In the Jezreel Valley, located in the Lower Galilee in Israel, there is a small kibbutz called Ein Harod. The kibbutz — a type of communal agricultural settlement — is one of the oldest in the country, established in 1921 and now split into two distinct halves. Located on a hill opposite Mount Gilboa — where Saul and his sons perished in battle against the Philistines — Ein Harod Meuhad commands a spectacular view of the valley, evergreen in what many who have never visited imagine to be an entirely desert country. The kibbutz is known for its art museum, the first rural museum in Israel and famed for its use of natural light. A smaller museum, however, called Beit Shturman (“the house of Shturman”), is perhaps more fascinating. Amidst a hodgepodge of displays focusing on kibbutz life, history and regional culture, one particular exhibit stands out from the crowd to those for whom military history is of interest: It is a corner honoring the life of British officer Ordge Wingate, better known to the early Jewish community as ha’yedid — “the friend.”
A Brief History of the SNS
Orde Charles Wingate was born in India in 1903, in British-controlled India, to a military family. After receiving his commission in 1923 with the Royal Artillery, he passed an Arabic language course at the School of Oriental Studies in London in 1926 and served in the Sudan, seconded to the Sudan Defense Force, from 1928 to 1933. He then spent three years in Britain, retraining with British artillery units as they became mechanized, and was promoted to the rank of captain.
In September of 1936, Wingate was posted to Palestine as an intelligence officer with the British Mandate. His obsession with the Bible had a profound effect on his views during this posting, turning him into an ardent Zionist and supporter of the idea of a Jewish state. His arrival couldn’t have come at a more consequential time: The “Arab revolt” in Palestine had just begun that April, an inflection point in which the local Arab population, fed up with both constant Jewish immigration into the country and the Mandate government, rose up in opposition and, increasingly, in violence.
Wingate quickly conceived of a joint military unit, staffed by both colonial and local Jewish troops, to protect Jewish and British interests, and took the idea to Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell, the commander of British forces in Palestine. Wavell, intrigued, granted Wingate his permission to set up such a unit. Wingate then pitched the unit to the Jewish Agency and directly to the Haganah (“the defense”), the pre-state Israeli military. The Agency, which originally opposed the idea, eventually had a change of heart, and in June of 1938, the Plugot Ha’Layla Ha’Meyuchadot, the Special Night Squads, were born. They based themselves in a building at a small kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where Gideon, the Biblical Jewish hero, had fought against his enemies — Kibbutz Ein Harod.
The first British troops to join the new SNS were three squads from the 16th Brigade based in Haifa, culled from the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal West Kent Regiment, and Manchester Regiment. Wingate then brought in Jewish men from the Haganah to join the force in the capacity of supernumerary policemen, their appointments coming from Yitzhak Sadeh, the commander of the Jewish FOSH (from plugot sadeh, or “field companies” — early commando-like strike units of the Haganah) and from local Haganah commanders. Fifty more Jewish men would later join the unit, which numbered some 100 soldiers in 1938.
The SNS fulfilled a dual purpose that likely aided its establishment within a colonial administration opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine: Though it indeed fought against armed Arab insurgents who rose up in increasingly violent acts against British forces and against the Jewish yishuv (the settlement in Palestine), the unit’s stated purpose Wingate may have given to his superiors was to protect the oil pipelines of the Iraq Petroleum Company. The southern of two pipelines (the “TAPline”) which spanned Iraq to the Mediterranean ran for over 1,000 km from Mosul to Haifa, on the coast of British-controlled Palestine, and moved over 4 million tons of oil per year (between two lines) prior to the Second World War. This line was increasingly being bombed and sabotaged by Arab bands throughout the revolt, and as it ran through the Lower Galilee on its course to the sea, Wingate could easily patrol its length with the SNS from his base in Ein Harod.
Wingate at the Helm of SNS
Wingate led many of the units’ patrols himself, which largely consisted of raiding rebel bases and villages from which the Arab insurgents were understood to be operating. Several important future Israeli military leaders, including Yigal Allon (later commander of the Palmach, the commando unit of the Haganah) and Moshe Dayan, future chief of staff of the IDF, served in the SNS under Wingate. (Dayan would later claim that Wingate “taught us everything we know.” He elaborated: “He had a positiveness, a stubborn lack of compromise. A dominating personality, he infected us all with his fanaticism and faith.”) Wingate, argumentative, eccentric and motivated by religious fervor, was also the type of commander who led by example at the head of a column, a trait that would later become suffused throughout IDF military doctrine, encapsulated by the Hebrew expression achrai, or “after me.”
Wingate indoctrinated his men with discipline, aggression, initiative and unconventional thinking, all traits that are well known to any contemporary IDF infantryman, paratrooper or commando. He instituted a training regiment that included long forced marches and was famously demanding of his men, though he never demanded anything that he himself wasn’t ready to do personally. His eccentricities were legion and often baffled his men, fellow commanders and higher ups — he had a famous propensity for holding conversations with his men while quite naked, in a manner not dissimilar to that of one Winston Churchill — but he was beloved by the Jewish men of the Yishuv, who thought him a paragon of effective military leadership.
Wingate’s role as an intelligence officer and the local Jewish capacity for intelligence gathering also informed the SNS’s effectiveness. Lieutenant Mike Grove, one of Wingate’s field commanders, once said in reference to the Jewish leaders of the Yishuv, “from the top downwards….they all knew Wingate.” British special service officers of the army and Royal Air Force were known to collaborate frequently with Jewish Palestinians in intelligence matters, and the practice certainly aided counterinsurgency operations and Wingate’s particular brand of asymmetric warfare. (Ironically, this access to British intelligence almost certainly had an effect upon the Haganah and various Jewish paramilitary groups’ later effectiveness during the Israeli war of independence, following a British withdrawal from Palestine that was affected in no small part due to Jewish insurgency.)
The Dark Side of SNS
Undoubtedly, there was a dark side to the SNS’s operations. Wingate was not only exacting and harsh with his men, but his methods in quelling the Arab revolt and attacks against the pipeline were deemed brutal by many, even by colonial British standards: Raids into rebel bases or villages suspected of harboring terrorists often involved indiscriminate shooting, decimation of captured enemy units or, in some instances, torture. Brigadier John Evetts, commander of the Haifa-based 16th Brigade from which Wingate drew his British troops and subalterns, shared Wingate’s tough counter-insurgency philosophy, as, evidently, did Evetts’ divisional commander, Bernard Law Montgomery. (Montgomery would later sour on Wingate, calling him “mentally unbalanced.”) Though the SNS was staffed with officers and men from the 16th (in addition to Jewish men), it operated largely outside of the British command framework, leaving Wingate to run it as he saw fit, and, unfortunately, to treat the Arabs as he pleased.
Not all Jewish leaders agreed with Wingate’s methods. Future Palmach commander Yizthak Sadeh remarked in June of 1938 that “the way these squads operate (searching in village accompanied by beatings etc.) could, according to the opinion of several people from this region, complicate us in undesirable relations with the neighbours.”
General Robert Haning, Wavell’s successor as general officer commanding (GOC) in Palestine, became increasingly worried by Wingate’s harsh tactics and, no doubt, by the idea of having a British officer committed to the Zionist cause training Palestinian Jews in unconventional warfare. Wingate was subsequently dismissed from his post in October of 1938 and returned to England, while the SNS continued to operate without him through January 1939 under the command of Lieutenant “Bala” Bredin.
Following a change in British policy in Palestine, the Jewish supernumerary policemen were then forbidden from serving in the SNS and relegated mostly to garrison and prison duties. In late summer or early fall of that year, the SNS was disbanded entirely. The unit had certainly been effective in its goal of suppressing Arab attacks on the pipelines, on British soldiers, and, mostly importantly to the Jews, on Jewish settlements — but it’s effectiveness had come at a high cost in Arab blood, and one that the Mandate government was no longer willing to bear.
Following Wingate’s dismissal from Palestine, Haining remarked that the latter’s allegiance to the Yishuv was significant enough “as to render his services in the Intelligence Branch nugatory and embarrassing. His removal to another sphere of action has been timely.” In England, Wingate became vocal in his support for Zionism, going so far as to speak in opposition to the Woodhead Commission on the plan for a partition of Palestine and to confer with Malcolm MacDonald (Secretary of State for the colonies), Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill himself. Though Churchill would later praise Wingate (calling “a man of genius, who might have become a man of destiny”), Wingate’s immediate commanders found this behavior distasteful and returned him to GHQ intelligence.
Nevertheless, Wingate received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions, and his three lieutenants were each awarded the Military Cross (MC). Wingate would go onto a storied (albeit very brief) career in Ethiopia leading another special unit called Gideon Force, followed by perhaps his most famous exploit: raising and leading the Chindits in their campaign of asymmetric warfare during the Burma Campaign against the Japanese. On March 24th, 1944, the B-25 Mitchell bomber in which Wingate was flying crashed in the jungle, killing him and eight other passengers. Buried initially in India near Manipur, his body and those of the other passengers were later exhumed and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Wingate remains a controversial figure to this today, the efficacy of his Chindits debated vigorously by military historians, and the ethics of the SNS drawing sharp criticisms from British sources, as well as certain Israeli ones. There is little doubt, however, that the discipline, aggressiveness and unconventional tactics Wingate taught to young Jewish leaders later played an outsize role in the development of the IDF’s training and operational doctrine. The stubborn refusal to cede ground to numerically superior forces and the willingness to outmaneuver and outthink the enemy has lent the Israeli sword its cutting edge since those early SNS raids in Galilee prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In time, these lessons were applied in the practice of unconventional warfare against conventional enemies, the state armies of countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. They are still applied to this day, albeit in a way that tempers the original SNS inclination towards brutality with a much more even-handed show of force.
Wingate’s Legacy Today
Interestingly, knowledge of Wingate and the SNS seems little-taught in modern Israeli schooling: his exploits are touched upon briefly, but a survey of fellow paratroopers by the author led to the conclusion that he has become, unfortunately, a mere footnote in Israeli history. The early state of Israel made sure to commemorate him, however — the National Center for Physical Education and Sport, on the Israeli coast near Netanya, is named in his honor, as are a square in Jerusalem and several streets throughout the country. (Various Israeli special operations units participate in courses at the Wingate center, a fitting continuation of his legacy.) Ultimately, though his tactics are rightly the subject of debate and re-examination, his place in the history of the Israeli military couldn’t be more significant. Without Wingate, the IDF — and indeed, Israel itself — might look very different today.