"General Wingate,"

The Father of the Israeli Army,"

by Joseph M. Hochstein (Levitt Letter, June 2009


Israelis may know the name of Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate in connection with the Wingate Institute of physical education or with various local streets and landmarks. Less familiar is the life story of this Bible-reading Christian and Zionist hero, who has been called the "Father of the Israeli Army."

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote that Wingate would have become Israel's first Chief of General Staff, had he not been killed in World War II. Moshe Dayan and other Israelis who served in Wingate's Special Night Squads saw him as a leader who, as Dayan put it, "taught us everything we know."

Wingate came to Israel as a captain in British intelligence during the Arab uprising in 1936. He recruited Jews for counter-insurgency operations, which soon put Arab attackers on the defensive. After Wingate arrived in Israel and told the Jews he wanted to help them, theyw ere suspicious. He was, after all, a British intelligence officer. By Wingate's own account, all other British officials in Israel in those days disliked Jews.

In 1939, his pro-Jewish stand led to his recall to England, with a note in his passport forbidding him from every returning to Israel. Wingate made an official declaration: "Neither I nor my wife nor any member has a drop of Jewish blood in our veins." He said this in a formal appeal against critical evaluations he received from his commanding officers. He added, "I am not ashamed to say that I am a real and devoted admirer of the Jews...Had more officers shared my views, the (Arab) rebellion would have come to a speedy conclusion some years ago."

Wingate grew up in a Protestant movement known as the Plymouth Brethren. He knew the Bible from childhood. He evidently identified with the warrior Gideon. He made his base at Ein Harod, where Gideon recruited his little army. When he was sent to liberate Ethiopia, Wingate called his command "Gideon Force."

During World War II, Wingate preached long-range penetration--attacking deep behind enemy lines. He said armies could extend the range of ground forces by exploiting aircraft and radio, two factors then relatively new in warfare.

Wingate often seemed to be an outsider, but he has been called an "insider's insider." Through most of his career he had patrons in high places, among them Sir Archibald Wavell, Sir Edmund Ironside, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Winston Churchill. Churchill took Wingate with him to the 1943 Quadrant conference in Quebec. There, Wingate briefed President Franklin Roosevelt and won U.S. support for an ambitious airborne operation that became his last czampaign. He received Britain's Distinguished Service Order three times in six years--for valor in Burma in 1943, in Ethiopia before that, and in Mandatory Palestine in 1938.

On March 24, 1944, while commanding a Chindit operation, Wingate died in a plane crash in Burma. He was 41 and a major-general.

In time, the Jews recognized that this unorthodox Christian who aspired to command a Jewish army was indeed their friend. That's what they came to call him--Hayedid, in Hebrew "the friend." And that's how Israelis remember him still. At a time when the world was turning its back on the Jews, Orde Wingate chose to be their friend.--Joseph Hochstein

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