The onion-eating eccentric who transformed the Israel Defense Forces

Orde Charles Wingate

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how early life shaped an individual’s world to come. In the years leading up to World War I that was certainly true for an eccentric-but-brilliant character named Orde Charles Wingate. One particular aspect of his boyhood routine no doubt led directly to his future role in the establishment of modern Israel and its vaunted Israel Defense Forces.

Born in India in the classic period of Great Britain’s global dominance, it seemed the sun would never set on Wingate. And that boyhood routine? A time set aside every day for the memorization of Scripture. It was also at this time that some British leaders had done the same thing growing up and they were committed Zionists—they believed the Jews had a right to resettle their ancestral homeland.

Wingate would contribute to that endeavor, even in a political climate in the international community where a “Return to Zion” seemed hopelessly sentimental and unrealistic. After all, the Roman 10th Legion had seen to that in the first century, extinguishing the Jews’ national light by razing the Temple in Jerusalem.

Wingate was familiar with this history by the time he was accepted to the Royal Military Academy at 18. It was here his unusual and somewhat unorthodox leadership attributes came to the fore.

As a sort of hazing ritual-turned-disciplinary-measure, Wingate found himself facing a gauntlet one day of senior students, each wielding a knotted towel to be used on the back of the hapless runner. At the end of such activity, the seniors then threw the wretch into a tub of ice-cold water. Legend has it that Wingate dared each senior to hit him; each refused. When he came to the end of the line with his ice stare, he flung himself into the water.

A legend was born.

Orde Charles Wingate
Orde Wingate enters Addis Ababa on horseback.

Wingate distinguished himself enough on postings to places like Sudan, and in 1936, he was reassigned to Palestine. It was the perfect setting for his talents and passions. He considered a new Jewish state to be a spiritual experience, and his military dexterity greatly helped quell Arab violence.

During his three-year stint in Palestine, Wingate learned Hebrew, and the units he trained in offensive and defensive tactics served the Palmach well and led to the establishment of the IDF later. 

It has been said that when Churchill met Wingate, while he admired the man’s abilities, he thought him too mentally unstable for high command and in fact, in his later postings, he was engaging Japanese forces in Burma. (Among his odd behaviors was a propensity for eating raw onions and garlic, and greeting visitors stark-naked.)

His personal courage was never in doubt, however. By the time he got to the East, he was probably aware his lack of decorum—a necessity in British society—might derail his military career, which he saw as a glorious destiny. It goes that one night at the Continental Hotel in Cairo, a despondent Wingate tried to plunge a Bowie knife into his neck and end it all. The short story is that an officer in the next room heard the bump as Wingate hit the floor and he was hospitalized, where blood transfusions saved him.

His relatively short life was proof though that he did indeed earn the glory he felt was his to wear. Wingate was a key link in the formation of the Chindit Force, a combined British/Indian special forces unit that specialized in “deep penetration” forays in Burma in 1943-44. It was here Wingate was perfectly suited and his techniques baffled at times the Japanese forces opposite him.

He would not live to see the end of the war. Boarding a transport plane going into Burma one day, he allowed two reporters along for the ride. The too-heavy aircraft crashed into a mountainside, killing all 10 passengers.

It was a ghastly end for a man of conflicting emotions, passions and singular genius. Wingate was like those fighters through history that cannot really cope with peacetime. He was born and made for war. To him, a righteous cause in vanquishing an enemy made life worth living.

Death held no control over him. In that he found a fulfilled life.