Orde Wingate: Friend Under Fire

By Michael B. Oren

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

In the Sudan in 1933 Wingate became fascinated, as were many explorers at the time, by the prospects of finding the mythic oasis of Zerzura. Planning an expedition to locate it, he corresponded with Count Laudislaus Almasy, the renowned Hungarian archaeologist who would later serve as the model for The English Patient. Though Wingate never found Zerzura, he conducted pioneering cartographic research that was hailed by the Royal Geographic Society. En route to present his findings in London, he met a beautiful, independent-minded and outspoken young woman, Lorna Patterson, whom he married soon afterward.

In September 1936, Wingate was assigned to an intelligence post with the British Mandatory forces in Palestine, and given the rank of captain. Previously, he had had no close relations with Jews and no direct knowledge of Zionism. This would change radically, as would the course of his life, over the following weeks. Though his linguistic training and military experience predisposed him to accept the pro-Arab views of most British officials, Wingate began to read intensively about the history of Palestine and the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community) and emerged a committed Zionist. He visited Jewish settlements around the country, taught himself Hebrew, and earned the trust and friendship of Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Sharett. Critiquing British policy in Palestine in a letter to his cousin Reginald, Wingate wrote:

The Jews are loyal to the empire. The Jews are men of their word—they have always been so—in fact it is the gentile’s main complaint against them. There are fifteen million Jews in the world. Palestine will take over a million within seven years. You can have no idea of what they have already done here. You would be amazed to see the desert blossom like a rose; intensive horticulture everywhere—such energy, faith, ability and inventiveness as the world has not seen. I have seen the young Jews in the kvutzot [kibbutzim]. I tell you that the Jews will provide soldiery better than ours. We have only to train it. They will equip it.14


ingate urged
Britain to “advance the foundation of an autonomous Jewish community with all the means in its power,” adding portentously: “For pity’s sake, let us do something just and honorable before it [world war] comes. Let us redeem our promises to Jewry and shame the devil of Nazism, Fascism and our own prejudices.”15

Wingate was eager to dedicate his talents to this cause, and he did not have far to look. The grand mufti of Jerusalem had recently launched a coordinated military and economic rebellion aimed at ousting the British from Palestine and bringing the Zionist enterprise to an end. This insurrection was then at its apogee, with Jewish settlements cut off and thrown on the defensive. Wingate proposed to create units of swift-moving, hard-hitting commandos who would take the initiative and strike Arab guerrillas in the villages that hosted them. The notion of arming Jews against the Arabs appalled the British authorities, but Wingate outflanked them, taking his plan to the commander of Britain’s Middle East forces, Gen. Archibald Wavell, who would remain his mentor throughout the campaigns of Palestine, Ethiopia and Burma.

With Wavell’s approval, Wingate set up the Special Night Squads, a mixed force of British officers and Jewish supernumeraries. Headquartered at Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, close to the spring where the biblical Gideon—Wingate’s hero—had his camp, the SNS succeeded in all but ending Arab attacks in the north. An entire generation of future IDF commanders would learn their tactics from Wingate, adopt his disregard for rank and protocol, and accept his demand that officers set an example by leading their men into battle—the origin of the legendary IDF battle cry aharai (“after me”). “You are the first soldiers of the Jewish army,” he would remind his men before embarking on a mission, and he would declaim to them passages from the Bible describing the country they would pass through and prophesying their victory.16 For them, Wingate was never Orde, or even “commander,” but simply hayedidthe friend.

Wingate’s comrades and subordinates, Christians and Jews alike, would remember him as a man of unlimited stamina, with an uncanny sense of direction and a total absence of fear. “A most extraordinary man,” said Lt. Rex King-Clark. Capt. John Hackett painted him as a “puritanical, fire-eating, dedicated, Round Head type Cromwellian soldier with a Bible in one hand and an alarm clock in the other.” “We were amazed,” recalled SNS veteran Tzvi Brenner, describing his first patrol with Wingate. “Only he was capable of leading us in such territory and with such confidence.”17 In a skirmish at Dabburiya in July 1938, Wingate was struck by a number of bullets early on and was bleeding profusely, but continued to give orders until his men had won the battle—an act of heroism for which the British army awarded him one of its highest honors, the Distinguished Service Order.

But there was also a less heroic side to Wingate: An irascible, moody, mercurial side. He was known to strike soldiers who disappointed him, and to employ collective punishment against Arab villagers suspected of aiding guerrillas. Bierman and Smith describe how, after learning of the murder of his close friend, Ein Harod leader Haim Sturmann (“A great Jew,” Wingate eulogized him, “a friend of the Arabs, who was killed by the Arabs”18), the commander of the SNS led his men in a rampage in the Arab section of Beit Shean, the rebels’ suspected base. During the raid, Wingate’s forces damaged property and wounded several people—a number of them mortally, according to some accounts.19

or the British army, though, it was not Wingate’s excesses that proved insufferable but his advocacy of, and success with, the Jews. Thus, when Wingate requested home leave to
London a few weeks after he was wounded at Dabburiya (and in the wake of narrowly escaping assassination at the hands of Arab assailants), his superiors were only too happy to comply. It was October 1938, the time of the Munich Conference and Britain’s sellout of Czechoslovakia, and of the beginning of Britain’s final retreat from the promises of the Balfour Declaration. Wingate took advantage of his time in London to lobby tirelessly for the Zionist cause. He urged the Zionist leadership to present Britain with an ultimatum—either honor its pledges or forfeit the Jews’ loyalty—and argued the Zionist case in the press and before Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald. Returning to Palestine in December, he found himself barred from further contact with the SNS, which was disbanded soon thereafter, and transferred back to Britain.

In May 1939, the notorious White Paper was issued, imposing crippling restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine. Wingate, however, remained undeterred. With the outbreak of World War II, he campaigned for the immediate creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and a Jewish army, which he saw as “a necessity of the moral strategy of this war… for human justice and freedom.”20 He nearly fell out with the Zionist leadership, which he found insufficiently aggressive in pressing these demands. Further friction was averted when Wavell ordered Wingate to Ethiopia, there to apply his guerrilla tactics to defeating the Italian fascists.

Wingate’s efforts in Ethiopia were crowned with success. With a meager assemblage of British officers and mountain tribesmen—Gideon Force, he called it—Wingate, now a lieutenant colonel, succeeded in tricking an enemy column fourteen thousand strong into surrendering, and then rode a white horse into newly liberated Addis Ababa.

Willing though he was to die for it, Ethiopia was for Wingate merely a means of returning to Palestine with a higher rank and greater influence in the army. Throughout the campaign, he insisted on keeping an SNS veteran, Avraham Akavia, as his aide-de-camp, and on using doctors from Jewish Palestine to treat his wounded. On Passover, Wingate held a field seder for his Jewish troops, delivering what Akavia called “a moving Zionist speech.”21

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