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by Doron Geller


For over two centuries the British Imperial experiment produced a host of fascinating and exciting characters. One of the most noted to capture the collective international imagination was Lawrence of Arabia, who in a much embellished account described how he and his Bedouin soldiers freed the Middle East from Ottoman tyranny. Philby of Arabia was a British soldier who converted to Islam, went to live in Saudi Arabia, and became a close friend and confidante of the king in the first half of this century. The Middle East, India, and Africa held a special appeal to the ordinary Englishman, and especially to the more intrepid and spirited explorer among them. The desert and the exotic ways of the Middle Eastern Bedouin particularly exerted a powerful allure to many young English schoolboys in the early years of this century, and among them was a young man who later rose to great prominence in the British Army. He came to be known as a brilliant military thinker and strategist, an intrepid soldier, an unconventional personality to the extreme, and perhaps the firmest friend the Jewish settlers in Palestine ever had. His name was Orde Wingate.

Orde Wingate was born into a Protestant English family in 1903 which raised him on the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament. His parents were strict disciplinarians, a trait which later came to characterize Orde himself. They made him memorize passages of the Bible by heart as well as take long and exhausting walks across the countryside from a very early age. He later was to instill this same sense of discipline into the soldiers under his command.

There were many Christian English Zionists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But little Orde was not one of them at first. Inspired as he was by his love for the Bible, it was the Bedouin and T.E. Lawrence's romantic tales of life among them that sparked his imagination. He seemed to have transferred his fascination for the people of the Old Testament onto the Arabs, who undoubtedly reminded one more of the Biblical patriarchs with their clothing, staffs, and flocks of sheep than European Jews did. At about the age of 20 Orde Wingate had served in the British Army already as a gunner, and while serving, enrolled in the School of Oriental Studies and began to learn Arabic. He had already developed a reputation as a somewhat ornery character among both fellow officers and classmates. He always insisted on doing things his own way. Characteristically, as a student, he took a month's leave and lived among Arab seamen in the East End of London. He learned their language and what perhaps he thought were the habits and customs of Arabs but more likely were those of exhausted seamen; he did not bathe or shave for the month of his absence from school. His schoolmates from the army took one look at him and scrubbed him clean upon his return.

In 1928 Wingate was appointed to the Sudan. He passed through Egypt on the way and was not impressed by the people, although he enjoyed visiting the museums and managed to climb the Pyramids. In the Sudan he developed his system of cross-border campaigning, which he later used in Palestine and elsewhere and made him world-famous. Looking for adventure, he applied to -- and received from -- the royal Geographical Society a grant to search for a lost civilization in the Libyan Desert. He found nothing, but the experience alone in the desert moved him deeply. He was still crystallizing ideas for the future in his mind, conscious of how much he felt he had to accomplish. By his 30th year he still felt as if he had achieved very little, but sensed that greatness was in store for him.

It was at this time, in the mid 1930's that Orde Wingate met and fell in love with a sixteen year old girl whom he was to marry two years later. She accompanied him to Palestine when he was posted there as an intelligence officer in September 1936. At first he thought of it as a normal Middle eastern posting, but on the trip over he began to read about the Zionist enterprise. Although he had been pro-Arab for years, his earlier love for the Bible and the Jews blossomed in him anew as he approached the shores of Palestine. As he was to say; "Long before I reached Palestine I knew what the Jews were seeking, understood what they needed, sympathized with their aims, and knew they were right." His first evening in the land of Israel seemed to allow his blazing intensity to take hold of him, focus, and envelop his very being. That first evening, after settling in at Haifa, he went up to Mount Carmel -- with its beautiful view of the Haifa Bay area -- and met the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Underground Jewish Defense Force, the Haganah. His name was Emmanuel Wilenski.

Wilenski was unaware, at first, that Wingate knew who he was. Wingate, as was his wont, peered closely into his eyes, and asked Wilenski, "' you believe in a Zionist State, in an independent state of Israel?' 'I am not afraid of answering that. Yes. I do.' Wingate clambered to his feet. 'Aha! You do? But do you know what it means? Do you realize that you will have to fight for your independence?' Wilenski replied. 'I think, Captain Wingate, that we do.' 'But fight! I mean fight! A bloody struggle!' shouted Wingate. 'There will be no free Palestine for the Jews unless you fight and win.' He went up to Wilenski and prodded him in the chest. By this time his eyes were blazing. 'And you will not win, my friend, unless I teach you how to fight and I lead you into battle.'"

The Jewish Intelligence Officer didn't know what to make of this man. Here was a British Intelligence Officer, in complete contradistinction to British Imperial policy at the time, telling him that he would lead the Jews to an independent state. British policy, by 1936, was certainly against an independent Jewish state, and in fact had consistently frustrated attempts to expand Jewish immigration into Palestine. This policy was to become more pronounced with the passing years, and as World War loomed on the horizon, the British limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to a mere trickle. By 1936 (but actually since the inception of the Mandate) few British officers were trusted by the Jews. Most British soldiers were overtly pro-Arab. Few Jews in Palestine knew, in September 1936, what a treasure-trove they had in the person of Orde Wingate, a faithful friend who would do anything to pave the way to an independent Jewish state.

Merely by being in the land of Israel Orde Wingate was living a dream, a feeling similar to that of many Second Aliyah pioneers. He however, was not one who romanticized labor and tended to avoid the notion that conflict with the Arabs might be in the offing, as many Jewish laborers in Palestine did. He saw right from the beginning that Jews would need to fight, and not merely defend themselves. He knew what the Jews were fighting for, and he understood their dreams because he shared them. He loved the Land of Israel. "The Holy places were all within his reach. He had only to look around and see the hills and villages and wells upon which his mind had been suckled, which were far more real to him than the places he knew in England." He climbed the Hermon in the Golan. He went to Mount Tabor, near modern-day Afula, where he talked with the monks inhabiting the monastery on top. He looked across the hills and valleys, all familiar to him and bursting with history and spiritual meaning. "For Orde Wingate it was a dream of childhood come true. His Biblical training made it feel much more like a return to a home he had always known than an arrival in a strange land. To stand on the places where the Old Testament prophets had lived, taught, fought and died was as sweet-smelling to him as the annointment oils of a newly proclaimed king. He tramped across the hills. He sang aloud the appropriate words from the Bible of the prophets who had marched this way before him. He was ravished by the revelation of the beauty and the radiance of the Holy Land." He loved to sit on Mount Tabor and sing Psalms in his rapidly improving Hebrew. As his love for the land and for the Jewish people grew in his heart, he knew that he would fight to regain this land for the Jews not only against the Arabs, but even, if necessary, against the country he served.

The year 1936, when Wingate arrived, marked the beginning of the Arab rebellion against both British rule and Jewish settlement in Palestine. The British responded by sending army units after the rebels, with some success. Jewish communities were not always so lucky. As we have seen, British military officers were frequently biased towards the Arab side. When confrontations erupted into hostilities between the Arabs and the Jews, the British frequently confiscated the arms and arrested the Jews -- and more often than not, the Arabs got off the hook. Even if attacked and loss of life was incurred, if Jews fought back their weapons were frequently taken from them.

Part of the problem was that the Jews had a static defense in their settlements while the roaming Arab gangs were mobile, and the Arab perpetrators of attacks frequently could not be found. The Haganah, the Jewish Defense Organization, had been founded in 1920, but it had done little until the outbreak of the riots in 1936. Even then, they were still committed to a policy of "havlaga" -- self-restraint, which led many later to leave and join the more radical Irgun or Stern Gang, both of whom advocated a harsher response to Arab terror.

Wingate was no less disappointed with the British Army's response to Arab rebellion and terror than with the Jewish concept of static defense. The Arabs roamed in from Syria or Jordan, hid in the hills and caves, and used hit-and-run tactics in order to escape to safety. The British Army by contrast, used the roads to chase the perpetrators. Even the British Air Force, when called in, wasn't effective in seeking out the Arab gangs when the Arabs already had a well-planned out escape route or hiding place. The Arabs knew the land well, and the night was theirs alone. Jews set up many stockade and watchtower settlements at night during the Arab riots and afterwards, and they settled in to wait for the Arabs. But they were in fear, and the Arabs were not. The Arabs, if they chose not to attack a British military convoy or a Jewish settlement, would be left alone. The Jews could never say the same about themselves. By 1936, neither could the British. This is where Wingate came in.

Wingate was a man of exceptional direction-finding skills and an uncanny ability to gauge distances, terrain, and the movements of others. He had already proven that in the Sudan. He brought this experience to bear in Palestine. He continued to talk to the Jewish leaders, but they were slow in completely trusting him. He was, after all, a non-Jewish British officer. At this point, the usual British serviceman's semi-disguised antipathy to the Jewish settlers was in some cases even being replaced by open hostility. The Jews were not in a particularly cheerful mood, seeing the British unable to contain the security situation, and at the same time focusing their resentment on the Jews. The Haganah leadership was "not particularly enamored of Wingate when he called them faint-hearted for their doubts and urged them to take the offensive against the Arabs themselves." He was still not completely trusted, even after Moshe Shertok (later Sharrett, then Secretary of the Jewish Agency and Prime Minister from 1953-1955) had said he was completely trustworthy, as did the Commander-in Chief of the Haganah. But Jews in the northern settlements, where Wingate spent much of his time, were still wary of him for a considerable period of time after he arrived in Palestine. It was difficult for them to get used to the idea that a British officer really was on their side and was prepared to dedicate all of his formidable talents and energies to their protection and their cause. But Wingate was certainly for real, as the Jewish settlers were to find out soon enough. Wingate was obsessed with Zionism; his biographer wrote that ever since his arrival in Palestine, he had "plunged into Zionism and Zionist intrigue with all the joy of a grown-up sinner at last brought to baptism." He infuriated his fellow British officers with his pro-Zionist proclivities and inclinations. Nothing ticked them off more than when he answered the telephone with "'Shalom, Wingate here'" -- as Robert Mosley writes -- "in Jewish fashion."

The irrepressible Wingate tried his luck with taking more offensive operations against Arab infiltrators with General Wavell, Commander of British Forces in Palestine. Wingate's plan was tentatively approved, and when he wasn't careening at a mad pace with his jeep around Palestine, Wingate thought of how he would put it into action. He first looked for infiltrators crossing the Jordan, and found none. Soon after, he tried to convince members of Kibbutz Afikim, near the Jordan river, to come on offensive operations against the Arabs with him. As impressed as he was by their guarding of the settlement, he was enraged by their failure to take more initiative. His exasperation is evident in this conversation with Zvi Brenna, member of the Hanita settlement who became actively involved in Jewish defense and Wingate's Night Squads.

"'Somewhere in those hills are men who will one day come down and wipe you out.' Brenna replied: 'They will not overrun us so easily. We will be waiting for them when they come.' Wingate turned angrily upon him. 'That is the trouble with the Jews. Always so calm and patient. Always waiting for disaster to come. You are a race of masochists crying: 'Hurt me, hurt me! I cannot raise my hand against you until you have killed my brother and raped my sister and thrown my father and mother into the ditch.' The Jews of Palestine are in bad condition. So long as you all sit in your settlements and wait to fight and die, you will die before you have a chance to fight.' 'What else can we do?' asked Brenna. 'Why doesn't Hagana go out and fight?' 'I don't know,' replied Brenna."

Wingate went to the Haganah Commander whom he had met his first day in Palestine, Wilenski, and requested men to accompany him on "investigative" missions into Arab territory. At first he was refused, but he persisted, and soon after the Haganah granted him the men.

He first went to the settlement of Hanita, which had been the object of a number of Arab attacks. Moshe Dayan was stationed there by the Haganah at the time, as was the above-mentioned Zvi Brenna. They were ready to take the offensive to the Arab villages themselves, across the border or not, legal or not. When some of the Jews protested that entering Arab villages could lead to their arrest, Wingate told them to "leave these little formalities to me." He was, after all, a British officer, even if he identified heart and soul with the Zionist endeavor.

The first expedition took place in early 1938. The Haganah members hoped an Arab informant would lead them to an Arab village they suspected of harboring Arab attackers about 20 miles away, as they weren't sure they could find their way back at night by themselves.

When Wingate was told about the plan he was astounded. He had the Arab brought before him and, after questioning him in Arabic, realized that he was preparing to lead the unsuspecting Jews into a trap.

"'This man is planning to lead you to your deaths,' he shouted, swinging around on the watching Jews. 'Now let us stop all this nonsense. It is about time a soldier took charge of you.You wish to go on a raid against the Arabs to-night. All right. You shall go. But this wretch will not lead you. I will take you there."

They set out at dusk. It was the first Jewish offensive. They headed into Lebanon, and then doubled back. By three o'clock in the morning, after 30 miles of silently walking, Wingate brought them to the village.

He went ahead alone. When they heard a shot, they moved into their pre-arranged positions. There were more shots, and then a hail of gunfire, and the Arabs came out -- straight into the trap Wingate had laid for them. Dayan and Brenna held their fire until the Arabs were completely surrounded. Those they didn't kill they took prisoner, and found out where they had hid their arms which they had used to sabotage British military installations and Jewish settlements. The Jews and Wingate took the rifles and headed back, just as careful as when they had come. The slightest sound could alarm unseen Arab patrols, and Wingate could be rather unforgiving to men who accidentally cracked a stick or unloosed a stone and sent it scattering down a hillside. But that was nothing compared to the ruthlessness with which he would use to deal with Arabs who harbored information regarding terrorist weapons, hideouts, plans, or intentions.

The British weren't at all pleased when they heard about this raid. Wingate hadn't told them, he hadn't consulted them, and more than that, he had taken Jews on an offensive raid -- that was far more than just defending themselves within their own settlements. Wavell recalled him to Jerusalem. Things didn't look good. "Hayedid (the friend) is in trouble with the British over the raid," one secret Haganah message relayed. "From that moment on, every Jew in the (Jewish) Agency and the secret army was prepared to trust him with their secrets and their lives."

As it happened, Wingate was let off with a mere rebuke. But more than that, he managed to convince Wavell that he could do much more to wipe out the Arab gangs causing such damage to the pipeline bringing oil from Iraq to the port of Haifa. Wavell gave him the permission to continue operating in northern Palestine -- to the chagrin of many other British officers. Wingate was actually supposed to be an intelligence officer based in Nazareth -- but he rarely went there. Conceivably, too, the British military thought he was protecting the pipeline from sabotage. He was actually leading reprisal and deterrence raids of Jewish soldiers against Arab gangs.

Wingate spent much of his time at Ein Harod -- the site of the first kibbutz established in 1923 and Gideon's burial place -- a place where he felt at home. Gideon, it will be recalled from the Bible, was one of the great commanders of the Jews in ancient times. Like Gideon, Wingate was a stern selector of his men. But he provoked love and respect in his soldiers, and indeed in all of the yishuv. The best fighters of the Palestinian settlements were sent to train with Wingate at Ein Harod. Indeed, he had a magnetic hold over the Jews. Rarely in their lives had they ever seen such complete devotion to their cause.

Wingate, meanwhile, had recruited, with General Wavell's approval, a number of British soldiers to serve with him as well. These he mixed in with the Jews so that Jews and British were serving together under Wingate's command.

As his techniques for outsmarting the Arabs developed, Wingate taught his men to leap off of military jeeps while other soldiers continued driving -- watched silently by Arabs, of course -- and then to hide in a ditch until the convoy had passed. Meanwhile, the Arabs would be plotting the course of the convoy and would have no idea that their enemy was in the vicinity.

Wingate was uncanny not only in his sense of direction and ability to gauge distances, but he also knew just where to go after an Arab raid occurred. He would go into a village, fire a shot, and if there was no response, move on to the next one. When there was a shot back he would immediately deploy his men and tell them exactly where the Arabs would go and what they would do. In the words of Moshe Dayan, "He was never wrong." Dayan continued, "I never knew him to lose an engagement. He was never worried about odds. If we were twenty, and the Arabs were two hundred, or if we were at the bottom of a hill and they were at the top, he would say: 'All right, there is a way to beat them. There is some way in which, with a decisive stroke, we can turn the situation in our favour.' There were many who served with him from Ein Harod who later became officers in the Israeli Army which fought and defeated the Arabs, but they were not the only ones who benefited from his training. In some sense, every leader of the Israeli Army even today (this was written in 1955 -- D.G.) is a disciple of Wingate. He gave us our technique, he was the inspiration of our tactics, he was our dynamic." He was ruthless with Arab perpetrators but not brutal with those uninvolved in raids and attacks. Before he set out on one operation he told his men; "We are not making war on the Arab nation but on the Arab gangs, and towards the ordinary Arabs we will abstain from cruelty and barbarity. A coarse and savage man makes a bad soldier, and you will behave with respect towards the bodies of the wives, children and innocent individuals. But you will not let a single culprit escape."

He was amazingly successful. He became something of a legend among the Jews of Palestine and the Arabs put a price on his head. Wavell gave Wingate the approval -- to the shock and disbelief of the British military men -- for Wingate to start a school for training "Jewish settlers in the art of making guerrilla war." This was based at Ein Harod, where Wingate, in the shadow of Gideon, felt so at home. There was jubilation all over Jewish Palestine. Men appeared from the settlements all over the country to volunteer. They took part in continuous operations. The biggest one fought by Wingate's Special Night Squads was at Dakumiyah, on the slopes of Mount Tabor near the Sea of Galilee where one of the most problematic gangs was located. The Arabs were well-entrenched in their positions and armed well. The battle started at 1 p.m., but Wingate called it off and waited for dusk. By 3 a.m. it was all over. The Arab gangs were decisively defeated. Wingate, however, was wounded and nearly died from his wounds. His Jewish comrades brought him to the hospital.

Even the grudging British Police couldn't deny what a victory it was. It removed one of the most dangerous gangs of thieves from the area. But while he received a promotion for the operation, it was the beginning of the end for Wingate in Palestine. He had simply been too successful in his work. The Jews were becoming a fighting force. And Wingate showed his happiness at this fact at every opportunity. Turning Jews into formidable fighters was not really in British interests. Meanwhile General Wavell had been replaced by General Haining, "a pharaoh who knew not Joseph." At first Haining thought the Night Squads was a good idea, but he soon changed his mind, forbade Wingate to return to Ein Harod, and disbanded the Night Squads.

Wingate was forlorn, aggrieved. He tried to get Haining to change his mind, or at least to have a meeting with him about the issue, but to no avail. Wingate was mocked by the other pro-Arab British officers. His gloom was inconsolable. He looked pale and sickly. Still, he did what he could to help the Zionists. In 1939 the British issued the White Paper, which seriously restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and offered no hope for an independent Jewish state. Coming on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust this was tragic from a Jewish point of view. Millions of lives could have been saved if not for the British policy embodied in this document. Wingate was furious. He said it was time to declare war on the British, and offered to lead the Jews in their offensive operations -- starting with the Haifa oil refinery. None of the Palestinian Jews were willing to listen to him at the time. The Haganah was especially adamant about not damaging fragile Jewish-British relations at a most sensitive time. Five years later, however, the Irgun did revolt against British rule in Palestine, just as Wingate had advocated.

It was late 1939. Wingate was posted home, to England. Before he left, he returned to his beloved Mount Tabor, overlooking Ein Harod. He told the unit and Haganah leaders, in Hebrew, "I am sent away from you and the country I love. I suppose you know why. I am transferred because we are too great friends. They want to hurt me and you. But I promise you I shall come back." In the event he never set foot in Palestine again. Orde Wingate experienced both great triumphs and the depths of despair thereafter. He became famed as a warrior in East Africa and as a general in Burma, often having his Jewish assistant, Akavia, accompany him as his second-in-command. He had dreams of leading a Jewish Army to independence once World War II was over, but he never got the chance. He was killed over Burma in 1944 [his remains are buried in Arlington National Cemetary, Washington, D.C.].

Orde Wingate was an exceptional man, and a gift to the Jewish people in his time. He was always champing at the bit, ready to move ahead with plans which had not yet come to fruition in other men's minds. He was ready to take wild chances -- something that scared his military superiors, and often earned him rebuke or even encouraged others to view him as unprofessional. But he was invariably successful. In this respect he is like the American General Douglas MacArthur or the Israeli General Ariel Sharon -- both of whom had more than their share of detractors in their respective countries for their unorthodox methods and no-holds-barred style of battle. Wingate, MacArthur, and Sharon were highly successful military men, but were viewed with suspicion for much of their careers. But the military also needs men like this, which is why, as close as they had sometimes seemed to losing any hope for advancement in their respective military (and in Sharon's case, political as well) careers, circumstances seemed to change for the better and they were given another chance.

Orde Wingate initiated a transition period in the concept of Jewish self-defense in Palestine. We have seen how the Jewish worker was the ideal of the Second and Third Aliyot. Ha-Shomer, the Jewish Guardsmen organization, had been established in 1907 and lasted until World War I as an organization solely dedicated to Jewish self-defense. Joseph Trumpeldor's heroic stand at Tel-Hai in 1920 was the first full-scale battle in the history of the yishuv between Jews and Arabs -- and once again it was a defensive battle. Until Wingate arrived in Palestine, the Jewish attitude towards Arab marauders and Arab terror was one of self-defense only. The establishment of the Special Night squads in 1936 marked a change in this attitude from a purely defensive to a more offensive ethos. After Wingate the night, which had previously belonged to the Arabs alone, no longer did so. And even though he never came back to serve the people he loved and help establish the state he so longed to see, his training and example left an indelible imprint on the emerging standards of the fledgling Israeli Army. A major part of the reason why the state of Israel was able to withstand its enemies in 1948, and thus see the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel after more than 1800 years, was due to the unparalleled and heroic efforts of Orde Wingate and his group of Jewish fighters comprising the Night Squads.

For Wingate, the pioneers represented the re-emergence of the Hebrew warrior of old in modern guise, and he was their inspired Gideon. As the acknowledged military leader of the Jewish people in a crucial period in the history of the yishuv, Wingate enabled the young pioneers-turned-fighters to stand on their own two feet, as men, and turn the tide of history. The state of Israel owed no small thanks to the man universally known as "Hayedid" -- the Friend. Indeed, The Jewish people could have asked for no better friend than Orde Wingate, who appeared and disappeared like a whirlwind in the lives of the Palestinian Jews, but forever left his mark on the people he loved and on the development of the state he so longed to see.


1). Yigal Allon, The Making of Israel's Army
2). Robert Mosley, Gideon Goes to War
3). Anita Shapira, Land and Power

Doron Geller, a historic researcher, wrote for Wikipedia; the Pedagogic Center, Dept for Jewish Zionist Education; World Zionist Organizations; and Jewish Virtual Library.

This article was written in 1955 and distributed by the Pedagogic Center, Dept for Jewish Zionist Education.


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