Orde Wingate And Paramilitary Support Operations: Messages For The 21St Century

Simon Anglim

Orde Wingate And Paramilitary Support Operations: Messages For The 21St Century
To cite this article: Anglim, Simon, “Orde Wingate And Paramilitary Support Operations: Messages For The 21St Century”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 8-12.

In March 2011, a British ‘diplomatic team’, incorporating personnel from the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and E Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS), was detained while contacting anti-Gadaffi rebels in Libya. By April, reports emerged that ‘former’ SAS men and ‘Private Military Companies’ were ‘advising’ the rebels and providing forward air control for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) airstrikes.[i] September brought official admission of the reality: D Squadron, 22 SAS, had coordinated Libyan rebel ground offensives with NATO airstrikes, most notably in the liberation of Colonel Gadaffi’s home town of Sirte, while Special Forces from France and Qatar operated anti-tank guided missiles for the rebels and guided airstrikes elsewhere in Libya.[ii] Ten years before, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployed into Afghanistan alongside the Northern Alliance, controlling US Air Force (USAF) bombers and US Navy F-18s in close air support and providing a degree of coordination the campaign had previously lacked; in 2003, supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga, they had defeated Iraqi regular troops and Iranian-backed irregulars alike, taking Mosul, Kurdistan’s biggest city.[iii] Military and paramilitary operations supporting armed uprisings appear to be a increasingly important component of 21st century warfare. Moreover, given current swingeing defence cuts and public distaste for large-scale overt deployments, they provide a means of achieving strategic aims cost-effectively and with a low political footprint, something the Libyan episode seems to have established, featuring as it did the rapid removal of a forty-year old regime still considered by some to be a regional power. In 2001, US SOF plus airpower plus the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban regime in lieu of a conventional invasion. Wise, then, to seek guidance from previous practice.

Some countries have, or have had, entire ‘fourth forces’ devoted to such activity. An early example was the Military Intelligence (Research) branch of the British War Office, created in 1938. MI(R) and its sub-branch at General Headquarters (GHQ) Middle East, G(R), were staffed by British Army personnel and from 1940 to 1941, executed successful paramilitary support operations against the Italians in Ethiopia and Somalia and Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria. Their operation in Gojjam, Western Ethiopia, from December 1940 to May 1941, was commanded by their most famous operator – Colonel (later Major General) Orde Charles Wingate. Wingate was ordered to divert Italian forces away from the main British offensive into Eritrea, an offensive which led to a major battle around the fortified town of Keren, defended by 71 Italian battalions. 56 battalions, which might have reinforced the defenders of Keren or elsewhere, were pinned in Gojjam by Wingate’s ‘Gideon Force’, which numbered at most 800 men plus variable numbers of local guerrillas. Eventually an Italian force of 14,000 surrendered to 150 British and Sudanese.[iv]

Wingate bears study: not only did he have extensive experience planning and commanding successful paramilitary support operations, but also put opinion to paper, arguing they were the wave of the future (in 1942) and offering doctrinal advice for them. He advocated what current soldiers call ‘manoeuvre warfare’ carried out by specially-trained regular troops alongside local irregulars and supported by air, as seen with Gideon Force in Gojjam in 1941 and the Chindit operations in Burma of 1943 and 1944.

If the operations listed in the introduction are the product of recent times, Wingate was a product of his own. The British Army, for the previous 200 years, had fought ‘small wars’ ‘out of area’ to build the Empire; secure it; or later, withdraw as painlessly as possible. Consequently, the Army in Africa, India and the Middle East developed a form of warfare different, in many respects, from that seen in European wars and digested in Field Service Regulations. It was this ‘frontier warfare’ that produced many of those who rose to senior command or staff positions in the British Army in the Second World War. All of Wingate’s experience was gleaned ‘out of area’, and it was in ‘frontier warfare’ that he developed as a soldier and a military thinker.

One method used extensively in this ‘frontier warfare’ was small, specialist units, consisting of locally recruited volunteers and existing outside formal ‘chains of command’, carrying hostilities deep into enemy territory.[v] Britain formed several such units in the inter-war period, the best known being the Anglo-Jewish Special Night Squads raised by Wingate in 1938, during the Palestinian Arab uprising. Wingate carried many of the tactical and training methods of the Night Squads into Ethiopia in 1941. There he was the insurgent, and his principal starting point appears to have been the doctrine for directing armed resistance in Axis occupied territory devised in 1939 by Lieutenant Colonel Colin Gubbins. Gubbins was then with MI(R), and his doctrine was applied in planning for operations inside Ethiopia. Gubbins encapsulated this in two booklets, The Art of Guerrilla Warfare and The Partisan Leader’s Handbook, which were emphatically not manuals for ‘revolutionary’ or ‘people’s’ war, but for paramilitary support operations alongside local partisans supporting offensives by the British Army. Gubbins defined the objective of guerrilla warfare as ‘to harass the enemy in every way possible…to such an extent that he is eventually incapable of embarking on a war, or of continuing one…’. He suggested attacking supplies and communications, forcing the enemy to disperse to protect them and thereby become more vulnerable to offensives by regular forces.[vi] This required levels of planning and coordination irregulars might not possess, so British officers should be attached to supervise logistics and provide staff work and technical skills. These should be headed by a ‘Chief’, a senior British officer familiar with the country and people, heading a ‘guerilla [sic] GHQ’, identifying and supporting local leaders, supplying the movement, and devising a plan of campaign tied to Allied strategic objectives. Gubbins implied that supplies of weapons and ammunition should be used to control local leaders. Below this, there would be several Operational Centres, mobile outstations of the Mission, attached to districts or larger guerrilla formations.[vii]

Wingate saw these arrangements as inadequate: he wanted to see teams of trained guerrilla warfare specialists from the British Army prosecute an offensive against enemy communications and garrisons. Why? The answer seems to lie in Wingate’s attitude to armed rebellion. He wrote the following shortly after arriving in Burma, but seems to have been thinking of his time in Ethiopia:

‘When opposing ruthless enemies, such as Japanese or Germans, it is wrong to place any reliance upon the efforts of the individual patriot, however devoted. Brutal and widespread retaliation instantly follows any attempt to injure the enemy’s war machine, and, no matter how carefully the sabotage organisation may have been trained for the event, in practice they will find it impossible to operate against a resolute and ruthless enemy…. Essentially a guerrilla soldier is a man who prefers death on his own terms to life on the enemy’s. Such were the Rifi in Morocco, and the majority of them were killed; such were the Caucasian Moslem insurgents against the Soviet troops…they were mainly exterminated; such were the Ethiopian guerrillas, who continued to fight for 5 years after the Italian occupation; they were steadily being exterminated when we intervened…’[viii]

He then argued that if facing counterinsurgents willing to use indiscriminate fire power, exterminate civilians and destroy property in reprisal, insurgents’ ties to the population would constrain their freedom of action and thereby their tactical effectiveness.[ix] Moreover, insurgents in practice are rarely as noble as they are in theory: in Gojjam, Wingate encountered three of the staples of armed rebellion in reality, as opposed to ‘insurgency’, the theoretical construct. Firstly, petty ‘warlords’, as interested in fighting each other as they were the Italians, and measuring themselves largely by the amount of money, rifles and ammunition they could get from the British. Secondly, ‘accidental guerrillas’, tribesmen and villagers whose interest began and ended with getting the Italians off their particular piece of turf, and to whom venturing into neighbouring areas to actually attack Italian fortified camps was somewhat counter-intuitive.[x] Thirdly, an obtrusive minority of opportunist bandits, in the form of one gang running a racket by which rifles provided by G(R) to fight the Italians were sold to the highest bidder, including the Italians if they paid enough.[xi] It was because of his experiences in Palestine and Gojjam that Wingate became bitingly – and quotably – cynical about ‘People’s War’: ‘We can hope that the rare occasional brave man will be stirred to come to us and risk his life to help our cause – All the rest, the rush of the tribesmen, the peasants with billhooks, is hugaboo.’[xii]

Wingate was specific about how the ‘occasional brave man’ could be stirred to come forward – emphatically not via methods associated with his distant relative, TE Lawrence. Wingate despised Lawrence: this may be due to the experiences of his relative, General Sir Reginald Wingate, who, as Governor of Egypt, was Lawrence’s principal backer in 1917-18, yet was treated harshly by Lawrence in his memoirs.[xiii] Whatever the cause, Wingate was vitriolic about Lawrence’s approach to paramilitary support – issuing weapons, ammunition and money to anyone claiming they would fight, in the hope that they would wage protracted ‘People’s War’ along enemy lines of communication, forcing enemy formations to disperse and breaking their will via frustration and exhaustion.[xiv] Wingate knew that winning the ‘armed struggle’ in reality necessitated success in battle, requiring disciplined, well-trained and well-armed professional guerrilla forces – the opposite of anarchic tribesmen like Lawrence’s Bedouin: ‘If you have a just cause you will get support only by appealing to the best in human nature; down at heel spies and pretentious levies are worse than useless’[xv] How to do this was explained in his semi-official ‘Appreciation’ of the Ethiopia operation:

‘On entering the area, the commander gets in touch with the local patriot leader, and after an exhortation, suggests that the leader can do something to help out some operation. The patriot at once replies that he desires nothing better but has no arms…The commander asks how much he wants [and]…promises a fraction which he hands over and waits for results. These are nil….or, possibly, bogus reports of activities this type of commander believes to be true.

The patriot argues thus: “This person evidently needs my…help; so much that he is willing to part with arms he must know I have only the most rudimentary idea of how to use. Ergo, he has no one to fight for him, and so is prepared to give me this substantial bribe. Therefore, he is in a weak position, and may well be beaten. If that happens I shall be in the soup. That is an argument for not fighting, but no argument for not taking what he offers….I think on the whole, that the best and kindest way will be to accept the help with gratitude; to hold it in trust in case some day I can use it safely against the common enemy, and, meanwhile, to get to learn how to use it by settling once and for all that dispute over the water with the Smiths.”[xvi]

Simply throwing weaponry at an insurgency can lead to more than just disputes with the Smiths: news emerges at the time of writing that the new Libyan government is sending weapons to the Syrian rebels, including no doubt stocks provided by France and Qatar.[xvii] The huge illegal small arms markets of Pakistan, Africa and Latin America undergo surges in supply and demand following the end of almost every internecine conflict.[xviii] Unsurprising, then, that Wingate banned the unconditional issue of weapons to local irregulars in Ethiopia.[xix] Instead, there should be supervision and leadership by British personnel:

‘[C]ease trying to stimulate the revolt from without, using agents, but…enter amongst the patriots small columns of the highest fighting quality, with first class equipment, to perform exploits and to teach self sacrifice and devotion by example instead of by precept. By doing so we should not only fan the revolt to proportions that really threatened the enemy’s main bases, but should also assume its direction and control – a most important factor in any future settlement.[xx]

Although Wingate never stated so explicitly, this would ensure that insurgents pursued British strategic aims. The intended result echoes Libya in 2011:

‘[B]y their presence [the regulars] stimulate neighbouring patriot activity. After a few days in a given locality a large but temporary patriot force collects and cooperates with the regular nucleus. The enemy, perpetually harassed, eventually decides on flight, when an opportunity occurs for causing his complete disintegration through air action.[xxi]

Airpower was key, providing a light infantry force deep inside enemy territory with hitting power and logistical support. Forming the Chindits in Burma, Wingate insisted they be supported by organic ‘communication aircraft’ capable of delivering twenty tons a week over a distance of 300 miles, and that each Chindit column should have Royal Air Force officers attached to coordinate air supply and close air support.[xxii] He later argued that what he was now referring to as Long Range Penetration (LRP) forces could find targets for air attack deep inside enemy territory, allowing air forces ‘to make [their] own blow against the widely scattered and invisible enemy effectual.’[xxiii] LRP plus airpower could therefore wage an integrated air-land offensive deep inside hostile territory:

‘[Chindit] Columns should not be ordered to exploit strategic bombing unless this is in accordance with the general plan…The Columns are the means by which such exploitation is rendered possible, not that by which it is carried out. Provided the force has gained the upper hand over the enemy…exploitation [of air attacks] will be carried out by the Guerrilla organisation, which will grow as the Force succeeds in imposing its will on the enemy…i.e. RAF cooperation must be aimed to help the Force win the battle…[xxiv]

However, airpower on its own was perhaps less important than the ability of ground forces to summon it, and then exploit its impact. Wingate’s air support in Burma came courtesy of the United States Army Air Force First Air Commando. Among the Air Commando’s key roles was close air support. From late 1943 it exercised intensively with the Chindits practicing this role. Part of Wingate’s plan for the second Chindit operation of 1944 involved drawing Japanese forces into ‘killing zones’ where they could be pulverised by this organic airpower.[xxv]

As for command and control, Wingate went into greatest detail in a memorandum prepared while forming the Chindits, recommending the placement of a G(R) cell at the headquarters of whatever formation under which the LRP force would operate.[xxvi] This should consist of officers with ‘at least some comprehension and previous experience of the special problems they will be expected to solve’, in this case, instructors and officers of G(R) rotated through its ‘Jungle Warfare School’ at Maymyo in Burma, a training centre for British personnel designated to carry out paramilitary support operations alongside guerrillas in China. ‘The object should be to use the instructional side of war of penetration as a means of affording change of occupation to officers on operational duty and also to ensure that all instructors have recent experience of the application of the principles they are teaching.’[xxvii] Wingate outlined more roles for the LRP HQ in his earlier ‘Appreciation’ from Ethiopia: it should have an ‘air cell’ and dedicated air support, and other cells responsible for planning and logistics, recruitment and training, liaison with Special Operations Executive and other ‘secret services’, and propaganda.[xxiix] Propaganda and psychological operations were integral. Wingate argued that penetration forces, without fail, should have a ‘doctrine’, a political ‘message’ that military action should send to allies and potential allies in enemy-occupied territory, that British forces were ‘on their side’: ‘The force must operate with a definite propaganda…or creed of war…based on truth, and not lies. Lies are for the enemy. The truth is for our friends.’ This ‘propaganda or creed of war’ would shape the actions of penetration forces right down to the tactical level, affecting planning, preparation, selection of objectives, and the level of cooperation with local guerrillas.[xxix]

Orde Wingate was proposing, therefore, that regular units specialising in operations inside enemy territory alongside local irregulars would bring greater tactical and operational competence, along with the ability to summon air supply and close air support; thereby converting potentially drawn-out and desultory guerrilla warfare into combined-arms operations having swift, decisive strategic effect. What does he teach us in the 21st century? Firstly, how paramilitary support tallies with national strategy: the British had the utmost difficulty maintaining ‘plausible deniability’ about the SAS in Libya. Conversely the Americans did not even try in Afghanistan and Iraq; a major part of their strategy being to announce that their SOF teams were there to fight the common enemy, an echo of Wingate’s ‘doctrine’. It might be best to follow the latter example, at least once operations get beyond a certain stage. Secondly, in terms of command, control and supply: simply doling out weapons and money unconditionally runs the risk of their being misappropriated, as occasional scares about Stinger missiles supplied to the Mujahedeen in the 1980s and still unaccounted for remind us. Having our people on the ground controlling supplies under our terms and conditions gives us a big say in how they are used. Finally, there is the importance of coordination of paramilitary support with other friendly forces in theatre. Another possible issue is burden-sharing and coordination, particularly between Special Forces from some allies and air forces from others. Wingate had the luxury of six months’ training with the Air Commando. It may be that Special Forces and airstrike assets from different NATO allies consider more of the same in future, and developments in technology can speed the process.

Overall, if managed correctly, paramilitary support operations can deliver strategic effect in a world which appears to be giving plenty of opportunities for their application. One final quotation from the man himself: ‘[I]n order to avoid general anarchy, we had better start assembling forces of the type I have described. Their ultimate aim will be to form that coordinating and controlling element which alone will allow us to bring hostilities quickly and finally to a close.’[xxx]


[i] J‘SAS “Smash” squads on the ground in Libya to mark targets for coalition jets’, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1368247/Libya-SAS-smash-squads-ground-mark-targets-coalition-jets.html, accessed 20 July 2011; ‘Libya: SAS veterans helping Nato identify Gadaffi targets in Misrata’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/31/libya-sas-veterans-misrata-rebels, accessed 20 July 2011
[ii] ‘SAS on Ground during Libya Crisis’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16624401, accessed 27 April 2012
[iii] Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (London: Free Press 2003), pp.247-277; George Friedman, America’s Secret War (London: Little, Brown 2004), pp.151-155, 160-165, 178-182; Bob Woodward, Bush at War (London: Pocket Books 2003), pp.251-267
[iv] George Steer, Sealed and Delivered: A Book on the Ethiopian Campaign (London: Faber & Faber 2009), pp.161-162; Simon Anglim, Orde Wingate and the British Army (London: Chatto & Pickering 2010), pp.140-141
[v] Charles Callwell, for instance, recommended using a ‘Corps of Scouts’, to reconnoitre, raid and ambush ahead of the main force and consisting of purpose trained and organised units answering directly to the force commander, see Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice Bison Books Edition (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press 1996), pp.144, 339-345, 350-351
[vi] Lieutenant Colonel C Mc V Gubbins, The Art of Guerilla Warfare (London: MI(R) 1939), pp.1-2
[vii] Ibid, pp.9, 16-17
[viii] Colonel OC Wingate, ‘Notes on Penetration Warfare – Burma Command’, Held in Box I of the Wingate Chindit Papers in the Imperial War Museum, pp.2-3
[ix] Ibid, p.3
[x] See, for instance, Major AC Simonds to Colonel OC Wingate of 12 February 1941, Box II of the Wingate Ethiopia Papers in the Imperial War Museum
[xi] See, for instance, Ibid; Author’s Interview with Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker, formerly of MI(R), G(R), SOE and SIS of 25 August 2004; Wilfred Thesiger, The Life of My Choice (London: Collins 1987), p.331
[xii] Colonel OC Wingate, Commanding British & Ethiopian Troops Employed, ‘Appreciation of the Ethiopian Campaign, GHQ ME 18.6.41’, several copies held in IWM Ethiopia Papers, pp.5-6
[xiii] Anglim, Orde Wingate and the British Army, 1922-1944, pp.43-44, 48-50. Another possible cause, although supported only by circumstantial evidence, is that the puritanical Wingate knew about Lawrence’s homosexuality and masochism via mutual contacts.
[xiv] TE Lawrence, entry on ‘Guerilla Warfare’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reproduced in G Chaliand (Editor), The Art of War in World History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1994), pp.886-889; The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape 1935), pp.197-201
[xv] Wingate, ‘Appreciation’, p.6
[xvi] Ibid, p.4
[xvii] ‘Libya’s new rulers offer weapons to Syrian rebels’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/8917265/Libyas-new-rulers-offer-weapons-to-Syrian-rebels.html, accessed 22 July 2012
[xviii] See Robert E Harkavy & Stephanie G Neuman, Warfare and the Third World (New York: Palgrave 2001), pp.295-297
[xix] Undated letter from Wingate to General Sir William Platt, GOC Sudan; Minutes of a Conference held at HQ Troops in the Sudan, 12 February 1941, IWM Wingate Ethiopia Papers
[xx] Colonel OC Wingate DSO, ‘The Ethiopian Campaign August 1940 to June 1941’, several copies held in the IWM Wingate Ethiopia Papers, p.6
[xxi] Colonel OC Wingate, ‘Appreciation of chances of forming long range penetration groups in Burma by Colonel OC Wingate at Maymyo on 2/4/42’, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers Box I, p.3
[xxii] Ibid, pp.5-6
[xxiii] ‘Training Notes No.1’, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers, p.3
[xxiv] ’77 Infantry Brigade: ROLE’, 22 September 1942, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers, Box I, p.1. 77 Infantry Brigade was the formation which carried out the first Chindit operation, Longcloth, in 1943.
[xxv] Derek Tulloch, Wingate in Peace and War (London: MacDonald 1972), pp.156-159; Brigadier OC Wingate, ‘Special Force Commander’s Training Memorandum No.8, The Stronghold’, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers, pp.1-5; No.1 Air Commando Close Support Forecasts – period 14/25th March 1944 – Note by Special Force Commander, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers
[xxvi] Colonel OC Wingate, ‘Notes on Penetration Warfare – Burma Command’, IWM Wingate Chindit Papers, Box I, p.5
[xxvii] Ibid, pp.6-9
[xxviii] Wingate, ‘Appreciation 2/4/42’, pp.5-6
[xxix] Colonel OC Wingate DSO, ‘The Ethiopian Campaign, August 1940 to June 1941’, several different drafts held in the IWM Wingate Ethiopia Papers, p.1
[xxx] Wingate, ‘Ethiopian Campaign’, pp.14-1

My thanks to Colonel David Benest, James Figueroa, Danny Steed and Kirstean Stewart-Farmer for their advice and support.