The 75th Commemoration of the Death of Orde Wingate

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 24, 2019

March 24, 2019
Add to History Board Share Print
Above: Orde Wingate enters Addis Ababa on horseback. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The British, as a rule, do not go wobbly. A steadfast people, they like to stay calm.  However, this has not been the case with the treatment of Jews: incidents have occurred. Having welcomed Jews to Britain in the 11th century, they expelled them in the 13th. Cromwell, informally, let them back in; Charles II, casually, named them alien infidels. And when His Majesty’s government went so far, in 1753, to proffer Jewish citizenship, it withdrew the offer, in 1754. “Double, double toil and trouble”, as someone said, until finally, three years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, a Jew was allowed to sit in the House of Parliament. And this mere backdrop, to explain the enormity, really, of what happened in the first half of the 20th century when the scion of a famous English family gone into politics, and an evangelical Christian gone into the Army, as good as joined forces, to stand English antisemitism on its head – and help create the state of Israel.

Even Winston had a fault. He was too fond of Jews. – Major-General Sir Edward Louis Spears, 1968

It is because I am what I am, objectionable though it may seem to my critics, that I win battles. – Orde Wingate

Twenty-six hundred years in the Diaspora, and one comes to appreciate the kindness of strangers: which is why a British intelligence officer, and gentile, named Orde Charles Wingate, stationed in Palestine during the Mandate — the term of 25 years in which the British controlled Palestine — is known in Hebrew as “the friend.”  At a time when virtually every British official in the region then known as Mandatory Palestine (and now known as Israel) was anti-Semitic, Wingate was an ardent Zionist. A brilliant commando, he insisted on organizing, against his government’s inclination, a Jewish guerrilla force to combat terrorist attacks – and for this service to the Haganah, was shipped home in 1939, forbidden by the British to return. 

Wingate’s passport, marked “NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER PALESTINE”, was presumably still in force when on March 24, 1944, as a Major-General in Burma, heading a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese – even as he dreamed of leading a Jewish Army in the Middle East to “defend Ha’aretz [the land]” – he was killed in an airplane crash en route to a jungle base. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had been so taken with Wingate’s audacity and brilliance that he invited both Wingate and his wife to accompany him to the top secret 1943 Quebec Conference, was months later still troubled by his death – and so hand-wrote this letter to his widow, en route again to Quebec, to the second Conference:

All these weary months I have been seeking an opportunity to write to you. We are approaching Halifax in the Queen Mary and this brings before me again vividly the memories of our voyage last year when you and Orde were happily together on board and in Canada. I have already in public expressed my sense of the grievous loss which our country suffered in your husband’s sudden and untimely death. 

I had recognized him as a man of genius, and I hoped he might become a man of destiny.  All that is ended now, and I can only offer you my most profound sympathy in your grief.  It was a comfort to Orde’s friends that he should have left a son behind him, and I pray that this may be a lasting consolation to you.

Winston Churchill at his desk
Winston Churchill As Prime Minister 1940-1945. Seated in the Cabinet Room at No 10 Downing Street, London. Image: By Cecil Beaton. Imperial War Museum Collections; Wikimedia Commons.

Churchill no doubt saw much in Wingate, however dissimilar their backgrounds, with which to identify. Both, as young soldiers, believed themselves fated, and indemnified, to lead; both proved capable of astonishing wartime heroics; both, in the mid-1930’s, were ardent anti-appeasers, ceaselessly warning of the Nazi behemoth – and both, too, saw for the Jews, the coming Holocaust. Indeed, their concern for the fate of Jewry, was so uncommon among the  English, as to be positively prodigious. Jews, after all, comprised less than 1% of the United Kingdom – and the United Kingdom controlled, in the 30s, one-third of the globe. Jews barely existed in the Empire – and then in Palestine, mostly. Yet both Churchill and Wingate were not only philo-Semitic, but early, and passionate, Zionists. The really interesting question, is why?

Common wisdom has it that Churchill’s “fault” of being “too fond of the Jews” – as his friend and comrade Sir Edward Louis Spears would have it –  came to him, like so much aristocratic, by legacy. His adored father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was so close to his Jewish friends (Baron Nathan Rothschild, Baron Maurice de Hirsch and  Sir Ernest Cassel were a few) that when challenged by a fellow peer at a country weekend, “What, Lord Randolph, you’ve not brought your Jewish friends?” he famously retorted, “No, I did not think they would be very amused by the company.”

Whether Churchill’s philo-Semitism was inherited,  or took empathetic root, at having been himself, relentlessly bullied at school; or in early manhood, visiting Paris and witnessing, as he called it, “the monstrous conspiracy” of the Dreyfus Affair; whether it was as an ambitious young politician, viewing the Russian pogroms through the eyes of his many Jewish constituents  ” – Churchill was soon enough not just a friend of the Jews, but of a Jewish homeland. “I recognize,” he wrote privately in 1906 (echoing Theodor Herzl only two years after Herzl’s untimely death), “the supreme attraction to a scattered and persecuted people of a safe and settled home under the flag of tolerance and freedom.” Two years later, he wrote again, privately, that “Jerusalem must be the only ultimate goal. When it will be achieved it is vain to prophesy: but that it will some day be achieved is one of the few certainties of the future.” By 1921, however, as Colonial Secretary, he was declaring his position unabashedly. Visiting Jerusalem, he told a Palestinian Arab delegation that “it is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated?” The dye was cast – and the bond, it would seem, with Orde Wingate, inevitable.

Orde Wingate was not, like Churchill, an aristocrat,  a politician, or a brilliant wordsmith. Far from it. He was a religious fundamentalist, an unorthodox military strategist, and pretty much loathed by those in power. He was posted to Palestine, a lowly intelligence officer, in 1936, during the first months of the Arab Revolt. He hadn’t any interest in Jews, or Zionism, and inasmuch as he spoke Arabic and was, somehow, distantly related to T.E. Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, it seemed beyond the pale to imagine that within a year, he would become a Hebrew-speaking Zionist commando leader. However, in Wingate’s own words, this is what happened to him, and why:

“When I was at school I was looked down on, and made to feel that I was a failure and not wanted in the world. When I came to Palestine I found a whole people who had been treated like that through scores of generations, and yet at the end of it they were undefeated, were a great power in the world, building their country anew. I felt like I belonged to such people.”

Thus he embraced, from every perspective, the vital hopes and aspirations of  Jews who were in danger. The British government, mindful of Arab oil, was attempting to govern Palestine with political schemes and vague promises. The Palestinian Arabs were committing terrorist acts against the Jews. Wingate’s answer to this situation was to develop elite squads to bring the violence back to its perpetrators. “There is only one way to deal with the situation,” he declared, “to persuade the gangs that, in their predatory raids, there is every chance of their running into a government gang which is determined to destroy them.” As he came to identify more and more with the Zionist cause, he came to understand that the British government was not to be trusted, and so told the same to his Zionist cohorts. It wasn’t long, then, despite the success of his tactics, that he was ordered to go home to England in the spring of 1919 – and stay out of Palestine.  When at a farewell party at the home of Jewish friends, Wingate suddenly he raised his right hand and began to recite in Hebrew. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” He never returned; but he never forgot.

Churchill, in and out of office, was a Zionist for fifty years, he triumphantly noted in 1949, “all through the dark years when many of my most distinguished countrymen took a different view.” So many years later, Churchill’s benediction of Wingate as a man of genius, who he hoped might become a man of destiny, has proven true – for them both.

This story has a coda. Wingate’s only child, a son, was conceived at the time of the 1943 Quebec Conference, but born after his death. Despite never knowing his father, he too became an ardent Zionist.

WINSTON S. CHURCHILL. 1874 – 1965. Great British statesman. He never accepted that he inspired the nation during World War II: it was the British people that had the lion heart, he insisted – he merely gave the roar. A lifelong Zionist, he was hailed by Ben-Gurion as having joined battle, and prevailed.

ORDE CHARLES WINGATE. 1903 – 1944. British major general and wartime commando leader. An ardent Zionist, he helped the Jews in Palestine devise active methods of self-defense during the Palestine Arab Revolt. He collaborated illegally with the Haganah, in fact, and in 1939 was posted outside the country, his passport stamped, “NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER PALESTINE”.

LORNA WINGATE. 1919 –  . Wife of British major general and Zionist Orde Wingate who, after his death, traveled the world speaking on behalf of the Zionist cause. Born an Anglican, she converted to Catholicism.

Featured Manuscript: Autograph Letter Signed, as Prime Minister, 2 pages, recto and verso, on the letterhead of the Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, but datelined by Churchill “At Sea,” September 10, 1944. To Mrs. Orde Wingate.

Manuscripts Related To This Article