The recent release of an authorised history of the Special Air Service regiment (SAS) has produced much talk about 'mad men' having formed the basis of the first incarnation of the foremost special services organisation within the British armed forces. This comes as little surprise to those of the generation brought up on comic books such as 'Battle' and 'Commando' which unfailingly portrayed many special forces soldiers as eccentrics - if not as actually having more than a few 'loose screws'.
For an institution often seen as stuffy and very narrow-minded, the British Army always had a means of accommodating eccentrical, off-beat personalities. In order to wage unorthodox warfare of the sort practiced by regiments like the SAS, you need unorthodox personalities.
One forgotten pioneer of the modern practice of waging insurgency and conducting unorthodox warfare is Major General Orde Wingate. Wingate was a cousin of the better known Lawrence of Arabia.
He left his mark in several theatres of war during World War 2 including Ethiopia and Burma. In pre-war Palestine, the Christian Zionist Wingate worked closely with Jewish Police and irregulars via 'Special Night Squads' tasked with tracking down and engaging with Arab guerrillas during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939. In Ethiopia, Wingate’s 'Gideon Force', a Corps d’Elite among the Sudanese and Ethiopian regular armies, was successfully utilised against the Italian occupiers of East Africa. His name is mostly associated with the 'Chindits', a group of behind-enemy-lines insurgents that he led against the Japanese in the sweltering jungles of Burma.
A very brief summation of the formula undergirding his approach to his special brand of warfare was articulated in the following way by the man himself:
To sum up it is proposed to assemble and employ a force of the highest fighting qualities capable of employment in widely separated columns...that it should be allocated an objective behind the enemy’s lines, the gaining of which will decisively affect the campaign; and that to enable it to carry out its task it must be given a political doctrine consonant with our war aims.
Wingate was well-practised at conducting both insurgency as well as counter-insurgency. The British empire in its centuries of duration was often called upon to practise the latter. The campaigns conducted in the waning years of empire in places such as Malaya and Kenya created a doctrinal hybrid dominated by the ideas of two army officers, namely Robert Thompson and Frank Kitson. Of the two, Kitson’s name is the more familiar extending from the realm of military colleges to the wider public through his books ‘Gangs and Counter-gangs’ and ‘Low Intensity Operations.’ Yet, it must be said that Kitson’s concept of the ‘counter-gang’, utilised against Mau Mau and Irish republican insurgents, is one which was based on Wingate’s strategy of counter-terrorism that was used against Shifta bandits in the Sudan and Arab insurgents.
Wingate was perceived as a highly complex and difficult man. He suffered demotions in rank and command and once attempted suicide. Yet, his abilities were all too apparent and his service to king and country much valued.
To bring home the aforementioned point about the need for unorthodox personalities in the conduct of secret warfare, it is worth reminding that Winston Churchill felt that as “a man of genius and audacity", Wingate's peculiarities and subordinate rank to others at the top of the military hierarchy was not to be used as an excuse to obstruct his "proper station" in war.
He died on March 24, 1944 in Bishnupur, Manipur, India as a result of an air crash.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2016)