Never hit a man with your fist if someone else will hit him with his car.

Special Operations in WWII – Major-General Orde Charles Wingate

Thursday, Holmes began telling us about British Major-General Orde Charles Wingate and the substantial successes of his special forces in Africa and the British Mandate of Palestine. Today, we learn how Wingate put his revolutionary methods to use against the Japanese in WWII.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

By Piper Bayard

In 1941, when the East Africa Campaign ended, Wingate was relieved of command, and the Gideon Force was broken up. With time on his hands, Wingate complained loudly that requests for decorations for his men had been ignored, and that they had failed to receive back pay. He also wrote letters to members of government complaining that the Ethiopians under Hale Selassie should have been granted the independence that they had fought for against the Italians. His list of political enemies among the British grew longer by the day.

Wingate was sick with malaria but declined to seek medical help from British Military doctors. He was afraid they would send him to a hospital in Great Britain. A local doctor gave him massive quantities of atabrine, which can cause severe depression when taken in too large a dose. It did. Wingate attempted suicide, but fortunately failed.

After recovering from malaria, Wingate was dispatched to Burma in April of 1942 to organize a guerrilla war against the Japanese onslaught. Before he could get to Burma, the Burmese defenses collapsed. He instead went to India, where he began to campaign for the formation of his famous “Long Range Penetration Forces.”

In spite of his many political enemies, Wingate’s record of fantastic successes could not be ignored. General Wavell arranged for Wingate to receive command of a Ghurka Batallion and promised other forces, including light artillery, would be made available. His forces were nicknamed “The Chindits,” which translates to “Lions” in Burmese.

The Chindits, image from

Many of Wingate’s fellow officers took a dislike to him and the irregular doctrine and training that he pursued. His eccentric personal habits gave them more grounds for criticism. In the highly tradition bound British officer corps, an officer who often didn’t bother to wear any clothes and loudly quoted from the bible and widely unfamiliar philosophy books was bound to make enemies. The fact that Wingate simply didn’t care further infuriated them.

In 1943, the British Army cancelled its plans for an offense into Burma. Wingate convinced Wavell to let him take his small force deep into Burma to disrupt Japanese supplies and divert Japanese troops. The goal was to forestall a Japanese offensive against India.

Any reasonable military leader would have predicted disaster for such a small force working unsupported, deep inside enemy territory. General Wavell ignored all military doctrine and put his military reputation on the line when he overruled his staff and gave Wingate permission to conduct the seemingly suicidal operation.

image from

On February 12, 1943, Wingate and his Chindits crossed the Chindwin river and proceeded into enemy territory and war mythology. They severely damaged the main Japanese train line, which forestalled any Japanese offensives. The Chindits then crossed the Irrawaddy river, penetrating deeper into Japanese territory. Unfortunately, the allied intelligence was faulty about Japanese troop strengths and conditions in the area. The Chindits were unable to recover supplies from air drops due to the constant proximity of large Japanese troop concentrations.

On March 23, they were ordered to return to India, but no suggestion was made as to how they might get there. By this time, the Japanese had about 35,000 troops trying to cut off the Chindits from retreat.

The Chindits broke up into small groups and made there way back to India. About two thirds of the original force made it back to India.  For the loss of 220 men, the Chindits had totally disrupted any further Japanese offensive for 1943. The Japanese had to regroup and begin planning an India invasion for 1944.

At home in Great Britain, “Wingate” and “Chindits” became household words. Churchill invited Wingate to visit him in England, and then he took Wingate and his wife to the allied strategy meetings known as the Quebec Conference. In Quebec, the most senior allied military leaders, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff, listened to Wingate with interest. Fortunately, Wingate dressed for the occasion, and the Allied leadership was favorably impressed with his ideas about special operations.

In 1944, Wingate was promoted to Major General and given command of six brigades (totaling 15,000 men) for use in long range penetration. The penetration was to coordinate with a British invasion of Burma and would operate from airstrips that they would construct for resupply.

When the British cancelled their invasion of Burma, calling off the operation, Wingate complained to all who would listen. The US Air Forces in India agreed to give air cover and air support to the Chindits if they went ahead with their mission. A sympathetic RAF Colonel managed to obtain enough air transport in the form of Dakota troop transports and gliders for more accurate supply drops.

On March 6, 1944, the Chindits dropped behind enemy lines and set up air strips. Once again, Wingate’s determination and willingness to accept risks paid off hugely. The Japanese had just begun an attack on India, and the Chindits were able to conduct raids against Japanese supply columns which badly disrupted that invasion.

Wingate flew to one of the Chindits’ newly constructed air strips to confer with the local Chindit teams. When his return flight crashed, his death sent a shock wave through the allied command and beyond. At the height of his brilliant military career, he had been lost to a faulty aircraft engine.

image from

Whenever a larger than life hero like Orde Wingate dies, his or her death is difficult for supporters and admirers to accept. Some speculated that Wingate’s enemies might have placed a bomb on the plane.

This seems highly unlikely to me. Political and career sabotage is always common practice among less gifted or more politically ruthless military leaders, but these same individuals would not easily resort to a conspiracy of murder. Furthermore, the pilot had alerted Wingate that he had had some engine trouble on the flight into the air strip and wondered if Wingate might want to wait for a better plane to arrive. As was his habit, Wingate, in a hurry to return to Imphal to issue new orders to his other groups, chose risk over safety. For the first (and last) time in his life, it didn’t pay off.

American commanders in the Far East command were disappointed in Britain’s failure to invade Burma in the spring of 1944, and in Wingate, they found a champion to their cause. For the Americans, Wingate had done what a much larger army had declined to risk doing.

In 1950, the remains of Wingate and his nine companions were disinterred from their grave in India. With his family’s agreement, Wingate was taken to what US Military personnel hold to be sacred ground. On the old plantation of confederate General Robert E. Lee, in what is now Arlington National Cemetery, Orde Charles Wingate was laid to rest with full military honors. The fact that this was done at a time when the United States was occupied by the expansion of communism in Asia and a frightening face off with Soviet forces in Europe speaks volumes about how highly the United States Military regarded Orde Wingate.

The odd book worm from India had traveled the world and changed it substantially. The man who was friend and hero of the Israelis, Ethiopians, Sudanese and a highly respected ally of the United States had come to his final home, where he rests in company with many of our most revered warriors.

Posted in:

11 thoughts on “ Special Operations in WWII – Major-General Orde Charles Wingate

  1. Great lesson about WWII. Wingate was an officer who was not afraid to think outside the box, accept risks that would frighten a lesser man and lead his men into situations that could be termed suicidal. In ordinary life he would have not survived, but the war allowed him the opportunity to exhibit his talents to great advantage. We should be honored that he rests at Arlington. Thanks Holmes.

  2. An interesting write up and an amazing guy, Holmes. He must have been as good a leader as he was a brave one to motivate men to go deep inside Japanese held territory in WW2. And that they should tie up and escape from 35000 of them is even more remarkable.

    It would seem strange that a bomb would be planted for the return journey, so I guess he was just at the mercy of an engine failure. A sad end, but perhaps unsurprising that he should go out doing what he did best.


  3. on ,
    J Holmes said:

    Hi Nigel. He was a good leader. He was loyal to his men and lead by example. I agree with you that the bomb theory is unsound.

  4. Hi Holmes. A bonus question for you.

    I’m sure there’s a mass of work on the guy, but apart from the clothes and quotations, what did he do differently that made him able to get his forces in and out of hostile territory?


    • on ,
      J Holmes said:

      Hi Nigel. Great question. In the Palestine mandate Wingate took advantage of the long porous border and the lack of enemy air assets or standing patrols to approach the border undetected and then cross the border at night quickly, and directly engage an enemy that had not had an opportunity to concentrate greater forces. What was different in that case was his use of local forces combined with more effective intelligence. His close relationship with the Jewish community and his support for their agenda was outside of regulations but it allowed for excellent intelligence gathering and the building of the forces that he used. Wingate had available to him the example of the very Arab raiders that he sought to defend against. He also had available to him the lessons learned by his distant cousin and fellow eccentric intelligence officer T.E.Lawrence (AKA Lawrence of Arabia).

      In Ethiopia Wingate had a similarly porous border but did face a risk of enemy air activity. His penetration was timed to coordinate with the main British attacks on Somalia from Egypt and Kenya so the Italians could do little when his forces were located because all of their available mobile forces were busy trying to block the main British attacks. His willingness to use an infantry force so far separated from the main British attacks was unique for the time but mimicked the Romans in their use of relatively small mobile forces operating beyond their frontier areas with no close support.

      Unlike in The Palestine and in Ethiopia, in India Wingate had poor human intelligence from inside of Burma. The Burmese were not generally friendly to the British and in time developed a strong hatred for the “liberating” Japanese as well. Wingate had to rely on Signals Intelligence and what little air reconnaissance was available to form a picture of Japanese intentions. In his favor was the fact that as a British colony Burma had been well mapped.

      Wingate reasoned that by using light well trained forces relying on air drops for supply he could out maneuver the better armed Japanese forces and strike at lightly defended positions. He planned to move overland away from roads which made his going slow but slower still for any pursuing Japanese as they faced booby traps and running ambushes as they attempted any pursuit. What was different from what the main British forces in the theater were doing was his willingness to move battalion size light infantry forces over animal trails without using or building roads. On his second penetration into Burma he used gliders and parachutes to insert regiment sized forces to build air strips for resupply. What was different in this case was Wingate’s willingness to accept a long period of isolation for his airborne forces. In US and British doctrine large Airborne forces were to be met and relieved by advancing heavy mechanized forces withing a few days. For example If we look at the D Day operations in Normandy we see that the paratroopers were dropped close to the invasion front with an expectation of relief within forty eight hours.

      Wingate adapted to whatever conditions he faced. He expected to improvise and he trained his men to operate with the same expectation. One of the common themes amongst Special Forces in the “West” is the emphasis on remaining open minded and using creativity and ingenuity to overcome challenges when superior fire power is not available.

      • Thanks Holmes. Seems like he used the best of whatever options were available to him rather than just repeating what he’d been taught. He must have been amazingly confident in his creativity – moving large forces and even building air strips for resupply. Perhaps his opponents were as shocked as I that someone would attempt such a thing, and their denial was what he went on to exploit. Truly a remarkable guy.

        In one of those I-knew-a-man-who-knew-a-neighbor-who-had-an-uncle-who’s-sister’s dog … I almost bought a house in Clearbook (just north of Plymouth, UK). It was a nice place, but it’s claim to fame was that TE Lawrence spent some time there. Mind you, given the state of the roads in the area a motorbike was the only thing to get you there.


  5. on ,
    Dave said:

    A brilliant man. It’s always interesting to me how it takes different leaders for different times. This is a man the flourished in wartime, using unconventional techniques, but it’s doubtful that he would have (willingly) adapted to the mundane tasks of peacetime operations. Just goes to show you the value of having all kinds of people and give them room to do what they do best.

    • on ,
      J Holmes said:

      Hi David. “Just goes to show you the value of having all kinds of people and give them room to do what they do best.” Some modern Western military leaders are more generous in applying the “give them room” doctrine than others are. It remains a point of debate at top levels of command.

      One reoccurring theme in Western forces is the notion that various types of Special Forces are simply “super-infantry” which is not what they are designed, equipped, or trained to do. To an extent the formation of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) in 1980 has lessened the problem for US forces.

      In my view the greatest number of casualties suffered by Special Forces in Iraq and Iran have occured when they were acting in other roles, such as poorly equipped “air cavalry” as opposed to performing Special Operations.

Leave a Reply

Return to Top
%d bloggers like this: