GENERAL ORDE WINGATE
Orde Charles Wingate was born in India to a military family on 26 February 1903. He spent his childhood in England where he received a very religious upbringing and was subjected, by his father, to intensive days of reading and memorizing the Old Testament. Later in his military career his quotes from the Bible earned him the nickname “Old Sword and Bible”.
One of seven children, Wingate’s strict parents raised him in a manner that encouraged independence, initiative and self-reliance. These were qualities that served him well in an incident where he got in trouble at the Royal Military Academy and was subjected to a punishment called “running”. The punishment consisted of the offender being stripped and forced to run a gauntlet of senior students wielding knotted towels and then being thrown into the cold waters of a cistern. When it was Wingate’s time to be punished for reportedly returning a horse late to the stables, he stood before the senior at the head of the gauntlet and dared him to strike. When the senior refused, he walked to the next senior in line and repeated his dare. When that senior also refused to strike, he repeated his dare before the remaining seniors in the line, and all refused to deliver a blow. At the end of the gauntlet, Wingate calmly walked to the cistern and dived into the cold water.
Throughout his military career, General Wingate was known for his eccentricities. He often wore an alarm clock around his wrist and ate raw onions for snacks. To the consternation of his superiors and the surprise of his subordinates, he often walked about and conducted meetings in the nude. Below medium height, Wingate was sturdily built and had deep set eyes that most men described as having a hard expression, and by the power of his scorn, he was able to make people feel smaller than he was.
At the beginning of World War II Wingate repeatedly proposed the creation of a Jewish army in Palestine to rule over the area on behalf of the British government. Eventually he was sent to the Sudan to begin operations against Italian forces in Ethiopia. In the Sudan, he created the Gideon Force, a small guerrilla force made up of British, Sudanese and Ethiopian soldiers. The force began operations in February 1941 and harassed Italian forts and supply lines. The Gideon Force, with around 1,700 men, accounted for 40,000 Italian troops killed or captured. For his exploits in Ethiopia, Wingate was awarded his second Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
WINGATE’S FIRST LONG-RANGE JUNGLE PENETRATION MISSION
Wingate arrived in India in 1942, and despite his prior successes, was not highly regarded by many of his superiors in India. They thought of him as a crackpot and called him “Tarzan”. He was appointed by General Wavell to organize guerrilla units to fight behind Japanese lines. However, the rout of Allied forces in Burma in early 1942 stopped further planning. In April of 1942, Wingate began to promote his idea for long-range jungle penetration units. Interested by Wingate’s theories, General Wavell gave him a brigade of troops from which he created a long-range jungle penetration unit. The unit became known as the Chindits, a corrupted version of the name of a mythical Burmese lion, the chinthe.
On the 12th of February 1943, Operation Longcloth began with Wingate leading his Chindit units across the Chindwin River into Burma. The force was initially successful in putting one of the main railways in Burma out of action, but when they crossed the Irrawaddy River, the terrain changed along with their fortunes. The Japanese were able to disrupt the Wingate’s supply drops and the Chindits began to suffer from exhaustion and shortages of food and water. On 22 March, Wingate was ordered to withdraw his units back to India. Continuous harassment by the Japanese forced the Chindits to return to India by various routes during the spring of 1943. Their casualties were high and the force lost approximately one-third of its men during their 1,000 mile trek into and out of Burma.
Even with disastrous losses, the Chindit’s exploits were viewed as a success by the folks back home. They had proven that British troops could successfully operate in the jungle against experienced Japanese forces. Wingate was subsequently able to persuade Allied leaders to approve larger scale deep-penetration attacks into Burma. However, Operation Longcloth turned out to be a double edged sword because the Japanese also learned that it was possible for large ground forces to penetrate the jungle between India and Burma, a fete they previously thought impossible.
SECOND LONG-RANGE JUNGLE PENETRATION MISSION
A new long-range jungle penetration operation was planned using six brigades of troops assigned to General Wingate. The new operation was to be a coordinated effort with a regular army offensive against northern Burma. However, the army offensive was cancelled leaving Wingate with no means of transporting his Chindits into Burma.
General Wingate was bitter with the cancellation and voiced his disappointment to anyone who would listen. One of the Allied commanders who listened was Colonel Phil Cochran of the 1st Air Commando Group. This is the same Phil Cochran that was mentioned in my previous blog as being the inspiration for Milt Caniff’s character Flip Corkin in the popular Terry and the Pirates comic strip. Colonel Cochran told Wingate that his long-range mission need not be cancelled and explained that the 1st Air Commando had 150 gliders capable of hauling supplies and moving a sizable force of troops. With this new glider landing option, Wingate decided to proceed into Burma and Operation Broadway was born.
On 6 March 1944, Operation Broadway began. The Chindits under General Wingate arrived in Burma by parachute and glider and established base areas and drop zones behind Japanese lines. Jackie Coogan, famous child star and actor who starred as Uncle Fester in the TV show the Addams Family, was one of the glider pilots for this mission. Wingate’s timing was perfect. The Japanese launched an invasion of India around the same time and the Chindits were able to disrupt the Japanese offensive, diverting troops from the battles in India.
GENERAL WINGATE’S DEATH
On 24 March 1944, Wingate flew to Burma to assess the situation of three Chindit bases. On his return to India, the U.S. Army Air Force B-25 in which he was flying crashed into the jungle in northeast India. All ten men aboard perished. Wingate and the nine other victims were buried in a common grave close to the crash site. Their bodies were charred beyond recognition. Since seven of the ten crash victims, including both pilots, were Americans, all ten bodies were eventually exhumed and reburied in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The reburial was possible courtesy of an amicable three-way agreement between the governments of India, Britain and the US, and in accordance with the families’ wishes.
After General Wingate’s death, the strongholds and landing fields of Operation Broadway were abandoned and the Chindits were assigned to other fighting forces in Burma.
General Orde Charles Wingate was a man for his time. He was a tough, self-reliant, eccentric soldier, and he personified the indomitable will of the English people as they fought successfully to defend their homeland and preserve their freedom.
More information about the men and women who fought in Burma and India during World War II can be read in my book Kicker which can be found at the links below.