A passion for conflict

Orde Wingate: Irregular Soldier

Trevor Royle

Weidenfeld £20

In the Twenties, gentlemen cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, had a nasty little way of disciplining a contemporary who was unpopular, unconventional or both.

Called "running", it was not an official punishment, but a sort of half- serious lynching, one of those sadistic rituals with which closed societies enforce conformity through humiliation. A baying mob of cadets would arrive outside the victim's room and announce the sentence. He would then be stripped naked, taken to the rugby pitch and made to run the gauntlet between two lines of cadets, who would lash him with knotted towels or swagger sticks. Finally he would be thrown into a water tank.

Orde Wingate's offence was that he was in the habit of cutting parade so as to make sure he had first choice of the best horse. When the lynch mob arrived, "Orde walked very slowly the whole way down the line, with a dangerous look in his eye". Few of the cadets could bring themselves to strike him, an eyewitness records, and most slunk away feeling ashamed of themselves.

Orde Wingate never lacked courage and never gave a damn about popularity. The British officer class produced regiments of disciplined boobies, as brave as lions and as dim as donkeys, for the peacetime round of parade ground and company office, hunting field and messnight. But it also always produced a saving minimum of wayward originals, men whose idea of soldiering was not to be safely conformist on Salisbury Plain but to be alone with a handful of devoted soldiers in the world's dangerous places.

They learned languages and wrote poetry, crossed deserts and climbed mountains, and ignored orders if they thought them stupid. Orde Wingate was one of the last, the greatest and the most wayward of these military individualists. When he was killed in an aircrash in Burma in 1944, aged only 40, Winston Churchill, one of the breed himself, said that Wingate was "a man of genius who might also have become a man of destiny".

His military genius as a leader of irregular troops is not in serious question now. He proved it in Palestine between 1936 and 1940, where he formed and led Jewish settlers in Special Night Squadrons to protect their settlements from Arab raiders. He became - to the amazement of anti- Semitic officers and Arabophile administrators - a convinced Zionist, inspired by the romantic passion for the Old Testament he had inherited from his father, an Indian army colonel of evangelical faith, and from his mother's family, who were Plymouth Brethren.

He proved it again in his astonishing campaign to put the ousted Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, back on the throne from which Mussolini had ejected him. He led a ragamuffin Gideon Force of 1,000 Ethiopian irregulars commanded by officers who included the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and such romantically named Sudan hands as Bimbashi Harris and Maxwell Bey. After a 1,000-mile campaign he and they outmanoeuvred an Italian army nearly ten times larger than his own and then conned them into surrendering.

Back in Cairo after this triumph, but cold-shouldered by the military bureaucracy, Wingate tried to cut his own throat with a Bowie knife. (It had been given to him by an American war correspondent called Hiram B Blauveldt.) He was suffering from cerebral malaria at the time, of which one of the symptoms is dementia. He was also undoubtedly in a passion of fury at the way the military bureaucracy passed him over after one of the great feats of arms of the war.

Finally, he demonstrated his gifts by the two campaigns of his Chindits against the Japanese in Burma. Wingate's idea was that radio and air supply would enable properly trained forces to penetrate deep behind the enemy's lines and survive, cutting his communications, forcing him to divert resources and sapping his morale. The first Chindit campaign, in 1943, was an epic. Marching hundreds of miles through the steep jungle of northern Burma, Wingate's irregulars achieved their objectives and succeeded in withdrawing, though with heavy casualties.Their second campaign had the enthusiastic backing of Winston Churchill, but only grudging support from the staff in Delhi and from Fourteenth Army commander, Sir William Slim, who was in two minds about Wingate.

Wingate was never in two minds about anything. He was one of the most single-minded men ever to argue with a superior commander for more troops or to lead men through pestiferous jungle with 60-pound packs on their backs. On his way home to meet the fiance who was waiting for him, he decided he was in love with a schoolgirl of 16 and by sheer force of personality persuaded her to marry him and her parents, wealthy and cautious Scots, to agree.

He was also more than a little mad. More conventional officers certainly thought he was crazy. But then they also disapproved of his insistence on making sure his troops ate lots of salads and fresh vegetables, and they simply couldn't understand his belief in the fighting qualities of Jewish soldiers. One of Wingate's most attractive qualities was his belief that men of every background, not just the "fighting races", could be turned into good soldiers if the motivation and the leadership existed to a sufficient degree.

Like many charismatic leaders, Wingate cultivated eccentricity. His uniform was always scruffy, and he went into battle in a 19th-century "Wolseley helmet". He rarely cleaned his teeth, brushed himself with something like an oversized toothbrush, and liked to wander round his headquarters naked.

Trevor Royle, in this perceptive and fair-minded reassessment, which on balance restores Wingate's reputation and rescues it from his detractors, concludes that his hero probably suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of manic depression.

To which Winston Churchill, a sufferer from depression himself, might have responded rather as Abraham Lincoln did when they came to him and told him that Ulysses S Grant drank too much: "Find out what kind of whisky he drinks, and give it to my other generals".