The Tim Tebow of the Army
On April 22, a touching ceremony was held at Arlington Cemetery for Major General Orde Wingate. Though a British Army officer, he was buried at Arlington in 1950.
Orde Wingate was the Tim Tebow of the British, American, and future Israeli armies. Why? Because like Tim Tebow, he was a devout Christian who found his inspiration in the Bible, and like Tim Tebow he was able to innovate and find ways to succeed even when he lacked equipment and mass.
Wingate got many of his ideas from the Bible, and he applied them in Ethiopia, where he was sent to confront Italian forces occupying the country. Wingate formed what we would call a "special force" consisting of British, Sudanese, and Ethiopian troops, to which were added Palestinian (later Israeli) Haganah SNS units. The group's size was, at its largest, some 1,700 men -- but it succeeded in forcing the surrender of over 20,000 Italian front-line troops, largely by deceiving the Italian Expeditionary Force on the size of the Wingate operation. Wingate's unit was called the Gideon Force, named after the Bible's Gideon. The name Gideon comes from the Hebrew Gidon, meaning Destroyer or Mighty Warrior.
Before his operation in Ethiopia, Wingate played a critical role in training and leading the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense force responsible for the Special Night Squads. While subsequent British-post World War II actions in Palestine, under a British mandate, found the British Army at loggerheads with the Haganah, before World War II the Haganah proved helpful to British interests. In fact, one of the important objectives of Haganah forces, supported by Wingate and the British, was to prevent Arab sabotage of the petroleum pipelines belonging to the Iraq Petroleum Company and to confront the Arab Revolt, then in progress.
Most importantly, Wingate devised unique battle tactics, particularly night operations, and provided extensive training for Haganah forces. The ideas put forward by Wingate eventually formed the basis of ideas about how to run a military force, strongly at variance with traditional attitudes.
Wingate's last venture was operating in Burma behind enemy (Japanese) lines. Japan had a far superior force, but Wingate's leadership of his small force of "Chindits" -- which comprised the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade and, in 1944, the 3rd Indian Infantry Division -- caused the Japanese many problems. The name "Chindit" is a corrupted form of Chinthe, which is a Burmese mythical beast that guards the doors of Buddhist temples. While there are different views about the overall success of the Chindit operation, some military historians claim --based on Japanese Army wartime assessments found in captured documents -- that the Chindit penetration of Japanese Army forces forestalled the will of Japan's military leaders to invade India. Had the war moved to India, it would certainly have stirred nationalistic sentiments there, and it could have significantly affected the Pacific War operation and its final outcome. Even worse, out-and-out war could have forced the redeployment of U.K. forces from the European theater, delaying D-Day and giving Hitler more time to mount a defense against the Allies.
Wingate died when his aircraft crashed in India while returning from Burma. The bodies of the nine men lost in the B-25H Mitchell Bomber were first interred in India, but in 1950, they were moved to Arlington Cemetery, where there is a memorial to them in Section 12 at site 288.
Wingate's original thinking, both in confronting regular armies and in dealing with insurgencies, is, of course, greatly relevant to the issues the U.S. and its allies face today.
Orde Wingate was befriended by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. In Israel, he trained Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan among others.
As a soldier, Wingate always gallantly took the initiative, used the tools he had available, and demonstrated leadership. He made his entire team responsible for victory. He was truly the Tim Tebow of his time -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Tebow is the Wingate of his time.
Most of all, Orde Wingate looked to the Bible for ideas and solutions, and it seems he found there what he sought. Perhaps the next time Tim Tebow is on the field, it will cause us to think about Orde Wingate and his amazing accomplishments.
Stephen Bryen served as deputy undersecretary of defense during the Reagan administrations.