General Orde Wingate was a rather mysterious man. In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster describes him as “brilliant and blazingly eccentric“, simultaneously “the British army’s most respected – and most distrusted – officer“.
He was a fourth-generation military man and, having been born to devoutly Christian parents, he himself was also deeply religious, having memorized large passages of the Bible’s Old Testament.
His Gideon Force (named after his favorite Bible character) accomplished great things in Ethiopia in 1941 (and we’ll likely visit those exploits in the future), but his lack of communication got him into tremendous difficulty with his commanders, so much so that, despite his victories, he was packed off to Cairo and summarily demoted from the rank of colonel to major.
Depression set in and, combined with malaria, had a devastating effect on Wingate. On July 4, 1941, Major Wingate unsuccessfully attempted suicide, but for his efforts earned six months of rehab and psychiatric treatments.
Deemed fit to command again, Wingate returned to action…this time to Burma. He arrived in February of 1942, and it was already too late to salvage what, to this point, was a Japanese rout. But Wingate foresaw the usefulness of a group of men not unlike the Gideon Force – guerillas going behind enemy lines in deep penetration missions, and so he went to work with the 77th Indian Brigade.
He may have been a Christian, but his training espoused little grace and almost no mercy. He wanted his men diamond-hard and chiseled on the anvil of toughness. All training movements were performed on the double. Men were required to forage for their own meals, which meant dinners of frogs, insects, lizards. Illness ran rampant through the 3,000 trainees, but Wingate had little sympathy…there were no hospitals or pretty nurses behind enemy lines.
Donovan again records one of Wingate’s tirades. “Everyone is taught to be doctor-minded. Although it is all right in normal civilian life, where ample medical facilities are avialable, it will not apply to us in the jungle. You have to diagnose your own complaints and then cure yourselves…We shall not stop for you, for our very lives may be jeopardized by waiting for stragglers. If you are sick, you are of no use to us – you are an unwanted liability. We shall leave you to effect your own salvation.” Wingate didn’t mince words.
The training was brutal, but rather than cause bad blood and resentment in the men, it galvanized them. They worked together to help one another eat, stay well, and stay alive. They developed tactics with both precision and flexibility, to the point that there were very nearly telepathic in their actions.
And Orde Wingate had taken to calling his men “Chindits”, a mis-pronunciation of “Chinthe”, the half-man, half-lion statues that guarded the doors of Burma’s Buddhist temples.
At the end of 1942, Wingate’s men were ready, and then General Archibald Wavell delivered the news that circumstances had forced him to cancel the Chindits expedition into Burma. Orde Wingate (now a colonel again) came unglued, castigating the General for nearly two hours until, unbelievably, Wavell relented.
And on February 13, 1943, Operation Longcloth got under way as the Chindit forces, broken into seven groups like tynes on a fork, began crossing the border from India into Burma to fight as guerillas behind enemy lines.
The next month or so would determine if Wingate’s Ethiopian success could be duplicated in the dense jungles of southeast Asia.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road