Transcript of a Lecture given by Trevor Royle in Edinburgh on 17 September 2002 – © Trevor Royle
Wingate’s early career.
What The Centre (SWWEC) has been doing in Leeds, is of primary importance for anyone who is interested in British history over the past century because history never can be just a matter of dusty dates. It can never be about the way in which one King succeeded another. It can never be just the descriptions of battles. Its about the way in which ordinary people react to great events, and that is the one of the great things that The Centre has been doing. It brings us face to face with the reality of warfare and most of us, although not all of us, in this room have never had to face that reality. I say that because when my book on Orde Wingate came out in 1996 it started a summer season of debate in The Times Literary Supplement which quite astonished me. The book was reviewed by John Keegan, favourably I am pleased to say, but what happened next was not so much about the book. It was about whether or not the Chindits were a good thing. Whether or not Wingate was a good leader or a bad leader, and for a summer silly season those who supported Wingate and the Chindits argued their side of the battle, while those who thought that Wingate and the Chindits were a side show who had taken away effort, material, ammunition and personnel from the great battle at Imphal in 1944. They thought of course, that it was just a silly side show. So I was quite content actually to let these two sides continue arguing, but it did show to me that even in 1996, long after the Second World War had ended, what happens in 1943 and 1944 was very much alive and living for those who had taken part in those momentous events.
I want to begin though not in 1943 or 1944, but in the summer of 1941, the period which I think gave rise to the creation of The Chindit Forces. The place, The Continental Hotel in Cairo, an anonymous room. A Major of Artillery called Orde Charles Wingate goes up to his bedroom, closes the door and then attempts to commit suicide. With him he has a Bowie hunting knife which had been given to him by an American war correspondent during the recent operations in Ethiopia. He doesn’t lock the door. Goes to the mirror. Takes out a hunting knife and jabs it into the right hand side of his neck. Misses the artery. Looks around and suddenly realises that the door isn’t locked. With the knife still in his neck, walks across to the door, locks it. Goes back to the mirror and has a go at the left hand side. Again he misses. Collapses on the floor. Fortunately next door is another officer who had lunched well, no doubt unwisely, hears the bump, goes into the room and finds Wingate lying on the floor bleeding copiously.
Wingate is taken to The 15th General Hospital in Cairo where they set about pumping fourteen pints of blood into him. Now in those days blood transfusion was in its infancy, and I owe this to the actor David Rintoul who played Dr Finlay recently in the television series. His Father was a doctor with 15th General Hospital and he said that the blood in fact was contained in Gordons Gin bottles. So I guess that if the spirit didn’t get to Wingate the tonic certainly did.
They saved him, but as Wingate lay there he became convinced that the doctors and nurses roundabout him were devils come to torment him. That his childhood fears had finally come true. That he had died and hadn’t been given the benison of going to heaven but he was condemned forever to utter darkness. He screamed and shouted. Now these were good Presbyterians that he was shouting at and they didn’t like it one little bit until eventually a Catholic Chaplain came into the operating theatre and Wingate looked at him and said “am I damned”, and the chaplain looked at him and said “no, you are saved”, and at that moment, just as a bright dawn can get rid of the night time fears of the storm the night before, Wingate suddenly realised that he was saved, and that is why I began my book with these words. ” The day that he tried to kill himself in Cairo, Major Orde Charles Wingate was finally convinced that he had been born to do great things”.
An odd way to start a book, a suicide, an attempt to do away with yourself. An odd way for a very ambitious young officer who had already had a great future behind him, if you know what I mean. He had led the patriot forces in the invasion of Ethiopia. He had helped to put King Haile Selassie back on his throne, but suddenly everything had gone awry, hence the suicide attempt.
His patron, General Archibald Wavell, had been sacked as a result of The Afrika Corps attack on Egypt and he himself, Wingate, was in disgrace for having written an intemperate report about the re-conquest of Ethiopia, in which he had condemned everyone bar those who had fought with him. Said harsh words about the High Command and accused the British Empire of trying to do a dirty deal in Ethiopia.
Now there are times in your life when you can get away with writing reports of that kind, but when you are a Major of Artillery in the middle of a war in which Britain is fighting to save herself, that might not have been one of those moments, and Wingate felt that he was in disgrace. He felt that everything he had done that had gone before him counted for nothing. That his great plans of doing God’s great work on earth was lying in tatters, and so the only thing to do was to go up to his bedroom in The Continental Hotel and stick a Bowie knife first in one side of his neck and then the other.
Wingate survived the assault on his body. The blood transfusions worked. He was probably saved too by having his neck packed like that so that not doing the job properly. He was also found to have malaria, and I gather afterwards that the mixture of the malaria bodies inside his bloodstream together with the medication that he was doing did induce depression of some kind or another, but my own feeling is that Wingate, at that moment when he did decide to do away with himself, was trying to commit suicide, because he felt that nothing that had gone before was going to help him and that his career was lying in tatters.
Now to understand why Wingate should have done such a thing, which is quite unusual I would imagine for an officer in The British Army, we have to go back to his family background, his childhood and his education, because to understand the man sometimes we have to find out what drove the boy.
Wingate came from a military background. His Father was an officer in The Indian Army. His Mother’s family, the Orde-Browns, were also from an Army background, but the big driving factor in his childhood was the fact that his Mother’s family, the Orde-Brown’s, were Plymouth Brothers(sic) Brethren, and his Father’s family came from a Scottish family which had their roots back in Stirlingshire, in Glasgow, and they were very much connected with The Church of Scotland, and after 1843, the great disruption with The Free Church of Scotland, his Grandfather, William, had been a minister in the Church of Scotland’s mission in Hungary to convert Jews to Christianity, and Wingate took a great deal of interest in that background. I mean as a, he wasn’t a fervent Scot. He was never a Scottish Nationalist. He hadn’t even thought of himself as being a Scot, although there are photographs of him as a young man wearing his family’s Douglas kilts, but what it did leave him with was the religious fundamentalism that came from his association with The Free Church of Scotland, that salvation wasn’t just a matter of going to heaven, it was a matter of wrestling of the individual’s soul with God, and that no earthly authority, however august, must be allowed to come between.
He was born in India in 1903 at Naini Tal in The United Provinces, and like many other people who were born in India he came back to an England that was a foreign land. His family went to live at Godalming in Surrey, and he himself was eventually educated at Charterhouse. He wasn’t educated as a boarding school boy. He was educated as a day school boy and so he missed out, I suppose, on the public school ethos which was very much printed into Charterhouse at that time. This also meant of course, that he never had any feelings at all about Charterhouse, and I guess he might have shared Max Hastings’ great comment about Charterhouse “that no day is too short to do an old Carthusian down”.
After Charterhouse he followed his Father into the Army and was commissioned into The Royal Regiment of Artillery, which meant that he went to The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was an indifferent young cadet. He didn’t join in, but he was a good horseman, and therein lay one of the earliest moments which led to, almost led to, his undoing. He made sure always that he got the best horses so that he could go out hacking with them. He was also a member of the local hunt. He was very keen on horses, and horses were very good with him, but because he was always pushing himself forward he stood accused of his, of the cadets in his year, of being too pushy, of being too keen, of just being a bit too different. Now at Woolwich in those days they had a system of dealing with cadets who didn’t conform. It was called “running”. Basically what happened was that you were pulled out of your bunk, you were stripped naked and you were made to run the gauntlet of your fellow cadets, who stood either with, whipped you with knotted towels or a swagger stick to give you a damned good hiding as you went past, and then they threw you into one of the water tanks.
Wingate was run, but he dealt with his running in a quite different way. He stood in front of his tormentors, carefully stripped himself b**** naked, walked between them looking with them eye in eye. Got down to the tank, dived in and that was the end of the story. Nobody dared hit him.
So I think that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of person that he was. I mean he came from a background where he felt always that unless he kept himself within the precepts of Christianity, unless he kept himself within a covenant with God, he was never going to do God’s great work and would be forever dammed. That was both a strength and a weakness. It was also an interesting characteristic I think for a young officer in The British Army in the inter war years.
I am going to have to skip very quickly over what happened next because it’s not part of the Chindit story.
After leaving Woolwich he was commissioned into The Royal Regiment of Artillery and, like many other young men of that period, he looked on the Empire as a means of getting on in his Army career. He served with The Sudan Defence Force and was interested, in fact was one of the people who was very keen to find the oasis of the Zurrah . Those of us who have seen The English Patient will know the kind of thing that he was involved in, and he also served in Palestine before the war, where he developed the special night squads which were set up by The British Army to protect Jewish settlements during the Arab revolts. This led him of course, to being a Zionist. Many people thought with his angular dark looks that he must be a Jew himself. He wasn’t as I have explained. He came from a Scottish background, but its certainly true that he did espouse Zionism at a time when it was most unpopular in The British Army. In the Middle East The British Army tended to be pro-Arab, and for Wingate to take a pro-Zionist point of view of course, was considered to be quite remarkable.
So fast forward again to Cairo and the summer of 1941. Wingate, after having tried to commit suicide, got his career back on course. Now I know there are several people in the audience tonight who either have been in the Army, or are in the Army today, and they will know that sometimes you have to make your own luck. Sometimes when appointments come up, when promotions are in question, the luck that you either have made for yourself at that moment, or you have made for yourself in the past, will come to your rescue, and so it was with Wingate. From being a disgraced, well, not disgraced. Suicide isn’t exactly a plus mark in your Army record, but from being a disgraced Major in The Royal Regiment of Artillery, with perhaps not much looking out for him, he suddenly got a message from India from his old patron Archibald Wavell, who had been sent to India to command the forces there at the time when India was facing invasion by the Japanese through Burma and Assam.
It was one of those invitations I guess that any young officer would kill for. It more or less said “come across to India. See what you can do to try and help us fight the Japanese. You can do what you like. Its an open book. See what you can do, see what you can do to help us”. So in the rank of Half Colonel he was sent to India on unspecified staff duties.
Wingate, being Wingate of course, jumped at it, because he didn’t just see this as a simple command from the staff in India. He didn’t just see this as a behest from his old patron Archibald Wavell. He saw God’s hand at work. Suddenly after all those years of playing around in the wilderness, trying to find himself, of even trying to kill himself in Cairo, had come to fruition. There was a chance in life and he was determined to take it.
Burma and the Chindits.
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.
Wingate’s death and it’s effect on the campaign;
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.