I read with deep interest Tosca Fyvel’s memoir of Orde Wingate in COMMENTARY [February 1951], in which he mentions Wingate’s role in devising what later became famous as “commando tactics.” As it happens, I am able to supplement Fyvel’s account with some hitherto unpublished information about the circumstances surrounding Wingate’s daring military innovations.
Orde Wingate was my neighbor in Jerusalem in 1937 and 1938, when he and his strikingly beautiful wife Lorna came to live in the Christian Arab quarter of Talbiah. I had several long talks with him about his views on the Jewish future and, in particular, about the new tactical methods he had introduced in his fight with the Arab rebel bands then infesting Palestine. As I myself was high up on the list of senior British Colonial civil servants to be assassinated, I was naturally interested in his success.
Wingate was a compelling figure to look at, with a determined jaw and a blazing eye. Anything he undertook he did with a fanatical intensity. Not only was he one of the very few British civil or military officers in Palestine who ever learned Hebrew; he pitched into that difficult language with almost frightening vigor. In addition to taking frequent lessons from one of the ablest Hebrew teachers in Jerusalem, he memorized long lists of new words daily, writing them on slips of paper which he propped up under the mirror as he shaved. He often recited some of the Psalms in Hebrew, so often that his wife knew many of them by heart without having the slightest idea what any of the words meant.
Lorna Wingate was much younger than Orde, and the only child of a proud Scottish family. She had married, I believe, at seventeen and was still under twenty when she came to Jerusalem. She was one of the most imperious young women I have ever met, and it is hardly surprising that, what with Orde’s sympathetic and heterodox opinions about the Jews, the couple should have rapidly become about the most unpopular pair in the narrow British society of Jerusalem.
Fyvel correctly stresses the influence on Wingate’s beliefs of his father’s Puritanical connections. I personally consider that Wingate’s passionate championship of the Jews was also due in large measure to the fact that his father was a convinced British Israelite. The British Israelites believe—on the strangest medley of evidences—that the British people are themselves the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. True, when Wingate one day disclosed this belief of his father’s and I ventured to suggest that it might have predisposed his own views in favor of the Jews, he denied it vehemently and flew into one of his passions.
Wingate was a very passionate man. He seemed to suffer from considerable repression, and he boiled over on the slightest provocation. Once when he was at the Weizmanns’ house in Rehovot (when Weizmann was working at the Sieff Institute and long before he became president of Israel), Wingate was upset by some casual remark of my wife’s. He flung his cocktail glass on the marble floor at her feet, jumped into his car and drove up posthaste to Jerusalem to explain to me what had happened. I gently suggested that he should explain to my wife, which he subsequently did.
Wingate had in general a gloomy disposition. Many years later, after having led, with spectacular success, a force of Abyssinian irregulars in the British campaign to wrest Abyssinia from the Italians, he came back to Cairo. He was full of malaria and deeply hurt by the lack of official recognition of his remarkable exploits. He called for some fruit to be brought to his hotel bedroom and attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with his fruit knife, forgetting apparently that he was wearing a loaded pistol. Luckily his attempt was frustrated, and the black mood passed.
This passion and this gloom were, however, merely the counterparts of his intense enthusiasms. One of these enthusiasms was his deep and genuine championship of the Jews: and God knows they needed champions at that time, with Hitler on the rampage in Europe and the Arabs on the rampage in Palestine. Wingate’s solution of the Jewish problem was simple—mass Jewish immigration into Palestine and later into Trans-Jordan. He was wholly Revisionist in this ideology, much to my astonishment and even alarm. With his undoubted military genius, he would unfailingly have taken command of the Jewish forces at the beginning of Israel’s war of liberation in the spring of 1948. His death in an airplane crash in Burma four years earlier materially affected the course of Jewish history, for had he lived I doubt if the armistice lines would be those now in existence.
Fyvel says that Wingate was sent away from Palestine in 1938 “owing to the enmity of the Palestine British officials whose pro-Arab code he had so successfully transgressed.” This is not quite correct. Wingate was sent away from Palestine by the British commander-in-chief, one of his warmest supporters, because he was insubordinate. When he was told that his “night squads” were to be disbanded, their goal having been achieved, he protested vehemently that this step would not at all commend itself to the Jewish Agency. He was reminded that he was an officer in His Majesty’s forces and that it was clear that he had ceased to take an objective view of his duties. He was consequently shifted to the post of brigade major in an anti-aircraft artillery regiment in southern England. There he ate his heart out for many months, long after the outbreak of World War II. Ultimately he was rescued by Victor Cazalet, MP, who got him put into active circulation again in Abyssinia.
This brings us to Wingate’s contribution to the art of waging war, originally developed by him in Palestine with ruthless clarity.
This was in 1937, when the Arab rebellion was at its height, and some 100,000 British troops—the flower of Britain’s peacetime army—were unable to suppress the rebels. Large areas, especially the hill country of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, had now fallen under effective rebel control. No government tax collector could venture out from the cities. All outlying police stations had been evacuated. Police informers when caught by the rebels were sentenced to death by rebel courts and executed. No British or Jewish motor transport could use even the main roads unless in convoy and under armed escort. No patrols could go out in strength of less than a platoon of infantry and accompanied by armored cars. And even these were frequently ambushed by the rebels or blown up by land mines.
Most of the Arab villages supported the rebellion, joined by Arab irregulars recruited largely in Syria and brought into Palestine across the northern frontier. (Only later was a thick barbed-wire fence built along the northern and northeastern borders to impede this movement.) The Arab villagers in Palestine were supplied with arms from Lebanon and Syria, paid for by the Mufti of Jerusalem and his adherents, with assistance from the Axis powers.
This was the situation when Wingate came on the scene. A junior intelligence officer at army headquarters in Jerusalem, he was sent up to Haifa to investigate the smuggling of arms over the northern frontier, which neither the Palestine police nor the British army had been able to stop. Wingate quickly discovered the routes taken by the smugglers and their mule columns and at what hours of which nights they traveled. Although he had been instructed merely to submit a report, Wingate—then only a captain—grossly exceeded his instructions. Not only did he lay an armed ambush for the smugglers and capture a whole column of them, but he put his force together from young Haganah men from a nearby Jewish village. And he did all this without the consent or even the knowledge of the brigadier in charge of the area. There was subsequently a most unholy row. Wingate was recalled at once to headquarters in Jerusalem; but the originality of his methods was appreciated by the British commander-in-chief and he was authorized to recruit and command “night squads,” under the proviso that he would never again operate in the area of that irate brigadier.
Fyvel implies that the “night squads” were almost entirely a Jewish force “with a handful of British soldiers and NCO’s.” Actually, the force consisted of some two hundred Jews and a hundred British troops, with Wingate as their commander and a couple of other British officers to assist him. This was in the days when there was still much effective British-Jewish cooperation in Palestine, unlike the tragic situation a few years later at the end of the Mandate, when the Jews of Palestine were themselves in rebellion against a harsh and unfeeling British administration.
The night squads of 1937 and 1938 were based on the Jewish village of Ein Harod at the eastern end of the Valley of Esdráelon. Their aim was to discover, root out, and destroy the many Arab guerrillas then entrenched in the hills of Galilee. These guerrilla bands, largely recruited from Syria, consisted of groups of from fifty to two hundred armed men, each under a leader. They attacked Jewish villages, stole their cattle, and set fire to their trees and crops. They ambushed British patrols and Jewish motor convoys. They maintained themselves by forcible levies of food and money from the Arab villages in the areas where they operated. When they were not on the move, they holed up in some inaccessible Arab hill village or even in caves in the wild mountain ranges.
The Palestine police and the British army found it almost impossible to catch these bands. It was not so much from apathy, as Fyvel implies, as from the use of hopelessly inadequate methods. If an agent of the British brought news to the nearest police post of the presence of a band near a certain Arab village, as likely as not some Arab policeman—or even the agent himself—would warn that village that it would shortly be raided. By the time that the troops and police had arrived, days later, to search the village, the band would have quietly moved elsewhere.
Even when there was no leakage of information, the British usually moved too slowly to catch up with the Arab bands, who were protected from surprise by a screen of peasant watchers on the hilltops by day and by night. As soon as a convoy of military trucks carrying a search party left its barracks—which was usually by night—and its headlights made clear which road it was taking, the signal would be flashed by hand flashlights from hilltop to hilltop until every village on the route was alerted. The villagers then had ample time to bury their rifles in their olive groves, and to carry away their convalescent wounded—who might arouse the suspicion of the British and be held for questioning. If there were guerrillas in the villages they would automatically become simple peasants, wearing anyhow the same clothes and talking the same language. It was a very clever British police officer who could tell the difference.
When a military convoy reached its destination, it would draw up with much grinding of brakes on the road below the village to be searched. Sergeants would shout to their men to de-bus. The clatter of their nailed boots on the hard road could be heard for half a mile on a still night. Every able-bodied Arab male in the village had ample time to take to his heels to avoid questioning. Then, when the troops had crawled up the hillside and had carefully surrounded the village, they would find it almost deserted.
Captain Wingate’s keen mind rapidly changed all this. Information leaked back to the village, did it? So Wingate built up his own intelligence service, with Arab agents reporting solely to him. If a village when raided was found deserted, the agent involved was dismissed. An absolute rule was enforced: no intelligence received through the police or the army was ever acted on; it must be exclusively Wingate’s intelligence.
Arab watchers on the hilltops flashed signals, did they, when they saw which road the convoy was taking? That was easy to circumvent. Wingate arranged for convoys with covered trucks to leave his camp every night in every direction. The Arab watchers never knew which convoy had troops in it and which did not. Nor could they hear convoys pulling up on the roadside at night. Wingate’s convoys never pulled up. They slowed down somewhat on a steep grade and the men, shod in sneakers, dropped off silently one by one and rallied around their sergeants in the ditches. Wingate could unload a hundred armed men anywhere in Galilee without a single Arab’s being the wiser.
This was not all. Wingate’s men were specially trained in map-reading. They could make their way across country by night, along the wild mountain valleys and over the deserted passes, by stars and by compass. Hence Wingate never dropped his men close to the village gates: they would be dropped miles away, at midnight. But—by dawn they would be quietly in position around the target village.
The night squads had no long supply columns to slow them up. The men carried no spare clothing and no rations; but each did carry an extra quantity of ammunition. Their rifles and grenades were carefully wrapped in sacking to prevent the slightest clank. Men with colds who might sneeze and ruin the operation were left in camp. Wingate was ruthless with his men and broke every rule of the British army. If a man coughed nervously while waiting for the dawn, Wingate slashed him across the face. But his men were devoted to him, for he was invariably successful.
Time after time he achieved complete tactical surprise. Two or three hundred well-trained, determined, and heavily armed Jewish and British troops would be lying in the dark on the outskirts of an Arab village, fifty miles away from Wingate’s base. Everyone in the village, save the unsuspecting Arab watchers on the adjacent hilltops, would be fast asleep. As the first light of dawn came over the plateau east of the Jordan, a grenade would explode in the village street. Every rebel would wake with a start, grab his rifle, and dash into the street, to be met by highly accurate cross fire from strategically placed Bren guns. If the rebels attempted to flee, they would run into an outer cordon and be captured.
Conducted in the half-light of dawn, this kind of operation was very difficult to control. Once Wingate himself was wounded in the forearm when he got in the way of one of his own Bren guns.
Wingate took much time and care in bringing his men to the highest pitch of physical efficiency. Between raids they lay up in Ein Harod and rested. Days passed and still he made no move: then he would make two raids in quick succession, and in widely separate parts of the country. The British army had once more gained the initiative. The Arabs never knew where and when Wingate would strike. No rebel could sleep soundly at night in any village or cave: he always had one ear cocked for the violent crack of the first grenade, the staccato clatter of the Bren gun. The ardor of the guerrillas, their paltry pay, were inadequate to counter the chronic fear. After many of their leaders were killed or captured the remainder gradually withdrew over the northern frontier. Area after area was cleared. The Jewish villages were less frequently attacked: Jewish convoys could travel on the roads with less risk of ambush or land mines. Thus did the Arab rebellion break down, and order became restored. The British forces, so great a bulk of which had been locked up in Palestine, were re-deployed in time for World War II. Palestine was saved and remained under British control for another ten years.
The night squads in Palestine had shown Wingate one thing: that ordinary men could be turned into “commandos.” When, as a result of Wingate’s experience, the British created their official commandos they took as recruits not supermen but ordinary infantrymen. Wingate was able to turn British country regiments into “Chindits” for use in air-supplied raiding columns behind the Japanese lines in Burma. It was as a result of this further experience that Wingate wrote his famous manual for raiding columns. In this manual, Wingate’s logical mind tried to cope with the problem of punishing deserters and sentries found asleep at their posts. Under existing British military law they could be tried only by a court martial of senior officers. This meant that the junior officer commanding his column in the field had to bring the would-be deserter or defaulting sentry all the way back to base as a prisoner with several valuable men guarding him whose services could be better used elsewhere. Wingate recommended that junior officers commanding raiding columns sent behind the enemy lines for long periods be given full court-martial powers, including the authority to execute their own men. But this was too much for the British command, and his suggestions were never adopted.
Wingate’s Chindits in Burma suffered heavy casualties, as readers of Bernard Fergusson’s Behind the Chindwin will remember. (Fergusson was himself one of Wingate’s column commanders in Burma and by a strange turn of fortune came to Palestine after World War II as a senior police officer.) There is also some doubt whether they really justified their existence. The campaign of which they were to form an integral part was called off at the last moment. Wingate pleaded that his operation be allowed to go forward on its own and this was reluctantly granted. Much valuable experience was gained: but the price paid in lives was high.
Whether the Chindit operation justified itself or not, there is no doubt about the success of Wingate’s night squads in Palestine. They provided an unorthodox solution to an unusual problem. They became the model for all raiding units formed in the British army in World War II.
When Wingate died most untimely in an air crash in Burma in 1944, a great general perished young. He had great qualities—originality of mind and a fanatical devotion to the task in hand. In this he resembled T. E. Lawrence, who also rose to fame in the Middle East, but east, not west, of the Jordan. Lawrence had a double advantage over Wingate: he survived the war and he was a great writer. But for all that, Wingate was his equal as a military genius.