WASHINGTON — As sirens wailed in Israel on Sunday, marking the day on which Israelis commemorate the 20,196 soldiers and civilians who died in hostilities since the Jewish state was born, American Jewish war veterans gathered in Arlington National Cemetery to mark the 60th anniversary of the death of Major General Orde Wingate, the spiritual godfather of Israel’s military.
Joined by official representatives of the United States, Israel, Britain, Ethiopia and Burma, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA saluted the renegade Evangelical Christian British officer who deeply believed in the Zionist cause, and who inspired generations of military leaders worldwide in unconventional anti-guerrilla guerrilla warfare.
“Wingate left behind two main legacies,” said Lieutenant General Robert Magnus of the U.S. Marines at the ceremony. One was “in innovating war-fighting skills that can be found today in special operations forces” of the best armies in the world, Magnus said. “The other, for the generations that followed him, is enshrined in the state of Israel.”
The Arabic-speaking intelligence officer was assigned to Palestine in 1936, during the first year of what became a three-year Arab uprising. He arrived with his new bride, 18-year-old Lorna, and a worn Bible, which was always in his pocket or in his hand. In 1948, four years after his death in a plane crash in Burma, Lorna gave her husband’s old Bible to Jewish fighters fending off Arab armies in northern Israel.
After serving in the British army in Sudan, where he devised sting operations against robbers of desert convoys, Wingate expertly diagnosed the weakness in the tactics used by pre-state Zionist militias fighting against Arab attackers. Jewish communities were fixed on static defense in and around the settlements, rather than attacking the enemy on its own grounds and nipping its hit-and-run missions in the bud.
Despite disapproval from his commanders, Wingate established the famous Special Night Squads of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah. He personally led them on often controversial, bloody missions against Arabs. He trained Israeli military giants — including Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, who later commanded the fledgling state’s army — and he inspired the Israeli military tradition of daring, innovative, risky surprise attacks, and established the acharay (“after me”) ethos of Israeli field commanders.
Wingate’s Palmach codename was Hayedid , “The Friend.” Some of his commanders and colleagues accused him of letting his sympathy for the Zionist cause supersede his loyalty to British interests, to which he once replied: “My public and private support of the Jews is because they have always been loyal to me and to Great Britain.”
In fact, though speakers at Sunday’s ceremony highlighted Wingate’s military brilliance, his support for the Jews was to a large extent due to his strong religious beliefs — which were barely mentioned. Nor did anyone refer to his various eccentricities, though British Army Lieutenant Colonel R.B. Bruce, representing the British embassy and wearing the traditional plaid trousers and feathered beret of the Royal Scots, came closest. He pointed out that while Wingate “revolutionized the way in which war is fought,” he also expressed, in his personality, the British tendency to appreciate the unorthodox, even the eccentric, to value the ability “to think outside the box.”
In recent years, Israeli “New Historians” have uncovered surprising details about Wingate’s behavior. A socially inept man, he loved to eat raw onions and once received Abba Eban in a London hotel room stark naked, brushing his body hair with a sharp-bristled brush. Some suggest he suffered from emotional disorders. He is described as often experiencing depression, imposing long silences on himself or reciting non-stop “God is good.” He even tried once to commit suicide by cutting his throat.
Most disturbing, and most vehemently debated by Wingate’s former colleagues and supporters, is evidence regarding Wingate’s brutality and cruelty. New research alleges that the officer on occasion struck his soldiers and led retribution raids into Arab villages, killing innocent civilians and terrorizing others.
Event organizer Michael Hurwitz, a member of the JWV’s District of Columbia department, said that commemorating Wingate on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day was a good opportunity to pay tribute to Israel and its defense forces.
But there was another, more mundane reason: Wingate happens to be buried in Arlington, one of only 51 foreign nationals among the 260,000 servicemen and women and their dependents who are buried there. Five of the eight other casualties of the 1944 plane crash in the Burma jungles that ended Wingate’s life were Americans. According to international military conventions, in such cases, when the remains are unrecognizable, they are all buried in the country of the majority of casualties.