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Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion, by John Bierman and Colin Smith, Random House, New York, N.Y., 2000, $29.95.

As a reappraisal of the career of one of World War II’s most eccentric and controversial leaders, the new biography of Orde C. Wingate by John Bierman and Colin Smith is very welcome indeed. The official British history of the Burma campaign, written largely by officers who disliked Wingate (and there were many), has tended to play down the achievements of the two long-range penetration operations he mounted into Burma. Their opinion, however, was not shared by the raiders, known as Chindits, who served under him, nor by Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army in Burma, against whom the Chindits fought.

A writer of adventure novels would have been hard pressed to dream up a character more outlandish than Wingate. Contrary to regulations, he sported a full beard, and carried an alarm clock with him into combat because he claimed that wristwatches did not work. He also habitually munched on raw onions, a dietary practice that he encouraged in his troops, and he had a disconcerting habit of receiving visitors in the nude.

After having spent five years serving with the Sudan Defense Force, Wingate, who spoke Arabic and Hebrew fluently, was posted to Palestine as an intelligence officer in the late 1930s. While serving in Palestine, Wingate went against the prevailing pro-Arab views of his countrymen and became a militant Zionist.

Early in World War II, he was dispatched to the Sudan to organize a guerrilla campaign against the Italians in Ethiopia. While two British armies attempted to fight their way into Ethiopia from the north and the south, Wingate led a ragtag force of 2,000 British, Sudanese and Ethiopians deep into the country from the west. There, he fought a brilliant campaign that culminated in the surrender of 14,000 Italian troops and the restoration of Haile Selassie to his throne. In recognition of his performance, however, Wingate, who had also managed to antagonize many of his superiors, was then demoted from brevet­lieutenant colonel to major and sent home.

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, who met Wingate upon his return to Britain, was so impressed by both the man and his tactical ideas that he dispatched him to Burma, with his former rank restored. The prime minister hoped that the deep penetration tactics Wingate employed could reverse the disaster the British army was suffering at the hands of the Japanese. Wingate planned to lead a brigade-sized force deep into Japanese territory, where he believed their overstretched lines of communication made them the most vulnerable. He would divide his forces into fast-moving columns, marching independently but linked both to headquarters and to each other by radio. One of Wingate’s many innovations was to have Royal Air Force personnel accompany the ground forces in order to better coordinate troop activities with air supply and medical evacuation efforts.

In contrast to most special forces units, Wingate’s troops were not elite, specially trained volunteers. Instead, he insisted on utilizing ordinary soldiers, believing that it would convince the rest of the army that they were fully capable of mastering the Japanese in the jungle.

Between February and April 1943, Wingate’s Chindits ravaged Japanese lines of communication in Burma. As the only British ground forces in the Far East who had managed to beat the Japanese up to that time, the Chindits found themselves the heroes of the hour.

Wingate returned to Britain in time to accompany Churchill to the Allied conference in Quebec. There, he persuaded the Allied chiefs of staff to allow him to mount an even more ambitious long-range penetration into Burma. Instead of a brigade, an entire army corps would be inserted, supplied and its casualties evacuated by air. The U.S. Army Air Forces would provide Wingate, by then promoted to major general, with his own miniature air force to support the operation.

Wingate, however, was killed on the night of March 24, 1944, while being transported in one of the USAAF planes. By that time his second operation was well underway, with six semi-permanent strongholds established deep inside enemy territory, just in time to seriously interfere with Japan’s last offensive against northern India.

With its vigorous leader out of the picture, the second Chindit operation soon petered out. Several of the units were withdrawn, while others were co-opted for use by other commands.

Wingate’s life, tragically cut short when he was only 44, remains one of the great “what if” stories of World War II. How much differently would the second Chindit operation have fared had he lived? Would he have succeeded to command the British army in Burma, as Churchill would have preferred? And after the war, would he have played an active part in the formation of the new Israeli state, perhaps even commanding its army? Fire in the Night explores these and many other intriguing possibilities.

Robert Guttman