Major General Orde Wingate 1903 - 1944
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"A tired fighter is not a good fighter."
When he got to India he found everything in chaos, because the retreat from Burma was called the longest retreat in The British Army. It certainly was, was one of the most disgraceful episodes in The British Army of the Second World War. As the British and Indian Divisions pulled out of Burma combat exhaustion fell in. People refused to fight the Japanese. There were even examples of quite senior commanders refusing to get in to engage the Japanese in battle, because engaging the Japanese in battle would start a fire fight. A fire fight meant casualties. No, they wanted to get out as quickly as possible back to the safety of India. This was one of the most demoralised and unkempt armies that Britain had had in the field for many years and certainly it was seen as a dreadful disgrace and a blot on its reputation in 1941, 1942. Everybody felt that the Japanese forces were supermen. They had swept their way down through Malaya. They had taken Hong Kong, they had taken Singapore. The whole of the Far East had fallen very quickly to these Japanese forces, who used the element of surprise, great mobility and also a passion about their mission, which of course, was completely lacking in the British and Indian defenders.
Now there were lots of excuses. I mean Malaya fell because a lot of the troops there were second rate. They were badly trained. A lot of the Indian Regiments weren't clued up to about what they were going to do, and it has to be said that a lot of the British Regiments behaved very badly. I exclude here, because it's a matter of record and not a matter of my predilections, but I exclude here the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who fought with considerable bravery and tenacity during the defence of Singapore, and if there had been more like the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders there might have been a different outcome, but no matter. When Wingate got to India he found this dreadful lack of morale. He found this dispiritedness, he found an Army which was going nowhere. One of the first persons whom he met, because he was using his old Special Operations Executive contacts, because I forgot to mention that when he was in Ethiopia putting Haile Selassie back on his throne, Gideon's Horse in fact, was directed by Special Operations Executive, SOE, and through them he met a most remarkable man called Mike Calvert.
Calvert, in my opinion, was one of the great soldiers of the Second World War, and if his name doesn't ring a bell its because he was treated abominably after the war. He was a giant of a man. I met him several times when I was researching the book and he was a man who seemed to me to have so much going for him, who had done so much. It seemed remarkable that he had been treated so badly by The British Army after the Second World War. He was a great fighting soldier. One of the things that he did do was that when he was on a reconnaissance mission behind Japanese lines he was taking a swim in the river. He was surprised by three Japanese soldiers armed. He was naked. He managed to pull them into the river and drowned all three of them. Now that takes quite a bit of doing from anyone.
Poor Calvert though, his career ended in disgrace. He unable to cope with the post Second World War Army. He ended up as a Brigade Major in Germany, where he was stitched up on a rent boy's charge and The British Army forgot all about his past service and got rid of him as quickly as possible. They even took his pension away from him and only restored it shortly before his death. I mention that because heroes don't always get their deserts that are due to them, and we don't always look kindly on those who have given us service.
So Wingate finds himself in India at a time when everything was falling to bits. He has got beside him Calvert, who knows all about low intensity warfare. The two of them start plotting. Now because this is a fluid situation, where it doesn't matter whether you come up with the craziest of ideas or whether you do absolutely nothing, if you come up with ideas that are going to be workable people are going to listen to you. If you are a man like Wingate, who has got the gift of the gab, who was also passionate about his ideas then you might be able to get somewhere.
Wingate's idea was to put soldiers behind the Japanese lines to sow confusion amongst their lines of communication and also to strike back at them at a time when they were carrying all before them. It sounds simple, it sounds simple. I mean that is why I use the word "Gideon's men". I mean it's Gideon and his 300. That is the concept from the Old Testament, and Wingate's idea was that you put these men into the bowels of the enemy, as he said, and you let them loose on their lines of communication and see what happens next. Everything in his career pointed to this innovation and as an espouser of, what we would now call, low intensity operations.
The main principles were surprise, mobility and the employment of aircraft as support artillery, and he started promulgating these theories with an enthusiasm which won him admirers and enemies. The admirers saw the possibility of taking the war to the Japanese. The enemies said "hang on a second. Let's not do that. Let's try and save India first and then think about attacking the Japanese". Wingate would have none of that and within weeks of arriving in India he wrote this paper for Wavell. I will read a part of it, which gives you a good idea, I think, of what Wingate was about.
Modern war is war of penetration in almost all its phases. This may be of two types. Tactical or strategic. Penetration is tactical where armed forces carrying it out are directly supported by the operations of the main armies. It is strategic when no such support is possible. That is when a penetration group is living and operating 100 miles or more in front of its own armies. Of the two types long range penetration pays by far the larger dividends on the forces employed. These forces operating with small columns are able, wherever a friendly population exists, to live and move under the enemies ribs and thus to deliver fatal blows at his military organisation by attacking vital objectives which he is unable to defend from such attacks. In the past such warfare has been impossible owing to the fact that control over such columns, indispensable both for their safety and their effectual use, was not possible until the age of the easily portable wireless set. Further the supply of certain indispensable materials such as ammunition, petrol, wireless sets and spare parts is impossible until the appearance of communications aircraft.
So there you have it. Put the men behind the enemy's lines. Keep them properly equipped. Use aircraft to back them up. Have an RAF officer with you to bring in the aircraft as and when required both to provide artillery support from the air and to reinforce you both with men and ammunition and material.
It was a big gamble. The British soldier had not shone in Burma. The British soldier had not shone in Malaya. The British soldier was supposed to be inferior to his Japanese opposite number. Here is Wingate saying what you could do was to train up your men, put them into the jungle where, properly trained, properly equipped and with morale high because you are going to be re-equipped and re-supplied from the air and, an important factor this, your casualties were going to be taken out by air. They would be the equal of the Japanese. Wavell agreed to it. Seventy Seventh Indian Brigade was formed, which later became known as the Chindits, and I suspect probably to test Wingate to the fullest he was given unpromising troops. He was given the 13th King's Liverpool Regiment, most of whose men were in their 30's and had been involved in coastal duties in Britain before they had been sent out to India. The 3rd/2nd Ghurka Rifles, an untried Ghurka Rifle Battalion. The 2nd Burma Rifles, ditto, and 142 Commando Company.
Wingate immediately destroyed the Brigade structure. When he got hold of these men they were divided into eight self contained columns each made up of four patrols of four sections. There was a strict training regime. Wingate belonged to that school that you train hard and fight easy. He was also that very good type of Commander who believed that he would not ask anything of his men unless he could do it himself, and he was as good as his word. He was tough, he was wiry, he instituted a good hygiene regime. He instituted a good dietary regime. He made sure that everybody could shoot. He made sure that everybody knew all about survival. In other words he trained his men rapidly to become jungle fighters. He also made no bones about the difficulties which lay ahead, and here is one of his Company Commanders, a Major Long of The Ghurka Rifles, talking about Wingate and the impression he made on him.
It was certainly not any kind of charisma on his part. For even on further acquaintance I found him a prickly rather than an easy individual. It wasn't purely his eloquence or oratory alone, albeit helpful. It wasn't that because that doesn't deliver a wide cross section of people who believed in him so implicitly. That was, I am convinced, the way his undoubted ability came over and a feeling that he gave that here was a honest man who one could trust and one who wouldn't let you down if you threw your lot in with him.
Quite a lesson there isn't there. Here is a man who says to his men, "I am going to do the best for you. I am going to make sure that everything that you want you get. I am going to make sure that you are battle hardened. I am going to make sure that you are fully equipped and trained to take on the Japanese, and then we are going to defeat them, and I am going to make sure that you do it because I am going to do it as well".
Mind you there was another side to it as well, because in the Second Chindit Expedition Wingate had some Cameronians under his command and of course, they had heard a lot of this before. Wingate, like a lot of Commanders in the Second World War, had the attractive habit of calling his men roundabout him and telling them what was going to happen, and as he stood there with his beard and his Wolesey helmet, his topi, he would address them in Biblical terms. He said
I am going to send you into Burma where you are going to do God's great work. You are going to carry the sword of justice, the shield of righteousness will protect you, but whatever else happens as you go into this great arena, you are going to be doing God's great work and you will triumph. Some of you may leave your bones whitened in the bones of Burma. What do you think about that soldier?
He pointed at a Cameronian. The Jock looked back at him and said "aye, well, you can f...ing well do it without me Sir".
One reason why Wingate did get the support of his officers, and also of people like the unknown Cameronian, was that he made sure that they always had the best and he always looked after them. This is his Adjutant, Rocket, talking about him. Now before I quote from what Rocket said I should explain that Wingate was slightly eccentric in the way he dealt with his senior officers. He was a great believer in nudity. He saw nothing wrong with the naked body and often at conference he would sit there totally naked and talk to a senior officer as if he was a, well, not exactly on Horse Guards, but you know what I mean. He also didn't believe in washing, which could have been disagreeable, but he carried with him a huge sort of brush which he brushed and he was very Theban. He brushed himself all over because he felt that by getting the body oils going that was far better than washing. So the sight of a hairy man sitting brushing himself while he is trying to talk about attacking the Japanese might have been slightly complicated for younger soldiers, but they just had to put up with it.
The other thing that he did is that when he went into conferences with Staff Officers in Delhi he always carried a huge alarm clock with him. You know one of those things with bells on top. A lot of people here remember it, and he would set it to twenty five minutes, because he believed that no meeting should ever go on longer than twenty five minutes. Now as one who has suffered through endless meetings I have got a great deal of enthusiasm for that, but once the bell went that was it. If nothing had been decided he would say "too late chums, you have had your chance". Anyway here is Rocket talking about a typical Staff Conference in Delhi before the First Chindit Operation.
"He would have no prevarication from anyone driving both himself and his staff mercilessly. At one conference, of a high level, he made certain demands of equipment of his force, and a very senior officer got up at the conference table and said "but I have been told nothing about this whatsoever". Wingate rose up to the table and said "why should you have been. I am telling you now". After that the conference proceeded on smooth lines".
As a Colonel who had been promoted to the substantium of Brigadier, to be able to talk to Majors and Lieutenant Generals in that way took a certain amount of guts on his part, or craziness perhaps.
The operation for the first Chindit incursion into Burma was called Operation Loincloth. The Chindit force was divided into two groups. One was to cut the railway line at Wuntho behind Japanese lines. The other was to cut the railway line further north at Nankan and then cross the Irrawaddy where the two groups would join up and fight their way out of Burma. The last task proved impossible because the Chindits suddenly found themselves in open country which was unsuitable for guerilla operations, but nonetheless both the railway lines were cut, and, from that point of view, Operation Loincloth was a success, because it had set out to do what Wingate said would happen, but it was done at a fantastic cost. You can train soldiers to be battle hardened. You can make them fit, you can give them the best kit in the world, you can make sure that they are supplied and re-supplied, but you cannot do anything about battlefield attrition. Battlefield attrition both from engagement with the enemy in fire fights. Battlefield attrition too from the local conditions.
Three thousand Chindits marched into Burma. Of their number 2,182 returned. Two to one heavy attrition rate. For a force of that kind during the Second World War these were high casualties, because we have got to remember that the Second World War was a war in which senior Commanders tended to be jealous of men's lives and didn't waste them, remembering the lessons of the First World War. So from that point of view the Chindit operation had been a success, but it also had been a failure because of the large number of casualties.
Wingate, being Wingate, promoted himself very quickly and his report, which is masterly, and which was kept under lock and key after the war because it told too many home truths, and it took me a great deal of time and effort to get it released by The Public Record Office, and I can see why that it probably was kept under lock and key for so long. This is Wingate on it.
The great value of the campaign is that it demonstrated the power of the columns to penetrate as far as they pleased into enemy occupied Burma. In this case the columns weren't of high fighting calibre and weren't supported. They were nonetheless able to traverse the immense tract of Burma. The enemy did his utmost to arrest the penetration. He didn't succeed at any time. It ceased, the operation that is, because enough had been done and the force had only sufficient strength left to get out.
To sum up, when long range penetration is used again it must be on the greatest scale possible and must play an essential role in the re-conquest. It is the one method in which we are superior to the Japanese. The possibilities have been demonstrated. Don't let us throw away the harvest by Lilliputian thinking or piecemeal squandering of reserves.
Very nice for General Wavell to read those last words about Lilliputian thinking!
Now what did happen. Well, the results of this first Chindit operation. First of all the plus ones. They encouraged the Japanese to think that Britain had changed its tactics, and this led to the Japanese to deploy additional troops to secure their rear during the Imphal offensive in 1944, and also the fighting qualities of the Chindits impressed them, because the Japanese, after their easy victories, thought that they were fighting against a bust flush and Wingate and the Chindits proved otherwise, but alas Loincloth, when it was looked at by Wavell's planners in Delhi, was evaluated to be no strategic value whatsoever, but it was a great morale booster. At a time when the British were being kicked around in the Far East, here was a group of ordinary British men and Indian soldiers showing that they could fight the Japanese on their own terms and be successful. The Chindits, with their slouch hats and the Chindits symbol, their symbol was a griffin from one of, which you find throughout Burma in the temples there. It was a great morale booster, and the war correspondents of course, had been looking for a hero, because if you are a war correspondent the last thing you want to do is write about bad news all the time. You don't want to say "well look, our guys aren't up to it. We are being on the back foot the whole time". Suddenly here was a force which had taken on the Japanese and managed to defeat them. Here too was a charismatic leader. Wingate with his beard and his topi and his nakedness and his big brush and his outrageous behaviour. His refusal to sit down and listen to sense and his willingness to take on the High Command. He was what journalists call "good copy, and the newspapers back home milked it for all it was worth. Suddenly the Chindits were very big news indeed.
Of course, Winston Churchill was interested. Not only was this a British success story but Churchill, who throughout his military and political career, had always been keen on the indirect approach. Here was the indirect approach paying dividends and he was exceptionally keen to see Wingate prosper. A message went to Delhi. Wingate was recalled to Britain. He was dispatched with Churchill on The Queen Mary sailing out of Glasgow to go to the Quadron conference in Quebec. This was the conference which was called by Roosevelt to plan the next stage of the war against the Japanese, and Wingate was taken along with Churchill's blessing and with Churchill's imprimature to give his views about the way in which the next stage of the fighting could take place.
Now in that previous extract I read from Wingate's report to Wavell he said that long range penetration had worked but next time it had to be done on a much larger scale. Now Wingate would have been absolutely mad, and he certainly wasn't that, if he hadn't taken the opportunity, because here was his chance to talk not just to senior American and British Commanders about the next stage of the war in, not just in Burma but right across the Pacific, but he was also talking to the two leaders of the free world, Roosevelt and Churchill. He took his chance.
As I have said before, and as is clear from the evidence of those who served with him, he was a good talker. He was a persuasive talker. He made people listen to him. Not only that. He made people listen to him and agree with him, and at Quebec he took his chance to push forward the idea for a larger long range penetration Army which would fight in advance of the British, American, Indian and West Indian Divisions in Burma against the Japanese to drive them out of Burma. This is what he told Roosevelt,
Long range penetration affords greater opportunity of mystifying and misleading the enemy than any other form of warfare. It provides the ideal opportunity for the use of Airborne and Parachutist troops without risking their loss. This calls for the use of best troops available. RAF Sections operating with columns are in a position to direct our aircraft with great accuracy on targets visible and undetectable from the air. Such is the description of the vast majority of enemy targets in south east Asia. To sum up long range groups should be used as an essential part of the plan of conquest to create a situation leading to the advance of our main forces.
He was knocking at an open door. Roosevelt came up to him afterwards and said "I admire the clarity of your thinking". Now many officers might have felt "how wonderful. This is the President of the United States paying me a compliment". Wingate just turned round and said rather brusquely, "such is my custom Sir". So he had a good conceit of himself. Anyway it all worked. Wingate was given authority to raise and train a larger Chindit force which operated under the name of Special Force. It comprised six Brigades containing 20,000 men including soldiers from Britain, India and West Africa. Important that West Africa. We tend to forget the part played by the 84th and 85th West Africa Divisions in the Burmese War, but at its heart was an old British Division, the 70th British Division, made up, as Wingate hoped, of experienced battle hardened troops, including our Cameronian friend.
Each Brigade was made up of four small Battalions. Another change, and each Battalion was divided into two columns. This, it was thought, was going to give them greater flexibility in the jungle fighting, but the biggest innovation was that this time round the Special Force would be backed from the air by the Royal Air Force and by a specially adapted American Air Force Air Commando, commanded by a man called Cochrane, which had strike aircraft dedicated to the support role and also had communications aircraft at its disposal. The idea was different this time. Instead of having mobile columns operating behind the enemy lines. This time round you were going to get in behind the Japanese 18th Division to allow Chinese forces under American Command to come down from China to support you, and at the same time you were going to be supported all the time from the air. This meant interdiction and strike aircraft, like the American B25, with other strike aircraft from the Royal Air Force and Spitfires and Mosquitos, and this would give you the kind of ground support which had been lacking the last time round. The other great change was that instead of being mobile that Special Force was going to set up special strongholds. These were in effect the kind of armed fort which, I suppose, is quite similar to the kind of thing which was built up in Northern Ireland during the troubles. A place where you could operate from. Which was secure, and Wingate, with his great love and respect and knowledge of the New Testament, called them "strongholds", because he had remembered the great text from Zachariah chapter nine, verse twelve. "Turn you to the stronghold you prisoners of hope". This is what he told his men a stronghold would be.
The stronghold is a muccan (ph) overlooking a kid tied up to entice the Japanese tiger. The stronghold is an asylum for long range penetration for wounded. The stronghold is a magazine of stores. The stronghold is a defended airstrip. The stronghold is an administration centre for loyal inhabitants. The stronghold is an orbit around which columns of the Brigade circulate. It is suitably placed with reference to the main objective of the Brigade. The stronghold is a base for light planes operating with columns on the main objective.
Wingate hoped that there would be four strongholds. That between them, or amongst them, it would be possible for the Brigades to operate. The strongholds would be their headquarters. They would operate out of it. It would be the place where wounded were taken. It would be the place where people would be taken out. It was absolutely vital for the success of what was known as Operation Thursday.
The other great change about this phase of the operation was that although one Brigade marched into Burma to the north the rest were flown in by glider and the operation began at the beginning of March. Two strongholds were established. One was called Broadway, the other was called Aberdeen, and they succeeded in their objective immediately of drawing off Japanese troops that might otherwise have been used in the Imphal offensive. It was working. The Airborne troops were flown in. They were being supplied and re-supplied. Wireless contact meant that they had connected, all their Commando control was in place. Everything was going according to plan. There were even plans in Wingate's fertile mind to expand the force to 50,000 strong and to use it in an even bigger way. Perhaps even to link up with China and completely cut off the Japanese.
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