Jan

30

 Orde Wingate, the eccentric British general who made his reputation in the 1930s-1940s by leading unconventional troops in Palestine, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and Burma:

His pioneering efforts to add guerrilla tactics to the arsenals of conventional armies often met with disdain and disbelief from more conventionally minded officers. Wingate did not care. "Popularity," he believed, "is a sign of weakness." Considered by his peers to be either a "military genius or a mountebank" (opinions differed), he had been locked in an unceasing war against his superiors from his earliest days.

Even as a young cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he "had the power," recalled his best friend, "to create violent antagonisms against himself by his attitude towards authority." Later, as a junior officer, Wingate was known to begin meetings with generals by placing his alarm clock on the table. After it went off, he would leave, announcing, "Well gentlemen, you have talked for one hour and achieved absolutely nothing. I can't spend any more time with you!"

Wingate's first rebellion was against the stifling religious atmosphere in which he was raised. His father was a retired Indian Army colonel with a devotion to a fundamentalist Protestant sect called the Plymouth Brethren. He and his wife brought up their seven children, including "Ordey" (his family nickname), in what one of his brothers called a "temple of gloom," with prayer mandatory, frivolity forbidden, and "fears of eternal damnation" ever present.

By the time he arrived at Woolwich, to train as an artillery officer, he had left the Plymouth Brethren, but he never lost his religious outlook. For the rest of his life he would be deeply influenced by the Bible, on which he had been "suckled" and which a friend said "was his guide in all his ways." Another legacy of his childhood was that he developed a violent aversion to being regimented. At Woolwich he was in constant trouble, and he formed a low opinion of the "military apes" who tried to discipline him.

After graduation he learned Arabic, and in 1928 he joined the British-run Sudan Defense Force as an officer overseeing local enlisted men. Here he battled elusive gangs of slave traders and poachers within Sudan, learning the hit-and-run tactics he would employ throughout his career.

He also developed many of his unconventional habits, such as wearing scruffy clothing ("his socks were very smelly and all in holes," a subordinate later noticed), subjecting himself to great danger and discomfort, and receiving visitors in the nude. (He would become notorious for briefing reporters in his hotel room while "brushing his lower anatomy with his hairbrush.")

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