Some time ago, I read QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, the wartime memoirs of George MacDonald Fraser concerning the time he spent in the Other Ranks of the British imperial army that recaptured Burma from the Japanese in World War II. In his book, Fraser mentions the high regard the troops had for the army commander, William Slim. I subsequently read DEFEAT INTO VICTORY by Field-Marshal Viscount Slim, a personal account by the man who commanded the Fourteenth Indian Army during its bitter retreat from, and its glorious return march through, Burma. In his volume, Slim mentions the unorthodox British general Orde Wingate's contributions to the Japanese defeat in Southeast Asia. Thus, FIRE IN THE NIGHT, Wingate's biography. Co-authored by John Bierman and Colin Smith, FIRE IN THE NIGHT is the immensely readable life story of an incredibly complex man. In a nutshell, after several brief chapters on Wingate's early life, the narrative sequentially covers his postings in Palestine, Ethiopia and, finally, India/Burma, during which time (1936-1944) he rose in rank from Lieutenant to Major General. In the British Mandate of Palestine, Orde became an ardent Zionist while fighting Arab "gangs" with Special Night Squads, the armed detachments of British regulars and Jews which he himself brought into being. In Ethiopia, his was a key role in the British victorious military effort to drive the Italians from the country and return Haile Selassie to the thrown. In India, Wingate's ultimate triumph before an untimely death was to conceive, form, train and deploy the Third Indian Division, the "Chindits", as a Special Force to insert behind Japanese lines in Northern Burma to destroy the enemy's means of communication and supply. To my mind, the strength of this book is that it gives the reader an excellent overview of Wingate the man and soldier without getting bogged down in an overabundance of detail. Certainly, the subject of Wingate's character, obsessions and eccentricities could fill volumes. He was admired and loved by the men he literally led into battle. (He drove them hard, but he drove himself even harder.) Conversely, he was loathed by many of his officer peers and superiors for his arrogance, outspokenness, rudeness and personal slovenliness. (He was on record as calling some of his more Blimpish superiors "military apes".) But, he also had his admirers in high places, most notably Winston Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander of all allied forces in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most endearing of Wingate's traits were his eccentricities. For example, he carried a wind-up alarm clock on his person because he considered watches unreliable. And then there was his attitude to personal nudity best illustrated by an incident during the wide press acclaim following his first Chindit campaign. An Australian correspondent invited to the general's hotel room in Delhi wrote: "I found him sitting naked on his bed, eyes buried deep in a book. He hardly glanced up as I entered and rather gruffly asked what I wanted. ... He wasn't interested in me or my requirements, but seemed most excited about the book he was reading ... a critical commentary of Emily Bronte and her work." Can you imagine those media hogs of the Second World War - Patton, Montgomery and MacArthur - doing that?
When Major Mike Calvert met the strange brigadier sitting in his chair the name Wingate meant nothing to him. When Calvert Pointed out it was Calvert's chair, Wingate moved aside at once. 'Tired as I was', wrote Calvert later, 'I soon began to realize this was a man I could work for and follow.' It was a common reaction to this truly extraordinary soldier. No other, except perhaps Montgomery, has generated such controversy. It is practically impossible to find a dispassionate judgement; he was either loathed or worshipped. Over the years Wingate has had numerous biographers and, although occasionally prone to journalistic hyperbole, John Bierman and Colin Smith's Fire in the Night is the most recent and thorough, and is very well written.
In contrast, he came under vitriolic attack in the 1950s from the official historian, S. Woodburn Kirby, who had been Deputy Chief of General Staff in Delhi in 1943, and had numerous run-ins with Wingate over the latter's demands for men, supplies and everything else. Wingate then demanded that Mountbatten sack Kirby 'for iniquitous and unpatriotic conduct'. Kirby had his revenge in an astonishing three-page passage describing Wingate as 'petulant', `obsessed' and 'having neither the knowledge, stability nor balance to make a great commander'. Other biographers have since taken up the cudgels on Wingate's behalf, and this book represents a non-interested attempt to set the record straight, or at least as straight as possible with such a contentious figure.
The men who served under him were similarly divided, and many hated him. But Private Charles Aves recalled that Wingate 'exuded an aura of power. And yet he didn't speak in that manner, he spoke quietly and convincingly ... He realigned our perceptions of what was possible for ordinary people like ourselves ... He was a great man.'