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A Grave Injustice: Wingate and the Establishment

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David Rooney argues that Chindit commander Orde Wingate has had his Burma campaign unfairly judged by military establishments.

Major General Orde Wingate was killed on March 24th, 1944, when his plane crashed into a hillside near Imphal – just nineteen days after the launch of Operation Thursday, the great Chindit campaign against the Japanese at the height of the battles for Burma. News of his death reverberated around the world. Tributes flowed in to his young pregnant widow, from high and low. The most moving tribute came a few months later from General Slim, who commanded the 14th Army. He wrote that Wingate was a man of genius, 'a truly dynamic leader who combined vision and action, one of the few men in this war who was irreplaceable, who designed, raised, trained, and inspired his force, and placed it in the enemy's vitals'. Yet Wingate had also made many enemies. He was abrasive, impatient, intolerant – Mountbatten said he was a pain in the neck to the commanders above him – and one general with whom he clashed in 1943 eventually took his revenge.

For months after his death the Royal Family, statesmen, ambassadors and soldiers united to praise one of the most daring leaders and original military thinkers of the war. He had built up his reputation by his original work organising the Jewish Special Night Squads in Palestine in 1938; by leading Gideon Force in Ethiopia in 1941, when with a few hundred men he bluffed 12,000 Italians into surrender, and then escorted the Emperor Haile Selassie into his capital, Addis Ababa. Called once again by Wavell, to organise guerrilla groups behind the rapidly advancing Japanese forces in Burma, he arrived in India with a well thought-out policy. He alone at that time saw the possibilities of air power linked to units behind the enemy lines, with wireless contact back to their base; contact too with supporting aircraft for bringing in supplies, for flying out the wounded, and for close support attack – and all with the cover of the jungle to help. Thus evolved the Chindit idea.

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