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The Strange Case of the Prime Minister and the Fighting Prophet

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Winston was often right…But when he was wrong, well, my God.” —F.E. Smith

RAYMOND E. CALLAHAN

 

Raymond Callahan is Professor of History Emeritus, University of Delaware. In 1988 he was among the first group of academics invited to present papers at the International Churchill Conference at Bretton Woods. His latest book is Churchill and His Generals.

 

Churchill’s relations with the British Army’s generals are often reduced to colorful anecdotes. The PM, on a fraught evening at Chequers in the spring of 1941, threatening to put some of them in front of firing squads if they failed to hold Egypt against Rommel, is a celebrated one. While such episodes make good theater, they do no justice to how complex the relationship between political and military leaders really is, especially under the pressures of war.

A case study that I believe is very illuminating is entitled above, with a bow to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It begins in the bleak winter following Munich, on Winston Churchill’s sixty-fourth birthday, at a dinner party given by Clementine Churchill’s cousin, Venetia Montague.

Lord Rothschild had asked Venetia to include in the party a young gunner officer, Captain Orde Wingate, who was home on leave from his current posting in Palestine, where the British were with difficulty containing an Arab revolt against both the Mandate authorities and the Jewish settler community. Lord Rothschild wanted Churchill to meet Wingate, a passionate supporter of Zionism, displaying the zeal common to converts to a cause.

Wingate had formed, and led with considerable success, small special operations units, which he christened “Special Night Squads,” made up of British officers and NCOs, with the rank and file drawn from the Jewish settlers. For perhaps ten minutes Wingate poured out to Churchill his belief in the future of Jews in Palestine, as well as his conviction that his approach to counterinsurgency was the answer to Arab irregulars.

Churchill needed no encouragement to support Zionist aspirations in Palestine. He had done so for years. Wingate’s burning intensity impressed him, as it did most who encountered the young officer. What Churchill made of Wingate’s counterinsurgency theories is unfortunately not on record.

When they next met nearly five years later, at Downing Street in August 1943, Churchill was Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Wingate, still burningly intense, was a controversial acting brigadier. The PM was facing two major problems in Britain’s war against Japan; Wingate had come to offer him the solution to both.

Churchill’s problems were intertwined: the U.S. obsession with China, and the Indian Army’s poor showing to date against the Imperial Japanese Army. After his first wartime Anglo-American conference in Washington, Churchill had said that he could sum up what he had learned in one word: “China.” Roseate American assumptions about China, and Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, had led the Roosevelt administration to assume that China could be a major factor in the war, if its armies could only be properly organized and supplied. An acerbic Anglophobe, Lieutenant General Joseph Stillwell, was (in theory at least) to provide the organization, but proper supply required the opening of a land link to China via Burma.

The British failure to hold Burma in 1942 had severed that link, the famous Burma Road, forcing the Americans to mount an expensive trans-Himalayan airlift of limited capacity. The solution, the Americans reasoned, was clear: the British had to reconquer at least enough of north Burma to allow them to drive a new road from eastern India to tie into the old Burma Road. Of course, the inconvenience of the Imperial Japanese Army had to be dealt with. And here is where the Indian Army came in.

It is all too easy now to criticize America’s wartime fixation with China and to point out the naiveté of the strategy built on that fixation. But Churchill had to take seriously both the fixation and the flawed strategy it engendered. Alliance politics demanded an effort in north Burma, however abysmal the climate and terrain. Only the Indian Army could make that effort.

The prewar Indian Army was highly professional but lacking in modern equipment; in the fraught summer of 1940 it was committed to a breakneck, open-ended expansion program which inevitably eroded the quality of its personnel. Moreover, since 1939 it had trained exclusively for the Middle East theater. When Japan attacked, the Indian Army had, not surprisingly, fared poorly in Malaya and Burma. Then in the winter of 1942-43, it was committed to a premature offensive into Burma that was the result of the need to respond to American pressures.

The design of this offensive was based on the excessive optimism of the Commander-in-Chief, India, General Sir Archibald Wavell, who was catastrophically wrong about what he imagined to be Japanese weaknesses. The offensive was badly organized and commanded; the troops who conducted it were little better than raw recruits. Again the Indian Army was routed: a deep embarrassment to the Prime Minister.

Churchill may have retained from his early immersion in the institutional culture of the regular British Army its condescending view of the Indian Army and its officers: a second-rate force suitable for chasing tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier but not for much more. Or he may simply have been tired of the complications the Indian Army’s failures were causing with the Americans. In any case, by spring 1943 he had had enough. He had already decided to remove Wavell. Now, telling his chief staff officer, Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay, that the Indian Army—indeed, the entire Raj—was, in one of his inimitable phrases, a “welter of lassitude and inefficiency,” he was ready to force radical change. At that moment, Wingate again came to his attention.

Wingate’s experience owed much to Wavell who, commanding in Palestine in the late 1930s, had supported his unorthodox counterinsurgency tactics against the Arab revolt; in 1940 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, Wavell had summoned him to lead irregulars in Italian-occupied Ethiopia; finally as Commander-in-Chief, India, Wavell had given him a chance to try out his “long range penetration” theories in Burma. Without the cloak of Wavell’s protection, Wingate—who delighted in outraging more orthodox soldiers—quickly imploded. Wavell’s successor in Palestine threw Wingate out; the army then pigeonholed him in a dead-end job until Wavell called him to Cairo.

Once Wavell left the Middle East, having been removed by Churchill in June 1941, Wingate was again marginalized. Depressed and over-using an anti-malarial drug, he attempted suicide. Wavell again rescued him by summoning him to India, but at the end of Wingate’s first long-range penetration into Burma, he emerged from the jungles to find Wavell again removed, yet again by Churchill. It ought to have been the end for Wingate; instead he stood on the verge of a spectacular success. To understand what happened, we must look briefly at his theories and how they had worked out in practice.

“Long Range Penetration” was simply the use of air supply and radio to provision and coordinate the action of raiding units, made up of regular soldiers operating deep in the enemy’s rear, disrupting his supply lines and unsettling his command-and-control arrangements.

 

Orde Wingate did not invent air supply, but he certainly used it in an imaginative way. His first attempt at practicing long range penetration, despite the courage and endurance shown by his men, was at most a very marginal success—he lost a third of his force and all his pack animals while doing slight harm to the Japanese. (Indeed, many of his officers thought their raid an expensive failure.) The survivors emerged from the jungle in 1943 just as the conventional offensive into Burma was collapsing, costing Wavell his job.

Wingate’s “Chindits” (the name came from their unit symbol, a mythological beast that guarded Burmese temples) had accomplished something that at least could be made to look like success. Public relations officers in Delhi, desperate for something positive, fell on the Chindits, who were made into an instant media sensation.

Without Wavell’s protection, however, Wingate needed a new patron quickly and saw an opportunity. His after-action report, drafted to maximize the Chindits’ accomplishments and lay the groundwork for more and larger ventures, was back-channeled to Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India and Burma in Churchill’s cabinet, who had known Wingate before the war. Amery gave it to Churchill, and Wingate was quickly summoned home.

When Wingate and Churchill met over dinner at Downing Street that August evening, there was instant rapport. The PM admired courage, and even his bitterest enemies never denied that Orde Wingate had abundant courage. Churchill also was very willing to entertain unorthodox solutions to military problems (and had already imposed several in the course of the war).

Wingate had such a solution to the intractable problem of Burma: give him a vastly enlarged, long range penetration force, and he would retake Burma and perhaps much more. Churchill distrusted GHQ India and the Indian Army, sentiments Wingate shared with even greater intensity. Finally, the Prime Minister had to prove to the Americans (whom he was about to meet in Quebec for an Anglo-American summit christened “Quadrant”) that the British could and would fight the Japanese successfully in Burma, thus reopening the Burma Road.

How better to demonstrate this than by bringing with him to the Quebec conference this charismatic, frighteningly intense soldier who had already—at least according to the press release—used innovative tactics to beat the hitherto invincible Japanese in what everyone believed was their native habitat, the jungle?1

Wingate arrived from India a little known—and, by many of those who did know him, much disliked—lieutenant colonel and temporary brigadier. Swept off to Quebec in Churchill’s wake, he emerged an acting major general who had been promised a corps-sized “Special Force” plus a private line to Number Ten. The impressed Americans threw in a private air force. It was the most spectacular upheaval in command arrangements and force structure Churchill caused in the entire course of the war. In Cairo the year before, usually taken as WSC’s most dramatic intervention of this kind, he appointed two general officers, Harold Alexander and Bernard Montgomery, who came from the army mainstream (and Monty was the protégé of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke). But now Churchill had embraced a controversial, deeply disliked and, many felt, quite unstable officer whose unorthodox ideas had yet to prove themselves conclusively. That proof could only come if Wingate and his Chindits retook Burma.

But that, of course, never happened. Wingate’s ideas were flawed in many respects. For one thing, the Imperial Japanese Army did not have Western-style supply lines to disrupt, and tended to ignore logistics generally. When Special Force launched itself into Burma in March 1944, Wingate’s ideas, so enchantingly laid out for Churchill, rapidly proved unworkable.

Wingate did not live to see this—he died in an airplane crash just after Operation Thursday (or Chindit II) began. He would have liked the sequel to Chindit II even less than his own failures. Burma was reconquered, and the Burma Road reopened for the Americans, in a brilliant campaign by the Fourteenth Army, overwhelmingly Indian, led by a “sepoy general” who it is doubtful Churchill had even heard of in August 1943: Bill Slim, the finest British army commander since Wellington.

So why did Churchill buy into Wingate’s ideas so completely? One explanation offered points to emotion overpowering reasoned analysis: military romanticism on the Prime Minister’s part, if you will.2

The explanation that focuses on Churchill’s taste for the brave and eccentric is, I think, more colorful than accurate. The British war effort was Eurocentric because Europe was where the greatest threat to Britain lay. Crucial to winning that war was the Grand Alliance—and of his partners in that alliance, it was the Americans Churchill was most concerned with, not only for the duration of the war but for their impact on Britain’s future as a Great Power. The Russians he could do little about, and for that and many other reasons, he had to have the Americans on his side. Washington’s China obsession he neither shared nor fully understood, but it was a fact with which he had to deal. And deal he did—most effectively.

The Wingate ploy did turn aside for a time American pressure over Burma. By the time the fallacy in long range penetration tactics was clear, China fever had somewhat abated in Washington. Whatever may be made of Wingate and his ideas—and most historians now regard him as a long and contentious footnote to the Burma campaign—Churchill scored a considerable success in alliance politics at Quebec. If the price of this success was to complicate vastly the life of the India Command, one suspects that would have bothered him very little.

Winston Churchill never forgot that there is a political purpose to war: the aim is not simply military victory, but a political result matching national interests. That is what he kept unvaryingly before his eyes. His success was, of course, mixed; but that is owed to the resource disparity between Britain and her Grand Alliance partners, not to any failure by Churchill to correlate military strategy with national policy.

Perhaps that is why, when he came to discuss this episode in his memoirs, his treatment was rather low-key. (Two of his “syndicate” of assistants, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Pownall and Denis Kelly, were also unenthusiastic about Wingate from bitter personal experience.) The Burma campaign, if operationally brilliant, had failed to meet Churchill’s test that military victory must serve national interests, for victory in Burma was the prelude to the end of the Indian Empire.

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. The curious belief that the Japanese were natural jungle fighters can only be explained as a consequence of no one having looked at where the Japanese Army had trained and fought before 1941. One wonders, not for the first time, about intelligence analysis.

2. In fact there had been no time for careful analysis in early August 1943—Wingate’s skill in evading the normal chain of command by using the backstairs saw to that. The official commentary on his report, limping well behind events, saw a real but minor role for long range penetration tactics. So too did Brooke, after talking with Wingate prior to the fateful dinner with Churchill.