A small crowd gathered Thursday in Jerusalem for an unofficial annual ceremony commemorating one of the most unique characters in Israel’s history.
Thursday’s memorial marked the 68th anniversary of the death of Orde Wingate – a British officer and fervent Zionist who is remembered as a key figure in the creation of Israel’s military ethos.
“Wingate was a character who invited legends to be created around him even in his lifetime,” said Moshe Yegar, an Israeli diplomat and scholar who spoke at the memorial. A black-and-white photograph of Wingate looked out at the audience from a spot near the podium.
Wingate was one of the remarkable, driven and often deeply eccentric men in uniform who seem to have been one of Britain’s most notable exports before the demise of its empire. He was a distant relative of the most famous of those men, T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — and was, like Lawrence, an unorthodox military strategist and a charismatic field commander. Born in India, Wingate was a passionate Christian with an encyclopedic command of the Bible.
Arriving in Palestine in 1936 at a time of growing tension between Jewish residents and British authorities who increasingly favored the Jews’ Arab rivals, Wingate overcame the suspicion of the fledgling armed Jewish force, the Hagana, shifted its orientation from defense to offense and and organized its men into small, mobile units he called Special Night Squads. He became known to the Jewish leadership as “the Friend.”
In some of his writing from Palestine, Wingate seems to have sensed the impending catastrophe in Europe. ”For pity’s sake, let us do something just and honorable before it comes,” he wrote in 1937. “Let us redeem our promises to Jewry and shame the devil of Nazism, Fascism and our own prejudices.”
Wingate was distrusted by many of his British superiors, both because of his clear pro-Jewish sympathies and because of his casual disregard for military dress and discipline. His well-documented habit of greeting visitors in his tent wearing nothing but a pith helmet probably did not help. He was seen by critics as a self-promoter, a fanatic and a fake.
“Judged by ordinary standards, he would not be regarded as normal,” Moshe Dayan, one of the men Wingate trained, said of him. “But his own standards were far from ordinary.” Dayan called him a “military genius and a wonderful man.”
After the outbreak of WWII Wingate was sent to Ethiopia, where he helped defeat the Italians, ended up in Cairo, where he tried and failed to commit suicide, and then reported to Burma, where he organized and led guerrilla units — the famous “Chindits” — to fight the Japanese.
In 1944, Wingate was flying in an American B-25 to one of his jungle bases in Burma when the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. He was buried with the crew at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In the 1970s, several American Jewish veterans of WWII decided to honor what they saw as the Jewish debt to Wingate by holding an annual ceremony at the Arlington grave site, which had been all but forgotten. For the past 30 years, the Israel chapter of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States, Post 180, has held its own local ceremony.
The master of ceremonies on Thursday was Daniel Nadel, 92, who fought as a young engineering officer with the U.S. 5th Infantry Division during WWII, landing at Normandy, battling through Europe and eventually linking up with the Red Army in Czechoslovakia in 1945. Nadel moved to Israel in the 1980s.
Nadel respects Wingate, he said, for instilling Israel’s military with an offensive spirit.
“Wingate’s philosophy was that you fight a war to win. That’s all there is to it, and that’s what he did,” Nadel said.
Follow Matti Friedman on Twitter.