The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 2 - December 1977

Tribute to Major-General Orde Charles Wingate, DSO & Bar

by Reg C. Poultney

Editor’s note: The following extract from a letter written in August 1946 to Dr I. Kaplan by Reg Poultney - a SAAF pilot who served with the Chindits —gives an interesting insight into the character and philosophy of the late Major-General Wingate.

All I can write about this fine soldier is that he is a man who would never ask a comrade (I say comrade because after 7 1/2 months behind enemy lines and each sharing the same terrific hardships, one is bound to the other and become comrades) or anyone under his command to do what he himself had not done already or would not do. He was a man who in every instance had the courage of his own convictions.

I will relate a tribute, paid to the late Gen Orde Wingate at the time of his tragic death in an air crash over the Naga Hills, on 24th of March 1944, by Lieutenant-General W.J. Slim, CB, CBE, DSO, MC, GOC-in-C, 14th Army. These are Gen Slim’s words and I can heartily endorse the same, after having served under this great soldier, Gen Wingate, for nine months:

‘I first met Wingate in East Africa in 1940 when he was taking a leading part in the organisation and leadership of the patriot forces in Abyssinia. I regarded him then as one of the several daring young soldiers who were showing themselves to be outstanding guerilla leaders. It was not until months later when I travelled with him on a long air trip that I realised that Wingate was much more than that. I talked with him, and he gave me a paper he had written on the organisation, control and operation of guerilla forces. I then learned that, added to the tactical daring of the guerilla leader, was a wealth of vision and a depth of imagination that placed him far above his comrades.

Genius is a word that should not be easily used but I say without hesitation that Wingate had sparks of genius in him. Someone has defined genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains”. Genius is not that. People who have an infinite capacity for taking pains are not geniuses. They are routine men fit for minor administrative posts. Wingate was not like that. Real genius has the power to see things more clearly than ordinary men can. This he had.

He had, too, another attribute of genius: the power to accept other peoples’ ideas, to adapt them to his own purposes, and to give them his own individuality — a form of genius which has always marked a great artist. Thus Wingate would discuss tactical ideas with you. He would contradict, argue, make you explain and defend your methods. When he had completely satisfied himself he would accept them and incorporate them harmoniously in his own technique. An example of this was his application of air-borne to his own long-range-penetration tactics.

But there have been many geniuses who have accomplished little. The rarer combination of vision and action is required for results. As a man of action Wingate excelled. He was truly dynamic. When he was about, something had to move.

First he had the power of imposing his views on others, not so much by argument alone as by sheer force of his own belief. To see Wingate urging action on some hesitant commander was to realise how a medieval baron felt when Peter the Hermit got after him to go crusading. Lots of barons found Peter the Hermit an uncomfortable fellow, but they went crusading all the same.

Wingate spared no one, himself least of all. He never courted popularity with those he commanded, or with those who commanded him. He invited, and skilfully used, publicity in all its forms, not for his own glorification but to ensure support for his force, to increase the resources allotted to him, to sell his ideas to the people who could help them on.

For the effect on himself, I believe he was indifferent. It was the cause that mattered. As a deeply but privately religious man he had a firm belief in the justice of the cause for which we fight and his one object was to serve his country in that cause.

The number of men of our race in this war who are really irreplaceable can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Wingate was one of them. The force he built is his own; no one else could have produced it. He designed it, he raised it, he trained it, he led it, inspired it and finally placed it where he meant to place it — in the enemy’s vitals.

In all this he would have been irreplaceable, but he has accomplished his greatest work. He has forged the weapon; others may now wield it. From the force itself came his successors, imbued with his will and his vision.

We are proud to have Wingate’s force as part of the Fourteenth Army. The men he led, his Chindits, know that the finest tribute they can pay to the great leader is to complete his work and to perpetuate in themselves his courage and his determination to strike to the utmost in their country’s cause.

I remember clearly the day Wingate boarded the Dakota (of which I was the pilot) which was just about to take him and his force, he said: ‘I am going to take you men, my “Chindits” and put you all right into the “guts” of the enemy (the Nips) but before I do that I am going to train you so that every one man in my force will be equal to 20 Nips’, (and he did it too for the ratio in battle was 30 Nips to 1 Chindit). Wingate was standing on the steps of the Dakota which was being seen off by Gen Slim and his staff officers and before closing the Dak’s doors Wingate said to Gen Slim: ‘Sir, I can assure you of our success there behind the lines and I can also say you are very lucky that the rest of the 14th Army have not to face an enemy so fearless and mobile as my “Chindits”. The Nips will know we have arrived. Good-bye and good luck to you too, Sir.’

The first day after having landed in the midst of the ‘Nips’, Wingate sent out this order of the day: ‘Our first task is fulfilled. We have inflicted a complete surprise on the enemy. All our columns are inserted in the enemy’s guts. The time has come to reap the fruits of the advantage we have gained

The enemy will fight with varying tactics. We will resolve to reconquer our territory in Northern Burma. Let us thank God for the success He has vouchsafed us and press forward with swords to the enemy’s ribs to expel him from our territory.

This is not the moment, when such an advantage has been gained, to count the cost. This is the moment to live in history. It is an enterprise in which every man who takes part may feel proud to say one day, he was there.’

It is couched in a language typical of the man — who still young, helped to write a piece of history, but whose death was one of our greatest losses in World War II.

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