Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett
There was one more call to make before leaving China, and that was at Chengtu — the capital of Szechwan province.
During the last days of the Burma campaign, the remnants of the small Royal Air Force unit stationed in Burma — their planes all shot out of the air — had withdrawn with their motor transport along the Burma Road to Kunming. From Kunming they were sent across to Chengtu. I flew across to see them and found a disgruntled handful of officers and men who wanted to take part in the war against the Japs, but had no planes to fly. Nothing would have so bolstered British prestige in China in those dark days as a squadron, or even a flight or two, of R.A.F. planes in the sky. Originally the British intended to send some in but needs elsewhere were pressing and the men sat in Chengtu twiddling their toes and cursing the fate that had exiled them to this city almost on the edge of Thibet.
Eventually however they began to train young Chinese pilots, and out of the scheme started at Chengtu was established a primary training school for Chinese in Lahore, India. Those graduated from Lahore were to be passed on to the United States for completion of training.
The Chinese Air Force, incidentally, is quite distinct from General Chennault's American 14th Air Force in China, and it seems to have been used lately mainly for quelling revolts such as broke out in Kansu early in 1943 and in northeast Sinkiang a year later. It is as hard to understand that Kuomintang China could spare its infant Air Force for such jobs as it is to understand that she could spare the divisions of troops necessary for the invasion of Sin-Mang during late 1942 and early '43. Both divisions were far removed from the area of operations against the Japs.
Most of the R.A.F. officers at Chengtu were pessimistic about the possibility of ever making good flyers out of the Chinese boys. There were many bad smashes and the students seemed to lack natural flying aptitude. But one older officer who had been flying for fifteen years didn't share his fellow instructors' views.
"They are keen and learn quickly," he said, "but they have some sort of inferiority complex. They feel that westerners have no faith in their mechanical ability, and when they begin to get good they want to prove they can do everything better than anyone else. That's when the smashes come. But they'll get over that after a while — those that survive.
"Another thing is that these chaps we get come too much from the one class. They are all rich landlords' or merchants' sons, have never been used to manual labour or discipline, and they don't like starting from the bottom up. They always come in with the one idea—that they should jump into a plane and learn to fly without learning anything about what makes the 'prop' go round. If we got a leavening of ordinary people like the bus drivers and bank clerks we have in the R.A.F. at home, it would be much better."
It seems doubtful that they will get such a leavening in Kuomintang China, because the Air Force is something the ruling powers hope to have as their ace weapon for use against the communists or any other popular dissident movement. With recruits all taken from the "right" class they could depend on the Air Force even should the peasant soldiers make trouble. They have used the Air Force for such purposes plentifully in the past, and will in the future —if the Western powers are prepared unconditionally to supply them with planes.
From Chengtu I flew back over the "hump" to Dinjan in India, arriving there just in time to catch the first Jap mass air attack on the Assam fields. They knocked out on the ground about a dozen of our transports and most of the fighters that were to protect the 'dromes. It was a heartbreaking setback to Air Transport Command, but new fighters and transports were rushed to the spot from all parts of India, and traffic over the "hump" was hardly interrupted. The next time the Japs came over they were badly mauled. After that they gave up trying to knock out the fields by air and prepared for a push across the frontier from India, to cut them off from their supply base at Calcutta instead.
It was late in October when I flew from Assam to Delhi. The monsoon was just finishing and the great brown waste of land over which I had travelled six months earlier was now painted with lush rice crops as far as the eye could see. A vast green plain, over which the broad, muddy rivers spread careless and unchecked. After China's neat terraces and reamed hillsides, India's sprawling, treeless plains, stretching from Assam to Delhi and beyond, looked untidy, the cultivation haphazard.
Along the Indo-Burma border, rivers were subsiding, jungle camps drying out and preparations were in full swing for the first counter-attack against the Japs. Our objective was the strategic island of Akyab, about 60 miles down the coast from the Indo-Burma border, site of a good airfield and anchorage, and a necessary toe-hold for further operations in south Burma.
My feelings about this first Arakan campaign are tinged with a certain bitterness, due to the fact that half a dozen Jap Zeros peppered my back, right leg and arm, with numerous bullets on the first day of combat, causing me to spend three months in hospital and follow the progress of the campaign from accounts of wounded men as they were wheeled into beds alongside me.
Apart from the fact that the only transport media to the front were lumbering, three-knot wooden sampans, powered by courageous but cadaverous Arakanese natives, and apart from the fact that an Indian Army intelligence officer travelling to a front for the first time in his life disputed my judgment that the planes ahead were Jap Zeros and not R.A.F. Mohawks — until the Zeros started shooting — I don't attribute my wounds to the incompetence of the Indian Army. But the failure of the Arakan campaign certainly must be attributed to its incompetence.
All the faults that later were to result in India Command being relegated to the role of supply, training and defence of India, while operations were entrusted to a newly formed South East Asia Command, came to the fore in the battle for Akyab. None of the lessons of Malaya or Burma had been applied. Our troops were as ill-equipped, ill-trained and badly led as ever. The atmosphere around brigade and divisional headquarters was that of a boy-scouting expedition, except that divisions in rank were more sharply maintained.
Where the Japs used motor launches, we used sampans; where they used trucks we used mules; where they by-passed our strong points we attacked theirs in beautiful "Light Brigade" style. Where they lived lightly but healthily off the country we lived lightly but unhealthily off bully beef and biscuit rations laboriously carried with us. From the point at Rathedaung, about halfway between the frontier and Akyab, where the Japs decided to resist we never succeeded in budging them a hundred yards. Gradually they pushed us back by the same looping encircling tactics they had used in Malaya and Burma.
Eventually disease began knocking out our troops faster than we could replace them, and we pulled right back to the border, hating learned that we had still learned nothing about the Japs except that they were "dogged little bastards, by Jove."
Back at New Delhi the official explanation to correspondents was: "Our men are just not good enough yet. They can't be expected to live in the jungle like the Japs do. Besides, we haven't had enough time to train men for jungle warfare. It's hard enough to train British troops in this sort of fighting, but with Indian troops as well it's much more difficult."
Suggestions that perhaps our methods of training, our conception of jungle warfare or the actual command might be at fault were scouted by Public Relations Director Brigadier Ivor Jehu, and he instanced the success of the justly famed 4th Indian division in the Middle East as proof that there was nothing wrong with the Indian Army.
And the truth is that there is nothing wrong with either the British or Indian troops that make up the Indian Army, but there is a great deal wrong with the command and administration at New Delhi. All the inefficiency, orthodoxy, stodginess, inertia, complacency and snobbishness in the British army seem to have gravitated to India, and there found a congenial resting place. A thirst-provoking climate, and amplitude of liquor (in pre-war days) and a dearth of work have effectually spiked any initiative which originally existed in the "old India hands," while new officer recruits were quickly infected by the "do nothing, say nothing, wait for promotion" virus.
American and British soldiers who had graduated in World War II, were at first amazed and delighted to find the G.H.Q. at New Delhi was an antiquarium of Colonel Blimps, types they believed existed only in the imagination of cartoonists. They were not so amused to visit the fronts and see the results of this "blimpishness."
Anyone with new ideas, with a sense of urgency, who tried to prod Blimps out of their lethargy, was regarded as "a bit of a Crusader, don't you know, has no dashed idea that you just can't get things done with these people, and in this blasted climate."
Strangely enough the 4th Indian division, comprised of the same people, operating in a similar climate in the Middle East, performed magnificently. The only feasible explanation is that it was rescued from the demoralising atmosphere of Indian army administration and put into contact with a modern British army made up of a cross-section of English life — people who were desperately anxious to get the fighting over with and return to their farms, factories and homes. The Indian units, men and officers, were caught up in the swirl and enthusiasm of doing things. War in the desert was no longer a glorified boy scouting expedition against long-cloaked Pathans with home-made rifles. It entailed dealing with tanks and planes, and keeping pace with one's comrades, free people who fought with the energy and passion of such.
Indian troops are good, brave fighters, but until such time as they have their own freedom to defend they respond almost solely to the personal leadership of their officers. If they love and respect their officers — as many of them do — they will follow with fanatical disregard for danger wherever their officers will lead. But personal leadership was sadly lacking in India.
While on the subject of Indian troops, it may be timely to lay the myth that India's fighting men are mainly Muslims. The most famous warriors are the Sikhs and Gurkhas. The tall, Caucasian featured, black-bearded Sikhs have a religion of their own that is far removed from either Hinduism or Mohammedanism, while the stocky, nobbly-legged Gurkhas from the independent kingdom of Nepal are Mongol Buddhists. The Rajputs, another of India's famous fighting regiments, are Hindus; the Punjabis (apart from the Sikhs) are mainly Moslems. In many Indian Army brigades, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhist^ are about equally represented and usually get along well together.
Headquarters at New Delhi was far removed in both time and space from the war. No hostile aircraft ever ventured within hundreds of miles, no enemy troops within a thousand miles of the Imperial Secretariat which houses General Headquarters. For the horsetail-moustached "Delhi-Brigade" staff officers who sipped tea in the great red sandstone building fronting the Viceroy's residence, war along the Indo-Burma frontier was just another variation of war along the north-west frontier. There were always some "beggars" causing trouble along India's frontiers. The Afghans, the Waziris, the Afridis, and now the Japanese! Nothing that could really touch India of course.
As they puffed and pedalled their bicycles — Delhi's greatest war sacrifice was the burra sahibs' substitution of bicycles for automobiles — homewards in the evening their thoughts and conversation were centred around the possibilities of promotion, or the latest scandal at the club, rather than the sufferings of British troops in the malaria-ridden jungles of the Indo-Burma border.
Many of the regular Indian Army officers congratulated themselves that by their exile in Delhi, they avoided the rigors of war in other parts, though indulging in considerable self-pity that headquarters had to remain in Delhi during the blazing summer instead of transferring to the cool heights of Simla as in previous years. The formula for a quiet life and steady promotion was not to make mistakes, and the best way to avoid making mistakes was to avoid shouldering responsibility. As a result the art of "passing the buck" was as deftly handled in New Delhi as in any place in the world.
"Bearing the white man's burden" was a mission in life they had voluntarily shouldered — though not supported uncomplainingly — and most of them seemed prepared to accept that "burden" for the rest of their days. Their capacity for sacrifice was without limit — and besides, how could one afford to live in England on the same scale as in India, with servants, bearers and clerks to do all one's work for a few rupees a month?
One of Public Relations Director Brigadier Jehu's chief executives — an old Indian Army hand — went for a brief trip in mid-1943 to England, and replying to my questions as to how he found life at home, he said:
"Tell you the truth old man, I was damned glad to get back here and have a decent meal. Food's terrible over there. I was hungry from the time I arrived till the time I got back here and had a good curry."
"But weren't you glad to see England again and visit your people?"
"Well, I have my wife here in India. Everybody's too busy to talk to you over there. No one's interested in what we're doing here. Everything's such a rush and bother that nobody has time to listen to you. I was dashed glad to get away from the place."
One can imagine that his plaints of terrible heat, shortage of liquor, servant difficulties and the impossibility of ever getting anything done in India—the stock subjects of conversation in India—would not make for sympathetic listeners in an England with four years of war, tight food rationing and blitzed cities behind it and the work of creating a second front ahead. Many of the old hands were in some ways to be pitied. They had severed their roots with England and had not taken root in India. They were unhappy in both places.
The old regime was in such a majority in New Delhi that the dribble of modern energetic officers from England soon had their ardour quenched. Some fought for a while, then accepted the formula that you can't hurry things in India; many others pleaded to be transferred to more active theatres. The products from the old guard who did go to the front made a hopeless mess of things by their unwillingness to think along new lines and by their implicit acceptance of the magic superiority of white over yellow skins.
Thousands of British and Indian troops had to be sacrificed before the idea was drummed into the heads of the Delhi Brigade that a tank is stronger than a mule, a motor launch faster than a sampan, a concrete pillbox is resistant to bayonets, even if the tanks, launches and pillboxes are manned by undersized people with yellow skins and buck teeth, who have not even heard of the playing fields of Eton or seen a cricket match.
The legend that menial work was beneath the dignity of white skins was maintained, and the colonel of a unit freshly arrived from England was soundly scolded because he allowed British troops to strip off and do some road work alongside Indian coolies. What on earth would become of the Empire if these coolie fellows got the idea that England was not populated exclusively by officers with hordes of coloured servants to do all the hard work?
There was no dearth of recruits for the Indian army, but the pretence that they volunteered for defence of India or love of Empire was as ridiculous as the idea that British officers came to India for love of the Indians or to help them protect their country. With few exceptions the motives were the same in both cases — an improvement in living standards and social position.
Any British officer who came to India, unless he was a bounder that played around with the "chee-chees" (byproducts of illicit unions between British officers and planters with Indian girls) had an assured position with all clubs open to him. He became in other words a "burra sahib" and received extra pay (all provided by Indian taxpayers) to enable him to perpetuate the myth that white-skins lived like gods. When he had served his time he could retire with a pension sufficient to permit him to provide models for the cartoonists at the best London clubs. He would be recognisable by a magenta complexion, handlebar moustaches and inane conversation.
Indian recruits joined up for the reasons that have prompted mercenary soldiers since time began — for money, adventure, release, from pressing financial or domestic obligations. A few were eager because the army offered chances for learning new trades, a few, doubtless, because they wanted to learn to handle arms, a few more because soldiering was traditional, in their clan. There was almost no contact between British officers and the troops. Officers, except for a few of the old hands who were fair linguists, learned enough Urdu or Hindustani to shout commands in the imperative tense and a bad accent. Political education seemed limited to explaining that the King Emperor was in trouble and needed Indian help at a few rupees per month. Amongst N.C.O's with whom I could talk, at least half believed that England was fighting Russia as well as Germany and Japan.
Defence of country meant little to them, because although to us India may seem one nation, to a Gurkha from Nepal, a Sikh from the Punjab or a Rajput from Rajputania, the Indo-Burma frontier states of Assam and Bengal are countries as foreign as Malaya or Syria, inhabited by different races, speaking different languages. They understood loyalty to leaders they could respect; only expert personal leadership could get the best out of them, and it was an unfortunate thing for the progress of the war that just in India, qualities of inspiring personal leadership were sadly lacking in our command.
The Arakan campaign was a failure. British troops were dispirited and began to feel that the Japs were too good for them; Indian troops were bewildered and disheartened after trudging for weeks through the jungle, only to trudge back again without coming to real grips with the enemy. Years of malnutrition made them easy prey to malaria and dysentery, the twin enemies that always inflicted more casualties than the Japs. The Delhi Brigade leaned back in their chairs and pondered sleepily over the nuisance of having to work out another complete set of plans for next season's attempt on Akyab. (The next attempt was a replica of the first, except that the Japs chased us further back and crossed the frontier into India. It was only in the third attempt that Akyab was finally taken by an unopposed amphibious operation.)
Something had been brewing, however, in India, that jerked those nodding heads to attention with a start that nearly snapped their necks. The yeast moving the brew was an English soldier named Charles Orde Wingate, and India command was never the same after that brutally energetic forty year old brigadier rampaged through the hollow halls of general headquarters and prodded some of the tea-sippers into activity. He took the outrageous view that it was possible to do something in India, despite the climate, despite the people and despite India Command.
He waved plans in staff officers' faces, thumped tables, fought down opposition in brilliant word battles, demanded — and eventually got — action. He couldn't be drugged by vice-regal soirees, or by whisky-swilling parties at the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club. Out upon their parties and clubs! Wingate wanted to fight Japanese. The more the staff officers belittled his schemes, the more fiercely did Wingate pour scorn on their lack of faith in themselves and their troops.
In an earlier book ("Wingate Adventure," Cheshire, Melbourne, 1944) I have written at length about Wingate's famous expedition into Burma, and here, at the risk of repeating material used in that book, I shall briefly sketch his career and his Burma adventure in early 1943.
Wingate was one of the great figures of this generation and had he lived for a few more years he would have been recognised as such, no matter what sphere he had chosen for his many talents in post-war years. That he would have given up soldiering, is certain. He had no liking for the military life and regretted the necessity of having to divert 20 years to becoming a good soldier. But he felt by the end of the current war the necessity for soldiers would be over and he could devote himself to pursuits nearer his heart's desire.
"I would not have become a soldier," he told me, "had it not been that when I was seventeen I was convinced that soldiers would be needed in my generation. I was keen on the League of Nations idea, but when I saw they were going to castrate the League by not giving it force to implement its decisions, I knew it would fail and we would have to fight again."
It was in 1920 that Wingate made that decision, and it was typical of the man that he should stick to it against his inclinations, which were those of a scholar and philosopher.
"When this war is finished, I shall settle down and become a literary critic," he said, after his Burma expedition.
His interests were varied, his thirst for knowledge insatiable. Like his distant cousin, Lawrence of Arabia, he was attracted to the countries of the Middle East and became a student of Oriental languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. (Often when I went to see him in connection with my book, I would find him pacing the room, stark naked, massaging his body with a rubber brush and chanting prayers in Arabic. The motion of the brush and the rhythm of the Arabic chant gave him a feeling of relaxation, he explained.)
His young days as a soldier were spent in the Sudan, along the Abyssinian frontier. He was the antithesis of the usual young officer in the foreign service. Aloof, studious and quiet living, he was more at home roaming along smuggler and elephant trails into Abyssinia, mixing with his friends the Ethiopians, learning their likes and dislikes, than in the officers' clubs and bar rooms of Khartoum. He became used to leading men on long marches across waterless, unmapped, often trackless terrain, studied the border area of Abyssinia until he knew it by heart.
"Most important of all," he stressed, "I learned there the qualities one needs to become a leader of men."
That sounds like the remark of an egoist, and Wingate was an egoist. When I first mentioned his relationship to Lawrence of Arabia, he said: "Pshaw! At the time I went into Abyssinia one only had to take off one's hat to an Ethiopian to be called 'Lawrence of Abyssinia.' Then it came out that we were related, so the newspapers tried to prove that we were practically identical characters. As a matter of fact there are more points of difference than of similarity between us."
And he reeled off a dozen or more instances of differences in personality between Lawrence and himself. The most striking was his description of himself as an extrovert and Lawrence as an introvert.
"Lawrence could not express himself well in words, was modest, diffident, would not force his demands. But he was a sensitive writer, who could express in literature the disappointments and frustrations he experienced at conference tables. I am at my best on such occasions. In fact no-one ever beats me in discussion. There's nothing I like better than to batter down people's arguments one by one. But I haven't the patience that Lawrence had to sit down with pen and paper. And I am not shy or modest. If I think I can do a thing better than anyone else why should I keep silent about it?"
His boast of never being bested in argument was probably true. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge on every subject under the sun, a natural oratory, and a razor sharp mind that detected the weak points in an opponent's case almost before they were uttered. It was partly his brilliance in debate that irritated regular staff officers who couldn't defeat his arguments but distrusted anything hinting at unorthodoxy — and Wingate was nothing if not unorthodox.
In Palestine during the Arab revolt of 1938, Wingate incurred the displeasure of his fellow-officers by suggesting that if the Jews were given assistance to deal with the Axis-inspired revolt, the whole uprising would quickly die a natural death. Wavell gave him the opportunity of putting his theories into practice, and the results are still talked about in Palestine, where Wingate was regarded as a modern David by the Jewish farmer-settlers.
Wingate organised mobile Jewish squads from among the harassed settlers — units that appeared suddenly out of the night to round up warring chieftains or raid their hideouts to seize their German and Italian made arms. Within a few weeks he had settled the revolt in the sectors allotted him, but his methods were unpopular with the regular staff officers in Palestine. The Jewish squads were disbanded and Wingate was shipped back to England at five days' notice.
To be accounted pro-Semitic in those days was regarded as a social stigma by brother officers, whose sympathies were often with the Arab sheiks, who entertained royally —many of them with funds supplied by the Axis. Wingate because of his inborn passion for justice, was bound to espouse the Jewish cause in Palestine, just as his sister was bound to espouse the cause of the Republicans in Spain.
After the Burma expedition was finished I told Wingate that amongst other publicity in the newspapers, someone had dug up a story about his sister fighting with the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His normally sombre, brooding face lighted up:
"Did they mention that?" he asked, "Well, I'm glad. I'm prouder of that than anything they can write about me."
Wingate on his return from Palestine had his first meeting with Winston Churchill — then a virtual outcast of the Conservatives — a lone voice raised in protest against appeasement. British policy in Palestine was one more instance of appeasement, and Churchill used Wingate's arguments to try and force the government's hand in stopping Axis trouble-making in Palestine.
It was a momentous meeting between two men of widely differing outlook, but similar temperament. Both were patriots, both were men of vision and action. While Churchill still had the outlook of the Empire builder, who measured England's greatness mainly by the physical possessions to which she could lay claim, Wingate's conception of greatness lay in a nation's contribution to human progress and ideas. In that meeting of a few hours before Churchill rose in the Commons to make his vigorous attack on policy in Palestine, each took measure of the other.
Wingate recognised in Churchill a fearless and inspiring leader, who would not be bound by orthodoxy or tradition, one who was progressive, at least insofar as technique in dealing with England's enemies was concerned. Churchill seems to have filed Wingate away in his mind as a man to be relied on in desperate situations. A man with original ideas, the energy and ability to impose them on a general staff, and the courage to carry them out.
When Italy entered the war and the question of Abyssinia came up Churchill remembered this solemn, hawk-faced young man who had spent so many years in the Middle East, learning languages and people; who knew more about the Abyssinians and their country than any other white man, and who was now on Wavell's staff in Cairo. The word had gone out for an Abyssinian revolt, but no revolt seemed to be brewing, so Anthony Eden was sent to Cairo to see what was happening, with a reminder from Churchill that young Major Wingate might be the man to do the job.
The Abyssinian revolt was delayed by the concessionaires and economic camp followers, who were working out spheres of interest and economic exploitation to be whacked up when the country should be reconquered. Wingate bitterly opposed such schemes as the partitioning of the country between the Sudan and Kenya colony, or artificially dividing it by giving the Galla tribes their autonomy. He prompted Haile Selassie, who was being completely ignored by the oil and mineral seekers, the colonial opportunists, to cable Churchill and ask whether the intention was to restore Abyssinia to the Ethiopians or not. Churchill confirmed that such was the Allied intention and appointed Wingate as commander-in-chief of patriot armies under Haile Selassie.
Something of Wingate's personality and character appears in a memo he drafted for the guidance of the handful of British officers that assisted him to lead the patriot armies.
"First of all we have to convince the Ethiopian that... these white men with whom he has to treat will give him a fair deal. He must see us first fighting not at his side but in front of him. He must realise not only that we are brave soldiers, but devoted to the cause of liberties... Example instead of precept is what we want."
All the years Wingate had studied the Abyssinians and the terrain along the Sudanese-Abyssinian border, everything he had learned in Palestine, he made use of in fighting the Italian Colonial army. Exploitation of a friendly population, once he could unreservedly promise them they were fighting for their own independence was one of the greatest factors. Forced marches, superior mobility, ambushes, night attacks, dispersal and regroupings when faced with overwhelming odds, bluffery, psychological warfare and his own genius for accurately estimating an enemy's reactions, all contributed to his great success in Abyssinia.
In a few months, with 3,000 Sudanese and Abyssinian patriots, 50 British officers and 40 men, he defeated a force of 36,000 Italian and Colonial troops and 800 officers. More than half the enemy were taken prisoner, the rest killed or dispersed.
Wingate on a white charger with a few of his men, escorted Haile Selassie in a triumphal march through the streets of Addis Ababa, then rushed back to Cairo with more ambitious plans for the conquest of Libya, hoping to use the Libyans as he had used the Abyssinians, by first ensuring their post-war independence.
Before we leave the subject of Abyssinia it is worth mentioning that the future of that country was something in which Wingate took a keen personal interest. He was bitterly critical of our failure to intervene in the Italo-Abyssinian war, and regarded the Ethiopians, with their civilisation extending back to the days of Solomon as a worthier people than their Italian conquerors. He had fought like the "Lion of Judah" himself to prevent the country being split up into spheres of Allied "interest." I know he had the fear that in a possible post-war betrayal of his pledges to the patriot armies and Haile Selassie, there might be at least one close parallel with his cousin Lawrence and his betrayed promises to the Arabs after the last war.
It was partly because of his ardent espousal of independence for Abyssinia that he found himself in disfavour when he returned from Addis Ababa to Cairo, where General Wavell had been replaced by General Auchinleck. Old rivals from Palestine were entrenched in the headquarters staff, new enemies had been created round the conference tables where staff college "experts" whose criticisms of his plans for Abyssinia had been scornfully and summarily dealt with by Wingate.
No one wanted to see him, not even to look at his report on the Abyssinian campaign, far less to look at his plan for the conquest of Libya. Days and weeks went past and Wingate was coldly given the "silent treatment." Headquarters wanted nothing of him. Wingate waited around Cairo a lonely unwanted man while the Germans and Italians were chasing General Auchinleck's armies back across the desert. He might have been a leper for all the notice headquarters took of him. He became more and more depressed as he waited fruitlessly for a summons to G.H.Q. Eventually the "silent treatment" took effect, his repressed energies boiled over and he had a near nervous breakdown, which resulted in two months of hospital in Cairo and a return trip to England.
Then came war in the East. When things began to go awry in Malaya and Burma, Churchill despatched the two men he believed most capable of handling desperate situations, General Sir Harold Alexander and Brigadier Charles Orde Wingate, with orders to salvage as much as possible from the wreckage of crumbling Imperial defences.
Alexander took over command inside Burma, and though it was too late to save the campaign, he eventually managed to extricate more of our troops than at first seemed possible. Wingate made a quick survey of the situation, produced a plan for guerilla activity, which had the immediate support of General Alexander. Unfortunately he had to return to India and get the approval of the general staff at Delhi.
One quality that Wingate lacked was diplomacy. He despised militarism and what is normally known as the "military mind." He had regard for neither rank nor privilege. He knew what had to be done, was sure of the correctness of his ideas, and above all appreciated the need for urgency. When he walked into a conference room with a sheaf of papers under his arm, he was prepared to fight with passion and logic for the immediate acceptance of his plan or the production of a better one by his opponents on the spot. If he had flung an incendiary bomb into the conference room instead of his plan for Long Range Penetration into Burma, there could have hardly been greater consternation.
I think Wingate enjoyed shocking the Delhi Blimps in the hope of jerking them out of their habitual somnolence. Clad in a not too carefully pressed bush jacket, with his famous coal-scuttle shaped East African topee laid on the table in front of him and his China blue eyes blazing with energy and enthusiasm, he lectured, stormed and pleaded. He was a Savonarola, Richard Coeur de Lion and Cromwell rolled into one. To his more obtuse critics no matter how far they outflanked him he addressed scorn and derision with his natural eloquence, and flung at them apt quotations of anything from the Gospel of the Scriptures to the gospel of military science according to Clausewitz, Napoleon or Alexander.
Delhi was sceptical. Yearlong procrastination and avoidance of new ideas had made the Delhi Brigade impervious to fiery crusaders. The Burma campaign was over before Wingate could force his plan through, and even then it was only accepted because Wavell gave it his official blessing against the advice of most of his staff. Wingate was grudgingly given a brigade, consisting of a battalion each of British, Burmese and Gurkha troops. The British were over-age, second line troops who were never intended for front line combat, but had been sent out to do policing work in India. The Gurkhas were new recruits and the Burma rifle battalion had had some battle experience in Burma, but — unjustly — were not highly regarded by most staff officers.
The material was not very promising for the type of job Wingate had in mind — a super commando raid into the heart of enemy occupied territory, to disrupt rail communications and keep the Japs busy throughout the campaigning season, till the monsoon arrived in mid '43. Above all Wingate wanted to collect information about Burma and prove to the world and the soldiers themselves that ordinary troops can be taught to beat the Japs in jungle fighting.
In training, he kept in mind the idea of an expedition that should be like an armor-piercing shell to bore right through Jap defences and explode in the heart of northern Burma. Troops were given a rigorous training for three months in jungle country similar to that which would be encountered on the expedition. Camp routine was hard. At first officers and men alike cursed Wingate for a fanatical slave-driver, but later when they saw he shared their hardships and discomforts, and worked twice as hard as anyone else, they came to respect and eventually worshipped him. What finally won them over was the occasion on which the camp was flooded, and Wingate, clad only in his topee, spent most of the night swimming around amongst the trees to make sure his men were safe. All that he had learned in the Sudan, Abyssinia and Palestine, every new technique and weapon available, he mobilised for his Burma adventure.
His unorthodoxy continually perturbed the Delhi brigade. Splitting up a force into columns instead of regular battalions and companies worried them. Depending entirely on supplies of food and ammunition dropped from the air at radio reference points in the midst of jungle-covered enemy territory was considered "scatter-brained." Twice during training the scheme was ordered abandoned, but Wingate, mainly by sheer force of personality, kept the thing going, and when Wavell came down to the training area to see the first big manoeuvre, he was amazed and delighted to see what Wingate had created out of the doubtful seeming raw material.
At the last moment, on February 6th, when Wingate had already rehearsed his airdroppings, had practised dispersal, fadeouts, long night marches successfully, when he had his men actually assembled at Imphal ready to cross the frontier into Burma, General Wavell flew up with the news that the whole thing would have to be called off. Due to the set-back at Arakan, Wavell's staff had raised such strong objections to "wasting" more men and material on that "crackpot Wingate" that General Wavell felt the expedition must either be stopped or at least greatly reduced in scope. There ensued a long discussion between Wingate and General Wavell, with American Service of Supply chief, Lt. Gen. Somervell, who had flown to Imphal with Wavell, an interested observer.
"Just because the Japanese are chasing us out of Arakan," argued Wingate, "is all the more reason why my men should go in. If we do nothing else, I can guarantee to keep the Japs busy for a few months. Isn't it worth something of a gamble to keep the enemy tied up till the monsoon starts? My men will never again be as fit to go into action as they are at this moment. They are trained to their highest point of efficiency, and from now on if they don't start to operate, their efficiency will decline."
Wavell carefully weighed Wingate's arguments, and at one point turned to General Somervell and asked his opinion. Somervell said "Well, General, I don't see that you're risking much." The tired, old soldier, who was a man of vision and imagination himself, and had long supported Wingate against his staff, decided to back his own judgment, and at the end of a fifty minute debate told Wingate to go ahead. Wavell reviewed the troops the same day, saluted the men as a gesture of the hazardous nature of the expedition to which they were committed, and that afternoon the first columns set out on their long trek through Burma.
That Wingate fully realised the dangers is apparent from his remark to a correspondent who accompanied the expedition for the first few days:
"If this operation succeeds it will save thousands of lives. Should we fail, most of us will never be heard of again."
The results of the expedition were well publicised at the time in the press, and since in my own book, and "Wingate's Raiders," by Rolo. The "Chindits," as the force was called, kept a large proportion of the Jap army in Burma engaged in trying to run them down. They put the main railway out of action long enough to force the Japs to call off operations they had already commenced against the Chinese protecting the American road-building project over the Naga Hills, and against British-led Kachin guerillas in north-west Burma. Wingate proved the correctness of his theories, pioneered new techniques and demonstrated that Allied troops properly trained and led can run rings round the Japs when it comes to scientific jungle fighting.
His men marched and fought their way upwards of a thousand miles or more with never more than a few days rations in their knapsacks. Food, ammunition, extra weapons, rubber boats were called for by radio when required, and dropped with meticulous accuracy on the spots requested. Wingate surveyed the country as it had never been surveyed by military eye before, and made good use of the knowledge gained in the subsequent operation, in which he was magnificently assisted by the American "Flying Circus" under Col. Cochran. (It was in this dramatic episode in which glider-borne troops were set down astride the enemy-held Mandalay-Myitkyina railway, on fields selected by Wingate in the first operation, that he lost his life.)
Wingate was not one to draft out plans and then send in others to test their accuracy. He accompanied his men through the worst of their adventures, from the first swimming of the Chindwin river into Burma proper till the day nearly three months later, when, haggard, bearded, tattered and emaciated, he volunteered to lead a small party in swimming back across the Chindwin in the face of expected Jap opposition to arrange the rescue of the remainder of his dispersal groups.
He led about 3,200 men and 1000 mules into Burma, and brought out about 2,400 men and 1 mule. When the force was ordered by Delhi to return and Wingate announced the only chance of re-crossing the two great rivers, the Chindwin and Irrawaddy, was to abandon all heavy equipment and eat their mules, some of his officers were aghast. Wingate answered their objections with typical clear-headed logic:
"The total weight of supplies I propose abandoning is about 6 tons. We must keep things in their proper perspective. On the high seas in a single month we have often lost a million tons of equipment before any of it could be put to good purposes. Every pound of ours has performed good and valuable service, but to keep it longer is to jeopardise the safety of our men. Their lives and experiences are now of far more value. Sufficient mules will be taken across the Irrawaddy to carry the wireless charging sets. As long as we have our radio we can have fresh mortars, machine-guns and demolition equipment dropped when we have crossed the river (Irrawaddy)."
During these harrowing days of the march back, when half-starved, they had to make prodigious night marches to keep a few minutes between themselves and the pursuing, encircling Japs, Wingate's mind was at its best. He not only maintained the spirits of his comrades, keeping them spiritually alive by his brilliant dissertations on an endless variety of subjects, from literature to archaeology, from Oriental religions to dietetics, and kept them physically alive by pitting his wits against the Japs, who vastly outnumbered the party, but he was busily planning a more ambitious campaign into south-east Asia on the basis of lessons learned in this "full dress rehearsal."
No sooner had he arrived back at Imphal than he began drafting out requirements and suggestions for presentation by the time he reached Delhi. General Sir Archibald Wavell had left India, to return later as Viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell. His place as commander-in-chief was taken by General Sir Claude Auchinleck. For Wingate, with his memory of the Abyssinian campaign, this was an unpleasant case of history repeating itself. He arrived in New Delhi with another plan "burning a hole" in his tattered bush jacket pocket, and again received the "silent treatment." No one wanted to talk to him — except newspaper correspondents — no one was even keen to see his report on Burma. He waited for days without seeing the C.I.C., then flew back to Imphal to superintend rescue missions for those of the dispersal groups who were still making their way out}—some of them were on their way through north Burma to China, and were eventually returned to India via Kunming.
Arrangements in hand for their rescue, Wingate flew back to Delhi, and was again the lone, unwanted figure he had been in Cairo after the Abyssinian campaign. Day after day, week after week he waited for the Commander-in-Chief to send for him, but no summons came. For weeks I spent each morning with him, gathering material for my book. In the afternoons and evenings he was always alone at Maidens' Hotel, alone except for officers and men from the expedition who dropped in to dine and chat with him, on their way to hill-stations for leave.
He was exhausted from the terrific ordeal in Burma, mentally depressed by his failure to get things moving for the next expedition. It was mid-summer and the blazing red heat of Delhi was enough to knock out men physically stronger than Wingate — even without the terrific strain he had just been through. Staff officers, whose business it was to plan and direct future operations in Burma, were not even interested in talking with this! one man who could have told them more in half an hour about jungle fighting than they had learned in years of text-book learning, or their own muddling experiences.
When he could stand it no longer he wrote a courteous note to the Commander-in-Chief, stating that he felt the need for a brief rest in the hills, and asking if the C.I.C. wanted to see him before he left. The reply from a military secretary stated that General Auchinleck was frightfully busy with staff conferences. It would be quite alright for Wingate to take a brief holiday. "If and when he returned to Delhi" the C.I.C. would try to see him. A postscript added: "The Commander-in-Chief has been interested in your doings."
Wingate left forthwith for the little hill station at Naini Tal, where he was born, and no sooner had he gone than G.H.Q. was in a furore looking for him. It happened that I took an outline for my book in to the censors shortly after Wingate left, and a Public Relations officer asked:
"Where is that fellow Wingate? The beggar just dashes off without saying a word to anyone, leaving no address. He's wanted back here immediately."
I explained that I knew he had received permission from the C.I.C. to leave, and that no one had even bothered to ask him where he was going.
It was from Wingate that I learned the sudden interest in his whereabouts. He phoned me a couple of days later, and when I met him he grinned and pointed to a new star to his D.S.O. (originally won in Palestine and added to after Abyssinia).
"They'll be giving me an O.B.E. next, and then I’ll really know they're finished with me," he said jokingly. "G.H.Q. is suddenly being nice to me. Just saw Auchinleck and he pinned on this extra star and told me Churchill wanted me to go to London immediately. They've fixed a plane for me in the morning."
He was flown to London in two and a half days, and it was a great surprise to him to find that he rated next to Churchill and Montgomery as No. 3 on the list of England's war heroes. He dined with Churchill the evening he arrived, and was promoted to Major-General on the spot, and asked if he could leave immediately as Churchill's adviser on jungle warfare at the impending Quebec Conference.
"But my wife is in Scotland and I haven't seen her for two years," he pointed out. "Can't I at least see her before I go?"
Churchill and the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, arranged long distance phone calls, had express trains started, stopped and diverted, and a bewildered but happy Mrs. Wingate was almost snatched from her bed and rushed to a port where she joined her husband and Prime Minister Churchill on a cruise to Canada.
Wingate told me later that the few weeks he spent with his wife in Canada, including the two-way sea voyage, were amongst the happiest weeks in his life. That was the last time he was to see the beautiful girl who decided at the age of 15, when she first met him on a home bound boat from Palestine, that Charles Orde Wingate was the man she must marry. That trip to England, his official recognition as an outstanding leader, and the reunion with his girl wife, was the one oasis of pleasure in the long desert years of frustration, loneliness and hardship. Out of it was born the one child of his marriage — born a few weeks after Wingate's tragic death in a plane crash along the sombre, jungle-covered mountains of the Indo-Burma frontier.
By the time he arrived back in India from Quebec, his topee discarded for a red-banded Major-General's cap, great changes had taken place. South East Asia command had been created, under the leadership of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Wingate's plans for an operation into Burma, co-ordinated with American and Chinese moves, were enthusiastically supported by Mountbatten, who had met Wingate at Quebec. He was to have everything he needed in the way of men, planes, radio and other equipment. India command was reduced to the status of a vast supply and training organisation, and this time Wingate got what he wanted—or else heads would fall.
One of the last occasions on which I saw him was at the New Delhi airport the day Admiral Mountbatten arrived. The C.I.C, together with high-ranking British and American officers were at the airport when the "Marco Polo" Liberator plane of Mountbatten arrived and Lord Louis stepped out. General Auchinleck greeted the new commander and introduced him to the various Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals lined up in front of the plane. In the midst of the introductions Lord Louis turned and asked: "Where is Wingate?" and the C.I.C. explained that Wingate wasn't feeling well and hadn't come along.
At that moment a flushed and panting Wingate appeared, to be warmly welcomed and engaged in long conversation by Mountbatten.
Although it had been decided at Quebec that Wingate was to be Mountbatten's right-hand man for land operations, India command hadn't let him know when Lord Louis was to arrive. By an intuitive flash, he had telephoned a friend that morning and discovered the plane was due in forty minutes — just in time for him to speed by taxi from Old Delhi, pick up a staff car in New Delhi and arrive at the airport just as the plane landed. The Delhi Brigade ran true to form to the very last.
Now Wingate is dead — because he believed in running the same risks he asked his troops to take. He died while supervising the expedition which was to disrupt Jap communications while American and Chinese troops pushed through to clear the way and open, up a new life-line from India to China. From a military viewpoint, perhaps, his loss was not irreparable, though in London his death was compared to the loss of a battleship. He had trained officers who could carry on what he had started. The military leader could be replaced, but not Wingate the man.
He could no more be replaced as a personality than a Michelangelo, a Beethoven or a Bernard Shaw. His work was too individual for that. There will be other military leaders as good, just as there have been other artists, musicians and dramatists as good as Michelangelo, Beethoven and Shaw (G.B.S. might question this).
Wingate was a military artist who was able to bring his intimate knowledge of a hundred different subjects, from physics to veterinary science, from psychology to the Scriptures, plus the accumulation of all his experiences, to bear on the military problem of the day.
Of all figures in British public life Wingate was one England and the world could least afford to lose.