At war with towel-flickers

ORDE WINGATE: Irregular Soldier by Trevor Royle, Weidenfeld £20
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The Independent Culture
A "WINDGEAT" is the narrow gap between two hills through which the wind howls remorselessly, buffeting everything in its wake. It is a fitting origin for the name of Orde Wingate - a man who, as his biographer puts it, "was always found at the place where extremes met". He died in a plane crash in Burma at the age of 41, after a life of vigour, action and excitement.

As with many of the great Imperial weirdos, his talent stemmed from hard- line Christianity and martial discipline during childhood. An upbringing as a member of the Plymouth Brethren left him deeply imprinted with the words of the Old Testament, and with a conviction that he was destined to do remarkable things. It also produced strange fantasises, including a recurring dream in which the devil arrived disguised as a poached egg. Young Orde ate the egg, with fearful consequences. It may have been this vision that left him with a lifelong dietary obsession: unleavened bread with cod-liver oil, stale vase water and raw onions were part of his regular intake.

His time as a young army officer was ordinary enough (a dog called Lorraine, a horse called Tatters), but the seeds of his later achievements were already sprouting. While at the Royal Military Academy he refused to cooperate in the brutal initiation routines of the Empire's future defenders. Stalking naked through a group of towel-flicking fellow cadets, he managed by sheer force of personality to make his persecutors retreat. He was left with a lasting cynicism about military conventions, and determined to challenge established authority through willpower.

His first important achievement was in Palestine in the late 1930s. While most of his fellow British officers were staunchly pro-Arab, Wingate (partially on Biblical grounds) was an almost fanatical Zionist. Having persuaded key figures that "the Jews are loyal to the Empire", he set up and trained irregular units of Jewish volunteers. Whereas previous operations against Arab freedom fighters, or "terrorists" as Trevor Royle prefers to call them, had depended on truckloads of soldiers in hobnail boots, Wingate preferred plimsolls, bayonets and hooded torch signals. The results were radical; before long he was invited by Jewish leaders to raise a resistance movement in Europe.

Instead he went to Ethiopia, and in a textbook operation restored Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne, defeating a vastly superior Italian force. But his unorthodox methods and abrasive manner - he dismissed his signallers as "lazy, ill-trained and sometimes cowardly", his superiors as "military apes" - meant that his success gained little official recognition. As one observer wrote, he had become "so pro-Abyssinian as to be almost anti- British", although "obviously a guerrilla leader of genius".

Then came Burma, the moment that Royle sees as the culmination of Wingate's training and destiny. The Japanese had captured Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma in early 1942, leaving the British badly demoralised. He advocated long-range penetration into the jungle, with highly mobile forces operating behind enemy lines. This notion was taken up by Winston Churchill, always one for a maverick strategist. With immense daring, aeroplanes and gliders brought troops into Japanese-held territory, and "floating columns" of Chindits dispersed into the heart of Burma. A few days later Wingate wrote, "Let us thank God for the great success he has vouchsafed us, and press forward with our sword in the enemy's ribs." Within days he was killed, leaving historians to argue over the effectiveness of his tactics. But the question had become irrelevant, for, as Mountbatten said in early 1945: "We are all Chindits now."

This is a sturdy, interesting, fair and readable book. Its principal fault lies in the military jargon. Phrases such as "G(R) staff officers" or "the Operations Directorate of SOE (SO2)" mean little to most of us. There is also no serious attempt to analyse the reaction to Wingate's activities in the countries where he operated, especially Palestine, where he is perceived as the father of the violent tactics of Jewish groups such as the Haganah.

For all his faults - the wild temper, the wilful, ascetic obstinacy, the outbursts of random violence - there is something inescapably uplifting about the tale of Wingate's short life. It is hard not to feel a residual admiration for somebody who could read Pride and Prejudice in a cold bath, offend eminent army officers by spouting Marxist doctrine, attempt suicide by plunging a hunting knife into his neck in a Cairo Hotel, and conduct interviews while lying naked, combing his pubic hair vigorously with an oversized toothbrush.