Major General Orde Wingate 1903 - 1944
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"(A) man of genius and audacity."
Then on March 24 Wingate took off from Imphal in a V25 Mitchell bomber flown by the United States Air Force. At this stage everything was fluid. Everything was very critical. He was on his way to a conference. He wanted to get the next stage of the operation under way, when suddenly, and we will probably never know the reason, the V25 exploded above the Burmese jungle and crashed into the land below. Sabotage was put forward as a reason, but that seems unlikely because while the Mitchell was at Imphal airport it was under close guard. It could have hit turbulence, common enough over the Burmese jungle. Many other aircraft hit turbulence. It could have hit turbulence so that its wings parted company from the fuselage disrupting the fuel lines which had led to the explosion, which was witnessed by another C47 aircraft flying nearby. It could have been that it was hit by lightning. The wireless aerial trailing could have been hit and that would have incapacitated the crew because it would have bounced back through the wires and killed them. Another reason was put forward long afterwards by an American pilot that perhaps the Mitchell was armed at the time and perhaps cluster bombs, which were inside the fuselage, broke loose, tumbling about, exploded, and that was the end of that.
Whatever the reason Wingate was dead. There was no doubt about that. He was forty one. He was one of many who died in the Second World War but in his case of course, Wingate was not exactly unique, but because everything around the Chindit operations had been predicated on the way in which he regarded them. To a certain extent he was irreplaceable. He was also that dangerous person, a Commander who didn't have a Second-in-Command waiting in the wings. There was nobody there to take over from him. There was no heir apparent.
Two people suggested themselves. One was Mike Calvert, whom I have mentioned earlier. The other was Bernard Ferguson, a Black Watch officer who had taken part in the first Chindit expedition and was a Brigade Commander in the second. Slim, who was in, Field Marshal Slim, who was in charge of the forces at the time, liked neither idea. He felt that both Ferguson and Calvert were too imbued with Chindits spirit, and in fact were too like Wingate and would cause too much trouble. He also felt that it was looking back and that you had to look forward and so his choice fell on the senior Brigade commander, Brigadier Walter Joe Lentaigne, who was a Ghurka Rifles officer. Very experienced, battle hardened, knew what he was doing, a very good officer, but Lentaigne, good officer though he was, had never really been at one with Wingate, and this would have been a bit like appointing a new manager of Manchester United with somebody who hated Alex Ferguson. It might not work.
Anyway Lentaigne was chosen. It was a mistake, but the great military historian Shelford Bidwell told me that he was told by Slim that the only reason why Lentaigne was chosen because Slim said that he was the only one in the Chindit Force who wasn't mad. That might have been a good enough reason but it did turn out to be a mistake because Lentaigne was exhausted by that stage in the battle. He had too much responsibility put on his shoulders. He was also at odds with the Chindit philosophy and alas, he was drinking too heavily. He wasn't the right man to take over and, shorn of their leader, the Chindit Force quickly became a poor shadow of its former self.
Had Wingate lived it would all have been different. So I suppose Wingate's death was one of the great if only's of history, but Special Force wasn't used. It wasn't used in the role it was supposed to be used and it ended up acting really as a light Infantry screen for Stillwell's forces as they came down from China. They were totally ill equipped for that kind of role. They were fighting the wrong kind of battle with the wrong kind of equipment, the wrong kind of leadership and the wrong kind of support. They lost over a thousand men in the fighting. They were withdrawn from Burma in August 1944 and although there was a plan to go back to Special Force and dream it up again for the following year, it disappeared into history.
Because Wingate died before the battle came to an end it's probably impossible to give a sound historical summary on whether or not Special Force, the Chindits, did succeed in what they were doing, and can I summarise it in this way. What you can say for them is this. They tied down Japanese forces during the Imphal offensive but of course, that battle was won by conventional forces fighting a conventional war. Secondly they provided a morale booster at a time when the Japanese were supposed to be invincible, but of course, by 1944 the British and the Indian Armies and the West Africans had the Japanese on the back foot, and the long retreat was turning into the long re-conquest of Burma. Thirdly they proved that Special Forces could operate behind enemy lines and could be supplied and supported by fixed wing aircraft. It's one of the tragedies, and again this isn't an "if only" it's just a historical fact, in that 1944 the helicopter was in its infancy, and had it been available that might have made a great difference to Chindit operations. Finally the Chindits proved to be an efficiency of joint air/land operations and pointed the way forward to the kind of military doctrine which we have become used to in recent years. Now against all that one has to say that they achieved little tactically and the war in Burma was won by the doggedness and endurance of land and air forces and the skills shown not just by Slim, the overall Commander, but by battlefield Commanders such as General Philip Christenson. Also against them they took up resources which were needed by conventional British and Indian forces in the war against the Japanese, and thirdly they caused a great deal of resentment in the High Command largely as a result of Wingate's intemperate behaviour.
So we are in Scotland. The verdict is not proven. Shame. That should be the end of the story but of course, it's not. Wingate was far too restless a person, and let me say here that the few years that I spent wrestling with Wingate when I was writing the biography was one of the most difficult periods of my life. I felt that I really was having to deal with a person who wasn't long dead but was sitting on my shoulder for most of the time that I was writing it. An uncomfortable experience.
In the 1960's The Official History Of The Second World War was written. This was put together by The Cabinet Office and was a complicated procedure. It was largely written under the direction of editorial teams who were appointed to look at the different theatres of the war. They took evidence both from the papers that were extant at the time, and also took written evidence from the commanders concerned, and I have to say this with a great deal of regret, because it was badly done in Wingate's case. The direction of volume three, Burma, was under the direction of Major General Woodburn-Kirby, who had been a Staff Officer in Delhi and who had to face up to Wingate's intemperate behaviour, his tantrums, his impertinent demands, his rudeness and his refusal to take rank seriously. It's not altogether true that Kirby took his revenge by making sure that Wingate was blackened but out of all the volumes of The Official History of The Second World War, volume three is the only one which contains an ad hominem attack on a commander - namely Wingate.
The papers were released to me in the early 1990's and to David Rooney, and if you want to know more about this particular episode in Rooney's book, can I recommend David Rooney's wonderful book, "Wingate And The Generals", which gives you chapter and verse about the way in which that very wicked thing was done. History was rewritten to blacken the name of a man and men who were no longer there to defend themselves.
There is no doubt that there was a certain degree of animosity involved. I read you three of the pieces of evidence which were incorporated into the narrative. "Wingate's expedition was, in my opinion, a great waste of effort. I hope you won't devote too much space to that contentious figure. His own personality was important largely because of the attention it drew and its impact on his subordinates. I know of quite a few people in this History who are better soldiers and better men". Finally, "He was a megalomaniac and he revelled in offending others and creating difficulties for the sheer joy of overcoming them".
Reading those papers wasn't a particularly happy experience for anyone who is interested in history as a means of telling the truth, of getting the narrative right and making sure that your sense of purpose is correct. Even, I have to say, Field Marshal Slim, who had supported him turned against him, and this I regretted because I have had, and have still have, a great deal of respect for Field Marshal Slim. He wrote to Kirby congratulating him on his treatment of Wingate.
Your summing up of the effectiveness of Special Force is clear and fair. If the experienced 70th British Division, which I had first trained in jungle fighting at Ranchi (ph), had been used as a Division in the main theatre would have been worth three times its number in Special Force. We are always inclined in the British Army to devise private Armies and scratch forces for jobs which our ordinary formations, with proper training, could do and do better.
Now Slim had his reasons for saying that because he was the architect of victory in Burma and, as I have made perfectly clear, Burma was won not by the Chindits but by conventional forces fighting a conventional war, but alas The Official History, because it is the main record from which we historians are able to piece together the narrative of the Second World War, it's the bedrock on which we begin all our research. In Wingate's case, in the case of the Chindit operations in Burma, it's seriously flawed.
As to Wingate himself, my feelings. No doubt he was a military genius. He was an innovator who thought laterally, and he did enough to show that Special Forces can compliment conventional forces in the modern air/land battle. He was an inspired leader who possessed physical and mental energy and he was blessed with tons of moral confidence and moral courage. Now he wasn't an easy man. Many thought him half cracked, and his outrageousness and his rudeness were legendary, but as a wartime soldier, as a soldier who took men into battle, he was exemplary. He was in a way like, a man like Montgomery. Another General who wasn't always popular with everybody, save the troops who owed him their lives, and perhaps that is the line which one draws under Wingate. That he was an inspired leader who never ever lost the loyalty and the support of his men.
I said at the beginning that Wingate had connections with Scotland. He never made much of them apart from his Douglas kilts, but there was one Scot who never knew Wingate and wasn't a soldier. Who was a man of letters, a poet, who I think came nearest to capturing Wingate. That is Hugh MacDermitt, a great Scottish poet, and its from his poem, A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle.
Aye hail no halfway house but I thee walk extremes meet. Is there any way I can to dodge the cursed conceit of the English that damns the vast majority of men.
With Wingate it wasn't any different. For him there was no middle way, no compromise. Throughout his life Wingate was always found at the place where the extremes met.
(Questions from the floor.)
Can you tell us what impression the Chindits had on Wingate? What was the picture they gave?
Oh they worshipped him. I mean there is no, again they felt that compromises were the work of the devil as well. I think the thing is that they felt that he was one of the few commanders with whom they had come into contact, because all of them, I mean Chindits weren't just something. You didn't join the Army and say "I want to become a Chindit". I mean you know the Chindits were chosen either by circumstance or by good fortune and they had to be trained so they had all had experience of other commanders before joining Special Force, or The Chindit Force, and all of them felt that they had in Wingate a man who was absolutely prepared to stick up for them right to the limits, and although it was difficult, although it was harsh, I mean the conditions were absolutely appalling, and although they had to fight a very tough close contact war against the Japanese it was all worthwhile because they trusted in him. Now this was a man who broke military law by allowing flogging during the First Chindit Expedition. He said that you can't wait for a court martial. You can't, so he allowed his Column Commanders to beat their men if they had made a mistake and or if they had gone to sleep on duty. So it was a harsh, harsh regime, and even allowing for the passing of the years and for sentimentality to creep in, most of the people whom I spoke to while I was writing the book just had nothing but admiration for Wingate. They recognised his faults. They said that he had a temper that was second to none. They recognised his intolerance but they felt that they were going to war as the people who followed Peter the Hermit. That was probably the way they looked at it.
What was the Japanese perception of Wingate and do they have any papers on the subject?
Well they do, and the papers are in The Imperial War Museum. I think the second phase of the operation as they, the Airborne phase of the operation, made less of an impression on them because, as I explained, I know after three weeks the whole emphasis of the battle changed, but as for the First Chindit Operation, Operation Loincloth, the surviving Japanese intelligence assessments are all, from a British point of view, very positive, because the Japanese didn't know what was happening. I mean basically thought what is this, what are these men doing behind our lines. They couldn't come to terms with the fact that Special Forces were operating behind their lines in an attempt to try and cut their lines of communication. They were also impressed by the fighting qualities of the Chindit Forces. So from that point of view the Chindits made a tremendous impression on the Japanese High Command and it's reflected in the post battlefield assessments - Willie?
Is there any evidence that actually the Chindits had a positive effect on the morale of the Army too generally?
That is very difficult to prove I think. I gather though that there was a run on the type of slope hats that they wore - The Chindit hats - so that people could pass themselves off as Chindit Forces. I think that the awareness of attention came really at a senior level I think for most. I mean there were people who thought thank goodness we are not in the Chindit Force. You know I mean it must be absolutely appalling to be dropped behind enemy lines and have to fight the Japanese at close quarters and to actually have the privations that they had to face up to in the Burmese jungle. I think the best answer came from my wife's Godmother's brother who fought at Imphal and he said "no matter what you might say about Wingate. The fact is that the Chindit Forces, by being deployed during the second operation in the rear of the Japanese forces, drew away a lot of the Japanese rear at Imphal and made life a lot easier for the people who were actually fighting on the ground". Of which he was one. So that is the soldiers reaction. Yes.
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