forty-one when he was killed, never saw his son Jonathan who was born two months later, nor did he see the birth of the Jewish state he so longed for. That state would memorialize him, though, in the Wingate sports village near Netanya and the Yemin Orde immigrants’ school near Haifa, and in the names of dozens of streets and squares throughout the country.


The Wingate of Fire in the Night is an astounding, quirky and poignantly human figure, who stands in utter contrast to the cold and one-dimensional killer depicted by Tom Segev in Days of the Anemones. It is tempting to explain the difference on the grounds that Segev had access to material from Hebrew-speaking soldiers and politicians who presumably observed Wingate’s defects up close. Yet the Hebrew sources are overwhelmingly flattering to Wingate. The answer lies, rather, in the perspective that Segev brought to his writing, and in the way he used these sources.

For example, one of Segev’s principal aims is to demonstrate that opposition to Wingate came not only from British higher-ups, but also from the Jewish leadership in Palestine. To this end, he quotes a senior yishuv leader, Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), telling the Jewish Agency Executive that Wingate’s SNS efforts had encountered “serious obstacles from some of our best people,” who claimed that operations of this sort “are not appropriate for us.” Segev then paraphrases Shertok, writing: “They feared that it would spoil forever any chance of coexistence with the Arabs.”24 But what Shertok really said was:

They [the operations] will invariably spoil relations with the neighboring Arab villages. These operations, they believe, can only be carried out by an army, and not by our settlements. The reason is that in many cases these operations do not receive the necessary support, not in their initial pioneering phases and not even later, when the operations are approved by the authorities.25

In other words, the reason “some of our best people” opposed the SNS was not, as Segev claims, because they threatened Arab-Jewish harmony, but because the British were unwilling to back up the operations with sufficient firepower, leaving the settlements exposed. The problem was not that the SNS were too strong, but that they were not strong enough. Segev also chooses to omit Shertok’s call, made in the same speech, for “expanding the range of operation and enhancing the offensive element in our defense power,” as well as his depiction of Wingate as “that officer so committed to us in heart and soul.”26

Similarly, Segev claims that Wingate’s Jewish soldiers in the SNS accused him of being insane: “Behind his back, they said he was crazy,” Segev writes.27 A footnote to that assertion leads the reader to the testimony in the Central Zionist Archives of Haim Levkov, a member of the SNS who reported that another SNS fighter, Israel Carmi, had on one occasion referred to Wingate as “crazy” after an argument.28 As it turns out, “They” did not call Wingate crazy behind his back. Only a single man did so, once, and that man, Israel Carmi, later became one of Wingate’s most devoted followers, even writing a book filled with praise for his former commander.

Indeed, an inspection of the sources on which Segev draws to show that Wingate’s men disapproved of their commander reveals repeated expressions of admiration for Wingate from those who served under him. Thus, Segev quotes from Zion Cohen’s From Teheran and Back to buttress his allegations about Wingate’s cruelty,29 but he sidesteps Cohen’s praise of Wingate as “a great and loyal friend of the Jewish people and of the Jewish yishuv… [who] laid the foundations of the Israel Defence Forces…."30 Nor is Segev interested in Haim Levkov’s testimony when he speaks in admiration of Wingate: “Everything about his demeanor—his ability to advance without scouts, without fear—instilled in me a sense of confidence, that we were marching with a man who knew what lay ahead.”31 Segev cites the testimony of another SNS member, identified only as “Efraim,” to show that Wingate occasionally concocted harebrained battle plans that he never carried out,32 yet ignored Efraim’s observations about Wingate when they were positive, including the following:

It is difficult to gauge the impact of his [i.e., Wingate’s] deeds and operations for the sake of our security, for the benefits he brought to our enterprise were great in such a short life. There is no real expression that can convey our feelings and respect for the man and his actions. All we can say, in our humble way, is that his example and his faith will stand before us forever, and that by their light we will continue to build and defend this land.33

Segev likewise goes to extreme lengths to prove that Wingate was ruthless and cruel. One passage has Wingate storming into the Arab village of Danna, ordering the adult males to strip, and then whipping them. “It was a horrifying sight,” recalls an SNS veteran in a testimony cited by Segev and filed in the Central Zionist Archives.34 Yet a look at the file reveals that the SNS veteran never attributes these actions to Wingate, but rather to an unnamed “British officer.” He describes the cold and rainy conditions in Danna that day, which would hardly accord with the two operations Wingate did conduct in the village, both in the summer. Finally, the testimony places the whipping incident at a time after October 1938, when Wingate was no longer in command of the SNS.35

This is not to say that Wingate was incapable of committing excesses. The Arab Revolt was a particularly brutal conflict in which it was rarely possible to distinguish combatants from civilians, and atrocities were commonplace on both sides. Indeed, one of the rampages Segev attributes to Wingate occurred immediately after the slaughter of nineteen Jews in Tiberias, eleven of whom were children burned to death in their beds. Moreover, as depicted in Fire in the Night, Wingate himself was continually tormented by the moral implications of his military actions, and sought to prevent innocent people from being harmed whenever possible. “Wingate had always stressed that the squads must not mistreat Arab prisoners or civilians,” Bierman and Smith write, even if he “did not always practice what he preached.”36 The authors quote Tzvi Brenner, who worked closely under Wingate in the SNS, as observing:

The problem of punishment and… the morality of battle was something which concerned Wingate greatly. On the one hand, he demanded that the innocent not be harmed. On the other hand, he knew that he faced a dilemma: Can one observe this rule in battle against gangs which receive assistance from the residents of the villages?37

This, of course, has been a central moral question facing military officers around the world, including in Israel, from Wingate’s time until today: How is one to fight an enemy bent on blurring the lines between the military and civilian, and using that ambiguity to its advantage? To dismiss all operations on what appear to be “civilian” targets as morally indefensible, as Segev appears to do, is as unfair as it is simplistic in the context of a vicious guerrilla war such as the one in which Wingate was engaged.


Yet even if one grants that Wingate’s behavior occasionally crossed the line of what was morally appropriate, there is still something misguided about placing these errors, as Segev and others do, at the heart of an overall assessment of the man’s life and work. A clear example is a letter to the editor written by Tel Aviv University historian and geographer Dan Yahav, in reaction to a balanced and judicious review of Fire in the Night in February of this year by Benny Landau of Ha’aretz.38 Yahav accused Landau of underemphasizing Wingate’s negative features, and denounced Wingate as a man who “viewed reality through the sight of a gun,” who “dealt in collective punishments, in harming innocent people, in looting, in arbitrary killing… and in unrestrained degradation.”39

Such critics of Wingate ignore the fact that the British commander devoted himself to bringing independence to the Jews at a time when the use of force was an indispensable part of achieving this goal—and when virtually no one else was willing or able to give Palestinian Jewry the assistance they needed to achieve it. It is not as if there were dozens of brilliant British military men who, after the rise of Hitler, extended a hand to the Jews to help them. In fact, there was only one.

Viewed in this context, it is clear that Wingate’s contribution to the cause of the Jewish state was decisive and enduring. Indeed, in spite of the criticism now being leveled against him, supporters of Zionism the world over continue to view Wingate much as he is portrayed in Fire in the Night: A complex figure, but one deserving of respect and gratitude.

That esteem was evident during my visit to the Arlington National Cemetery. Locating a particular grave among the endless and indistinguishable rows can prove daunting, but I was able to find Wingate’s easily. His tomb, alone, was adorned with a number of the small stones that Jews traditionally leave after visiting a gravesite. And under one of those stones, I found a handwritten note. Crumpled, washed out by rain, only a single word of it was still legible. Layedid, it said in Hebrew. To the Friend.

Michael B. Oren is ’s Ambassador to the . He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.




1.­ John Bierman and Colin Smith, Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion (New York: Random House, 1999).

2.­ Charles Rolo, Wingate’s Raiders (London: Harrap, 1944); Bernard Fergusson, Beyond the Chindwin (London: Collins, 1945); Bernard Fergusson, The Wild Green Earth (London: Collins, 1946); Wilfred G. Burchett, Wingate’s Phantom Army (Bombay: Thacker, 1944); Leonard Mosley, Gideon Goes to War (London: Barker, 1955).

3.­ I.S.O. Playfair, ed., The Mediterranean and the Middle East (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1954), vol. i; S. Woodburn Kirby, ed., The War Against Japan (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1957).

4.­ Peter Mead, Orde Wingate and the Historians (Braunton: Merlin, 1987); David Rooney, Wingate and the Chindits: Redressing the Balance (London: Arms and Armour, 1994); Christopher Sykes, Orde Wingate (London: Collins, 1959); Trevor Royle, Orde Wingate: Irregular Soldier (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

5.­ Israel Carmi, In the Path of Fighters (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1960) [Hebrew]; Avraham Akavia, Orde Wingate: His Life and Works (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1993). [Hebrew]

6.­ Tom Segev, “When the High Commissioner Had a Toothache,” Ha’aretz, March 13, 1999.

7.­ Tom Segev, Days of the Anemones: Palestine During the Mandatory Period (Jerusalem: Keter, 1999), pp. 348-349, 387. [Hebrew]

8.­ Gideon Levy, “When Will They Teach It in School?” Ha’aretz, June 27, 1999.

9.­ Yehiam Padan, “The Rabbi, the Grandson and the Angel,” Ha’aretz, August 18, 1999.

10.­ A World of Changes (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and Ma’alot Publishers, 1999). [Hebrew]

11.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, pp. 379, 388, 76.

12.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 11.

13.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 41.

14.­ Royle, Irregular Soldier, p. 105.

15.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 66.

16.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 113.

17.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, pp. 102, 109, 93.

18.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 115.

19.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, pp. 115-116.

20.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 138.

21.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 208.

22.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 190.

23.­ Akavia, Wingate, p. 240.

24.­ Segev, Days of the Anemones, p. 350.  

25.­ Moshe Sharett, Political Diary: 1938 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1972), vol. iii, p. 202. [Hebrew]

26.­ Sharett, Political Diary, p. 202.

27.­ Segev, Days of the Anemones, p. 348.

28.­ Central Zionist Archives (hereafter “CZA”), S25/10685, Haim Levkov’s testimony, p. 2.

29.­ Segev, Days of the Anemones, p. 349.

30.­ Zion Cohen, From Teheran and Back (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1995), p. 56. [Hebrew]

31.­ CZA, S25/10685, Haim Levkov’s testimony, p. 2.

32.­ Segev, Days of the Anemones, p. 349.

33.­ CZA, S25/10685, Efraim’s testimony, p. 4.

34.­ Segev, Days of the Anemones, p. 349.

35.­ CZA, S25/10685, Jonathan’s testimony, p. 3.

36.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 115.

37.­ Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, p. 115.

38.­ Benny Landau, “Regards from a Friend,” Ha’aretz, February 25, 2000.

39.­ Ha’aretz, March 10, 2000.

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