As a teenager I was convinced I was destined for great things. I wasn't sure what, exactly - a great work of philosophy, a future prime minister - but I was absolutely certain I would take my place in the hall of the immortals. In the years that followed, I began to realise I wasn't the only young man suffering from illusions and that growing up involved making a more realistic appraisal of my abilities. Yet sometimes I wonder whether this was not a mistake and that what distinguishes really great men is that they never abandon this irrational belief in their own destiny.
I first came across Orde Charles Wingate, the Second World War military hero, as I was leafing through Wilfred Thesiger's autobiography. What struck a chord immediately was how unpopular he was. "As he shambled from one [office] to another," wrote Thesiger, "in his creased, ill-fitting uniform and out-of-date Wolsely helmet, carrying an alarm clock instead of wearing a watch, and a fly-whisk instead of a cane, I could sense the irritation and resentment he left in his wake."
Yet from the moment he arrived in Sudan in 1940 to lead the campaign to liberate Gojjam, his belief in himself never wavered. During a high-level meeting at which Wingate was the lowest-ranked participant, a general questioned the feasibility of the 37-year-old major's plan to recapture Gojjam from 40,000 Italian-led troops with a handful of irregulars. Wingate turned on him: "You are an ignorant fool, General. It is men like you who lose us wars."
Wingate's extraordinary self-belief stemmed from his schooldays at Charterhouse, where the other boys had organised "Wingate-hunts". His parents were Plymouth Brethren and he steeled himself by reading the Bible: there he came across a passage which described a "people against whom every man's hand was turned, yet they remained bloody and unbowed". From that moment on he became a passionate Zionist; he won a DSO in 1938 by organising night squads among the Jewish settlers in Palestine to protect their communities from Arab marauders.
The military authorities remained sceptical of his plan to liberate Gojjam and in the middle of the campaign his immediate superior, General Cunningham, tried to have him relieved of his command. This occurred on the eve of the final battle when Wingate sent him an assessment by radio in which he predicted that 500 of his irregulars could force 20,000 Italians to surrender within ten days. Cunningham thought this so unrealistic that he ordered Wingate to hand over to his second-in-command. Wingate had to fall back on the old trick of pretending his radio was broken. Exactly ten days later he accepted the surrender of the Italian commander-in-chief.
The authorities were still unconvinced of his abilities.
He was ordered to Cairo, reduced in rank and instructed to write a report on the campaign. He referred to the top brass as "military apes" and described some of the officers who'd served under him as "the scum of the cavalry brigade". Shortly afterwards,suffering from malaria, he tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat. One of his superiors took the trouble to visit him in hospital. "You bloody fool," he said, "why didn't you use a revolver?"
Yet even in his darkest moments, his inner core of self-belief never deserted him. On returning to England his first words to Lord Horder, the physician assigned to him, were, "You know, I am not the only great soldier who has tried to commit suicide. There was Napoleon, for instance."
He went on to lead the Chindits in Burma where, operating behind enemy lines, his small guerrilla force managed to inflict heavy damage against the Japanese 15th Army, the first victories scored against the Japanese in Asia. Churchill gave Wingate command of the airborne invasion of Burma, in which capacity he won another great victory before being killed in a plane crash in 1944. He was 40, the youngest major-general in the British Army.
What really stands out in Wingate was his absolute confidence in his own judgement even when, as was frequently the case, everyone else thought he was wrong. Such pig-headedness has far more to do with an irrational, over-inflated self-confidence than reason or analysis, yet it is the foundation on which nearly all great achievements rest. Sometimes I wish I was a little less reasonable and a little more like Charles Orde Wingate.Reuse content